A massive phone scam exploiting the good name of the Make-A-Wish Foundation has siphoned more than $20 million from unsuspecting Americans and has been escalating in recent months. Authorities say it is fast becoming one of the ugliest telemarketing schemes to target the elderly in years.
Swindlers pretending to be calling from such government agencies as the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Trade Commission have put a new twist on an old con. They are hiding offshore, thousands of miles away, but they're using internet phone technology to disguise their location. Victims see a 202 area code on their phones when the calls come in, and dial seemingly authentic U.S. phone numbers to call the scammers back.
"Unlike the standard telemarketing frauds … these weren't people hiding behind a phone number you couldn't call -- a voice you couldn't recreate. These were people who left telephone numbers and would talk to you," said Paul Allvin, a vice president of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, who became alarmed when he started hearing from multiple victims a week about the fraudulent calls.
And talk they did. One team of con artists spoke with Patricia Bowles, the owner of a Virginia modeling studio, almost every day for more than a month. Eventually, they had persuaded her to send more than $300,000 through Western Union and Moneygram in what she thought were luxury taxes and insurance fees on the $1.1 million prize they promised would be arriving any day. She told ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross that she was devastated when she learned the woman claiming to be from the U.S. Treasury Department was really just a crook, and her money was never coming back.
"She said, 'Mrs. Bowles, we've been trying to reach you.' Very, very warm. Very kind. 'There is money here for you … it is sitting here on my desk. And I am just determined this money is yours. And I just want to help you get it,'" Bowles recalled.
"It's trust in people. I'm not living in a dream world. Trust me, I have been shaken out of that many times. But I think this time it has taken away that very, very core of me that is just sad to have to [relinquish]."
During a six-month investigation, ABC News obtained never-before published recordings of the phone calls and tracked down two fugitives who have been hiding in Costa Rica. The two men, Roberto Fields Curtis and Andreas Leimer, both Americans formerly of Florida, have been indicted in the scheme but avoided extradition because they also held Costa Rican citizenship. Both denied their involvement in the fraud, but both also made clear they had no intention of returning to the U.S. to attempt to clear their names.
Ross approached Curtis at his residence in suburban San Jose and asked what he would tell people who have been victimized. Curtis shrugged.
"I'm sorry about it," he said.
Federal prosecutors have alleged that Leimer reaped millions installing internet phone lines in the illegal call centers -- a charge he denied when ABC News found him in a posh gated community in Costa Rica.
"I have had nothing to do with it," Leimer said. "I've never had anything to do with it."
U.S. Postal Inspector Jose R. Gonzalez told ABC News Leimer was "lying."
"He's currently under indictment, and there is sufficient information and sufficient evidence for us to be able to not only indict him, but also, I feel, definitely put him away," Gonzalez said.