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.
Federal officials thought they had extinguished the scam in 2006 when they conducted a dramatic raid on 16 boiler rooms in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose. Stephen W. DeWitt, a special agent for the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, said the Costa Ricans sent more than 150 agents into the call centers in a complex operation that needed sanction from top Costa Rican judges and law enforcement officials. "Everybody acted in concert," he said.
Peter B. Loewenberg and Patrick M. Donley of the U.S. Justice Department's criminal fraud section helped put 37 participants behind bars. Two of the masterminds of the scheme received 50-year sentences.
But U.S. authorities have marveled at the scale of the scam that has regenerated – believed to be the product of the Costa Rican citizens who remained free after the 2006 raid. And they say the potency of the swindle remains breathtaking . One early victim in Florida wired more than $800,000 to Costa Rica on the promise of a million-dollar sweepstakes check that would never arrive.
"Any time you have a scam that earns a lot of money, you know it's going to pop back up," said Anthony V. Mangione, the special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in Miami.
Mangione said some of the callers have pretended to be Customs agents, "taking our good name and eroding public confidence."
The scams have also been personal for Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, who told ABC News his own mother was called by the swindlers. "She calls me and goes, 'Jon, I won this sweepstakes, and I'm just wondering if it's possible that this could be not legitimate.' And I was like, 'Mom, I think it probably is a scam.'"
But among those most alarmed have been the officials who lead the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which relies on the trust of the public for its funding. Earlier this year, the non profit organization posted a fraud alert on its website. But Allvin said the volume of calls from victims only increased.
"We've never seen something so despicable," Allvin said. "These people around hiding offshore -- willingly destroying people's lives by taking every nickel they can suck out of them. And they're using the good name of the Make-A-Wish Foundation to do it. I'm not sure how much more you can pile on top of that collection of underhanded tactics just to line your own pockets."
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has set up a hotline for victims to call to report having been ripped off. It is 1-866-DHS-2ICE. The Federal Trade Commission has posted information about the scams and advice for victims on two special web pages here and here and has also been compiling a list of complaints for law enforcement agencies to pursue.