"Many of the victims truly believed they would receive hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars in return for paying these taxes in advance. And they often dug into their savings or raided their retirement nest eggs to pay the money," Allvin said. "It is a despicable act on the part of the scammers, particularly at a time when so many are suffering from the down economy."
Authorities believe the elaborate phone scheme is being run from call centers in Costa Rica, Jamaica, and other off-shore locations. Callers have made thousands of contacts in the U.S. since January.
Just four years ago, U.S. and Costa Rican authorities raided call centers, made dozens of arrests, and convicted several American and Canadian citizens in what was said to be a $20 million telephone scheme. Two ringleaders, New Yorker Michael Attilio Mangarella and Canadian Giuseppe Pileggi, both got 50-year prison sentences.
In police raids, federal agents gathered hundreds of scripts outlining the bogus phone pitches, spreadsheets showing how much money each victim had wired in, and massive so-called "sucker lists" with phone numbers of potential marks.
Officials thought they had shut down the scheme, but Allvin of the Make-A-Wish Foundation said his organization began getting panicked calls from new victims earlier this year. Both the charity and the insurance carrier named in the bogus calls, Lloyds of London, have recently posted alerts on their web sites.
"A number of individuals have reported to us that they, or a family member or a friend, have received a phone call informing them they have allegedly won hundreds of thousands of dollars (e.g., $350,000) in a sweepstakes or lottery associated with the Make-A-Wish Foundation," one warning says. "These individuals have been told that, in order to claim their 'prize,' they must first wire money to cover taxes and insurance on the supposed winnings. This is a scam. The Make-A-Wish Foundation is NOT associated with any kind of sweepstakes or lottery; and it has always had a strict policy prohibiting any sort of telemarketing in its name."
The Federal Trade Commission, which is frequently mentioned in connection with the telephone sweepstakes scam, has issued a consumer alert urging anyone who receives such a call to file a complaint with the real FTC at ftc.gov or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP.