AARP says the most common victims of lottery scams are over age 70, often women, and with lower incomes and education levels. Yet as the Curtis case shows, it can happen to anyone. "People think this only happens to dumb and senile people," said the FTC's Baker. "I can tell you that's not true."
Those behind the frauds are difficult to catch. They are operating outside the U.S., and making untraceable calls over computer networks. The money is almost never recovered. "Once it [the money] is picked up, it's gone," said Baker.
In their mailing this week to consumers, the U.S. Postal Service and AARP warn that if something sounds too good to be true, it is. They urge consumers who are contacted about winning a foreign lottery to hang up, ignore emails and throw out any letters.
One you're drawn in, it's difficult to get out. "These guys will call you 40 to 50 times a day. They will leave threatening messages. They will tell you they're watching you on Google satellite to scare you," said the AARP's Shadel.
The harassment and pressure devastated the Curtis family, according to Laura. She is convinced the stress hastened her father's mental decline. "It is so overwhelming at times to think about it," she said, "Once you are a victim, it is almost impossible to get away from it."