When Crime Carries a Postage Stamp

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008

The envelope declared that the 90-year-old Fairfax County man had won $2.5 million in a sweepstakes and that he needed to send in only some small "fees" and "taxes" to collect. When the man from Jamaica kept calling to tell him that he needed to cover only a few more "costs" to collect the jackpot, the man thought that was reasonable. And send money he did.

When the man's adult children tried to intervene, telling their father he was being scammed, he went around them. At one point, at the children's request, U.S. postal inspectors intercepted an envelope from the man bound for Jamaica. Inside: a cashier's check for $18,000.

The children said they think they have stopped about $40,000 from being sent by their father. The 90-year-old is not being named here because he is the victim of a crime, and because investigators do not want others to prey on him.

The children have since obtained power of attorney over their elderly parents. "It's sad," one of the children said. "But if we had not stepped in, I believe they would be totally broke right now."

Inspector Jeanne Graupmann has a thousand stories just like this. From a set of hidden offices behind the Merrifield regional post office on Lee Highway, Graupmann and about two dozen other investigators for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service track fraud from around the world that involves the mail and winds up in Northern Virginia.

Her jurisdiction starts in Arlington County and Alexandria and spreads south to Fredericksburg and west to Winchester. The office also investigates mail theft, identity fraud, mortgage fraud, dangerous mailings and other crimes involving the Postal Service.

When it comes to fraud, it would seem that e-mail scams are the latest favorite of criminals. But many of those scams require victims to send money through the mail. And scam artists have learned that good old "snail mail," particularly advertising a jackpot in a sweepstakes or lottery, still snares plenty of unsuspecting "winners."

Lately, those most often targeted are the elderly, Graupmann said. "The seniors just get bombarded with this stuff," she said. "And some of them are just really insistent on responding to these scams."

And once you respond to a phony sweepstakes or lottery mailing, almost always from another country, your name goes on a list that is circulated among other devious schemers in the underworld, Graupmann said. The veteran inspector has spent hours with victims, trying to convince them that they shouldn't send money to Nigeria or Canada or Jamaica.

"They don't believe me," she said. "They believe the scammer," who might have spent weeks or months on telephone calls and mailings to convince the victims that their money is well spent elsewhere.

So the Postal Inspection Service is trying to alert the adult children and grandchildren of the elderly to monitor the mail and the spending habits of their parents or grandparents before their life savings disappear. Key points to remember: By law, sweepstakes cannot charge any fees in this country, and if someone is receiving a lot of sweepstakes mailings, something's wrong.

Postal inspectors also try to investigate the source of fraud schemes. In 2005, Graupmann traveled to Nigeria to meet with government officials. In addition to finding numerous cyber cafes with nearby money transfer shops, Graupmann found legitimate printing companies that reopened late at night to print thousands and thousands of mailings, including high-quality counterfeit checks and postal money orders.

Although legitimate money orders and checks often have embedded security features to defeat counterfeiters, the scam artists are trying to match that technology. Graupmann showed a recent phony U.S. Treasury check, with watermarks, that looked amazingly real.

Although banks are well aware of the schemes, front-line tellers often can't catch a counterfeit check, Postal Inspector Brian G. Vranizan said. The check might be cashed, but when the originating bank receives the phony check, it calls foul. And the cashing bank then comes back to the customer, often weeks later, demanding its money back.

Vranizan said this is a particular problem with online services such as eBay or other places where people send checks after winning an auction or agreeing to buy an item. The seller receives the check and cashes it. Vranizan said many scam artists insist on receiving their items by next-day mail, so they can nab it before the check bounces.

When Graupmann was in Nigeria, notorious for its e-mail scams, she said government officials there were largely receptive to U.S. efforts to stop the flow of fraud. But she said one official told her: "You need to go back and educate your citizens. It's not like someone is holding a gun to their head. They're freely sending their money."

She said she had to agree. "Fraud is one of the few crimes where victims can choose not to participate," Graupmann said. "That's why we spend a lot of time doing consumer awareness to fight fraud."

Inspectors in Merrifield also track mail and identity theft. But Vranizan, who formerly worked on the West Coast, said mail theft is almost negligible in Northern Virginia, and when it's found, people are punished severely.

"In Alexandria or Arlington, they'll lock you up," he said. Whereas in places such as Seattle, the post office's advice to customers was to not use the public collection boxes, for fear of theft, Vranizan said.

People who meet through online chats, games or services also are susceptible to scams when the person they have only e-mailed or messaged starts asking for money. Graupmann told of one person who had sent thousands of dollars to an online friend in Africa and was found waiting in vain for hours for the friend to arrive at an airport.

But sweepstakes mailings remain surprisingly successful for scam artists. Graupmann said inspectors found that one sweepstakes had mailed 10 million notifications in which winners had to send a $20 check for processing costs. Experts estimate that 5 percent of recipients might respond to these.

In the case of the Fairfax man, his son found "voluminous mailings" in his parents' house, "maybe 20 to 40 a week." And in looking at caller ID on his parents' phone, he saw that his father had received 20 calls in one day from Jamaica.

"I think adult children are going to need to step in and find out what's going on," the son said. "There are laws that protect everybody, including the elderly. But they are within their legal right to send all their money away and end up broke and living on the street."


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