Aman identifying himself as Jared Freeman of the Canadian Customs Service called Sharon Isch two weeks ago from Quebec telling her he had $200,000 to send her from the National Clearinghouse Payout Center.
What for? Isch asked. Freeman said it might be from winning a sweepstakes or possibly an out-of-court settlement, he wasn't sure. But, he said, he was sending the check to her D.C. home via Wells Fargo, whose courier would then accompany her to her bank to deposit the money.
First, he added, Isch would have to make an "insurance payment" of $1,500 at Western Union. The payment, he said, would guarantee that her winnings wouldn't be taxed in the United States.
Isch smelled a con. She told the caller she needed to confer with a friend at the Internal Revenue Service about the taxes.
"I did allow myself about three minutes to fantasize about recovering my 401(k) losses," says Isch, quickly adding that she knew there was "no chance it's legit."
Isch e-mailed the Canadian Embassy, which referred her to Phonebusters -- a Canadian law enforcement task force that coordinates investigations of telephone scams with U.S. law enforcement agencies. She reported the suspect call.
"This is a very common pitch," says Gus Laforge, detective constable with the Ontario Provincial Police and spokesman for Phonebusters. "This is one we see every day."
Canadian-based telephone scammers calling U.S. residents are an increasing crime wave. They are using recognizable names such as Wells Fargo, National Clearinghouse and Western Union to boost appearance of authenticity, says Laforge. The $1,500 the caller asked Isch to wire is also typical -- though some lottery scams ask for "tax" payments of $15,000 to $20,000.
But the key to most phone fraud, adds Laforge, is that you always have to send them money before you can collect your money, which you never really collect. "You've won, you pay," he says. "That's how simple it is."
So far this year, Phonebusters has received 4,275 calls from people victimized by telephone scams originating in Canada. The actual dollar loss in those calls alone is $6.1 million. "And those are just the ones we know about," says Laforge.
The kinds of scams vary. This year, Phonebusters has closed down a phony charity claiming to support abused women and children that pocketed $1 million. It caught an ex-Royal Mountie who with conspirators posing as lawyers called former fraud victims -- 10 of them elderly Americans -- claiming they had recouped their stolen funds, but the victims had to pay Canadian taxes to get it back.
More typical was the bogus lottery scam it shut down. Con artists contacted U.S. residents saying they had won the $2 million lottery but had to pay customs fees and taxes. Four of those victims were Americans who paid the crooks a total of $207,500.
Last month, Phonebusters busted a boiler-room operation in Toronto that used names of legitimate North American financial institutions, such as Prudential and Sun Trust Loans, to offer low-interest, advance-fee loans in U.S. newspaper ads. Investigators think the scammers bilked hundreds of thousands of dollars from loan applicants who were required to pay the first and last months' payments on their "approved" loans.
"It's not a winning battle," says Laforge. "There's so much of it."
Any given day, 300 to 500 Canadian-based boiler rooms are calling the States and Europe, he says. The boiler room might have from five to 100 people, each making an average of 50 calls a day.
"That's a lot of phone calls, and that's a lot of potential victims," says Laforge, adding that most of the behind-the-scenes operators are affiliated with organized crime or biker gangs, but he has seen "Jamaican posse members" and Sri Lankan criminals involved as well.
Why in Canada? "They're not afraid of our justice system," says Laforge. "The courts up here don't view this as a serious crime; the biggest sentence we've seen on the telemarketing prize pitch is five years. In the States, I've seen them for 10 to 20 years. . . . That's why we're trying to get them to face the music down there where it's tougher."
Laforge adds that not every victim reports the crime like Isch did. Some are embarrassed; others don't know what to do. In one advance-fee credit-card scam, 1,200 victims reported the crime, he says. But after breaking the case, Phonebusters determined there were 95,000 victims.
What to do if called? Laforge suggests people check out phonebusters.com to familiarize themselves with fraudulent telemarketing. Then, if you get a call, he says, "The best advice is to hang up. Don't listen to these criminals on the other end of the line. The longer you listen to them, the greater their chances are." If you get conned, he adds, report it to the police.
Got a consumer complaint? Question? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.