KENT CO., MI (WOOD) — At first, she thought her prayers had been answered.
“I need the money so bad,” explained Betty, whose last name is not being used to protect her from additional solicitations.
The 88-year-old lives with her 90-year-old husband, Herm, in an apartment at an assisted living facility in Kent County.
Betty and Herm love their home, but they’re running out of money and may be forced to move. That’s why she was so excited when she got a letter in the mail claiming she’d won $4.5 million in a Madrid-based lottery.
“It is so real-looking,” Betty told WOOD-TV from her living room. “It was stamped by the government, approved by the government. I just figured, all these stamps, it’s got to be real.”
But it wasn’t the official-looking stamps that made Betty believe, nor the scammers’ use of legitimate lotto names like Powerball and Mega Millions.
The letter, postmarked Portugal, came just a few weeks after Betty had mailed off a different ball-related game of chance, a Pick Quick card that had come in a Publishers Clearing House mailing.
Betty figured the lottery letter was notification that her Pick Quick card was a winner. She also recalled the time she’d won the grand prize at the turkey giveaway at Rogers Department Store: a trip for two anywhere in the continental United States.
“My husband and I went to Arizona for a week on a plane,” she recalled. “All paid for. So why couldn’t I win this little prize?”
Publishers Clearing House made it clear to WOOD-TV that the direct marketer, famous for its Prize Patrol giveaways, has no connection to the lottery letter.
“Unlike a lottery, at Publishers Clearing House, or any legitimate sweepstakes, a purchase or payment is never necessary to enter,” wrote Chris Irving, Assistant Vice President of Consumer and Legal Affairs at PCH.
Indeed, the letter from “The Mega Lottery Picker 2017” explained that Betty would have to turn over 5 percent of her winnings to a “promotions company.” It also offered to wire the money to her bank account.
“They’re going to put the money right in the bank for me!” Betty exclaimed. “I don’t even have to get out!”
Fortunately, before calling the lottery with her banking information, Betty called her legal firm, Miller Johnson, based in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.
Susan Meier, who works as a paralegal in elder law, answered Betty’s call. She was already scheduled to meet with Betty the next day to talk about the couple’s finances.
“(Betty) said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to need to see you because we have come into a little money,’” recalled Meier. “That just raised some red flags with me. That just doesn’t happen. I asked her, ‘Did you get an inheritance?’ and she says, ‘No, it’s even better. I picked the right balls.’”
At that point, Meier made Betty promise not to call the “lottery,” and the paralegal drove directly to her client’s home.
“I went over and I saw the paper and I was just mortified,” Meier told WOOD-TV. “They wanted her bank numbers, her routing numbers, her social security number and her birth date so they could arrange to put $4.5 million in her bank.”
Meier said she told Betty they wouldn’t be putting the money in her account.
“They’re going to take the little bit you still have out,’” Meier recalled telling her client, who was “crushed” when she realized the lottery was fake.
“You know us older people, we trust,” explained Betty. “Younger people, you can show it to them and they’d say, ‘it’s a scam and they’d throw it away.’ But I really believed them. I really did.”
Now, Betty wants to warn other seniors.
When WOOD-TV called the international number provided on the letter, the man who answered said he could only talk to the recipient of the letter. When we identified ourselves and asked who he was working for, the man quickly hung up.
Foreign lottery scams target millions of Americans yearly. The federal government is currently prosecuting eight Jamaicans in a telemarketing lottery hoax that allegedly bilked around 100 Americans — many of them elderly — out of more than $5.7 million.
There’s no evidence that the letter Betty received is connected to the Jamaican scam.
- You have to pay a fee
- You have to wire money
- You have to deposit a check that was sent to you
- You’re told they are from the government
- You received a notice via bulk mail
- You get a call even though your number is on the Do Not Call Registry
- You receive a text message about a prize offer
- You receive something about a foreign lottery
- You review them online and find complaints (google or search for them plus the word “scam,” “review” or “complaint”)