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Scam-busting group hopes to halt schemes

By Gregory A. Patterson Minneapolis Star Tribune A collection of law enforcement and business organizations are banding together to fight an escalating incidence of schemes based on fraudulent lottery and sweepstakes claims that are scamming Minn...

By Gregory A. Patterson

Minneapolis Star Tribune

A collection of law enforcement and business organizations are banding together to fight an escalating incidence of schemes based on fraudulent lottery and sweepstakes claims that are scamming Minnesotans out of at least

$30 million every year.

The Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety said Friday that it has joined with the Minnesota Fraud Enforcement Partnership in a new program called MnScams.

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"In our first year, we received over 31,000 complaints, and we believe we are just touching the surface," said Jim Arlt, a special agent with the Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division. Authorities believe only 5 percent of scams are reported because people are embarrassed or fearful, a factor that hinders their ability to fight those kinds of crimes.

Officials said the most important part of the effort is a public information campaign with the theme of "No More Minnesota Nice" and which intends to alert vulnerable people. The campaign includes a Web site, posters, brochures and other materials alerting people to fraud schemes, and encouraging them to report suspicious activity.

The effort also calls for the partnership to share information about known scams and scammers, disrupting their ability to communicate with potential victims and recouping money taken from individuals.

While the authorities will do their best to help recover funds lost in fraud scams, "citizens truly must be the primary enforcers," said John Willems, director of the state division.

Scammers use e-mail, phone calls and mailings to gain the trust of potential victims and to steal their money, officials said. In one popular scheme, the perpetrators tell victims that they have won money in a contest but that they must submit payment to receive winnings. Many such scams target the elderly, officials said.

A woman who was at Friday's news conference at the request of state law enforcement officials said she had been scammed out of

$250,000 when she was told she had won a $12 million lottery prize in Canada.

The woman, who gave her name only as "Renee," said she lives in the Twin Cities area, has multiple sclerosis and has her Social Security disability payments as her only source of income. The scammer talked her into mortgaging her home, which was paid for.

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The scam came to light when Canadian authorities noticed her money orders and asked U.S. officials to look into them. Their investigation found Renee and determined after interviewing her that she was being scammed. Law enforcement officials were able to recover $80,000 of Renee's money, but they have not yet brought charges against anyone.

Typical of many such scams, the perpetrator told Renee she could have the money only after paying taxes. After she sent a smaller amount for taxes, the scammer told her certain fees needed to be paid. As the scam progressed, Renee says, they became friendlier and she began looking forward to his calls.

"I sent him money, and I got really close to him," Renee said. "He called me every day."

Related Topics: CRIME
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