Roger Hobday of Sante Fe, New Mexico wasn’t quite sure what to think when he got an email from local lottery millionaire Bob Erb offering to send him $450,000 to help the homeless in that southwestern American city.
“Most of the time you can see right through them right away, but this one really made me wonder. And of course I was hoping it was true,” he said, speaking on the phone from his home in New Mexico late last month. “In this case, according to the letter, he wanted me to use the money to help the homeless get jobs, which is a noble thing. So I was hoping it was true, but I was kind of suspecting that it wasn’t.”
As it turns out, Hobday’s suspicions were right – he was the target of a sophisticated attempted scam being sent out to countless thousands of people.
Here’s how it works: the potential victim receives an email from someone, in this case Erb’s name was used, which states he is a lottery winner wanting to share his winnings.
Links to videos of Erb’s well-documented generosity are provided in order to prove legitimacy. If the potential victim bites, they are then asked to open a bank account – complete with official looking forms to fill out – where they will be prompted to deposit a sum of money before they can access the larger sum.
Hobday did some investigating, which included contacting banks in Spain and The Terrace Standard, before conceding it was a fraud.
“It was very good,” he said, of the operation, and especially of the fake bank website. “It really seemed like a real bank website with all the details and so on.”
He’s obviously disappointed it wasn’t real, but said he’s glad he learned there’s a real Bob Erb using his lottery winnings to help people in need.
As far as scams go, what Hobday experienced is a fairly common scheme. It is lumped under the “prize” scam category (you’ve won a prize, but money is needed to access that prize) and is similar to the traditional West African fraud, in which the scammer says they have access to a deposed leader’s money and needs help moving it.
But it’s one example of how sophisticated scammers operate, exploiting real events and information to scheme people out of money.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it can’t be true. Don’t be that gullible,” said Erb, noting that since his win he’s encountered many of these schemes. “There are hundreds of people around the world that are using people’s names that have far more money (than me).”
Daniel Williams from the Canadian Anti Fraud Centre, a federal government agency, agrees with Erb’s sentiment – citizens need to be wary of any unsolicited email they receive, and there are myriad similar schemes around the globe.
“There have been other cases throughout Canada where people have won big lotteries, decided to give away half or most of it, of course there’d be news stories generated and the scammers would latch onto that,” he said. “They love to add an air of authenticity to whatever promise they’re making, whatever scheme they’re after.”
Those authentic details often help people fall victim to fraud. People think, “Why would these people go to so much trouble for a few thousand dollars?” explained Williams. But they are sending out emails on a mass industrial scale, so a few hundred dollars from a few hundred victims adds up.
“A million dollar fraud a few victims at a time. The percentage doesn’t have to be high when you’re reaching out to tens of hundreds, sometimes millions, of potential victims,” he said.
And Williams said it’s important not to engage with the scammers at all or even answer one email.
“If in your heart of hearts you know it’s a scam, why on earth would you spend a nanosecond responding to it? There’s no way you can convert these guys to the true way, they’re scammers, they know exactly what they’re doing, they’re trying to defraud the public,” he said. “Reporting them is one thing, but playing with them… any type of reply is an indication that at the very least you’re on the fence. Therefore you’re worthy of a lot more attention, which you’re bound to get.”
Responding adds another level of risk, in that the scammers could get into your computer.
“Anybody responding to something like that is absolutely going on what scammers would consider a ‘suckers list’ and would absolutely be hit up with much more personal contact, a phone call from a quite sophisticated gang with a great big story behind them,” he said.
“The Internet adds a whole other dimension of risk. Sometimes what you think would be just innocent back and forth and playing with these guys, be very careful what you are opening, zip files, what you download, because before you know it, the scammers are in your computer.
“If you really think there’s a need to play with the scammers, do so with your local police.”