The letter promised Nancy Seigler, 69, a chance at $1.2 million if she'd just send in the $19.95 processing fee, which she did. Then the calls started coming, promising more money and demanding bigger fees.
Now, $18,000 later, Seigler -- who never saw a dime of prize money -- still holds out hope that the sweepstakes money the caller pledged will appear.
"I still talk to him when he calls," she said. "I'm not sending him any more money, I just talk to him. You never know, it might come through."
Fraud costs Americans $40 billion per year, according to the National Consumers League, and people 60 and older account for a quarter of those bilked. But now there's a major public education effort under way to mobilize the community, protect seniors and catch the crooks.
Concerned public officials are distributing literature, holding training sessions and alerting postal workers, bank tellers and others who may come contact with seniors to be on the lookout for signs of fraud.
Seigler, who lives on the Eastern Shore, is one of thousands of trusting seniors besieged by con artists on the phone, over the Internet and through the mail. Guaranteed phony prizes, products and inheritances, they're swindled out of their savings and retirements, losing thousands in a matter of months.
"The volume of scams targeted at seniors is incredible," said Steve Hannan, director of the Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs. "It's almost impossible to walk through the minefield without getting stung."
Seniors are targets because they generally have more disposable income and are less skeptical than younger people, authorities say. Schemes range from claims of false inheritance money, lottery chances and work-at-home offers to charity fraud. Credit card numbers are routinely stolen over the Internet, and criminals offer cheap goods as valuable auction items.
"With technology today, there are more ways for you as a senior to lose money," Hannan said, "and there are more of us. All the boomers are becoming seniors."
There's still a long way to go in preventing and prosecuting such schemes.
Last year, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service made 1,700 arrests and shut down 28 illegal telemarketing operations and 57 deceptive mailing groups. This year, they've shut down 40 telemarketing outfits and 80 mailing crews. But the FBI estimates there are more than 14,000 such operations with Americans in their scopes.
Part of the problem is under-reporting. Hannan said his office rarely hears about cases from the victims. Word usually comes from concerned neighbors or relatives. Seniors are afraid to mention it, he said, because they think they'll look foolish or have their independence taken away.
Once fraud is recognized, the road is still anything but easy, said Jack Dietz, who heads the fraud team in the Baltimore office of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Con artists are frequently based outside the country and getting the necessary cooperation across international boundaries is difficult, he said. Plus, the bad guys are good at covering their tracks.
"It's a huge, multilevel thing with these guys," Dietz said. "We got involved with the [Maryland] attorney general's office, and they thought we were just going to snap these guys up, but that's not the way it works."
Seigler's troubles started with a letter around Christmas in 2000 saying she could win $1.2 million. But after being told she had won, came a series of urgent phone requests to pay taxes and other duty fees -- $1,000 here, $2,500 there. "The calls came at a time when I could really use the money," she said. "I thought I could help my grandchildren with it."
It's a typical scenario, those familiar with such schemes said. A letter campaign is used to collect smaller amounts of cash and to compile a mailing list of potential victims from those who take the bait. The list is then sold to another company that uses it to make calls and reel in the big money.
Seigler said she liked the caller's voice and scraped up the cash, drawing from money her brother left her when he died and taking loans out on her credit cards for the rest.
"It's a classic example of a very well-spoken person calling ... seniors who are often lonely," said Maryland State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran. "Suddenly there's this person they feel is their friend, and they become victims of this slick-talking guy."
The operator who swindled Seigler had a Baltimore return address at Mailboxes Etc., which -- unaware of what was going on -- had instructions to forward all mail to a drop box in Canada.
After receiving hundreds of complaints, Dietz's team did what it could: It sent a certified letter to the local address in hopes it reached the perpetrators and they would respond.
When no response came, the only other step that could be taken was to stop the mailbox from receiving mail and return all letters that had already been sent, which were being held since February. An order was decreed to do so on Aug. 9.