Norman Breidenbaugh, 81, is a victim of lottery fraud. He's… (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun )
The first caller told Norman Breidenbaugh he had won $2.5 million in a foreign sweepstakes, but there was a catch: Breidenbaugh needed to send $2,000 in fees before collecting his earnings.
Other calls followed, promising Breidenbaugh millions more — even a Mercedes Benz — as long as he would wire some money to pay taxes on the prizes. He obliged, sending more than $400,000 over about six years, hoping the promised winnings would cover his wife's medical expenses.
The prizes never came. The people calling Breidenbaugh, 81, were con artists from Canada and Jamaica, claiming they were Border Patrol or Secret Service agents, a fraud scheme that has increasingly targeted elderly people. Breidenbaugh fell behind on property taxes and last year lost his Baltimore home.
"I never told anybody what kind of mess I was in because I was too proud, too stubborn to let anybody know it," he said. "I'd like to wring the necks of these people."
Breidenbaugh plans to share his story with his peers at 7:15 p.m. Thursday at Augsburg Lutheran Home and Village, in hopes of helping others avoid being taken in.
The event, hosted during National Consumer Protection Week, is part of an effort by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to teach senior citizens to avoid sweepstakes scams — a type of telemarketing fraud.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service estimates Americans lost more than $42 million to lottery fraud between 2009 and 2011. Many of the scams the inspection service dealt with originated in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries, inspector Frank Schissler said, and targeted senior citizens.
In 2009, Jamaican and American authorities partnered to create a task force to crack down on Jamaican lottery schemes. And members of Jamaica's House of Representatives took up a bill on Tuesday that would more aggressively prosecute Jamaicans accused of lottery fraud conducted within and outside the country.
The proposed legislation states that lottery scams have become widespread and pose a threat to Jamaica because they are a combination of both organized and financial crime. "The law in its present stage has proven to be ineffective in prosecuting offenders," the bill reads.
According to Federal Trade Commission data, lottery scam complaints about Jamaican companies have risen dramatically over the past five years, from 3,606 in 2008 to a projected 28,702 last year.
Terrill Caplan, chief security officer with the nonprofit victim advocacy organization Fraud Aid, said most lottery scams come out of West Africa and are run over the Internet. Jamaican lottery fraud is less common, he said, but what sets it apart is that its perpetrators specifically go after senior citizens.
From January to September in 2012, people between the ages of 60 and 69 logged more than 1,400 lottery scam complaints against Jamaican companies and reported losing more than $4 million, according to FTC data. People 70 and older made more than 3,000 complaints and reported more than $9 million lost.
Karen Straughn, with the Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland attorney general's office, said senior citizens are "prime targets" for lottery fraud because many live on fixed incomes and are more likely to take a chance on extra money.
Schissler said lottery schemes account for more than half of the telemarketing fraud against people who are 60 or older. The most successful scammers chat with senior citizens, learn about them and then use that knowledge against them, he said.
The people calling Breidenbaugh found out his wife had dementia and was in a nursing home. They told him that if he sent them money, he could use his winnings to bring his wife back to his house and hire someone to care for her.
Breidenbaugh, whose wife has since died, said he has no legal recourse against the "scumbags" who scammed him. He now lives in Nottingham with a family friend.
"No, you can't prosecute them," he said with a laugh. "You don't have any idea of knowing who they are or where they are."
Breidenbaugh said the best advice he can offer people who might be facing sweepstakes scams is to avoid conversation with anyone who calls asking for money.
"Do not say a word — just hang the phone up," he said. "Because if you say anything, they got you."