Eleven people have been arrested in Israel for allegedly running a phony lottery scam and bilking elderly Americans out of $25 million.
Targeting wealthy victims, mostly 75 and older, the suspects supposedly pretended to be calling from lottery sweepstakes companies and convinced people to send thousands of dollars in fees and taxes associated with their wins. Victims were plied with gift baskets and phony "Internal Revenue Service" documents to convince them of the sweepstakes' legitimacy.
"In actuality, there was no sweepstakes lottery, and the victims never received any cash prize, even after many victims had sent as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars to the defendants," prosecutors said.
Following a joint investigation by the FBI and the Israel Police, Israeli officers on Tuesday arrested Avi Ayache, Michelle Yuval, Yaron Bar, Gillian Rosenberg, Toshin Charles Samuels, Oshrat Portolyoni, Naor Green, Yulia Rayz, Limore Cohen, Ian Kaye and Avi Perov. A 12th suspect, Matthew Getto, was arrested on July 4 at Newark International Airport in New Jersey just before catching a flight to Israel. The suspects, facing an extradition request, were indicted in federal court in New York.
According to prosecutors, the suspects chose their victims via list brokers in the US, who sold them the names and contact information of Americans who had entered lottery sweepstakes. Working from various locations in Israel, the suspects allegedly contacted the victims, and using scripts, told them they had won "substantial" cash prizes from companies such as "Clearinghouse Sweepstakes" and "Consumers Clearinghouse."
From 2005 to 2009, the suspects obtained 185,000 names of potential victims from brokers, prosecutors said.
Over the phone, the suspects allegedly assessed the victims' finances, and if they were wealthy enough, transferred them to co-conspirators posing as attorneys from law firms such as "Bernstein Schwartz," "Bloomberg and Associates" and "Meyer Stevens." The so-called attorneys provided instructions for wiring funds to Israel, the US and Cyprus.
To convince the victims they were not being scammed, the suspects sent congratulatory gift baskets and flowers. They also created fraudulent documents, including forms from the "IRS" and records from "Publishers Clearing House" confirming the award.
"Through such methods, the defendants were able to persuade victims that their lottery winnings were legitimate and that the advance payment of taxes, as requested by the defendants, was not a fraud," prosecutors said.
Victims who sent money to pay the phony fees were typically contacted again and asked to cough up more cash.
Prosecutors said the suspects earned commissions for each victim. As recently as last month, suspect Yaron Bar offered an incentive to his co-conspirators: Anyone who "earned" $500,000 from victims would be treated to an all-expense paid vacation to Eilat.
But the plan already had begun to unravel in March, when one suspect - Rosenberg - contacted an undercover police officer posing as a victim in New York. Rosenberg told the agent she had won $500,000 and asked her to wire $4,200 in fees to Israel. The agent transferred $2,000.
According to prosecutors, the suspects face charges that include conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, and could face up to 30 years in prison.