During two decades of fighting elder abuse, Paul Greenwood has personally prosecuted more than 500 fraud cases.
But, when it comes to prosecuting lottery and sweepstakes predators, the San Diego deputy district attorney hasn't been as successful.
“None, over the past 17 years,” he said. “I’m constantly seeing and hearing tragic stories of many, many victims being scammed. That’s why I get very frustrated.”
This nationally recognized fraud expert, who will speak during the Elder Abuse in Montana conference in Billings on March 21, said no one can even find the sweepstakes con artists.
"They enjoy this anonymity and this cloak of protection and they feel they are beyond the long reach of the law," he said.
The tough economy makes people even easier targets, Greenwood said.
“When they present a senior citizen a resolution to their financial worries, the senior will do anything to believe it,” he said.
In 2013, more than 2 million Americans reported financial fraud, a crime that robs the trusting of an estimated $1.5 billion per year.
Last year, 2,539 Montanans reported losing $2.4 million to fraud, according to the Federal Trade Commission. But no one really knows the true depth of the problem because so many victims are too ashamed to report it, Greenwood said.
Con artist mailings often demand secrecy, so family members cannot stop the flow of checks. The victims receive not millions as promoted, but cheap baubles and more mailings.
After Billings attorney John Heenan’s grandmother died in Pennsylvania, the family stumbled on to her secret.
“They cleared out a basement full of trinkets, of crap, from these solicitations,” Heenan said.
The Montana Office of Consumer Protection recorded 1,423 complaints of fraud last year, 35 percent of them reported by people 60 years and older.
Graphics on the "you're rich" mailings are getting so much better, they don't look like junk anymore, said Linda Henry, a social worker at Big Sky Senior Services.
"It's just so much more sophisticated, the mailings look so real," she said.
Al Ward of Billings, a former law enforcement investigator in the Seattle area and now an AARP fraud educator, said mail scams almost become an addiction for some.
“They tell you that it’s legitimate, you have a chance to win, what you’re getting is scarce, so you want to get it right now,” he said.
That’s what beset a retired professional living near Fishtail who last December gave the last of her life savings to a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-type scam that promised her millions.
“She takes out this reverse mortgage and gives it away,” said FBI special Agent John Teeling of Billings. “There is nothing I can do to help her.”
The victim, now $400,000 poorer, did not want to be named for fear of being victimized again.
After responding to her first Publisher’s Clearinghouse pitch promising $10,000 a year-and-a-half ago, she was put on a “sucker’s list.” Soon she was hauling a couple trash bags each week stuffed with sweepstakes and lotteries offers to the dump.
This victim believed she was talking with a top Proctor & Gamble executive and that her $13.5 million and new SUV would arrive by Christmas, so she kept sending checks as instructed.
“They make it seem so real. I’ve done away with all my savings and I worked very hard,” she said. “I really should have known better.”
Now the 82-year-old is looking for a part-time job to help pay her bills.
In the 20 years that Laureen France of Seattle has been investigating financial fraud for the Federal Trade Commission she’s seen more sad stories than she can summarize.
The oasis of personal information stored on social media and data farms makes targeting the vulnerable easier, she said, and they can lose more than their money, said the Missoula native.
“I know some fairly well-heeled people who at the end of this experience have nervous breakdowns, spend time in psychiatric hospitals and lose everything,” France said.
Although education is touted as the best remedy to prevent fraud, France said she’s found that it isn’t very effective with seniors whose declining critical-thinking skills make them true believers.
Some victims have sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to con artists that France knows are about to be arrested. She’s spent hours trying unsuccessfully to convince them that their money is going to a criminal syndicate.
“They are still willing to send more money on the off chance that I’m wrong and they’re right,” she said.
Criminals are even turning their victims into money mules — similar to human mules carrying carry illegal drugs — so they can launder money more frequently, France said.
And the criminal gangs in Jamaica have her especially worried.
“They are extremely ruthless and they scare people,” France said. “If you say you can’t pay anymore, they’ll go on Goggle maps to get the local weather conditions, so they can sound authentic when they claim to be parked across from your house, just to pressure you.”
The FBI receives about 1,000 financial fraud complaint calls each day, so many that most are just routed to a national Internet complaint center.
When most Americans used land lines, the phone, and sometimes the scammer, could be physically located, Teeling said. But the mobility of cell phones and computers and the increasing use of false and stolen identities have made tracking fraud much tougher.
“Last time, I tracked one to Northern California, then Southern California, to Florida and Puerto Rico and I tried to set up a sting, but it’s virtually impossible,” Teeling said.
And domestic scams have been outsourced overseas, making prosecution even more difficult, he said.
Because enforcement is so difficult, the England-born Greenwood has been focusing on talking tough with employees of San Diego banks and credit unions, which he called the last line of defense against their customers transferring large amounts of money to strangers.
“Why on earth to you let the customers do this?” Greenwood said.
Teeling agreed that financial institutions can help prevent fraud.
“I love these credit unions and local banks who know their customers: Your Yellowstones, your Stockmans, your Rockys, your Westerns, your First Interstates,” the FBI agent said.