RIVERDALE – Although Shannon Wilson-Ellis has worked for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) for 18 years, on Aug. 24, 2015, she encountered a first-time scenario. A senior citizen came to the U.S. Post Office, located at 6270 Kenilworth Ave. in Riverdale, to buy several thousand dollars of postal money orders to mail them by USPS […]
RIVERDALE – Although Shannon Wilson-Ellis has worked for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) for 18 years, on Aug. 24, 2015, she encountered a first-time scenario.
A senior citizen came to the U.S. Post Office, located at 6270 Kenilworth Ave. in Riverdale, to buy several thousand dollars of postal money orders to mail them by USPS Express Mail. Within a four-hour period, she returned a second time to obtain additional large amounts of money orders. After Wilson-Ellis, a window clerk, asked the woman what the money was for, the customer informed her that she was a lottery winner who had been instructed to send money to pay prize taxes.
“When she swiped it (her debit card), it didn’t go through because maybe she went over her limit the first time,” Wilson-Ellis said. “So she said, ‘oh no, well can I use my credit card instead?’ I said, ‘No ma’am, only cash or debit for money orders.’ So she was like, ‘well, I really need this money.’ I said, ‘Ma’am, I hope you don’t mind me asking you, but what is this money for?’ And that’s how it started.”
Wilson-Ellis could not fully convince the customer, who did not want to be identified and was unwilling to comment to The Sentinel, that she should not have to mail money if she won a prize. Wilson-Ellis took initiative to call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to provide a tip. She provided location details about where the woman wanted to mail the money by referring to an envelope the customer planned to use.
Bryan Hanlon, a U.S. Postal Inspector who works on the mail fraud team for Maryland and the District of Columbia, visited the woman’s home with a colleague to investigate on Aug. 25, 2015. The victim was a 92-year-old female who was told she had won $2.5 million dollars, so she needed to pay the taxes.
“She (the victim) went back to her check ledger and was able to identify that she wrote two $20,000 checks that were mailed out of the state. One was on Aug. 21 and one on Aug. 24. We sort of explained to her that, these people that were calling her on the phone telling her she won the lottery, they were just scammers,” Hanlon said. “She said that she understood and she allowed us to talk to her bank on her behalf to see what we could do about the checks.
“The next day, I was able to get in contact with her bank’s fraud investigator who was able to identify that the numbers in the checks the victim had identified to us were in the sequence of checks that were currently being used by that victim, and we were actually able to get those checks cancelled. The fraud investigator also identified a third check that had just been written and was in processing for an additional $20,000.”
After telling the scammers to stop calling, the senior citizen received a call from someone claiming to work for the FBI. The person claimed it was verified that she did win the lottery, and it was okay to send the money, so she did it again. Hanlon and his colleague then returned to speak to the victim a second time.
All of the victim’s funds were recovered. Hanlon described the lady as a little embarrassed, yet appreciative.
Wilson-Ellis said she was later informed about the favorable outcome. She has not seen the customer since the incident, however, intervening made her feel good.
“Ms. Wilson-Ellis is a real hero here. She took the time to care about her customer and took action,” Hanlon said. “Because of that we were able to get this victim back $60,000.”
Foreign lottery scams, which are solicitations received through the mail, usually originate overseas. Hanlon explained that isolated or lonely senior citizens without family or friends living nearby are often targeted by scammers who typically befriend them by phone to gain their trust and exploit them financially. Hanlon said if an individual responds, he or she is identified as someone who is willing to send money through the mail. He stressed that when seniors have someone trustworthy who can answer their questions, their vulnerability decreases.
Other popular scams are popping up in Maryland suburbs. For example, work-at-home scams involve websites in which people who are seeking to earn extra money are hoodwinked. Hanlon advised that consumers should remain aware of bogus offers to receive and resend packages of electronics, which are often purchased with a stolen credit card. Thieves need someone to accept packages in the U.S., then forward them outside of the country. People usually realize they have not been paid for their services a few months later.
A mystery shopper scam involves depositing a fake check that eventually bounces. The job seeker will be responsible for paying the bank back.
Hanlon also confirmed that lists of people who have been tricked before are valuable in scammer circles. Providing information like a phone number can make it difficult to stop scammers from calling a victim.
Consumers may visit https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov to find out ways to safeguard themselves from scammers. Individuals who believe a relative has been victimized by a scammer may reach the U.S. Postal Inspection Service by calling 1-877-876-2455. Scam victims can also complete a mail withholding request. This allows the post office to sort out mail that appears to be affiliated with an overseas lottery or sweepstakes.
“It is actually illegal for any other lottery to come into any state or territory besides the lottery of the state or territory,” Hanlon said. “That’s what I tell a lot of seniors. If it came somewhere other than the state you’re currently living in, it’s a scam.”