Email scammers with possible Nigerian roots impersonate KC man who won big Powerball jackpot

06/06/2014 2:57 PM

06/06/2014 7:28 PM

Last Christmas, a Kansas City mechanic got the best present anyone could ask for when he won a $71.5 million Powerball jackpot.

But rather than spend all that money on himself and his family, the now ex-mechanic wants to shower his riches on perfect strangers all over the country: $750,000 to each lucky recipient.

No, not really. But it’s no joke, either.

It’s a new email scam with apparent ties to — where else? — Nigeria. Only instead of a fake African prince trying to fleece people by pretending to share his fortune in exchange for access to people’s bank accounts, the latest version concerns a lottery winner supposedly eager to give away his loot to people he doesn’t know.

Falling for it could cost you a minimum of $390. That’s the price of opening a phony off-shore bank account, as the scammer requests, but it could be potentially far more costly because of the potential for identity theft from information provided to establish the “account.”

“That’s a new twist on an old scam,” Bridget Patton, the FBI’s spokeswoman in Kansas City, said of the lottery winner ruse.

Adding credibility to the scheme is that the Kansas City man being impersonated really did win the Powerball on Dec. 25, 2013.

Naturally, the real lottery winner is not sending emails to strangers that offer to deposit $750,000 in the off-shore account.

Someone else is doing that without his consent or knowledge. The pitch has all the hallmarks of what authorities call the Nigerian letter fraud scheme, which goes back to before the Internet. A con artist typically offers to share a large amount of money to someone he doesn’t know, but supposedly first needs banking information that can be used to free the victim from his money.

Or the scammer demands cash up front to pay for phony banking fees and taxes.

The recent emails include a link to the Dec. 31 article in The Kansas City Star that reported the Kansas City man’s big win.

As a result, the newspaper has received several emails and phone calls from people in Delaware, Texas and California, among other places, asking whether the Kansas City winner truly does want to give them money.

Some like Roxann Kimbrough of Humble, Texas, knew the offer was a phony even before contacting The Star.

Some of the information in the email didn’t match up with facts in the news article, she said. The man in the email identifies himself as being from Kansas, when the real lottery winner lived in Missouri at the time he won.

The man in the email refers to “my newly wedded wife Emily,” whereas The Star story tells how the man was planning a trip with his wife of 30 years for their anniversary and doesn’t mention her name, which is not Emily.

But some who contacted The Star didn’t compare the facts and were more hopeful than skeptical.

“(I’m) supposed to b awarded finances. In prayer let me know if you hear any thing okay,” wrote Inga W. from Los Angeles.

How many people were suckered we’ll never know. To help thwart the scammer, The Star killed the link to its article this week and contacted federal and state authorities.

The FBI has not launched an investigation into it yet, Patton said, but will if enough complaints come into the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.

In the email from the person impersonating the lottery winner, the writer says he was coaxed by a family member to help people less fortunate, “like a pay-it-forward type of thing.”

“My 14 years old cousin told me ‘How come you are planning on getting a 290,000.00 USD car when there are family out there that still depend on pay check to survive,” it says.

The broken English is one clue that it’s a scam, authorities say. Another is the email address given for the British bank where the money can supposedly be accessed. It bears scant resemblance to that bank’s actual address and records show that the domain name was created last fall by someone named Grace in Benin City, Nigeria.

But the biggest hint that something smells funny, Patton said, is the very notion that someone wants to give a large sum of money to some stranger.

“You know what they say,” she said. “If it looks too good to be true, guess what, it is.”

State and federal authorities say it’s never a good idea to provide personal information to strangers over the phone or by email. That information can be used to access bank accounts and lead to other forms of identity theft. And never send money in anticipation of a promised payoff.

Normally when she gets obviously bogus come-ons in her email box, Kimbrough deletes them and moves on.

This time, however, she went to the trouble of contacting The Star because she feared the scam might damage the newspaper’s reputation if people were cheated.

“People like this need to be stopped!” she said. “They tarnish good people’s names.”

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738, or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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