Our firm helps clients who face fraud charges of all kinds. In the last 10 years, state and federal agencies have cracked down on lottery scams and other forms of “advance-fee” fraud. These efforts put many U.S. citizens into criminal legal proceedings every year.
People accused of fraud may underestimate the gravity of their situation. Fraud charges are not violent offenses, after all. But the penalties associated with these crimes are serious. A lax attitude about charges related to lottery scams or other kinds of fraud can lead to decades of prison time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
Our job is to help clients make sense of the fraud charges they are facing and come up with solid legal strategies for their defense.
What are “Lottery Scams?”
“Lottery scams” involve telling someone they’ve won a sum of money or another valuable prize, but need first to pay fees to secure their winnings. As with other forms of “advance-fee” fraud, the prize never existed in the first place.
Steve receives a piece of mail telling him he just won a lottery that he’s never heard of and did not enter. A few days later, Steve gets a phone call.
The caller tells Steve they work for the IRS, and that they need to collect taxes before Steve can get his winnings. Steve follows the caller’s instructions and sends them money by wire transfer. Steve never receives any winnings.
Steve may learn that others in his retirement community have received similar mail and phone calls; scammers often target people over the age of 55.
He may also be contacted by the scammers again, this time posing as private investigators who can get his money back for a “finder’s fee.”
Or he’ll be asked to join a fake class-action lawsuit against the scammers, and give them a social security number, a copy of his driver’s license, and the account number from which he sent the money. This information will then be used to commit identity theft.
Who can be charged with lottery scamming?
Anyone who collects fee money on misrepresented winnings can face lottery scam charges. The same is true of anyone offering to sell a winning lottery ticket.
What charges could someone accused of lottery scamming face?
As you might guess, “lottery scam” isn’t a specific criminal charge. Those accused of running these scams are charged under a range of laws depending on the details of the case.
Scams might involve phone calls, emails, regular mail or text messages. They may take place remotely or in person. There may only be one defendant, or there may be a group being prosecuted.
The most common federal charges are mail fraud and/or wire fraud. If more than one person is involved in the scam, conspiracy charges are also possible. People accused of lottery scamming may also face aggravated identity theft charges.
That seems like a lot—what do they have to prove for a conviction?
It is a lot of charges, each with their own elements needed to convict. Let’s take a look at that list again.
What is “Puffery?”
The word “puffing,” is a funny-sounding legal term that nevertheless carries serious weight in the judicial system.
Everybody knows that certain kinds of statements are intentionally exaggerated.
These “puffing” statements are commonly found in advertising – ”This is the BEST car EVER!!!”— and are not trying to deceive anybody, even if they may not be true.
The line between puffing and scamming is not always clear.
A defense against lottery scam charges may include arguments that the “scam” was really just puffery and that any reasonable person would have recognized that.
Related Crimes – “Mail Fraud” and “Wire Fraud”
The mail fraud statute and wire fraud statute both require the government to prove that:
- The accused person intended to commit fraud and came up with (or intended to come up with) a plan to do so.
- The accused used the mail system (in the case of mail fraud) or wire communications (for wire fraud) to carry out the fraud.
The gist is that using the regular mail and/or wire communications (telephone, SMS message, email, wire transfers, etc.) in a scheme to defraud someone is against federal law.
- Mail Fraud Penalties. Each count of mail fraud brings penalties of $250,000+ in fines and up to 30 years in federal prison.
- Wire Fraud Penalties. Each count of wire fraud brings similar fines and up to 20 years in prison.
Related Crimes – “Conspiracy”
Federal conspiracy charges have two elements:
- An agreement between two or more people to commit a crime;
- The intent to enter into that agreement; and
- Intent to achieve the criminal objective.
Basically, conspiracies apply to criminal schemes in which more than one person was involved in planning or carrying out the crime.
For lottery scams, conspiracy to commit wire and/or mail fraud, conspiracy to commit identity theft, and conspiracy to commit money laundering are the most common conspiracy charges.
Related Crimes – “Aggravated Identity Theft”
To prove aggravated identity theft, the government must show that:
- A certain type of crime was knowingly committed.
- The accused used or possessed someone else’s identification when committing that crime.
The list of crimes that can trigger aggravated identity theft charges includes mail, bank, and wire fraud, and other forms of fraud. If you use someone else’s identity or documents to commit certain crimes, you could be found guilty of aggravated identity theft.
Who investigates lottery scams?
Just as lottery scams can involve a diverse range of charges, they can be reported to a similarly diverse range of federal agencies:
-The Federal Bureau of Investigation
–The Internal Revenue Service
–The Department of Justice Criminal Division
It is typical for multiple federal agencies to work together to investigate lottery scams. These investigations can be wide-ranging and span many years. They may also involve state and local law enforcement, as well as international agencies and law enforcement structures in foreign countries.
Example – “Operation Hard Copy”
From 2012-2018 “Operation Hard Copy” targeted lottery scammers working in the United States and Jamaica. Although led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) North Dakota Office and the United States Postal Inspection Service’s (USPIS) Florida Office, this operation was also assisted by local law enforcement in over half a dozen states, as well as by Jamaican law enforcement agencies.
Operation Hard Copy is thought to be the first time Jamaican scammers were charged and sentenced in U.S. courts and represented a shift in the way advance-fee scams are investigated and prosecuted. Over 25 people were convicted of lottery scam charges in federal court. Many faced decades in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
What Can I Do About It?
Defending against lottery fraud requires a thought-out legal strategy. This strategy will change based on the specific charges you are accused of. Your desired outcome is also taken into account when developing your defense.
Because of the extensive investigation that goes into lottery fraud prosecution, the amount of evidence the government brings to the table may seem insurmountable. Again, some of these investigations can span over many years.
Of course, not all evidence is the same, and not all evidence helps the prosecution meet their burden of proof. As with most fraud charges, lottery scam charges require the accused to have intent. A good defensive strategy will likely involve evidence that shows the defendant acted in “good faith” — without any intent to deceive or to take money from the “victim” of the scam.
If Sally’s uncle tells her that someone is going to send him some money they owe and he needs to use her account to receive it, she’s acting in good faith—even if the money turns out to be from someone her uncle is running a scam.
Statute of Limitations
Another defensive tactic might involve the “statute of limitations” on a crime.
If an investigation drags on for too long, it is possible that the alleged offense happened too long ago to prosecute.
“Lottery Fraud” in the News
Jamaican Lottery Fraud Defendant Found Guilty of Conspiracy to Commit Fraud and Other Charges
Charge: Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud or Mail Fraud, Conspiracy to Commit International Money Laundering, & Wire Fraud
Allegations:Lottery Fraud and Selling “Lead Lists” to Scammers
In 2015, a Jamaican man, Sanjay Ashani Williams, was found guilty of committing lottery fraud and of selling lists of potential lottery fraud victims to fellow scammers.
According to the DOJ press release, Williams and his co-conspirators targeted victims over the telephone or through the mail. They told the victims that they had won prizes such as a multi-million-dollar sweepstakes or a luxury automobile. Then, the group collected money from the victims under the guise of taxes, fees, and other charges that must be paid before the prize could be received.
Williams had over 70 victims who were defrauded for a combined total of more than $5 million. In addition, Williams also sold “lead lists” with names, phone numbers, and other personal information of potential victims to other fraudsters.
This led to convictions of one count of Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud or Mail Fraud, one count of Conspiracy to Commit International Money Laundering, and 45 counts of Wire Fraud. Williams could face up to 40 years in prison as well as millions of dollars in fines.
More than two dozen other Jamaican lottery scammers and co-conspirators also faced legal action after a first-of-its-kind, sweeping investigation by U.S. and Jamaican law enforcement.
Los Angeles Man Arrested on Federal Fraud and Identity Theft Charges Related to Lottery Scam that Targeted Elderly Victims
Charge: Mail Fraud, Wire Fraud, & Aggravated Identity Theft
Allegations: Defrauding Elderly Victims via Lottery Scam
In 2016, Carl Dean Bullock of Los Angeles was arrested by the United States Postal Inspection Service for his part in an international lottery scam that primarily targeted elderly victims.
According to the DOJ press release, Bullock is alleged to have told victims that they had won a lottery or sweepstakes and then demanded fake fees and taxes from the victims so that they might access the nonexistent winnings. He allegedly collected these fraudulent fees and taxes via U.S. Mail and wire transfer, taking some of the money himself and forwarding the rest to co-conspirators in Jamaica.
Now, Bullock faces charges of 13 counts of mail fraud, 3 of wire fraud and 4 of aggravated identity theft.
The USPIS, who investigated Bullock and his cohorts with assistance from the Glendale Police Department, says that lottery fraud costs Americans millions of dollars every year. This particular scheme defrauded at least 25 victims of a combined total close to $200,000.
If convicted, Bullock could easily spend decades in prison.
New York Man Pleads Guilty to Fake Lottery Scam
Charge: Conspiracy to Commit Mail and Wire Fraud
Allegations:Collecting Fraudulent Taxes on Fake Lottery Winnings
In 2016, a New York man, Wilder Vladimir Merelan, pleaded guilty to one count of wire and mail fraud stemming from his role in an international lottery scam that spanned over several years.
According to the DOJ press release, from 2012 to 2015, Merelan worked with Jamaican co-conspirators to defraud over a dozen elderly Americans. Scammers in Jamaica contacted victims, telling them they had won a lottery or sweepstakes. Pretending to be IRS representatives, the scammers collected fraudulent “taxes” from the victims. Victims sent money to Merelan via mail or wire transfer believing that doing so was required to receive the fake lottery winnings.
Merelan forwarded money to other scammers in the United States and Jamaica. He also took a cut for himself as well. In total, victims sent Merelan more than $830,000. Although banks and the US Postal Service intercepted some of the money, Merelan still received more than $730,000.
Merelan was apprehended after a multi-agency investigation by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, United States Postal Investigation Service, and other organizations. During sentencing he will face up to 20 years in prison and fines of $250,000 or twice the amount of scammed money, depending on which number is greater.
Looking for a Fraud Defense Attorney?
By now, you’ve probably figured out that lottery scamming is a complex legal subject with an array of complications that can be hard to untangle. Finding the right legal team to represent your interests is the first step towards getting justice.
The consequences of conviction—decades behind bars and hundreds of thousands in fines—are too high to fool with.
You need an experienced team who specialize in litigating fraud and financial crimes. They will have to coordinate with other attorneys and comb through stacks of evidence that the federal government will most likely bring to court. Finally, your attorney must have the skill to litigate in federal court—which is not something most lawyers will ever do.
We’re Here to Help
If you are under investigation or facing lottery scam charges, you need to find a legal team immediately. From documenting the case as it unfolds to ensuring your rights aren’t violated during the investigation, to securing the best possible result in court, the right legal defense team will have your back from the beginning.
Our clients have been accused of every type of fraud and financial crime. Without an attorney, they could have spent the rest of their lives in prison and forfeiture of all their personal assets. We enter the picture when many believe their life is over and we change those expectations dramatically. We do not back down, we do not give up, and we are not intimidated by the federal government. With our help, you will not be either.
If you or someone you care for is under investigation for or being charged with “lottery scamming,” call our firm today for a free legal consultation.
Not every defense attorney can have a good defense against charges related to fraud. This area of law is complicated; it takes a lot of experience to understand both the laws and the options available to those being prosecuted.