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Scammers with bogus lottery tickets target Spanish-speaking women

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Posted: Monday, February 9, 2004 10:00 pm

"Rosa" was putting her groceries in her car when the man approached.

He spoke in Spanish as he asked her for help: He was holding a winning lottery ticket, but said he could not cash it in because he was not a legal resident.

Before she knew it, Rosa had lost $2,500 in what was revealed to be a scam. She was embarrassed - and became even more ashamed when she learned that anyone, citizen or not, can cash in a winning lottery ticket.

"(It's) a secret of mine that I won't tell anybody because I'm so embarrassed - so, so embarrassed," Rosa said in Spanish, asking that her real name not be used so that her family would not know she had been taken in by the scam.

But she's not the only victim.

At least one other local woman has lost thousands of dollars when she was taken in an almost identical scam, according to Lodi police.

In both incidents, the victim was shopping when she was approached by a Spanish-speaking person who asked for help cashing in a lottery ticket, Detective Leo Ramirez said.

Both victims were hesitant, but both were reassured when another bystander overheard the conversation and offered to help. Only later did the victims realize that the bystander must have also been involved in the scam.

The scam is not new to state lottery officials, who put out brochures in Spanish and English in an attempt to warn people about such risks.

"If it sounds to good be true, don't do it," lottery spokeswoman Norma Minas said.

In 2003, the California Lottery investigated 17 scams in which victims lost a total of $335,000, said lottery investigator Joel Garcia. The year before, the commission saw only 12 scams totaling about $106,000 in losses, he said.

"They're increasing year by year," he said, adding that he's recently investigated scams in Merced and Stockton.

In one Florida case he heard of, a victim lost $80,000, Garcia said.

"We've seen (victims) that have actually invited these people into their homes, and they've even taken their jewelry," Minas said.

Rosa also took the people to her home, where she retrieved $1,500 she had saved for her retirement, she said. She also gave the suspects $1,000 from a bank withdrawal she made with her credit card.

The money, she believed, would be collateral until she cashed in the lottery ticket. Once she did that, she would get $10,000 from the grand prize of $250,000.

But then the man suddenly got horrible stomach pains and asked Rosa to stop at a drug store to buy some medicine.

Rosa went in to buy the medicine and when she came out, the man and the bystander were nowhere to be seen. Her $2,500 was also gone.

In an almost identical Lodi case, a different victim drove the suspects to her Walnut Grove home and got $5,000 in cash for the suspects, Ramirez said.

"She gave it to them as good faith money, so they would know she wasn't going to pull a fast one on them," he said.

The end result was the same as it was for Rosa: The suspects disappeared with the money and the victim realized she'd been scammed.

Though those are the only two Lodi cases Ramirez knows of, he thinks there could be more victims who are simply too embarrassed to report it to police.

They get even more embarrassed when they learn that residency does not prevent a winner from cashing in a ticket.

"We've had people that have been on vacation here from Europe and have won," Minas said.

If the winner has no social security number, the federal government requires a 30 percent withholding, as opposed to 25 percent, but the Lottery Commission still pays out the money, she said.

Though Rosa now knows this, it's too late to do much. She hasn't told her family, and she has no intentions of doing so.

"I have to pay off the credit card and keep this a secret," she said.

To report a crime, call the Lodi Police Department at 333-6727. Reports may also be made to the California State Lottery, and free brochures in Spanish and English may be obtained by calling (800) LOTTERY.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

News-Sentinel staff writer Alejandro Lazo contributed to this report.

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