Authorities in five countries have arrested 565 people in fraud schemes that netted more than $1 billion ($780 million ). Many of those arrested are west Africans who were attempting variations of the notorious Nigerian Internet scam, the Justice Department said.
Many of the victims were elderly or immigrants. One scam consisted of telephone calls to Spanish-speaking U.S. residents who were seeking to establish credit and were promised credit cards in return for a couple of hundred dollars. The cards didn't exist, said Federal Trade Commision chairman Deborah Platt Majoras.
«Those that prey on consumers know their vulnerabilities,» Majoras said at a Justice Department news conference with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. «They zero in on those who will actually believe them.»
Gonzales called the 14-month investigation, dubbed Operation Global Con, «the largest enforcement operation of its kind.» It has so far resulted in 139 arrests and 61 convictions in the United States and another 426 arrests in Canada, Costa Rica, the Netherlands and Spain.
The scams were carried out through telemarketing, mass mailings and the Internet and also included bogus lottery, prize and sweepstakes offerings, invitations to pour money into nonexistent investments and supposedly legal enticements to avoid paying taxes, officials said.
In the Nigerian scam, criminals send junk e-mail to thousands of unsuspecting people offering them a share in a large fortune in exchange for a smaller amount of money up front. The con artist takes the money and then disappears.
Last week, Costa Rican and U.S. authorities made arrests in a telephone-based scam in which prospective victims received offers of up to $4.5 million ($3.5 million) from the Sweepstakes Security Commission and other fictitious organizations. The winners first had to pay «insurance fees.» Some victims were contacted again, this time by people pretending to be customs officials who demanded additional payments, the department said.