When Diana Barnowich got a phone call Thursday morning from worried staff at her elderly mother's assisted-living residence saying her mom was in a rush to leave and mail an envelope, Barnowich knew something was up.
That something turned out to be a telephone lottery scam that would have stolen nearly $14,000 from her 76-year-old mom, who has dementia, if not for Barnowich's quick actions.
Barnowich was able to get the envelope containing $2,500 in cash before it was mailed and put stop-payments through her mom's bank on five cheques totalling $11,300 her mom had already written and mailed.
"I'm so upset someone would do this. We want to warn people, especially seniors, if someone calls you and says you won money from a lottery that you have never entered, it's a scam," Barnowich said. "They're so cunning. Don't get into a conversation. Just hang up immediately."
'I'm so upset someone would do this. We want to warn people, especially seniors...' -- Diana Barnowich
The scammers, who told her mom it was a Jamaican lottery that would pay her up to $3 million, had links to Jamaica, Pinedale, Wyo., Los Angeles, Calif., and Surrey, B.C.
Barnowich sprang into action after the phone call from staff at her mother's residence.
"I phoned my mother right away, but her phone number had been disconnected, so I called MTS," she said.
A representative told Barnowich her mom had called a few days prior to change her number to a new, unlisted number, and again Thursday to confirm it had been done. Barnowich, who has power of attorney for her mother, told them there was no way her mother had called MTS.
Barnowich then went online, saw $2,500 cash had been withdrawn from her mother's bank account and drove straight over to her mother's apartment.
When she walked in, her mom was on the phone with a man.
"I said, 'Who are you talking to?' and she wouldn't tell me, so I grabbed the phone from her and I said, 'Who is this?' He said, 'A cleaning company from Surrey, Manitoba.' I said, 'You're not from Surrey, Manitoba, there is no Surrey, Manitoba, and don't ever phone here again,' " said Barnowich, who changed her mom's number right away.
"To get the money, they told her she had to pay the taxes on the money. They started with $800 for taxes, but then they called her back. They said they needed more money, or the money wouldn't be released. They called her back again and again over a couple of days and I didn't know anything about it," she said. "They told her not to tell anyone."
Kevin van Egdom, a spokesman for the Western Canada Lotteries Corp., said lotteries in Canada are regional but have Canadian government authorization, which prevents other regions or countries from selling here.
"The first thing we tell people is that if you haven't bought a ticket, it's going to be a scam. A legitimate lottery doesn't find people and enter them into a draw. Anyone who asks you to pay money in advance to receive a prize, that's a scam," he said.
"These aren't legitimate. Any time scammers can prey on somebody's dreams and vulnerabilities, they do that."
Barnowich said the story plays out like a movie. After she found names in her mom's chequebook, she phoned Pinedale, Wyo., and spoke to the father of a man named Mark to whom her mom had written some of the cheques. The father said his son has a brain injury and has been getting harassing calls from Jamaica for two years demanding money, threatening to kill them and burn their house down.
He told Barnowich's husband Thursday night he found two cheques, they had no idea why Mark received them and turned them over to the sheriff's department. Three other cheques for larger amounts were made out to a woman's name and address at a strip mall in Surrey, B.C.
Barnowich made reports to the RCMP and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre and was told a number of known scams targeting seniors are being investigated.
"I don't know how they (scammers) get the names and information about people in this demographic," she said. "I still don't understand how they got enough information to get MTS to change her phone number."