February 21, 2013
Mail fraud dupes senior
Cortland woman hoping to raise awareness of schemes
Cortland resident Rose Vecellio was sure she had won $2 million.
All she had to do to claim the award was to mail several $500 checks to a U.S. Customs office in Florida. Because of the Patriot Act, she was told, Vecellio had to purchase special stamps in order to complete the transaction.
“I just received a phone call one day from Florida and U.S. Customs. They said there was a package there for me and it contained an award that I had won,” said Vecellio, an 82-year-old who lives at Pomeroy School Apartments. She assumed that there was some tax involved with getting such a bounty and sent them the requested checks to get the package into the country from Costa Rica.
“I don’t mind paying taxes. I thought if I get the money then who cares,” said Vecellio, who said she would use the money to help her church with capital projects and help her grandson pay off his mortgage.
When all was said and done, Vecellio said she sent $3,000 out of her retirement fund in that scheme. “I never got the money, and never got the package,” she said. “I was shocked. I knew nothing about this kind of thing.”
While she was waiting for the promised payoff, Vecellio said she received another call. These events all occurred at the end of last year.
“The man was very nice, very businesslike,” she said of the man who scammed her. He even had an accomplice impersonate a U.S. Customs agent in order to make the illusion all the more persuasive, she said.
“He offered to have someone from the government call to make me more comfortable. Ten minutes later I got call from an agent who gave me his name and badge number,” Vecellio said.
The 82-year-old said she has been bilked out of over $4,000 in these schemes. She has “won” contests and sweepstakes with cash prizes of about $5,000, provided she pay various amounts in “taxes and fees.” Vecellio has about a 4-foot high stack of letters all awarding her with something or other, and says she gets more each day.
Her favorite were the math quizzes and crosswords that she always seemed to win. On one occasion, she paid $11 to enter a contest to win $7,000, then received another letter saying she had tied with another person, and paid again to compete in a tiebreaker. After she won the tiebreaker, instead of sending the prize she was notified that she could compete at a higher level for $12,000, then $24,000.
“Nobody made me do it,” admitted Vecellio. “I didn’t think I was a gullible person, but I guess I am.”
Before she retired in 1995, Vecellio was an accountant for a firm in Groton. Her husband, a retired school custodian, died in 1994, but she has five children, three around Cortland, one in Syracuse and another in Florida. Supporting her in her crusade is boyfriend Walter Andrews of Virgil, who is a retired veteran.
“Any time you have to pay money to make money, it’s probably a scam,” said Andrews.
Vecellio said she has written to the state Attorney General’s Office, and is attempting to get help in enacting legislation to ward against this type of fraud from Rep. Richard Hanna. She even filmed a 40-minute testimonial and sent a handwritten letter to Dr. Phil McGraw.
“I made up my mind that I was going to do everything I could to alert people about this,” she said.
Vecellio, who said she wanted to get her phone tapped to somehow track the callers, is frustrated at the lack of police recourse.
“Confiscate their computers and you’ll get their real names and phone numbers,” she told one official at an Attorney General’s Office in Binghamton, who she said in turn told her she had learned her lesson.
Cortland Police Lt. Richard Troyer said these types of complaints are common, and come from victims of varying ages. “We get them every once in a while,” he said. “We investigate them but most of the time they lead to a dead end.”
They are difficult to trace for police because perpetrators mask their phone numbers and are often from outside the country. Troyer said despite the willing handover of money, these scams are still illegal because the victim is being promised something and not getting it.
Vecellio said she has many friends who have had similar mail fraud experiences. These services appear to target the elderly in particular, she said. Vecellio said one day one of her relatives had to open a joint bank account with his mother-in-law when he found out she had written out about $112,000 worth of checks for similar fake contests.
Vecellio said she has filled out sweepstakes forms for over $500,000 worth of prizes with her bank account information and attempted to cash fake cashier’s checks awarding her sums like $4,000 that she said “looked really legit.”
When she brought it in to First Niagara Bank, she said the teller immediately stamped it as void and gave her learning material on how to tell if you are being scammed. Vecellio said she has since changed her bank account, and her phone number twice to get away from the callers. She has repeatedly tried to catch them, taking down names and numbers and even recording speaker phone conversations. Vecellio said she has since realized that there is equipment the callers use to mask their real numbers, and make it appear is though they are calling from a local number.
Vecellio, who is affectionately referred to as “mom” by some other tenants in her building, said she wants the community to be aware of these scams, and to not make the same mistakes she did. “Be aware, and don’t send anything. In my checkbook, I wrote ‘don’t be stupid’ so I’ll be careful of what I pay for,” she said.
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