When Nora Coniglio got a call earlier this month saying she had won $285,000 in the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, she was surprised, but not suspicious, even though it had years since her last entry.
That changed as Coniglio, 75, of Mineola, tried to collect her winnings.
At first, the phony Publishers Clearing House "representative" on the phone told her that a company employee would come to her home with a check the following day, Coniglio said. But that next day, the caller had a new story. The money was held up in Costa Rica, she was told, where it had been sent when she didn't collect it right away, and she would need to pay a 1 percent tax - $2,850 - before she could collect.
That was when she called the Nassau County district attorney's office.
"Thank God I looked into it," Coniglio said. "I really could have lost a lot of money."
Coniglio is one of 39 Nassau senior citizens who have reported being targeted in a rash of highly sophisticated scams this year, prosecutors said. That's almost twice as many complaints as the office got from seniors last year, a spokeswoman for Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said.
The Suffolk County district attorney's office has 75 to 100 ongoing cases of scams targeting seniors, a number that has held steady, said Robert Clifford, a spokesman.
A Better Business Bureau survey in June said 20 percent of respondents age 65 or over report they have been victims of financial fraud.
"It's a ripe time for scams, and seniors are very often a group that is targeted," said Claire Rosenzweig, president of the BBB of Metropolitan New York.
The crimes, which range from phony sweepstakes to calls telling seniors that their grandchild is in jail and needs bail money - are incredibly hard to prosecute, according to both Rice and Jenny Schearer, a spokeswoman for the FBI. The schemes are usually run from foreign countries - Canada is a hotbed - and getting foreign governments to turn over records or extradite suspects is extremely complicated, they said. Schearer said people who receive suspicious e-mails should report them to the Bureau's Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.
Seniors can be vulnerable because they are isolated or because they are less sophisticated about high-tech crooks, Rosenzweig and prosecutors said.
Michael Tierney, 58, of Oceanside, said his father, a retired New York City police officer with the same name, lost his life savings to a scammer who convinced him he had won $26 million, but needed to pay various fees to access the money. The senior Tierney, 82, sent the thieves $210,000 of his own money, and $30,000 more that he borrowed from a bank, his son said.
"He was a Depression-type kid who didn't have a lot and was going to make a killing for his family," Tierney said. "We couldn't believe he fell victim to it. But it happens every day."
Once they are scammed, some seniors are reluctant to admit it, fearing that their children or others will take it as a sign that they should not be living alone any more.
Rice has launched an educational campaign to help senior citizens protect themselves, including warning posters in check-cashing and money-wiring facilities."We're trying to make the victims as savvy as the bad guys are," Rice said in an interview.
With Carl MacGowan
Clues a scam is in the works
* Be suspicious of anyone you don’t know asking for money through a wire transfer or the Internet.
* Thoroughly research anyone you meet on an Internet site, including social-networking sites.
* Be suspicious if you are asked to send anything through a third party.
* Watch out for misspellings, broken English or strange grammar in an e-mail.
How to report a scam
— ANN GIVENS