NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
On the eve of one of the biggest jackpot drawings in history, a Powerball game that could bring the lucky winner $250 million, it was revealed that international scamsters have perpetrated an elaborate fraud using the Massachusetts lottery Web site as their cats paw.
A spokesperson for the Mass lottery, Amy Morris, says that the lottery has received "well over 200 e-mails" to date from people contacted, with calls from Australia, New Zealand, Wales, and elsewhere beginning to trickle in. Only a handful of these have actually provided financial information to the scamsters, but they represent what Morris thinks is just a small percentage of those victimized.
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Here's how the scam -- which has been running for months -- worked. A message would appear in your e-mail box from "administrator" advising you that you had won $30,000 from the Massachusetts State Lottery.
The missive directs you to the "official" Web site of the Massachusetts lottery at mass-lottery.org (the authentic site is at masslottery.com) and includes a user name and password that you can supposedly use to claim your prize.
The fake site looks authentic in every detail and features some of the same valid links and articles as the official page. (Advancing technology has made it increasingly easy to copy Web pages, which scam artists use to obtain personal information in a scheme now known as "spoofing." Other frequently spoofed sites include PayPal, eBay, and Priceline.com.)
When you log in to collect your prize, however, it's a whole new ballgame. You're faced with a message congratulating you on your "spectacular luck." The text is rife with spelling and grammatical errors, typos, and awkward phrasing, the first hint that something isn't kosher.
But the big tip-off comes next. The message states that "if you are a US resident, not resident in the State of Massachusetts, you'll br (sic) required to pay the US$500.00 gaming tax. If you are receiving from outside the united states (sic), you will have to pay US$100.00 foreign gaming tax."
Those who continue on after being notified of the advance payment will also be asked to give up a credit card number, social security number, and other personal information.
On some levels the fraud could hardly be called sophisticated. One target, Memphis attorney Robert Weiss, was contacted through his hotmail account where his user name is Bob51. "The e-mail began Dear Bob51," he says.
Suspicious from the start, Weiss says he found a lot of things didn't add up, but he really smelled a rat when he went through the steps he needed to complete to collect his prize. "So I went on a search and found the real Massachusetts State Lottery site."
Joe Mahoney, a spokeman for the Multi-state Lottery Association says that get-rich-quick frauds are a natural for lottery customers. But he stresses to never give out credit card information to someone you don't know. Lottery organizations will, he says "never ask you for a credit card. You have to buy a lottery ticket with cash."
The lottery fraud continues a long line of other advance-payment schemes that seem to originate in eastern Africa and are known collectively as the Nigerian scam. Scam artists seem to have adapted well to the enormous opportunities that the World Wide Web has opened to them.
Lottery officials are working with the FBI to try to limit the damage, but it has proven a difficult fix. "It's a matter of getting to the Web site," says Amy Morris. The FBI had to investigate who hosts the Web site and then notify the hosts that one of their sites was illegal.