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Duped of life savings, Hibbing woman gets it back

An 81-year-old Hibbing woman said her life savings were wiped out and she was "34 dollars and some cents'' in the hole after a Florida man scammed her out of almost $38,500 by telling her she had won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes -- a $600,000 prize.

The Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol didn't come to the woman's door with a check. But Special Agent Bill White of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division did.

After an investigation conducted by White, Hibbing police, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI and the St. Louis County Attorney's Office, the senior citizen got most of her money back and a Florida man is facing criminal charges.

White traveled to the woman's Hibbing residence and presented her a check for $36,936.09 on April 8.

"I tell you, it was wonderful; I thought that I would never see my money again,'' the woman said Wednesday.

The scam victim talked to the News Tribune in a conference call arranged by Hibbing attorney Rachel Delich-Sullivan at the victim's request. The octogenarian asked that she not be publicly identified because she fears she could again be targeted, Delich-Sullivan said.

It was a satisfying trip to Hibbing for White, who said the victim is an intelligent woman who was very appreciative.

"Honestly, she started crying a little bit and she hugged me,'' he said. "She didn't think she was ever going to get it back."

The woman, who lives independently, worked in the computer industry for more than 20 years before retiring. She was notified by phone in January that she had won $600,000 from Publishers Clearing House. The scammer instructed her to wire $2,500 by Western Union to an account in Canada so that her winnings could be wired into her account.

The woman wired the money. The scammer, then posing as a Publishers Clearing House security officer, told the victim that she needed to wire $36,000 to an account in a Florida bank to pay duty on the winnings. A Fed Ex package with account and other information needed to complete the transfer was sent to the victim, who then wired the money to a bank in Plant City, Fla.

"I couldn't figure out why I was so stupid,'' the woman said. "I blamed it all on myself."

The scam artist then made additional requests for a larger amount of money. He next asked for $52,000 to pay state and federal taxes, the victim said.

"She told him she had no more money,'' White said. "But this gentleman had his stuff together. He was going to help her with that, too. He said he would front her $30,000 if she could come up with $22,000. He told her: 'Go to the bank and borrow against your home and vehicles, and they'll be able to give you that money.' He was very helpful,'' White said sarcastically.

By that time, the woman had contacted Hibbing police, who began their own investigation and asked the state to look at it. The Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division contacted Florida authorities, who served a search warrant on the suspect's bank account. The account held nearly $10,000, which was seized. The suspect was interviewed and he presented a cashier's check for $27,000 to the Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division in February.

The case has been referred to Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jeff Vlatkovich in Hibbing to review for charges.

White said the suspect is being investigated for other crimes in Florida.

The woman didn't get all of her savings back. The initial $2,500 that she wired to an account in Canada through Western Union at the scammer's request hasn't been recovered, White said.

"I'm satisfied I got this much money back. I am tickled to death,'' she said.

Delich-Sullivan had this advice for members of the public: "If somebody is calling and offering you something for nothing, you should be very suspicious of it.'

"Yes, that's true,'' the scam victim added. "You get nothing for nothing. You have to work for it. And save."