Vivian Murphy thought back to that heart-stopping moment when the voice on the phone proclaimed her the winner of a $1.5 million sweepstakes prize.
For decades, Murphy, 85, had been a huge fan of Publishers Clearing House, the peddler of magazine subscriptions and household items widely known for TV commercials of winners dissolving into happy tears when presented with a gargantuan check. She entered nearly every drawing in the company’s 50-year history, during which lucky winners have received more than $380 million.
Murphy’s ship had finally come in. Or so it seemed. She imagined paying off the mortgages of her children and grandchildren and setting up bank accounts for her two little great-grandchildren. Instead, she had been scammed, and her gullibility cost her nearly $28,000.
“How could I have been so dumb to have believed it?” she asked.
The woman who called Murphy is a professional scam artist. (“I’d like to see her in jail,” Murphy said.) Many of them call from outside the United States. When I dialed back one of the numbers used to call Murphy, it came up as originating in Kingston, Jamaica.
Murphy, a lifelong Worcester resident and retired nursing supervisor, is among the thousands of people, most of them elderly, who are preyed upon every year by silver-tongued scammers. (Due to the humiliation involved, many victims don’t bother reporting such crimes.)
Murphy, with the support of her daughter, said she was willing to share her story because she wants to warn others.
The first thing the caller wanted to know was if Murphy was alone. Then came hearty congratulations. As Murphy absorbed the magnitude of what she was hearing, the woman’s voice turned serious: Murphy must keep her big prize confidential, for now, or risk losing it.
The caller introduced herself as Deborah Holland, which is a name Murphy recognized because it appears on lots of the letters she gets from the real Publishers Clearing House. (The scammers routinely pirate such names)
She said matter-of-factly in that first call that there were taxes and fees that needed to be paid before Murphy could collect her winnings. Murphy would have to send a check for $890.60 to begin the process of releasing the $1.5 million sweepstakes prize.
“Holland’’ spoke in a pleasant, confident voice. Soon, Murphy was “sweetie” and “dearie.” Murphy wrote the check. And once the caller had her hooks in, she didn’t let go: The next day, it was $3,000, to keep the process moving, and the day after that, $3,890.
A week after her first call, “Holland’’ called back, first in the morning, for $5,000, and then in the afternoon, for another $5,000.
When Murphy said her checking account was depleted, the caller suggested she tap one of her retirement accounts.
Murphy called her financial adviser to make the transfer.
“What do you need it for?” the adviser asked.
“I can’t tell you right now,” she replied. “But I’ll tell you shortly.”
Murphy followed the caller’s instructions meticulously. She wrote the checks on her local credit union account (unfortunately, no one there flagged the unusual activity) and made them payable to what turned out to be fictitious employees of Publishers Clearing House.
When Murphy wrote “for PCH” on the memo line of one of the checks, “Holland’’ told her to leave it blank.
At about this time, an official-looking congratulatory letter arrived at Murphy’s house. It included a photocopy of a check made out to Murphy for $1.5 million. The check contained the Publishers Clearing House logo. It looked authentic.
As their chats continued, the caller warmly remarked “what good friends” they had become.
“I can’t wait to meet you when I present you with the check,” Murphy recalled the caller saying. “We can have coffee and cookies together. It’ll be such great fun.”
Two weeks after first making contact with Murphy, the caller moved in for another score. This time it would be $10,000. Murphy, clinging to her dream, complied. “Holland’’ called every day after that, including eight times on April 19, according to Murphy’s phone records. What was so urgent? The caller said she needed a check for $20,000.
“She said the IRS required it for taxes,” Murphy recalled.
In all, Murphy had written seven checks totaling $47,780.60. But the caller kept postponing the date for delivery of the big prize. The latest date was April 27. Because she thought she needed to be home that day, Murphy canceled a long-scheduled doctor’s appointment.
Murphy’s daughter had planned to take her to that appointment.
“Why did you cancel?” asked Maureen Sanderson.
“I can’t tell you,” Murphy replied.
Sanderson could get no further information from her mother on the phone. So she decided to check on her.
That’s when Murphy whipped out the letter and revealed she would soon become a millionaire.
“Did you pay them any money?” Sanderson asked.
“Well, yes, I had to pay some fees,” Murphy said.
Sanderson took one look at her mother’s checkbook and immediately called the credit union to place stop-orders on any check not yet cleared. She managed to block the $20,000 check.
“It took a while to convince my mother this wasn’t real, and she’s not usually gullible,” Sanderson said. “Obviously, they took advantage of her.”
But no one is optimistic about recovering Murphy’s money. Scammers change bank accounts, cellphones, and phone numbers “practically overnight,” said Christopher Irving, a vice president at Publishers Clearing House, which has a video on its website warning of scammers.
“People who fall for a scam can lose face, as well as money and confidence,” an FTC video says. “That’s why it is so important to pass on what you have learned. Sharing what you know can help stop the scammers in their tracks.”
If someone wants you to pay to collect a prize, it’s a scam. If someone says keep it a secret, don’t.Sean P. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.