It's an old trick, but after a recent incident in Los Angeles, the California Lottery is warning the public to be careful.
Special state lottery investigators and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department are looking for two people who they believe stole nearly $40,000 from an elderly woman in a so-called "Latin Lotto" scam.
There are many kinds of lottery scams, but this scheme is most common in the Latino community, officials said, and older, Spanish-speaking women are typically the victims.
Amber Bettar, a crime analyst for the California Lottery, said perpetrators rely on their cultural connection with their victims by speaking only in Spanish, using distinctive terms of endearment and mentioning religion.
Perpetrators will approach victims in public places. They say they have a winning lottery ticket but are unable to redeem it because they are not U.S. citizens.
Perpetrators take advantage of their victims' altruism, Bettar said. They use pregnant women to sell the scam, or they claim to be impoverished as well as undocumented.
"Once they feel like they're getting them on the hook, they just keep going," she said.
Then, the scammer tells the victim that lottery officials need a large amount of money as collateral before they will hand over the winnings.
When the victim provides the collateral, the scammer disappears.
"You don't have to be an American citizen to win and claim your lottery prize," said Russ Lopez, a lottery spokesman.
"No lottery would ask for money up front fees, taxes at all," he added. "We would never do that."
Latin Lotto scams have been common around the country for years. In California, incidents are concentrated in Los Angeles but have also been reported around the state, including San Francisco, Fresno and Sacramento.
"It's traveling more north," Bettar said.
The lottery provided the following account of the recent Los Angeles County scam:
A woman approached the victim in a parking lot and told her she had a ticket worth about $500,000 but was not a United States citizen and so could not claim the money. She offered the victim $40,000 in exchange for her help.
A man arrived to join the woman, who then called someone posing as an attorney. The impostor told the victim over the phone that she needed to give the woman collateral in order for her to receive her winnings.
The perpetrators drove the victim to two Wells Fargo branches, where she withdrew $38,000 altogether, and took her to a Macy's, where she spent about $500 on clothing for the woman.
Before they disappeared, the perpetrators went to the victim's home, where her home surveillance cameras captured footage of the scammers.
Scams like these might sound improbable, but they work. "It's very sad," Lopez said.
"The scammers are very convincing. They have the whole script worked out," he said. "They have pretend attorneys. Sometimes they have a number for the victim to call to talk to 'the lottery.' They've thought this out."
If you believe you have been scammed, first call your local police department. Then call the California Lottery at (800) 568-8379.