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U.S. Participant in Costa Rican Call Center Pleads Guilty for Role in “Sweepstakes Fraud” Aimed at Elderly

A U.S. citizen who resided in Costa Rica pleaded guilty today for his role in a “sweepstakes fraud” scheme that defrauded hundreds of U.S. residents, many of them elderly.

Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney R. Andrew Murray Rose of the Western District of North Carolina, Special Agent in Charge John Strong of the FBI’s Charlotte Field Office, Inspector in Charge David McGinnis of the U.S. Postal Inspection (USPIS) Service Charlotte Division and Special Agent in Charge Matthew D. Line of the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) Charlotte Field Office made the announcement.

Thomas Sniffen, 58, pleaded guilty today before U.S. Magistrate Judge David C. Keesler of the Western District of North Carolina to all 31 counts of an indictment charging one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, two counts of mail fraud, 13 counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit international money laundering and 14 counts of international money laundering.  Sniffen was charged by indictment in September 2015 and was extradited from Costa Rica in July 2017.

As part of his guilty plea, Sniffen admitted that from approximately September 2010 through May 2014, he worked for a call center in Costa Rica that placed telephone calls to U.S. victims, falsely informing those victims that they had won a substantial cash prize in a “sweepstakes.”  The victims, many of whom were elderly, were told that in order to receive the prize, they had to pay for a purported “refundable insurance fee,” Sniffen admitted.  Sniffen knew that certain factual assertions that he and his co-conspirators made in their pitches to victims were false, he admitted.  He also admitted that he and his co-conspirators kept the victims’ funds; never provided any prizes to victims; and used the victims’ funds to continue operating the call center for his and his co-conspirators’ benefit.  Once Sniffen and his co-conspirators received the victims’ money, they allegedly contacted the victims again to tell them that they had to send additional money to pay for new purported fees, duties and insurance to receive the now larger sweepstakes prize.  Sniffen and his co-conspirators allegedly continued their attempts to collect additional money from victims until those victims either ran out of money or discovered the fraudulent nature of the scheme.

USPIS, FBI and IRS-CI agents from Charlotte and Toledo, Ohio investigated the case, with support from the Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.  Trial Attorneys William Bowne and Jennifer Farer of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section are prosecuting the case. 

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