WASHINGTON - The stories are always slightly different but basically the same:
Louis Johnson Jr. had won an enticing prize, and all he had to do to collect was pay a processing fee. Susanne Conley-Higgins noticed her mother suddenly was buying and mailing a lot of money orders.
Mail and telemarketing fraud are up 27 percent this year and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service has begun a campaign to alert the public to the growing danger of being swindled.
Chief Postal Inspector Lee Heath said a shaky economy entices people to look for different ways to invest their money, and too often they find fraudsters out there "just waiting."
Last year, Mr. Heath's office handled 66,000 fraud complaints. At the rate they are coming in this year, the total could top 80,000, he said.
The National Consumers League estimated that illegal telemarketing costs Americans $40 billion annually.
So the Postal Inspection Service is putting up posters in 38,000 post offices, mailing post cards to more than 3 million homes in areas where large populations of the elderly live and launching a media campaign featuring actress Betty White.
Joining the post office and the consumers' league in the effort are the Federal Trade Commission, the Alliance Against Fraud in Telemarketing and Electronic Commerce and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The campaign is focusing on senior citizens because they are often a prime target of these schemes, which "really makes me angry," said Ms. Conley-Higgins of Portland, Maine.
Her elderly mother doesn't drive, and when Ms. Conley-Higgins took her to the store she noticed that her mother was buying a lot of money orders and mailing them off. In addition, her mother seemed to be getting a lot of magazines and new products.
When she asked, her mother said she was sending for things because that would help her win lotteries and sweepstakes. It took a pair of postal inspectors to explain that wasn't true, Ms. Conley-Higgins said.
For Mr. Johnson, of Orange, N.J., the offer came from Canada, announcing that he had won one of four prizes. All he had to do, the announcement said, was send $199 for the cost of processing the winnings across the border.
When nothing arrived, Mr. Johnson began calling the company in Toronto. "I got the run-around," he said: the person he needed to talk to always was busy or in meetings. He was put on hold for a half-hour or more.
Frustrated, he called the Better Business Bureau, which contacted postal inspectors. The U.S. inspectors worked with Canadian postal officials, and Mr. Johnson finally got his money back.
Lots of people never see their money again, and often it's a lot more than $199.
"I was fortunate it was just that amount," Mr. Johnson reflected.
Some suggestions from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to guard against mail fraud: