Miami-Dade County

Three South Florida men found guilty of $20 million lottery fraud mail scam

Guilty verdicts dropped last week on three of four men who snookered over $20 million from people who forgot the hokey, but true, “you can’t win it, if you’re not in it.”

Aventura’s Victor Ramirez, Fort Lauderdale’s Matthew Pisoni and Boca Raton’s Marcus Pradel each was found guilty of conspiracy to commit mail fraud in federal court. The fourth member of their criminal quartet, Wilton Manors’ resident John Leon, pleaded guilty to the same charge in February 2016.

Leon admitted to handling the making and mailing of five million mailed fake press releases, altering the alleged amount won and response time required to get a higher response rate. The releases, of course, stated the recipient had won a sweepstakes prize but needed to mail back an amount between $20 and $50 to claim said prize. And the mailing pattern targeted the elderly.

Even with only a 10 percent success rate, the twos and fews from over 500,000 people added up to $20 million to $25 million. The foursome then laundered the money through shell companies set up in Florida, mostly by Ramirez, according to the indictment. Ramirez also ran the runners who collected the incoming money from various mailboxes.

With some help, the foursome also used payment processing companies based outside the United States that would wire the money to accounts controlled by Pisoni, Pradel, Ramirez and Leon.

One reason they aimed at elderly folks is age might rob them of remembering two common sense facts about sweepstakes and lotteries. First, no legitimate contest requires a winner to pay out of pocket to receive the prize. And, you can’t win a contest that you don’t enter.

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal