AUGUSTA — An email from a stranger tells you a relative you never knew has died in another country, leaving you millions of dollars. All you have to do is pay a few thousand dollars for taxes. You begin to imagine what you’ll do with the money as you whip out your checkbook.

A woman on the phone claims she is from the Toronto police and needs money to bail your nephew out of jail. She may even let you talk to him. The voice doesn’t seem to belong to your nephew, but you can’t just let someone you love stay behind bars. You grab your car keys to go secure a money order.

These tactics and countless others are used to scam millions of Americans out of billions of dollars each year. Many of those victims are seniors seeking to rid themselves of worry that accompanies growing expenses and a static income.

The Maine chapter of the AARP struck back Thursday with Scam Jam, a first-of-its kind conference designed to equip seniors to sniff out and steer clear of scams that barrage the public on a daily basis.

“Today’s event is a game-changer,” said David Leach, examiner for the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. “We’re going on the offensive. We’re not sheep anymore. We’re sharks. When that phone rings, when something comes in the mail that’s illegal, when you get an email, you’ll know what to do.”

There is no shortage of cautionary tales from people of all walks of life. U.S. Postal Inspector Michael Desrosiers shared the story of Dr. Harry Peddie, a Bangor-area physician. Peddie, some years ago, had just retired and was beginning to dabble in home computing when he received an email informing him that he was the last known survivor of an $8 million fortune. Peddie, who has relatives all over the world, believed the scenario possible. He wrote a check for $10,000 to pay the taxes. The scammers kept coming up with reasons to ask for more money.

“Once they had him on the line, they just kept reeling him in,” Desrosiers said. “Ten months later, Dr. Peddie lost $500,000. His entire life savings was gone.”

The Peddies were too embarrassed to call law enforcement. Their story came out only when investigators tracked down the Nigerian couple who were running the scam out of the Netherlands. The couple eventually was brought to trial and convicted in the U.S., but the Peddies will never get their money back, Desrosiers said.

Peddie’s wife, Pamela, in a video describing the experience, recalled the day her husband excitedly told her they would never have to worry about money again.

“That started the loss of everything that we own,” she said. “My husband lost his life. His spirit is broken. He sits in a robe all day long.”

Scam Jam featured small group sessions on impostor scams, recognizing the signs of a bad deal and identity theft. Maine Public Broadcasting Network used its “Maine Calling” radio program to allow the public to pose specific questions to panelists. Conference attendees were invited to share their personal experiences for a video.

Many of those stories across the nation involve lies about winning a foreign lottery, Desrosiers said.

“Foreign lotteries are so popular. We’re so victimized by foreign lotteries, that other countries have gotten into the act,” he said.

He recalled investigating a case involving a 78-year-old Augusta-area woman who received a letter informing her she had won $1.9 million in the Australian lottery. When she called to claim the money, she asked the scammers how she had won a lottery that she didn’t even know existed.

“The bad guys have an answer for everything,” Desrosiers said. “They said, ‘We entered your name for you.'”

The woman, who continues to work to support herself, wanted money to leave to her children and grandchildren. She didn’t have enough money to pay the taxes to claim the “winnings,” but she had property she had inherited from her parents and grandparents. Desrosiers said she sold the property for $100,000 and sent it to the scammers. By the time Desrosiers was investigating, the woman didn’t even have enough money to buy gasoline to meet with him.

Just last week, Desrosiers said, an 88-year-old woman from Gray, who continues to care for her two special needs children, both of whom are in their 60s, spent $163,000 to claim a sham prize.

The one thing almost all the victims have in common is embarrassment, which leads many victims to keep the crime private.

“If you happen to get taken in by any of this stuff, don’t feel stupid,” Desrosiers said. “All scams are designed for one purpose: to separate you from your money.”

Jane Margesson, communications director for AARP Maine, hoped when she first proposed the conference that it would attract as many as 100 people. Attendance more than tripled that expectation. Held at the Augusta Civic Center, the conference drew retirees, law enforcement and representatives of various agencies and community organizations.

Attorney General Janet Mills said her office gets about 1,000 calls per month about scams or fraud across the spectrum, from small business complaints to credit scams.

“We have a graying population in Maine,” Mills said. “It’s so important to reach out to our friends and neighbors and give them this information. Prevention is the best way to address scams against all consumers.”

Mills cautioned the public against sending money to people they don’t know or responding to messages for information or engaging robocalls.

“Do not press 1,” Mills said. “You will regret it. They will keep calling and calling and calling. You will never get rid of them. Hang up!”

Identify theft remains one of the scams of choice for criminals. There were more than 500 reported cases of identity theft in the state in 2013. Leach, who led a session on identity theft, said about 5 percent of the U.S. population 16 and older has been the victim of identity theft. The crime is particularly repugnant because the most common perpetrators are relatives and friends. Leach said one of the first cases of identity theft he investigated was that of a woman who had a relative call late at night asking for a bank account number.

“She was so embarrassed, because she was a senior, that she didn’t tell anybody she’d been scammed,” Leach said. “She didn’t want her children and grandchildren to think she was losing her faculties.”

Identifying information also can be stolen by professional criminals by breaching data banks and even strangers who will sift through trash. He cautioned against throwing papers with sensitive information into the trash and from putting the trash out beside the road overnight.

“There are very bad people that are dumpster divers,” Leach said. “They can learn about you from your garbage.”

Leach urged people to shred all financially related paperwork, from statements to receipts; to opt out of junk mail; and to delete spam.

“Use cash when dining out,” Leach said. “Avoid handing your credit or debit card to a wait staff person.”

Every year Leach helps write the Downeaster Guide to Elder Financial Protection, which is available online or by calling 800-332-8529. The guide has lots of tips for avoiding scams and fraud, but many can be boiled down to a few simple rules.

“When it doubt, hang up, delete and shred,” Leach said. “If we could do that, we could stop just about all scams. We fight this battle every day against scammers. It’s a nonshooting war, but it’s a war.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

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Twitter: @CraigCrosby4