Albert Lea woman notices a sweepstakes scam, reports it

Published 10:30 am Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Better Business Bureau is telling consumers to be aware of a phony sweepstakes that asks people to wire money prior to receiving the prize money.

Wayne and Sandy Pieper, a husband and wife who live near Albert Lea, were among the people to receive the phony sweepstakes in the mail.

“It looks so legitimate you can’t believe it,” Sandy said.

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She said it came in a plain white envelope with Wayne’s name preprinted on it. It said he had won $125,000 in the Reader’s Digest lotto drawing on Nov. 29, 2009. It came with a check for $3,679 from Duke Energy Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., and drawn on a JP Morgan Chase bank of Syracuse, N.Y.

The letter described the check as an advance on his winnings to help cover government taxes and service fees. It then asked for $2,981.10 to be wired through Western Union to cover the taxes and fees.

It asked Wayne, 74, to call a phone number prior to cashing the check.

Sandy, 70, called the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce instead, which referred her to the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota. The BBB informed her it was a scam.

The Better Business Bureau states it has received a number of sweepstakes scams recently. Some claim to be Reader’s Digest and other Publisher’s Clearing House or even a phony foreign lottery.

“The letter comes with a check that supposedly represents only a portion of the total winnings,” states a BBB news release. “In order to get the rest, the victim has to deposit the check and then wire hundreds of dollars back to the scammers supposedly to cover taxes or some other bogus fee. The victim wires the money, but the prize never arrives.”

The BBB says many scams borrow names from legitimate companies, such as Reader’s Digest and Duke Energy. It said some have even included the logo of the Better Business Bureau.

Sandy also contacted Reader’s Digest about the scam. She said a representative told her that Reader’s Digest contests never require money up front.

“They said winners always have to pay taxes on a sweepstakes, but never anything taken out ahead of time,” she said.

Sandy also let the Western Union at Nelson’s Marketplace know about the scam, in case people try to wire funds.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” she said.

Spotting a scam

Consumers can often spot a fraudulent sweepstakes notice by simply applying common sense. One of the fraudulent notices mailed to the Better Business Bureau by a consumer contains a number of red flags. First, the postmark on the envelope is Seattle; however, the notation on the attached check was for the Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. as agent for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. There were also a number of logos of national companies at the bottom of the winning notice, including the logo of the BBB, in an effort to make the letter look more official. Also, the phone number for the “prize award administrator” has a Canadian prefix. Many sweepstakes scams originate in Canada.

To further help consumers identify a lottery or sweepstakes scam, the BBB provides the following checklist:

 Was the lottery notification delivered to you by mail or e-mail? If you receive a winning lottery notification by regular mail or e-mail, there is a good chance it is fraudulent. Legitimate lottery companies will usually send winning notices by certified mail, Federal Express, UPS or DHL delivery services. On the other hand, if you have played the lottery online, you may be notified by e-mail. However, you still must log into your account to check your winnings and choose whether you want to be paid by check or by a credit to your credit card.

Does the notification appear to come from another country? Organizations behind these frauds operate under different names, often derived from well-known lotteries in other countries. U.S. citizens should know that it is illegal to participate in a foreign lottery by using U.S. mail services.

Were you sent a check or money order with your notification? Fraudulent promoters will sometimes send a check or money order along with notification to convince you they are real. While the checks and money orders may look official, they are counterfeit!

Are you asked to wire transfer money or mail a personal check to cover some type of fee or taxes? Fraudulent promoters will ask you to deposit the check or money order and then instruct you to wire money or send a personal check back to them to cover what may seem like legitimate fees, such as processing, administrative, handling or tax fees. They also may instruct you to call a number to claim your winnings. When you do, they will try to get you to send money or ask for personal identification information that will undoubtedly be used for identity theft purposes. If you deposit a bogus check or money order in your bank account, keep in mind that you will be held responsible for any money you spend or send to anyone else.

Does the lottery promoter’s name and address on the check match the name and address on the envelope? In many instances it does not. The company name is usually different on the check, the bank name on the check is fraudulent and the account number stolen — making the check a counterfeit. Sponsors of legitimate lotteries and sweepstakes identify themselves prominently on their checks and on the envelopes.

Are the notifications sent by people claiming to be bankers, gaming officials, claims agents, tax collectors, attorneys, or a high ranking government official? Scam artists will use any number of titles in an effort to convince you that they are legitimate.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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