One of the most common scams we hear about at the Bureau is the foreign lottery or sweepstakes. It’s story time¦
Marci arrives home from a long day at work. She picks up the mail on her way inside and throws it on the kitchen table. Several hours later, after the kids have gone to bed, she finally begins to sort through the pile and notices that there is a strange looking postmark on one of the letters. Marci puts the bills to the side and opens that one first. The letter begins, Congratulations, your name has been selected as the winner of the First International Lottery and goes on to say that she has won $135,000. She has her doubts until she notices that a check has fallen out of the envelope. She picks it up and sees that it is made out to her, in the amount of $3100. She holds it up to the light and sees the authentic watermark, and she recognizes the name of a national bank. For the first time, she starts to get excited. After all, her debts have been mounting and she certainly needs the money. Everything looks legitimate.
She takes the check to the bank and the teller deposits the funds into her account. After two days, Marci looks at her account online and sees that the funds have become available. She finally calls the sweepstakes company. They tell her that all she needs to do to claim her winnings is to take $2500 and send it to the company in Ontario through MoneyGram. She withdraws the funds and immediately wires the handling fee to the company. And then she waits to collect her money.
Three weeks pass and she hasn’t received anything more from the sweepstakes people. She has tried calling them but always gets a recording and no one calls her back. One day Marci sees another unusual notice in the mail; this one was from her local back. They were charging her overdraft fees. In very large amounts. The check she gave them came up as counterfeit and now she owed the bank all of the $3500, plus the fees for overdrawing her account. She had been scammed. But she’s not alone.
Our office receives several calls everyday from local people who have received these letters and checks in the mail. Usually they call before they do anything with the money but sometimes they talk to us too late. I hate being the bearer of bad news¦I feel like I’m crushing peoples’ dreams of early retirement and the easy life¦
Basically what happens is that these fake companies (usually located in Canada but sometimes the UK, Jamaica, Australia, and others) send out letters and cashiers checks to unsuspecting individuals. The checks typically look real enough to fool even a bank teller. Banking regulations require that the bank make the funds available in your account within 1- 5 business days but it can take up to 4 weeks for the check to clear. By that time the victim will have already withdrawn cash and wired it to the scammers. And you can’t get that money back.
What you need to know:
– It is illegal for American citizens to win foreign lotteries through the mail.
– It is a violation of sweepstakes regulations to require any advance fee to collect on your winnings. Even if they send you the money before hand, or they claim it is for taxes, insurance or handling fees.
– No legitimate sweepstakes company would send an uncertified letter to inform prize recipients.
If you receive one of these letters, you can either shred it or hand it over to the Postal Inspection Service. Just drop it off at your local post office and ask that they give it to Postal Inspection.
If the letter originates out of Canada (look for the yellow flower stamp), you can contact Phonebusters, the fraud division of the Royal Canadian Mounties. Their phone number is 888-495-8501.