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Sweepstakes ‘winners’ recognize phone scam

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What better way to start a new year than finding out you’re the winner of a Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes.

Unless you’re really not.

Two weeks ago, I received phone calls from two Albuquerque women who had received such calls claiming to be from the nationally known distributor of those supersized checks.

One said she had been pestered by repeated calls of late from someone claiming that her husband had won $2.1 million in a sweepstakes affiliated with Publishers Clearing House.

All she had to do, she was told, was to put some money on a Green Dot prepaid debit card and call back with the card number.

The other woman was informed she had just won a new car and some money. All she had to do was to put $300 on a Green Dot money card – for taxes, he said – and send it to someone in Santa Fe.

“You don’t sound elated?” the caller told her at one point, sensing that she wasn’t about to fall for his scheme. She recalls he also stressed the importance of keeping their entire conversation “a secret.”

To their credit, neither woman fell for this ruse, but not everyone is as fortunate.

Early last month, for example, the Daily Record of Parsippany, N.J., reported the story of a 77-year-old Neptune woman who had received a letter in the mail claiming she had won $1.5 million from Publishers Clearing House.

The fake letter contained a sample cashier’s check for that amount, which included the company’s well-known logo in the upper-left-hand corner. She was instructed to contact her claims agent within 92 hours to get her prize.

By the time she realized the letter was a hoax, she had written a $13,500 personal check to cover phony “certificates of insurance” and “tax declarations,” and signed off on a $4,500 bank check to hold her prize until the original check cleared.

Of course, there is nothing particularly new or creative about scam artists leveraging the reputation of legitimate businesses to trick consumers into parting with personal financial information or their hard-earned cash.

Connie Quillen, executive assistant of the Albuquerque-based Better Business Bureau Serving New Mexico and Southwest Colorado, says her office gets calls daily on an assortment of scams linked to the Publishers Clearing House name.

Generally, they are told that they have won a prize – sometimes a Mercedes Benz and $1 million – then asked to either wire money back or put it on a prepaid debit card.

That’s why Publishers Clearing House takes great pains to warn consumers about these phony schemes.

“We’ve been hearing about this one for some time, and it causes us concerns for many reasons,” Chris Irving, the company’s assistant vice president of consumer and legal affairs, told the Journal last week.

“The simple rule is if you’ve won a legitimate prize from any company – and certainly from Publishers Clearing House – you never have to pay money to collect it.”

Irving said that’s also the recording people hear when they call the company’s toll-free consumer service line (800-645-9242). If they suspect they are the target of scam, they are prompted to “press 5″ and speak directly to a customer service representative.

Ultimately, that information is shared every two weeks with the Federal Trade Commission, he says. The company also works closely with U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Department of Homeland Security, FBI and other law-enforcement agencies.

“Because enforcement efforts are never going to get everyone … at the end of the day, education will make the biggest impact,” Irving says.

Besides stressing that you should never have to pay any money in return for winning a prize, the company makes clear in its “Fraud Protection” and “Tips & Warning Signs” sections of its website that it always notifies its major winners by mail or in person – never by phone.

“If you receive a phone call from someone claiming to be from Publishers Clearing House and are asked to send money, pay a fee or pre-pay taxes to enter, collect or claim a sweepstakes prize – STOP – you have not heard from the ‘real’ Publishers Clearing House,” the company warns.

Among its other key tips:

  • Beware of fake check scams, where you are asked to deposit the money in your bank account and then wire a portion of it back.
  • Be suspicious of any phone calls or emails claiming you have won a prize – but then ask you to send them money.
  • Never disclose credit-card or personal bank account information.
  • And, of course, if the notification sounds too good to be true …

Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at npappas@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3847 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.

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