John Lee Strong didn’t need to see the Madrid, Spain, postmark to realize that what he was about to open was just another piece of junk mail.
And the Albuquerque resident didn’t feel any differently after learning he was one of 24 individuals from around the world chosen to divvy up $44.4 million in prize money from an international lottery.
His share of the pie?
A cool $1.85 million – minus 5 percent to the promotion company that purportedly purchased his ticket and played the “Euromillions World Sweepstake International Lottery Program” in his name, of course.
In fact, that was one of the many things that convinced him the whole thing was a sham.
“I thought that was kind of cheap,” he says. “They should have asked for 10, 15 or 25 percent.”
Strong also found it amusing that the letter asked that he keep his good fortune secret until his claim had been processed in order to prevent “unwarranted abuse of this program by unscrupulous individuals.”
Welcome to one of the oldest con jobs on the books – the lottery or sweepstakes scam.
The Federal Trade Commission says it receives thousands of complaints each year pertaining to free gifts, prize promotions or sweepstakes. Even worse, the FTC estimates that consumers lose thousands of dollars every day to these too-good-to-be-true hoaxes.
How does it work?
Some scam artists notify you that you have won something, but you have to pay taxes or shipping and handling charges in advance to claim your prize.
Others mail you a check with your notification letter, ask you to deposit it, then return a small portion to cover “taxes” or “fees.” By the time you realize the phony check has bounced, it can be too late.
Still others try to persuade you to divulge personal information, such as Social Security or bank account routing numbers.
In this case, the letter from “Prof. R. Isabelle,” vice president of the “Intl. Lotto Commission,” advised Strong to contact his designated overseas agent by phone, fax or email to work out the details of transferring his winnings from a security company in Spain to the “bank account of your choice.”
In order to do that, of course, he would have to reveal his bank routing information to a total stranger – and that’s never a good idea.
Rebecca Branch, deputy director of the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division in the Attorney General’s Office, is no stranger to lottery and sweepstakes scams.
On average, she says, her office receives about one inquiry a week from consumers who have received such a letter or – even worse – were hoodwinked into sending “quite a bit of money” or sensitive financial information.
“I hate to tell people to be suspicious, but unfortunately there are a lot of people out there who want to get into your pocket … No one is going to drop $1 million in your lap,” she told the Journal .
And she says the complaints her office receives are only the tip of the iceberg.
“This is something that’s underreported because people feel embarrassed because they fall for it,” she says. “I’ve seen some sophisticated people fall for these.”
As a general rule, she says, you can’t win something that you haven’t entered. So disregard any phone calls, text messages or emails that suggest your name or email address was entered into a contest and that you were chosen as a winner.
Another red flag is “form letters” that show up in your mailbox sent by bulk mail. The salutation on the letter addressed to Strong, for example, reads: “Attn: Beneficiary.”
And for those who desperately want to believe, Branch says another way to check the legitimacy of these letters is by running key phrases through Google or another online search engine.
A simple Google search for “Intl. Lotto Commission,” for instance, generated more than 56,000 hits, many with the words “fake,” “fraud” or “scam” in the headline.
In Strong’s case, that level of scrutiny wasn’t necessary.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is too good to be true,” he says. “If you know you didn’t enter this lottery, and all of a sudden you are a winner, how can that be?”
Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 505-823-3847 or on Twitter at @nickpapp 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.