Robb Hicken: Sweepstakes scams persist because people keep falling for them

Better Business BureauApril 3, 2014 

April Howard looks after her clients as she would her personal friends. As a partner in Craig-Howard Insurance in Boise, Howard is quick to shield clients from unsavory business dealings.

Most recently, a client came in with an official-looking document, bearing an official-looking seal, identifying the client by name and stating she was eligible for $1.9 million. She needed to sign a certificate and enclose a $19.99 attendant fee.

"She wanted to know if it was for real, and I told her, 'You don't want to answer those things,' " Howard said. "This is being sent out to a lot of seniors in our area, and I'm concerned."

It's one of the most common scams reported to Better Business Bureau. A letter in the mail tells you that you've won a sweepstakes. All you have to do is send in a payment. After you do, you never hear back, because there really is no sweepstakes.

If even 1 percent of the people respond, the con artist makes money.

A federal court shut down a major sweepstakes scam in California. The scam had sent 3.7 million letters since 2009 and took in more than $11 million from people in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Japan and many other countries - 156 countries in the first half of 2013.

Howard says she tells her clients to watch the 2013 movie "Nebraska." In the movie, a character named Woody Grant is convinced that he must travel to Lincoln, Neb., to claim his prize after responding to a million-dollar sweepstakes pitch. After a string of unfortunate events, he and his son, David, eventually check in with the marketing agency, where an employee informs him that he did not win. He gets a consolation prize: a ball cap that reads "Prize Winner."

Too often, these pitches end with broken hopes. This past week, BBB received five letters from the Prize Documenting Center of America, the Notice of Payment Main Office and the Prize Data Release. We've also received letters from Wynfel Advisory Services, Specific Monitoring Service, Universal Information Services, American United Sweepstakes and about 20 more.

If you think you might have won a sweepstakes, BBB advises:

• Don't expect to win a contest you never entered. You can win a sweepstakes only if you enter. If you have entered a sweepstakes, keep track of what you entered.

• Don't get tricked by "official-looking" material. Scammers commonly use seals, official-sounding names and terms to imply affiliation with or endorsement by a government entity.

• A true sweepstakes will not make its winner pay fees. If you are asked to mail or wire money to pay fees or taxes, you're looking at a scam. Legitimate prizes do not come with processing fees, and taxes are paid directly to the Internal Revenue Service after winnings are collected.

• Never agree to deposit a check and send part of its amount to someone else. This is a well-known scam. No matter how legitimate the check might seem to be, no matter what story or reasonable-sounding explanation you are given, you will get burned. A bank teller might accept the check, but when it turns out to be fake, you will have to reimburse the bank.

And finally, read the fine print. Legal sweepstakes will list the odds of winning, as required by law.

Robb Hicken: 947-2115

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