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Scam Alert

New Spins on Lottery Wins

Lottery scams are consistently a jackpot for crooks, and their success often comes at the expense of older Americans on fixed incomes.

Last year the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received more than 550,000 complaints about fraud—38 percent of them from people 50 or older—with more than 32,000 complaints specifically about lottery or sweepstakes fraud.

Foreign lottery scams, long a bread-and-butter ruse for cons, typically begin with a letter informing recipients they’ve won a jackpot in a faraway country they’ve never visited. Although the U.S. Postal Inspection Service has intercepted and destroyed millions of these bogus letters, others get through the U.S. mail, bilking victims of some $120 million a year.

How? Typically, “lucky winners” receive a partial-payment check—usually for a few thousand dollars—with instructions to wire back a portion of the advance to pay for insurance, processing fees or other expenses. Once the fees are paid, the story goes, the balance of the jackpot will be disbursed.

That check inevitably proves to be counterfeit, but it can takes weeks for the bank to discover the fraud. Then, any money wired (or otherwise drawn on the check after depositing it) must be repaid to the bank.

Umpteen phony foreign lotteries continue to thrive, including the nonexistent El Gordo Spanish Lotto and Australian Jackpot. Meanwhile, new spins on this old scam have emerged, often using the Internet and telephone to troll for victims. Easily accessible e-mail address lists and telephone directories allow scammers to reach more potential victims without postage costs.

“We continue to see various pitches made, and the public should be wary of any of these schemes,” says FBI spokesman Paul Bresson. “A lot of these e-mails and letters are mass-produced and sent to a large number of people. For the bad guys to be successful, fewer than 1 percent of recipients need to reply.”

Some new schemes:

Bogus state lotteries. Knowing that many Americans have gotten wise to foreign lottery lies, some scammers now pretend to be from more trusted state lotteries. This year, officials say, residents of several states, including Minnesota, Oklahoma and Tennessee, have received e-mails, telephone calls and letters falsely claiming they won Powerball or other state-run games. But the “winners” were instructed to pay fees to get their prize—which is never required in legitimate state lotteries.

Your defense: Realize that to claim a real prize, it’s your responsibility to notify the state lottery commission, with the winning ticket in hand. You won’t be contacted if you ever win a legitimate lottery. For a list of state lottery websites, visit

Uncle Sam shams. In another ruse that’s been popular lately, e-mails allegedly sent by federal agencies such as the FBI, IRS and FTC imply those agencies act as middlemen in awarding lotteries. They don’t. What’s really dangerous, the FBI reports, is that scammers not only are falsely using the bureau’s name, but are circulating a dangerous computer virus that can steal your personal data.

Your defense: Delete, without opening, any e-mail from any federal agency—about lottery winnings or anything else. Uncle Sam does not contact citizens via the Internet. Another telltale sign: Notice the misspellings and “scammer grammar” in those fake letters and e-mails, or thick accents in phone calls. These schemes are often the work of foreigners whose command of English is weak.

The “cash and con” scam. Not all lottery scams arrive via letter, telephone calls or e-mail: Some crooks prefer personal contact. Victims in Florida, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere recently have reported being approached on the street by strangers who claimed to hold winning state lottery tickets they couldn’t redeem. (The most common excuse: The ticket holder was in the United States illegally.)

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