Phony lotteries continue to be a jackpot for scammers, ranking as the eighth most prevalent type of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission — some 42,000 complaints in 2009. Many of the cons claim you've won faraway contests such as the Irish National Lottery.
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But savvy swindlers have turned their attention to state lotteries. You get a bogus notification that you've won one. It's all part of a trick to part you with your money or personal information.
The latest variation, discovered in late August, was an e-mail claiming recipients had struck it rich with the Delaware Lottery through a "computer ballot system." It followed similar sham notifications concerning state lotteries in South Dakota, Colorado, New York, Minnesota and elsewhere.
Congratulations are not in order
No matter what the impersonated state, the ploy is the same: By e-mail, phone call or letter, you get a notice of congratulations promising a big payoff, complete with instructions to contact a named "claims agent" for more information. E-mails and letters can look legit because they usually have an exact replica of the lottery logo or state seal. Some list the actual address of the state lottery commission.
If you call that so-called claims agent — usually via a toll-free number that may connect to somewhere outside the United States — you are prompted to "verify" your identity by revealing personal info such as your Social Security or bank account number. Or you're told you need to pay fees to cover taxes, insurance or other costs before receiving your prize.
If the con arrives by letter, it usually contains a check described as partial payment, with instructions that you should deposit it and use a portion to forward the fees, typically several thousand dollars.
Why the crooks win
Either way, the prize goes to the crooks: Revealing sensitive information opens the door to identity theft. And when the deposited check proves to be counterfeit, which can take a week or longer for your bank to discover, you are responsible for any money you withdrew and sent to the scammers.
With continued belt-tightening, people can expect this con to continue. "As consumers struggle with hard times caused by the economic downturn, they may be even more tempted to respond to false announcements they receive informing them that they have won a lottery," said New York Gov. David A. Paterson. His statement was prompted by reports that New Yorkers were being bombarded with telephone, fax, e-mail and mobile text messages about phony lottery winnings.
Here's what you need to know about state lottery scams:
- If you didn't buy a lottery ticket from an authorized vendor, you didn't win, plain and simple.
- No legitimate lottery will ever contact you with news of a win; it's your responsibility to step forward with the winning ticket in hand.
- You never have to pay upfront fees of any kind to claim a legitimate state lottery payout.
- Never believe claims of a guaranteed prize. Legitimate lotteries make no guarantees of winning.
- Be suspicious of anyone who approaches you offering to sell what's described as a winning lottery ticket. Often the excuse is that the person is in this country illegally and doesn't dare redeem it personally. It's all a lie, of course. This ruse is especially common in Florida and has claimed many older victims.
- Check winning numbers with your state lottery website or through media reports.
- Be alert to shady retailers who pilfer winning tickets brought in for redemption. They scan the ticket, claim you didn't win (or got just a small amount) and then pocket the ticket. You can protect against this by immediately signing your name to the ticket when you buy it, meaning the retailer can't sign it.
- If you have the good luck to hold a ticket with a big payout, don't go to the retailer — notify the state lottery office.
- If you wonder about a lottery notification, go to the website of the nonprofit group Fraud Aid to check its list of known phony lottery games. New ones are always emerging, but if your alleged jackpot is from one on the list, you can be sure it's a scam. Report suspicious winning notifications to your state lottery office and attorney general.
Also of interest: Sweepstakes "winners" become big losers. >>
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.