St. Louis, Mo., Aug. 19, 2011 – A disabled maintenance worker from Florissant, Mo., said thieves tricked her into giving them $3,000 after they told her she won two multimillion-dollar sweepstakes prizes, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) said.
The woman is among the latest victims of sweepstakes scams that have cheated consumers nationwide out of millions of dollars in recent years, the BBB warns.
Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO, said the tragic case illustrates what can happen when people put too much trust in strangers.
“All of us dream about winning the lottery or a sweepstakes prize,” Corey said. “But in the vast majority of cases, these prize notifications are nothing more than attempts to steal money from unsuspecting consumers.”
In addition to losing $3,000 in the sweepstakes scams, the Florissant woman said she is struggling to pay off a $1,300 cell phone bill – most of that resulting from charges for nearly 100 phone calls from the Jamaica-based thief. During one three-day period in late June the scammer called her 66 times.
The woman, who took early disability retirement two years ago from the University City school district, said she initially ignored calls to her cell and home phones telling her that she was winner of a $7 million sweepstakes.
Eventually, she spoke to a man who convinced her that she had won the prize. Over the next several weeks, the woman sent her mentally disabled daughter to area supermarkets in order to send cash via Western Union wire transfers to Jamaica. The mother said the caller told her the fees included the cost of delivering the prize to her home and payment for a special gold seal required on the prize certificate.
In all, the daughter made 10 separate Western Union cash transfers totaling nearly $2,000. The daughter said none of the clerks at two North County supermarkets warned her that wiring cash to Jamaica might be part of a scam. As the man continued to pressure the mother for more money, she finally decided she was being duped and stopped payments.
Less than a month after the first sweepstakes scam, the mother was contacted again, this time by a man claiming he was from Florida and once again telling her that she had won a multimillion-dollar sweepstakes prize. She said she was skeptical, but the caller convinced her he was legitimate by telling her he worked for Bank of America.
She sent her daughter to the supermarkets three more times, wiring about $1,000 to Florida. On the third visit, the daughter said, a clerk raised concerns about a $600 wire transfer and contacted Western Union. A Western Union representative told the daughter that the latest sweepstakes notification was another scam.
The mother said she had planned to use the prize money to build a modest log cabin in the Lake of the Ozarks area and build housing for orphaned children and the homeless. Now, she said, she finds herself wondering how she will be able to pay her rent, food and medical bills. “This is a hard pill,” she said.
Diane Taylor, Customer Relations Specialist supervisor for the BBB, said the St. Louis office receives between 15 and 20 phone calls a day from people asking about lottery or sweepstakes notifications. Often, the callers cannot believe they are being scammed.
In the past week, a consumer from St. Louis called about an official-looking sweepstakes notification saying she had won a $50,000 prize. The scammer enclosed a bogus check and directed the woman to deposit it in her bank. The scammer typically would then ask that she wire him several hundred dollars in cash. He would then disappear with the money.
A woman from Centralia, Ill., said she recently received what was purportedly a sweepstakes award from Reader’s Digest saying she had won $5.8 million. That mailing also included a bogus check and the thief likely would have asked that the consumer refund a portion of the check through a wire transfer.
The BBB has the following advice to anyone receiving notification of winning a prize:
- Remember that nearly all of these notifications are fraudulent.
- Never send any payment to anyone as a requirement for receiving your prize. Any such request means that the prize notification is bogus.
- Never send a wire transfer to anyone you do not know, or anyone you suspect might be trying to steal your money. Wire transfers are like cash and can’t be recovered.
- If you have any questions about a sweepstakes notification, check with the BBB at www.bbb.org or by calling 314-645-3300.
Contacts: Michelle Corey, President & CEO, 314-584-6800, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Chris Thetford, Vice President-Communications, 314-584-6743 or 314-681-4719 (cell), email@example.com