Seniors and others Beware, Watch out for the dream predators
|Joy Wyatt holds the letter that came to her house announcing the winnings she supposedly won in a scam contest. Wisely, she contacted her financial institution as well as the county sheriff's office about the offer. They found it to be completely fraudulent.|
When the white, windowed envelope with no return address arrived at Joy Wyatt's Wellington home she was surprised; especially when she could see that there was a check inside.
When she opened it, she was even more surprised. There was a letter from a company called Lottoworld International that claimed Wyatt's entry into a contest had "emerged as a winning ticket and consequently won in the third category" in the amount of $88,000. But as she looked at the check inside the envelope it was only for $2715.09.
The letter went on to explain that the enclosed check was for a "tax and clearance fee" and asked that she put it in her bank account. Then it asked her to remit that amount to the companies "North American agent" at which time she would receive the amount of $80,960 (because $7,040 would be kept as a "sponsors commission") based on a certificate she would receive in the mail.
The letter also told her that she should basically keep quiet to all parties about these winnings to "avoid unauthorized organizations" or individuals from contacting her.
The check looked valid to Wyatt and her husband. It was drawn on an account that was labeled the "Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy" in San Francisco. When they looked on the internet, that organization was worth more than a billion dollars.
She then took it to her credit union where a friend of hers that worked there told her, after checking that the funds were there to cover the check, that something just didn't seem right about it. She then brought it to the national bank on which the funds were drawn and they said it looked legitimate, but then they started to check on the account. Soon she was seated in front of the bank manager who told her that the check was not legal and that they would have to seize the check and could not return it to her.
After so much excitement, it was definitely a let down. But she asked, how could a check that had the funds to cover it be not legal?
"She came to us with this and we started to investigate the situation," said Carbon County Sheriff James Cordova. "It turns out that it was a scam and a very good one."
Almost everyone has heard of scams that take peoples money by stealing their identity or by sending them a check and then asking the person to deposit it and send a portion of it back to process the rest of the money they were promised. But in most cases in the past these checks were from an international bank in a place like Nigeria. And when people investigated, there was either no account that existed with that name or number or the bank didn't even exist. But in this situation, and in more and more cases, the scam checks are drawn on U.S. banks and have real funds backing them. The only problem is that the checks, despite having all the right numbers and even water marks on them, drawn on well know bank clients, aren't what they seem to be. They are not real.
"I was suspicious from the beginning," said Wyatt. "Not long ago someone in my family from out of state was taken for thousands of dollars through a check they deposited in their account much like this one and then the thieves got a hold of their information and drained their bank account."
But despite that experience in the family, Wyatt and her husband were still tempted.
"Imagine someone who was living hand to mouth, from paycheck to paycheck getting one of these," she said of what would be a seeming godsend to someone like that. "They would lose all they had to these people."
The scam that Wyatt wisely avoided by taking the advice of people she trusted is just one of many that anyone who gets mail seems to face nowadays. Hundreds of false companies like these exist with names like U.S. Lotto Alliance, NorthWabash Venture, LLC, Northern Trust Incorporated and many more to take people's money and return nothing except misery. These scam artists work hard to find people who just want that "break" in life that will give them all the things they have ever wanted. They go after people at all income levels, but often work particularly on people who have fixed incomes, but might have some money in the bank, particularly seniors.
"This is just one of many of the scams we see all the time," said Cordova. "Unfortunately, we usually don't see them in this type of time frame that the Wyatt's were involved in. Mostly we see them after the money is gone."
And Cordova also said that often he only hears about the scams from third parties who tell him about someone in the county who lost money but didn't report it.
"Most people are so embarrassed they just take the loss," he said. "They have been violated and feel like they have been stupid. But without these being reported not much can be done."
The red flags of a contest scam
Ask yourself these questions.
Did you enter a contest lately?
Is the offer for the contest winning coming from outside the country?
Do you have to send money to them, before they send money to you?
Do they ask you to deposit a check for them and then ask you to send part of it back to them.
Do the documents that accompany the check say that you should keep the winnings totally confidential or you may lose them?
Finally, if it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is.
And even at what can be done with many of the scam artists even if they are reported is limited. Most of these companies exist outside the country. In Wyatt's case the letter came from British Columbia. In other cases they come from the Bahamas, Jamaica and many other locations outside the United States. The Nigerian connection seems to be the one people know about, but these offers can emanate from any country. There is little local or even federal authorities can do once it has happened. So the best medicine is prevention.
"I know it is an old adage, but if it is too good to be true, don't believe it," said Cordova.
Probably the biggest red flag that people should see if they get such a letter is that lotteries and sweepstakes that originate outside the United States are illegal in this country. Therefore, there can be no legal payoff on any such contest.
Bank officials are always on the look out for these kinds of situations too. Some of the scams are just simple letters with an account or a special attorney that the "winner" should contact for the winnings once they have sent the "taxes" or "process fees." Some documentation actually has disclaimers on it how they are committed to protect people's privacy.
"The techniques they are using are becoming more and more sophisticated," said Errol Holt of Zions Bank in Price. "The sad thing is that even people who are not desperate for money get caught up in these schemes. I had one guy in my office not long ago who would give up the fraudulent check he had to me, even though it wasn't much compared to his total worth. The people who set these schemes up are dream predators. Free money is a dream many people have."
Some letters actually tell recipients of the letters that they should just deposit the check and not tell anyone where it came from, even the bank.
"The checks often have legitimate account numbers and routing numbers as well," said Angela Davis of the Price branch of Wells Fargo Bank. "Many are now asking people to wire back the money so their claims can be processed faster. People come in here with these documents and when it has to do with a contest we often ask them if they have entered one lately. Most say they can't remember entering. That is one of the red flags on these situations."
Davis said that she has seen people come through the bank with payments from scam artists that are so wrapped up in the fact that they won, that they don't want to believe it isn't real. They often are very vague about where the check came from.
"If someone deposits a check and it doesn't clear because the funds aren't there or the check is not real, they will be back charged for that money," she says. "It's pretty hard to see someone in here trying to refinance their house to pay back a scam debt they got caught up in."
In some cases, if caught quickly, even actions to remit money to the scam artists can be reversed. But even that has repercussions.
"I had a young man come in with a check and the documents one day and I started talking with him about it," stated Holt. "He told me that he had already wired money to them that morning and was just bringing the check in to deposit it. I worked with him and the place from where he had wired the money and we got it reversed. A few days later he started getting emails from the scammers who said that if he didn't send them the money they were going to sue him for it, since the wires had been reversed. The whole thing really scared him."
The Federal Trade Commission has a list of scams on its website so long it is hard to read about them all. Last spring they issued a list of scams called the "Dirty Dozen" or the ones people are most likely to fall for that come through the mail. They included classifications such as business opportunities, bulk emailers, chain letters, work at home schemes, health and diet scams, get rich quick schemes, free goods or services, investment opportunities, cable descrambler kits, guaranteed loans or credit on easy terms, credit repair schemes and vacation prize promotions. But probably one of the most devious of all scams has recently arrived and it scams a person because they are just seeking information. It works like this.
An email, letter or even voice mail arrives and the recipient may be told one of many stories. One of the first ways this was used was to tell people on their voice mail that someone in the family is sick or something has happened to them and it leaves a number they should call to check on them. Now however the messages are different. Letters may offer information about an interest a person has and tell them that they can get more information by calling a toll free number. It is called the "809 " phone scam because that is one of the many prefixes that will get someone who calls into financial trouble.
The prefixes such as 809, 284, 876 and others are not toll free numbers, but charge numbers, much like 900 numbers, except they are not regulated like 900 numbers because they are numbers that go outside the United States. When people want to place most calls outside of the U.S. they must dial 011, but these numbers go to places like the Dominican Republic, the British Virgin Islands, Jamaica and other places without dialing the 011. The problem is, unlike in the U.S. where pay toll numbers like 900 are regulated by what they can charge per minute and must have warnings about charges, these places have no regulations. That means there is no warning that there is a charge being assessed and the longer a person is on the line (which the agent on the other end is trained to prolong as long as possible) the more money the person who is calling must pay when the phone bill arrives. Some people have racked up thousands of dollars in charges without knowing it. And there is literally no way to avoid paying the charges when the bill arrives in the mail, because the caller initiated the call.
Scams are everywhere and can be relayed to potential marks in many different ways. The best thing to do is to be skeptical about anything that may not make complete sense.
"In one instance I had a retired lawyer come in and tell me he thought he had made a mistake because he got caught up in one of these," stated Holt. "This just doesn't happen to poor people, or uneducated people. It can happen to anyone."
Wyatt feels good about what she has done and about coming forward.
"I just think this needs to be out in the open," she said." When I got this something kept telling me it was wrong. At one point during this whole thing I was told by someone that I was just a nobody and that we couldn't do anything about it. But if nobody does anything, because they think they are a nobody, it will continue. A tiny little rock can make some pretty good ripples in a big pond."