At first Gig Harbor resident Ellen Earl was delighted to have received in the mail a check for more than $3,200. According to the official-looking letter that accompanied the check, she was the winner of a consumer promotion sweepstakes draw from selected retail stores in the United States and Britain.
“For 30 seconds, I was really excited,” she said at the prospect of receiving unanticipated funds right before Christmas.
After the initial joy had worn off, Earl thought the whole episode was too good to be true. She noticed there was no return address on the envelope, and the fact that the letter indicated the drawing had taken place in the United Kingdom made her suspicious.
According to the letter, Earl was entitled to a guaranteed sum of $750,000 in the form of a certified check, with the enclosed check of more than $3,200 the amount deducted from the prize in order to pay a tax payment of nearly $2,000 for nonresidents of the United Kingdom. The letter further indicated Earl was to make the tax payment via Western Union or Money Gram.
It turns out she was right to be wary of her supposed good fortune. Had she actually deposited the money into her account and then wired the tax payment, the check would have bounced shortly thereafter, leaving her out of all the money she sent and perhaps held liable by her bank for cashing a fraudulent check.
Earl had seen this scam before while working as a cashier, and she recognized the warning signs of a sweepstakes scam. She detailed how the scam works: The check sent to the mark includes legitimate account and routing numbers from the company supposedly issuing the check, but the actual check number itself is an advanced number.
Because of the real account and routing numbers, the bank doesn’t immediately pick up on the fact the check isn’t genuine, Earl said, noting that by the time the bank processes the check and discovers what happened, the scammers “have folded up and left.”
“This is a really good hook,” Earl said of a set up that uses real accounting and routing numbers and is made even more plausible by the fact that the letter issued with the check mentions select stories that many people are likely to have shopped at recently, including Safeway, Staples, Wal-Mart and Walgreens.
People can avoid being a sweepstakes scam victim by watching out for the following signs: a large check arriving without an affidavit; claims to be a win from an international lottery, which would generally be illegal unless a ticket was bought in Canada; there’s a rush to reply; and you’re asked to pay taxes, which should always go directly to the Internal Revenue Service at the end of the year. When real wins cover taxes, the money is just included in the winnings.
Perhaps the biggest tip off to the scam is the request to use wire services to receive the illicit funds, because it is nearly impossible to trace who received the money. Such transfers are handled like cash, and it is nearly impossible to get back any money sent to con artists in this way.
Earl said she was concerned about people falling for this scam.
“It could really ruin somebody’s Christmas,” she said.
She reported the incident to the Gig Harbor Police Department.
“The police said they’d had a couple of people walk in about it,” she said.
Like a lot of people, particularly at this time of year, she said the unexpected windfall would have come in handy.
“I wish it was legitimate,” she said with a laugh.
Reporter Brett Davis can be reached at 253-358-4151 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gateway_brett.