Foreign Lotteries: The Contest You Can’t Win

Reta is a feisty, fit, fun-loving 82-year-old who three years ago received a call that changed her life.

The caller told Reta she’d won a big sweepstakes, and would soon be receiving two new cars. All she had to do was send cash to cover taxes and handling fees. Reta complied, then waited.

Several weeks later, another call: after one more small fee, her cars would be arriving. Anticipating the photographers she was told would be there, she went to the salon and had her hair and makeup done. She dressed in a new outfit and even had a professional photo of her own taken to remember the day.

As you may have guessed, the cars never came. But what did was more calls promising prizes. Hundreds of them – sometimes dozens in a single day.

Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson was with U.S. Postal Inspection Service agents as they visited Reta’s home. He witnessed the calls and even spoke with a caller. The following video tells part of the story. Check it out, then read on for more. 

How it happens

According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service spokesperson we interviewed, Americans lost $42 million to foreign lottery scams from 2010 to 2012.

The Federal Trade Commission received more than 2 million consumer complaints in 2012, 52 percent involving fraud of some sort.

Con artists target people like Reta – trusting, alone, and elderly. Packaged as lotteries, sweepstakes, cash prizes, or charity giveaways, the scams have one thing in common: money up front to cover taxes, costs, or other expenses.

Fall for it once, and you’ll have an endless stream of mail and calls – not just from the original crooks, but dozens more who bought your name.

How to prevent it

As in Reta’s case, victims are often too embarrassed to report rip-offs or ask for help. Friends and family are often the first to notice something’s wrong. Signs to watch for:

  • Mentioning a lottery or sweepstakes
  • Strange phone calls, especially out-of-country calls
  • Requests to send money
  • Unusual secrecy
  • Lots of mail

To date, Reta has lost tens of thousands of dollars – in December she sent $15,000 in cash to Jamaica in just one envelope. And the phone never stops ringing. In the hour we were there, she got three calls from different people, including two after a postal inspector answered and told them the phone was tapped and never to call again.

Reta said she’s had up to 65 calls in one day. And she gets so much mail, the post office has to deliver twice daily.

When she began entering contests and paid the “prize fee” with a check or credit card, the scammers got her bank account and credit card information. When she changed her phone number, they sent mail tricking her into revealing the new one.

Friends and law enforcement agents are trying to help her, but the thieves are both clever and relentless. They’ve even called claiming to be federal agents, saying they’d found some of her money, but she needed to send one more envelope stuffed with cash so they could trace it.

The United States Postal Inspection Service, FBI, FTC , the Jamaican government, and other state and local law enforcement agencies have been working together to stop this kind of fraud against Americans. There have been arrests, but the process of bringing the scammers to justice is difficult.

In addition to believing the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” here are some FTC tips to avoid becoming a victim:

  • Don’t send money to someone you don’t know, and don’t ever send cash.
  • Don’t agree to deposit a check and wire money back.
  • Don’t reply to messages asking for personal or financial information.
  • Don’t play a foreign lottery.

Remember, you can’t win a contest you didn’t enter. And playing a lottery in a foreign country is illegal for U.S. citizens.

While the most vulnerable are the obvious targets, anyone, any age, from any walk of life can fall for a scam. If you suspect you or someone you love is a victim, contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and file a complaint. You can also contact the FTC or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

Have you been victimized by a scam or know someone who has? Share your experiences on our Facebook page.

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