St. Louis, Mo., Nov. 6, 2009 - When the Saint Louis Science Center received a letter claiming that someone there had won $85,000 in the Super 7 Canadian lottery, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the mailing was a scam.
Not only was the notice sent to 5050 Oakland Avenue, the Science Center’s address, but museum personnel took note of the name of the supposed winner printed on the outside of the envelope: John Doe.
“The red flags went up immediately,” said Tom Jaskiewicz, chief financial officer of the Science Center, who instructed that his staff contact the Better Business Bureau (BBB) about the mailing.
“We thought, 'This is awful, absolutely ridiculous,'” Jaskiewicz said. “Obviously, we caught this, but older folks who get something like this at their homes may think, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is legitimate.’ We don’t want that to happen.”
Nearly every day, the BBB receives inquiries about similar schemes in which consumers are targeted in lottery or other fake check scams.
Typically, a consumer receives notice that he or she has unclaimed money or lottery winnings. Often, the mailing is accompanied by an official-looking check. The notice instructs the recipient to send a wire transfer, sometimes for thousands of dollars, to cover taxes and handling fees.
By the time the recipient learns the mailing is a scam and the check a fake, his or her money is long gone.
In the case of the Science Center lottery notice, the mailer sent “John Doe” a bogus check for $4,885 (a portion of his “winnings”) and asked him to send a MoneyGram or Western Union cash transfer to Canada to cover “applicable government taxes” on the winnings.
When a BBB investigator called a phone number in the letter, a recording responded, “Sorry, there’s no more room to record new messages.”
Michelle L. Corey, president and CEO of the BBB, said that advances in printing technology have made it difficult to tell the difference between real and fake checks. If the recipient of a mailed check is asked to return a portion of the money via some form of wire transfer, the notice is almost certainly a scam, she said.
“It can be practically impossible to tell a fake check from a real one using only the naked eye, because fake checks can be printed in full color and even include watermarks,” Corey said.
The Consumer Federation of America estimates that a third of all adults have been approached by a thief trying to pass off fake checks or money orders. At least 1.3 million people have been victimized by the scams, losing an average of $3,000 to $4,000 each.
Corey said many of the schemes are the work of thieves operating in Canada, Jamaica or Africa, which makes it difficult for law enforcement to track them down.
The same day the BBB learned of the bogus lottery mailing to the Science Center, a Florissant woman reported that she had received notice that she had won $65,000 in a “Readers Digest Sweepstake.” In addition to a letter informing her of her good fortune, she received a genuine-looking check for $3,055. All she had to do to claim her winnings was send payment, in the same $3,055 amount, to an address in Quebec.
The woman said she initially was excited at the prospect of the windfall. “I thought it could be. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.” Still, she said, she decided to contact the BBB who warned her against following up on the notice.
The BBB received a copy of yet a third fake check last week – this one sent to a consumer in Collinsville, Ill. —as part of a bogus “mystery shopper” job. That check was for nearly $4,000 and the offer asked that the consumer send MoneyGrams totaling more than $3,000 to an address in London, England.
In addition to lottery and mystery shopper scams, consumers also are victimized by so-called “overpayment scams.” In those cases, consumers selling items through a newspaper classified ad or an online site like Craigslist are contacted by “buyers” who ask to pay by check. But when the buyers send checks for more than the agreed-upon purchase price, they ask that the sellers wire back the amount of the overpayment. The original check, of course, is fake and the consumers are out their money and, potentially, the item they had advertised for sale.
The BBB says there are several warning signs of fake check scams and tips for avoiding being taken in:
- You’re told you won a lottery or received a grant you didn’t apply for. If the lottery is from another country, it’s illegal for a U. S. citizen to receive any money.
- The name on the check does not match the name of the company or individual you are supposedly dealing with.
- You’re given instructions to deposit a check into your account and then asked to promptly wire part of those funds back to the sender or another specified company or contact.
- Don’t be fooled by a phone call. Just because you’ve spoken to someone over the phone, does not mean they are legitimate. Scammers also routinely use e-mail to communicate with victims.
- If you have additional questions, please check out the BBB’s Web site at www.bbb.org or call 314-645-3300.
The following is just one example of the fake checks consumers have received in the mail.
Contacts: Michelle Corey, President & CEO, 314-645-3300, firstname.lastname@example.org or Bill Smith, Trade Practice Investigator, 314-645-3300, email@example.com