Listen to me:
You have not won a sweepstakes that you can claim by mailing in a "processing fee."
Anybody who asks you to send in a processing fee to win a prize is lying to you.
They have your name on a "sucker" list. They sell your name and address to one another. They want to take your money. They do not care whether you are elderly, or poor, or naive, or can't buy your pills.
Let me tell you about Ruth.
Ruth is 85. She is the mother of a woman I know in St. Petersburg. I am not using her last name, mostly so as not to embarrass her, but also so no more crooks get it.
Sitting on my desk is a large cardboard box filled with sweepstakes solicitations taken from Ruth's home by her daughter. There are dozens of letters, hundreds of pages, representing only about an 18-day period.
In a single month's time, Ruth wrote about $4,000 in checks to these companies, as best as her daughter can figure. Most of the checks were for processing fees in amounts of $20 or less. A few asked for $29.99.
On Oct. 1, she wrote 16 checks. On Oct. 3, eight. The next day, four more. Five on Oct. 5, 10 on Oct. 7, three on Oct. 8, 14 on Oct. 9. Two on the 10th and the 11th.
Ruth's husband is still alive. But he cannot stop her.
Her daughter sent me photographs of Ruth's house. The furniture and kitchen counters were covered with envelopes. The overflow spilled onto the floor.
There are letters of every shape, color and variety. There is no limit to the ingenuine and shameless attempts to addle and confuse elderly readers.
"Ruth, I'm Really Surprised," one letter proclaims in large type. "Why Haven't You Requested the $6,500 Cash Prize?"
One letter has a large headline saying she has won the Florida Lottery. Another is titled "Notice of Intention to Transfer Funds."
There are lots of stamps, seals and government-looking documents. "Pursuant to Directive 347," one letter begins, "you are formally notified of a document prepared for you in accordance with our internal reporting procedures for the specific purpose of facilitating your access to sums in excess of $1 MILLION DOLLARS."
Is this kind of fraud illegal? You bet.
The Florida Attorney General's Office offers these tips:
Beware of "shipping and handling charges" or "processing fees." If you have to pay to win a contest, it's a scam.
Be suspicious of official-looking documents. Legitimate sweepstakes companies do not mislead you about who they are.
Do not be rushed into meeting a phony "deadline."
Do not give anybody your credit card number. If a company wants your credit card number "for verification" or to "secure your prize," there is an excellent chance somebody is trying to cheat you.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service also offers advice for the families of potential victims. When you visit their homes, look for stacks of sweepstakes mail. Volunteer to help balance checkbooks, then ask about questionable withdrawals. Offer to go over credit card statements.
If you receive something in the mail that you suspect is fraudulent, forward it to the Postal Inspection Service. Either take the letter to a post office and ask that it be delivered interoffice to the service or mail it directly to: Postal Inspector, P.O. Box 22526, Tampa FL 33622. Mark the envelope "possible fraud." You also can find the inspector's service online at www.usps.com/postalinspectors The Attorney General's Office has a toll-free consumer fraud hotline, 1-866-966-7226. You also can contact the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services by calling 1-800-435-7352 or visiting www.800helpfla.com And you can call the National Fraud Information Center at 1-800-876-7060. As I read Ruth's avalanche of mail, I got madder and madder at the people who took advantage of her. Yes, the victim is partly at fault; she's the one who wrote the checks. But once they got her on their list, they played her for every penny.
Remember: When you get an offer that sounds too good to be true - it's not true.