By now, most people who use e-mail on a regular basis are quite familiar with the word "spam" and what it looks like in their e-mail "in-box." If it wasn't frustrating enough to sort through and fill your trash with junk (postal) mail every day or answer unsolicited telemarketing calls during the dinner hour, now these nuisances and fraudulent schemes have found a new way into our homes and offices through e-mail.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), consumers in the United States and other countries lose billions of dollars each year to telemarketers, spam e-mailers and misleading advertisements that entice consumers into phony prize promotions, illegal foreign lottery schemes and other lottery-related fraud.
Individuals involved in the sale and trafficking in foreign lotteries, unwanted telemarketing calls and--under the new federal government CAN-SPAM Act, which took effect Jan. 1, 2004--unsolicited commercial e-mail, or "spam," can now be prosecuted in the U.S. But that doesn't mean it's non-existent. When it comes to fraud, being an informed consumer is the best way to protect yourself. Here are some examples of lottery-related fraud schemes that have been used in the United States in the past year:
- Recently, the New Mexico Lottery reported that con artists using the Powerball® name were caught sending phony e-mails across the country and around the world, telling recipients they had won a lottery prize and trying to get personal information in return. The e-mails claimed that the recipient had won a prize in Powerball, Australian Powerball, or some other non-existent international version of Powerball. The e-mails included the Powerball name, logo and links to a copy of an old Powerball Web page. One version of the e-mails sent requested a reply, another asked for $75 to process the Powerball prize, and a third included a form asking for bank information and "next-of-kin" information, which can turn up a mother's maiden name in a percentage of cases. According to the US Department of Justice, "if someone you don't know calls you on the telephone and offers you the chance to receive a "major" credit card, a prize, or other valuable item, but asks you for personal data -- such as your Social Security number, credit card number or expiration date, or mother's maiden name -- ask them to send you a written application form."
- In papers filed in a federal district court in Seattle, the FTC alleged that telemarketers operating out of Vancouver, British Columbia, were targeting elderly citizens in the United States. Consumers were called and told that they had won the Australian lottery, but to claim their winnings, they would have to pay certain fees. Consumers who sent money received nothing. The telemarketers solicited thousands of dollars in cashier's checks and bank drafts, claiming that these payments would secure winnings of several million dollars for each consumer.
- Kentucky residents reported receiving calls and mail with messages like the one below:
Congratulations! You may receive a certified check for up to $400,000 in U.S. cash! One lump sum! Tax free! Your odds to win are 1 in 6. Hundreds of U.S. citizens win every week using our secret system! You can win as much as you want!
Most believe that they can spot fraud if it was in front of them. Yet, individuals committing these crimes are finding more and more clever ways to hook consumers-- especially those that are naïve or elderly.
So how do you know if you have received a legitimate correspondence from the Missouri Lottery?
First, to claim a Missouri Lottery prize, you will never be required to send any money or give personal information by e-mail, the phone or any other means in an effort to collect promised winnings.
"Missouri Lottery game prizes are paid only after a player presents a winning ticket for validation at Lottery headquarters or at one of our licensed retailers statewide," said Gary Gonder, director of communications for the Lottery.
There are only two reasons that the Missouri Lottery may require some personal contact information from a player. The first is to complete claim form information in person or by mail in order to process a prize. (This information is never collected over the phone.) The other is to validate a winner's identity if the winner has entered on-line. To enter any Missouri Lottery promotion on-line via the Lottery's Web site, www. molottery.com, players are required to create a My Lottery account and provide some personal contact information so the winner can be contacted and his or her identity can be validated for prize redemption.
"The Missouri Lottery does not sell, trade or otherwise distribute this information to any third party," reminded Gonder. "Players will never be asked to submit private information on-line such as Social Security numbers, banking account information or family data.
"Many times, the Lottery will contact individuals by e-mail to let them know they were drawn as a promotion winner and how to contact us for prize redemption because it can be the quickest way to communicate to some of our players," continued Gonder. "But until an entry ticket is physically presented and validated, no prize is guaranteed to that player."
In a few instances each year, a Lottery representative may contact a grand-prize promotion winner by telephone to tell him or her the good news and to interview them for a story. At that time, however, winners are not required to provide vital information such as Social Security numbers or banking information. The call is always followed up with a letter.
"Since many players often don't believe me when I tell them their entry was drawn as a winner, I often will have them call me back using the Lottery's main number, which can be found on our Web site for verification," said Susan Goedde, media manager for the Missouri Lottery.
Last year, the FTC launched a new Web site, www.ftc.gov/crossborder, to help consumers spot, stop and avoid cross-border fraud. It contains information on recent FTC law enforcement actions against cross-border scam artists, as well as FTC coordination with law enforcement agencies in other countries to combat this multi-billion dollar problem.
Missourians who receive unwanted telemarketing calls and unsolicited mail or spam e-mail should contact the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-392-8222 or visit their Web site at: http://www.ago.mo.gov/index.htm. Once there, you can reduce unwanted telemarketing calls made to your home by signing up for the No Call list, learn more about the new federal CAN-SPAM Act and/or file a complaint against e-mail spammers.
Lance Ross & Nadine Guillén, New Mexico Lottery
Federal Trade Commission, Office of Public Affairs
Better Business Bureau serving Louisville, Southern Indiana and Western Kentucky, and the Kentucky Lottery