False Sweepstakes Seek To Swindle Seniors

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A letter arrives in the mail saying you've won more than $50,000 in a national shopping sweepstakes. The only catch: You have to pay nearly $5,000 in prize taxes, using an enclosed cashier's check, before you can receive your winnings.

This scam targeted elderly resident Donald Keplinger, who provided copies of the letter and fraudulent check he received to the Payson Roundup.

Keplinger is one of many senior citizens nationwide targeted by scam artists through letters, e-mails and phone calls.

Scams are common, said Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner. "We've seen all sorts of fraudulent efforts. Senior citizens especially need to be aware that if it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true."

Last year, fake checks and false sweepstakes offerings were the top two telemarketing scams. Among the victims, 32 percent were over the age of 60, according to the nonprofit National Fraud Information Center.

The check Keplinger received bears the logo of the Idaho-based Mountain West Bank.

"We've recently become the victims of a scam where people take real checks, scan them and alter them," said Renee Corrick, fraud investigator for Mountain West Bank. "They create the fake product and send it out using two or three different letters."

Senior citizens and those with lower incomes are targeted, because they need and want money, Corrick said.

Depending on where the check is deposited, it can take up to 24 hours to clear. People aren't notified by the bank that the check is false before they take money out of their accounts and send it to the people who are scamming them, Corrick said.

"Once they send out the check, they're liable for paying it," Corrick said. "A lot of times, they don't have the money."

Sometimes people don't think to question scams that look favorable, said Mike Miller, assistant director of the Payson Senior Center.

"Scams are quite obvious, but the problem is some people are just gullible," Miller said. "They think they can get rich quick."

The same National Shopper's Sweepstakes scam has also used checks with the logo of the Texas-based EDS Credit Union.

"It started happening a little over a month ago," said Damien McCann, a Member Care associate for EDS Credit Union.

Criminals obtained the credit union's routing number, which is a unique nine-digit number at the bottom left-handed corner of a check used to identify financial institutions across the United States, McCann said.

"We've got no idea how anyone got hold of that," McCann said. "Don't cash the check. We advise people to mail it back to the address on the check."

In a legitimate lottery, taxes are removed before the winner receives money, said Cheryl Morales, receptionist at the Arizona Lottery in Phoenix.

"If you win $599 and above, the lottery automatically takes out 25 percent for federal taxes and 5 percent for state taxes," Morales said.

There is no tax for amounts under $599, Morales said.

Another red flag is if the company sending the letter has a foreign address, as it is illegal to participate in a foreign lottery, Corrick said.

In Keplinger's case, the letter is from Ontario, Canada.

"Typically, these letters come through Canadian mail but can be traced back to Nigeria," Corrick said. "If you read the letter, you can tell it is written by someone who is foreign and doesn't have the English language under command."

Keplinger's letter contains improper grammar and missing punctuation. The phone number transfers the caller to a full voicemail.

In addition, the letter instructs the reader to "keep your award from public notice."

Asking for secrecy is another clue that there is a problem, Corrick said.

A search on Google of "National Shopper's Sweepstakes" yielded blog messages that the winnings were spurious.

The Senior Center provides Internet access to search for information about the authenticity of offers you may receive, Miller said.

Local law enforcement cannot do much about scams originating from abroad, except to inform the public that they exist, Gartner said.

"We wouldn't be able to go to Canada to follow up," said Gartner, who noted he receives scams frequently in his e-mail account. "Never give out your date of birth, Social Security number, license number or bank account numbers."

People who receive a questionable check should take it to their local bank and ask the bank to verify the check's authenticity, Corrick said.

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