Hello. This is the Washington DC Office of Consumer Affairs calling to inform you that youve won the second place prize in the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes! Call us toll free at 1-877-271-XXXX to find out how to claim your $450,000 prize.
So began the phone message received by Mr. L.M. Kent, of Ohio. Mr. Kent listened as Stacy Phillips calmly explained that Mr. Kent would need to pay only $850.00 for insurance on his winnings.
They sounded very professional, said Kent. I wasnt sure what to believe, but they took the time to answer my questions and return my calls. They even said that the $850.00 insurance payment would be refunded by Publishers Clearing House.
After Mr. Kent contacted ConsumerAffairs.com, I called the toll-free number and posed as a relative of Mr. Kent.
Consumer Affairs, may I help you? responded the voice on the other end of the line. I was transferred to Stacy and she assured me that, Mr. Kent was sent three notices directly from Publishers Clearing House. When he didnt respond, PCH hired us to award the prize.
I was informed that the offer was only good for another 48 hours. To claim the prize, the check would be hand-delivered by a "federal agent." But Mr. Kent would first have to pay the $850.00 before receiving the check.
PCH is not a darling of consumer activists and has its own string of run-ins with the law, most recently a warning from the Iowa attorney general who accused the company of targeting seniors with misleading sweepstakes promotions.
But the company responded quickly to the news that someone was turning the tables and using the PCH name to scam consumers.
If you are contacted by anyone claiming to represent Publishers Clearing House and they request payment of any amount to collect a prize, do not send any money, said Christopher L. Irving, the Senior Director of Consumer Affairs for Publishers Clearing House. You have not heard from the real Publishers Clearing House.
Furthermore, the District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs commented, "These crooks attempt to add legitimacy to their sweepstakes con by using the names, telephone numbers, and addresses of real government agencies," said Bob Harris, Manager of the D.C. Office of Consumer Protection.
"They ask consumers to cover the taxes, surcharges or service fees for 'sweepstakes winnings' and trick consumers into believing that the prize is being supervised by a government agency," Harris cautioned.
As is common with swindles, this one used a toll-free number to assure Mr. Kent that returning a call would cost him nothing.
Bill Quimby, who operates an informative site called TollFreeNumbers.com, said that many crooks hide behind a toll-free number.
To find the people behind this, you have to find out where that toll-free number is ringing. It could ring to any type of phone, and it doesnt even have to be in the U.S., said Quimby.
Rules of the Game
There are simple rules to follow if you receive a call or a letter announcing you are a winner of any sweepstakes:
1. Dont pay a cent to collect your "prize." A legitimate sweepstakes wont ask you to pay taxes, shipping or insurance or any other kind of fee before receiving your prize.
2. Did you enter? You can't win a contest you didn't enter. If the caller tells you your credit card issuer or bank entered you in the competition, that's your cue to hang up.
3. A U.S. number means nothing. Many scams are based out of Canada and other countries. With the advent of the Internet, a crook can be located anywhere in the world and still have a U.S. phone number. Recovering your money from a U.S. scammer is next to impossible. Recovering it from a foreign scammer is impossible.
4. Turn off your emotions and use logic. A con artist will hope that the logical part of your brain wont kick in until after your money is lost.