Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.
Recently Alrick Anthony Gardner was indicted on charges alleging he operated a sweepstakes scam that stole millions of dollars from unsuspecting elderly victims. According to the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, Gardner and others working with him called their marks telling them that they had won a Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, but that in order to receive their winnings they needed to pay fees and taxes directly to the company. In an effort to make their scam look legitimate, the criminals mailed the victims fake documents including a “winning notification” and a letter that appeared to come from the IRS.
Publishers Clearing House, the sponsor of some of the most popular legitimate sweepstakes in the country, has numerous prize giveaways each month, making them fertile ground for imposters.
Recently there has been an increase in reports of scammers calling people on the telephone or sending notifications by regular mail telling them that they have won one of the Publishers Clearing House prizes, but they must pay fees or taxes before being able to receive their prize. No legitimate prize giveaway requires you to pay taxes or administrative fees directly to the sponsor.
In other instances, the criminals will notify their victims that they have won and then proceed to ask for personal information such as bank accounts or Social Security numbers in order to steal their identity. The real Publishers Clearing House does not request any information when their winners are initially notified.
It is hard to win any sweepstakes. It is impossible to win one that you have not even entered, and yet scam artists have found that it is extremely lucrative to convince people that they have won.
As with many effective scams, the pitch of the swindler may seem legitimate. Income taxes are due on prize winnings, but with legitimate sweepstakes they are either deducted from the check before you receive it or you are responsible for paying the taxes directly to the IRS. No legitimate organization collects taxes on behalf of the IRS from winners.
In other instances, the con artist tells the “winners” that in order to collect their prizes, they need to pay administrative fees. Often, the victims are told to send the fees by prepaid gift cards. Prepaid cards are a favorite method of payment for scams because they are the equivalent of sending cash. They are impossible to stop or trace. Again, no legitimate organization requires you to pay administrative fees in order to claim your prize and no legitimate business or government agency ever requests payment through gift cards.
Fortunately, there is an easy way to know if you have legitimately won one of Publishers Clearing House’s major multi-million dollar prizes. Publishers Clearing House only contacts major prize winners in person or by certified mail. They do not contact winners by phone, email, or text message.
In addition, no winners of the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes are ever required to make a payment of any kind to claim their prize, so if you are told that you have won, but are required to send money before you can claim your prize, you can be sure that it is a scam.
If you have any questions as to whether or not you actually are a winner of a Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, you should call their customer service number of 1-800-459-4724. Don’t trust any other telephone number that may be provided to you by anyone informing you of your win.
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