By Mitch Traphagen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
SUN CITY CENTER - Itís gotten to the point that itís not uncommon anymore. Multi-state mega-lotteries are giving away hundreds of millions of dollars. Even the Florida Lottery has worked to up the ante and provide bigger prizes. They have discovered, it seems, that people find more "value" in buying tickets for really big money. Six million dollars just isnít enough to risk a dollar on, apparently.
So if a very official looking letter arrives from a lottery commission in Spain describing, in detail, your winnings of, say, $614,810, well, thatís just not too far fetched. It happens all the time - it could be true. It could be your lucky day.
It could be true, especially consider the watermarked stationary, the Madrid, Spain postmark and the details the letter provides. The most wonderful part of all is that no where in the letter is anyone asking for money! They have it just waiting for you, completely insured in your name, ready for you to call to claim your new found wealth.
It could be true because the lottery is the El Gordo lottery in Spain. For those familiar with international lotteries, the El Gordo is the worldís richest. Last year it was the worldís only lottery to exceed $1 billion (that is billion with a ĎBí) in a single prize.
The name appears legit, the letter certainly looks legit and itís not like they are telling you that you won a billion, they are telling you that you won a few hundred thousand - and along with their congratulations, they even say, "Better luck next time!"
It canít be a scam, they even have an official looking return address, a real phone number that they encourage you to call and a fax number. No way itís a scam.
But of course there are a few warnings. First of all, due to a "mix up," you canít tell anyone about your prize just yet. But for several hundred thousand dollars, who canít keep a little secret?
And then there are just a few more minor hitches. The number for you to call or fax will be charged on your phone bill at the nominal rate of $30 per minute. Of course no one will tell you that when you call. And then, naturally, there are taxes to pay.
Well of course there are taxes. Since you are not yet aware that you are paying $30 a minute for your phone call, there may not be alarm bells going off in your head and taxes are to be expected. The nice people at the International Lottery Commission in Madrid will even handle them for you.
But since the winnings are insured in your name, they canít pull the taxes out of that money, they will need a check or money order. But itís only $1,200 or maybe $3,000 and soon youíll be six hundred grand wealthier so what the heck.
But then there are more fees. International financial transactions are, of course, complicated. There are likely to be fees.
But the fees will continue until finally those alarm bells are ringing loud enough to drown out the pleasant plans you had for your new found wealth.
Of course there is also the little problem with the fact that it is not possible to win a Spanish lottery unless youíve actually purchased a Spanish lottery slip. That purchase can only be made in Spain.
By this time the alarm bells in your head should be belting out a rock Ďn roll tune. By this time, of course, youíll realize that youíve been scammed.
It didnít get that far for Yvonne Ponsor of Sun City Center. She received two very similar letters, one promising more than $600,000, the other promising more than $400,000.
And while both letters were nearly identical, both claimed to represent the international prize department of the El Gordo lottery in Spain, it was likely that the letters came from two different scammers.
The ironic twist to all this is that if Ponsor had replied, it would be likely that she herself would be committing a crime. It is against federal law for Americans to participate in international lotteries through the mail.
Ponsor was one of the lucky ones. The official looking stationary and the promise of easy cash has hit its mark in more than one case. The Federal Trade Commission and the United States Postal Inspectors office have logged complaints of losses totaling $120 million per year involving international lottery scams. Both organizations are taking this seriously.
The organization that operates the legitimate El Gordo and the agency that oversees lotteries in Spain (Loterias y Apuestas del Estado) are not amused either. Since the scam surfaced in early 2002 in New Zealand, Spanish authorities have worked to stop it. But that is not an easy task. By the time the complaints are filed, the victimís money and the scammers are long gone.
The lottery agencies in Spain are working to make people aware that while it is possible for foreigners to win Spanish lotteries, you canít win one that you havenít bought a ticket for. Also, no lotteries in Spain will ask for funds before paying out prize money.
The El Gordo scam is similar to several other tried and true scams, most notably the Nigerian scam. In that one, a distraught government official needs your help in holding several million dollars that he is valiantly attempting to get out of his equally distraught country. With absolutely no effort on your part, youíll receive a percentage of the money. All you have to do is provide your bank account information and theyíll do the rest.
Of course "the rest" is that theyíll clear out your account.
Another current scam making the rounds on internet auction sites is where a buyer will send a payment for an item that is well in excess of the actual price. The buyer acknowledges his mistake and asks that you send a check for the difference. In the meantime the buyerís check bounces and you are not only out your merchandise but also the cash for the refund you sent.
What sets the El Gordo scam apart, however, is the attention to detail. This is not a generic email or internet scam. This scam involved some expense on the part of the scammer. The stationary looks official and the postage and postmark are real. And, of course, there is no obvious request for money in your "prize notification" letter.
But even if most people donít swallow the entire hook, it is likely that enough of them call the number for information and get taken for $30 per minute. Given a five or ten minute conversation and theyíve made more than enough to cover the cost of that nice stationary and postage.
Ponsorís first reaction was to call the Hillsborough County Sheriffís Office. From the perspective of the HCSO, however, it is difficult to determine if a crime has been committed considering Ponsor did not take the bait. She also wanted to make sure that other people knew about this. "The main impulse is to get the news out so that people know these scams are going on," she said.
The Federal Trade Commission, however, has a simple suggestion: Ignore all mail and phone solicitations for foreign lotteries. If you do receive a letter from a foreign country, such as the one Ponsor received, the FTC and the United States Postal Inspection Service recommend giving the letter to your local postmaster.
Sun City Center Community Resource Deputy Rob Thornton is also encouraging all residents to feel free to contact his office regarding any suspicious solicitation.
While there may be little Dep. Thornton can do to catch a bad guy in Spain, he can certainly provide a little judgment - perhaps a reality check - when things sound too good to be true.
The Federal Trade Commission offers a toll free number for complaints and consumer information at 877-FTC-HELP.
HCSO Deputy Rob Thornton may be reached at 672-7817.
The HCSO District IV office may be reached at 247-0455. Every area Community Resource Deputy may also be contacted through that number.