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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Don't Get Swept Up in Contest Scam

About a week ago, something wonderful happened to Daniel LaCapra, who is 60 years old and living on a fixed income in a mobile home park in Lakeland.
A letter with a cashier's check for $2,800 arrived unexpectedly. And even better, the letter, from Prime Trust Corp. of Ontario, Canada, informed LaCapra that he was one of several winners of the International Sweepstakes and the total payout to him would be $55,850.
But LaCapra, a retired private detective from Connecticut, tends to be skeptical. The check came from People's Bank in Ohio, but the letter came from Canada, which LaCapra found odd.
The letter started out saying, "Following the second and final winning notification that was sent to you on March 25th 2006 . . ."
LaCapra had never received any notification from this company. And he had never entered any sweepstakes.
The letter included a telephone number, with instructions to call "your account manager" immediately. Failure to do so before
July 10 would nullify the cashier's check and his winnings, the letter said.
The check was supposed to cover the "processing fees" that were associated with the sweepstakes.
LaCapra called People's Bank in Ohio, and was told the check was fraudulent.
According to Lakeland police and the Tampa Bay office of the Secret Service, several things could have happened next if LaCapra had fallen for the scam.
If he had called that number and reached a person there, they might have asked for his Social Security number and bank account number, or other personal information. And they would have told him that the $2,800 was an advance so he would not have to pay for his processing fees, and he needed to wire the money to a certain bank account as soon as he had deposited that check.
What he would quickly have discovered, according to Lakeland police Sgt. Jeff Birdwell, is that the check was bad. If he wrote any checks on his account, expecting that the $2,800 cashier's check would cover it, they would have bounced -- and he would be liable for the money.
And the $2,800 he wired for "processing fees" would have vanished into the ether. Of course, he would never have seen a penny of the $55,000 sweepstakes he supposedly won.
And worse, he could have been arrested and criminally charged with depositing a counterfeit check.
In one case in March, a Lakeland woman was arrested briefly when she tried to cash a $1,990 check at Amscot. The check was fraudulent, and an Amscot employee called police. The woman told police that she got the check in the mail along with a letter. She said that she had recently applied for a loan, and she assumed the check was an advance on that loan.
Police took her into custody, but when her brother brought them the letter, they realized it was a sweepstakes scam. Police called the phone number on the letter and a person answered and told the officer that he was a winner of a lottery, and after he deposited the check in his account he needed to wire $1,642.90 to the name and address on the letter.
Police released the woman from custody, according to the report.
Several similar letters and checks are on file at the Lakeland Police Department, in which the recipients were told to deposit a check and then wire some money so they can collect lottery winnings.
The Federal Trade Commission says this is one of the top five scams currently being perpetrated in the United States.
"All these people are winning lotteries they never entered," Birdwell said. He suspects that there are many more people out there who have received similar letters and didn't report it, especially if they fell victim to the scam and are embarrassed to tell anyone.
And what can a person who has been victimized by such a scam do about it? Not much other than report it, Birdwell said.
"We can document that it happened," Birdwell said. "That's about it."
Because the scammers are usually from overseas, and the amounts they steal are relatively small, it is not worth it to attempt to find and prosecute them, Birdwell said. They are notoriously hard to track down because they give out fake addresses and names, and they frequently pack up and move to new locations. And even if they could be found, there are major challenges in getting someone extradited from other countries, especially for such a small amount of money, Birdwell said.
There is no way the Lakeland Police Department, or any other agency, will send officers to Canada, Nigeria or England to try to prosecute someone for the theft of a couple thousand dollars, Birdwell said.
However, people who receive suspicious letters are urged to bring them to the Police Department, where a report will be made and the officers can keep an eye out for trends and try to alert the public about new scams whenever possible.
John Joyce, spokesman for the Tampa Bay Secret Service, agrees with the LPD. "I'll be brutally honest, chances are very slim that victims will get their money back," he said. "Law enforcement just doesn't have the resources."
The best thing to do, law enforcement officials say, is not to fall victim in the first place. If you haven't entered a sweepstakes or a lottery, you did not win one, Joyce said.
And doing any kind of business with strangers overseas is risky, Joyce said.
If you are in the Tampa Bay area and have received a letter or check that you think may be part of a scam, you can call the Secret Service at 813-228-2636.
You can also visit the Federal Trade Commission Web site at and search the site for alerts on recent scams, or call 877-FTC-HELP. Again, the Federal Trade Commission is unlikely to be able to get money back for victims in most cases, but they can alert others to the scam, and in some cases they may be able to prosecute the scammers.
Dana Willhoit can be reached at or 863-802-7550.


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