CHARLESTON -- West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw on Tuesday warned state consumers not to fall for a scam in which they are told they're the winners of unclaimed lottery winnings.
According to the Attorney General's Office, the scam artists contact consumers by mail, phone or over the Internet, telling them they are the winners of such unexpected windfalls.
Victims -- often senior citizens -- are lured by emotional tales of inheritances locked in bank vaults or legal battles, which can be released if only the winner could provide assistance in exchange for a large commission.
Once someone is convinced the opportunity is real, the scam artist requests taxes or bank processing fees before the winner can collect.
Victims are asked to pay hundreds, even thousands, in "taxes," "bank fees," "processing charges" and other vague fees, sometimes over a period of months or years, McGraw's office said.
The attorney general points to a recent victim in Bluefield, who was targeted by scam artists in Jamaica.
In October 2010, they called him asking for "taxes" in the amount of $400 to collect his $10 million lottery prize.
Once he made an initial payment, they contacted him repeatedly over a 10-month period with stories of unexpected bank charges and other fees, until they had collected more than $40,000.
Each time, they convinced him the winnings were real using personal information about him that anyone can obtain over the Internet.
Unfortunately, the man has only Social Security to support him, is disabled, and badly needed the income to support his hospitalized wife and extended family members. Having borrowed thousands from friends to make the foreign payments, he is now facing foreclosure after failing to pay his mortgage for more than four months, the Attorney General's Office said.
"Since we hear of unexpected windfalls from legitimate lotteries, people can be easily convinced an exciting new opportunity is valid when it is not. Unfortunately, the convenience we all enjoy from modern technology is also convenient for thieves -- scammers are more convincing when armed with small pieces personal of information about us, right from the Internet," McGraw said in a statement.
The Attorney General's Office advised consumers to follow these tips to avoid falling victim to such a scam:
- Don't act immediately. High pressure calls or emotional pleas are danger signs of fraud. Get all information and consider it carefully;
- Be wary of requests to send a payment by wire service or private courier. The company may be trying to avoid detection from postal inspectors or to get your money before you have a chance to change your mind;
- Don't pay if it's free or if you have won. Paying a fee to claim a prize or get something free is another danger sign of fraud;
- Check it out. If you are not familiar with the company, check its track record with your state or local consumer protection office. Even if there is no information about the company, you can get helpful advice;
- Do not believe promises of easy money. No one can legitimately claim you will make large earnings from business opportunities with little or no work, promise high returns on investments with little or no risk, or guarantee that you will win a lottery or sweepstakes;
- Don't provide your Social Security number unless you're applying for credit or employment. Using your personal information, crooks can steal from you and impersonate you to steal from others;
- Beware of recovery services. These are often scams designed to take your last dime by falsely offering to get money back that you lost to a fraudulent scheme -- for a fee. There is no charge for filing a complaint with a government agency or Better Business Bureau; and
- Follow the rule of thumb: If a deal is too good to be true, it probably isn't.