Sweepstakes scam claims to be DC agency - New York News

Sweepstakes scam claims to be DC agency

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WASHINGTON -

Everyone dreams of winning the lottery. That is what scammers are betting on. Only now, there is a new twist on these lottery or sweepstakes scams posing as a local D.C. government agency.

A Maryland man tells FOX 5 his mother got taken to the cleaners, tricked into sending money because it appeared to be a real government agency. Only it was a scam.

"She thought she'd won the sweepstakes," said Burr Gray.

His mom, Hazel, received several calls telling her she had won $1.5 million in a sweepstakes. She wanted to leave something for her children and the money would be a very nice inheritance for them.

"The whole premise that had been pitched to her was that she had won the sweepstakes, but the check was being cut in Panama down in Central America and it was being held by customs in Miami," Gray said.

She lives in Seattle and called Gray to tell him about the winnings. He didn't like what she told him.

"They needed checks,” he explained. “They needed some cash for her to free it up and there were storage fees.”

The scammers had built up a relationship with her over several months. They gained her trust, talking about their personal life, their family and their hopes for the future.

They don't ask for money at first, but make it seem like they are fighting to get your money. Eventually she sent them six or seven checks for nearly $70,000 and then one more for $5,000 even after the family discovered the scam.

"They talked to my mom pretty much almost every day,” Gray said. “From July, August until December.”

It sounded legitimate -- down to the name and address. The callers claimed to be with the D.C. Consumer Protection Agency at 1100 Fourth Street, SW in Washington, D.C.

"We get calls most weeks about this scam," said Hamilton Manager of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Office of Consumer Protection.

It is a real address for the real Office of Consumer Protection at D.C.'s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The agency started getting calls last summer from people inquiring about their winnings, but there is no sweepstakes.

Many call with skepticism, but still hoping it's real. Then the agency breaks the bad news.

"First of all, we tell them absolutely the call is fraud," said Kurault.

The agency gets so many calls that it posted an alert about the scam on its website.

“One of the things they do is most of the people they are calling are outside of the District, which makes sense,” Kurault said. “You wouldn't call someone in D.C. They're more likely to know who we are.”

The Federal Trade Commission has received complaints of scams using DCRA's name or address from places such as Arizona and Florida. The agency doesn't investigate individual complaints, but works with law enforcement and uses complaints to investigate businesses who defraud consumers.

Gray tried to get help, but instead got the run-around.

"I contacted the D.C. Department of Consumer Affairs,” said Gray. “They said, 'Well, she's a Seattle resident and we can't really do anything.' So then I called out to Seattle. They said, 'Well this is so widespread, call the FBI.'”

“So I called the FBI. And the FBI said, 'You need to call the Federal Trade Commission.’”

He filed a complaint with the FTC and received a letter back confirming it was received.

According to the FTC, lottery and sweepstakes scams cost victims at least $120 million a year. Only a fraction of cases typically get reported -- often the targets are elderly.

Since last year, FTC has received more than a dozen complaints about scams posing as DCRA or using its address. City regulators can do little unless the scammers or victims are in D.C.

"I have yet to encounter any of these businesses that are based in the District,” said Kurault. “The phone call may appear to have a 202 area code, but there is software that can make it look like the call is coming from anywhere else, anywhere that the caller wants it to.”

Rarely does anyone get their money back.

"It's gone," Gray said. "Quickly."

Usually the losses don't rise to the $75,000 Hazel Gray got swindled out of.

"Where people have been victimized, it's usually much smaller amounts,” said Kurault. “Something like that would be one of the largest that I've personally heard of.”

Consumer regulators recommend changing your phone number to stop the scammers from calling and put a fraud alert on your bank account for any unusual activity.

Whatever you do, never send money.

No legitimate lottery or sweepstakes requires you pay anything to claim your prize.

Gray's mom knows now that the callers were not trying to help her after all.

"It seemed like a certain amount of denial going on, but now she's angry and wants to keep other people from falling into this," he said.

Hazel Gray wrote the checks from a line of credit on her home. So not only didn't she get her winnings, but she still owes the money.

Links:

DCRA Alert:
http://dcra.dc.gov/page/consumer-protection-fraud-report

FTC

Government Imposter Scam:
http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0048-government-imposter-scams

Prize Scams:
http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0199-prize-scams

International Lottery Scams:
http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0086-international-lottery-scams

File an FTC Complaint:
http://www.ftc.gov/faq/consumer-protection/submit-consumer-complaint-ftc

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