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Column: Van Nuys woman wins $750,000! Except for one small thing

Mother and daughter winning lottery
Sweepstakes and lottery scams are growing more sophisticated. Consumers, especially seniors, need to know how to protect themselves. Christine Heinz, not pictured here, found out the hard way.
(Getty Images)

Christine Heinz is a winner. She wins so much, she’s sick and tired of winning.

Or at least she’s sick and tired of the calls, letters and faxes she receives almost daily telling her she’s won this or that sweepstakes.

“I suppose they think that because I’m a little old lady, I must be dumb,” Van Nuys resident Heinz, 79, told me the other day, not long after she got off the phone with yet another huckster congratulating her on her good fortune.

Lottery and sweepstakes scams remain a pernicious assault on consumers, particularly seniors on fixed incomes, who are seen by scammers as particularly vulnerable to promises of easy money.

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Some sweepstakes are legitimate, such as the one I recently wrote about involving National Magazine Exchange, although in that case the contest is little more than a lure to get you on the phone with an aggressive salesperson.

Many others are scams. But spotting the fraud can be difficult because of elaborate steps taken by perpetrators to overcome people’s doubts.

“We hear about these scams every day,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League.

“Seniors are especially targeted with formulas such as, ‘You’ve won a sweepstakes,’ ‘Just cash this check for $25,000' or ‘Wire us from Western Union or Money Gram for administrative fees.’ Before you know it, the check bounces and your money is gone.”

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Heinz’s experience serves as cautionary tale.

About two years ago, she said, she entered the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, which is a real sweepstakes, although your chances of winning are, to put it politely, slim.

Heinz didn’t win that sweepstakes and no one came to her front door with a big check and balloons. What she said did happen, though, is calls started coming nearly every day from people claiming to represent other sweepstakes.

That’s the first lesson to be learned here: Once you give your contact information to one business or organization, you may be giving it to thousands.

Publishers Clearing House says it “will not share personally identifiable information with marketing partners,” but apparently that’s only if you had the wherewithal to uncheck a pre-checked box giving them permission to do just that.

“If an opt out is not submitted, we will notify users of exciting offers of interest from pch.com and our marketing partners,” the company says. “We may also share your name, land address and email address with marketing partners so that they can send you offers directly for products and services that may be of interest to you.”

Chris Irving, vice president of consumer and legal affairs for Publishers Clearing House, told me the company “takes reports of impostor sweepstakes scams quite seriously and it causes us great concern.”

He said recent court cases showed that suspected scammers “were able to quickly locate online sources that would easily and without question” provide contact information for potential victims.

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So does that mean a third party could receive information from Publishers Clearing House and then turn around and sell it to someone else?

Irving said there are “strong restrictions on the use and forwarding of such data,” and “reputation checks are done for those with whom we may share.”

Privacy advocates say that once consumer data leaves its source, it’s often impossible to know how far it might spread.

There’s no way to know for sure where all these sweepstakes scammers have gotten Heinz’s contact info. But the timing is suspicious, in that she said she didn’t receive any solicitations before signing up with Publishers Clearing House.

A few weeks ago, Heinz received a particularly cunning come-on from a company calling itself Corporate Media Networks. The nine-page fax informed Heinz that she’d won $750,000.

“On behalf of Corporate Media Networks and all of our corporate sponsors, CONGRATULATIONS!” the cover letter says.

OK, two problems right out of the gate. Corporate Media Networks, which says it’s based in Las Vegas, doesn’t come up in a search of Nevada business records.

And the company’s Vegas address in the letter in fact belongs to a timeshare firm called Diamond Resorts International. A spokesman for Diamond Resorts said they had never heard of Corporate Media Networks.

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I called the number provided for Corporate Media Networks in the letter Heinz received. All I got was a recording saying, “Please leave a message after the beep.”

I left a message saying I wanted more information about the company. No one called me back.

The fax included a “privacy policy” warning Heinz that “a federal gag order” prohibits her from discussing her sweepstakes prize with anyone, “including the financial institution you bank with.”

Needless to say, no such federal law exists regarding sweepstakes winnings.

The fax also included an official-looking form from the Department of Homeland Security attesting to the fact that a check for $750,000 is in the possession of Customs officials.

This too is not how sweepstakes work. Big checks and balloons presented at your door — that’s how they often work.

Heinz said she called the number on the sweepstakes letter and left a message saying she was a winner. She said a man identifying himself as David Nelson promptly called back.

He congratulated Heinz on her good fortune and explained that, to receive her $750,000 prize, all she’d need to do is pay several thousand dollars up front to cover taxes and insurance.

Heinz declined to do so and hung up.

She also shared with me a check for $4,500 she received last month from another sweepstakes scam, in which she was told she’d won $450,000. All she’d need to do is deposit the check and then send back a portion of the money to cover “legal and administrative fees.”

Of course, the check is phony. It appears, weirdly, to be from an account belonging to an Oregon footwear company called Chinook Asia. A spokesman for the company said there’s been “a rash of these bogus checks in recent weeks.”

The way the check scam works is it takes your bank a few days to clear a deposit. In the meantime, you’ve sent your own money to the scammer. When the phony check eventually bounces, you’re out of luck.

The takeaways here:

  • Regard any sweepstakes or lottery win with great suspicion.
  • No legitimate contest will make you pay money up front to receive prize money.
  • Don’t deposit any check intended to cover taxes or fees. It’s not real.
  • Be wary of official-looking documents. Scammers are highly adept at forgery.

Pro tip: If you see a pre-checked box authorizing a business to share your personal information, uncheck it.

Heinz called me back after our conversation. While we were speaking, she’d received a voice message.

She’d won another sweepstakes.


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