How to Avoid Lottery Scams

Below is the text of my column for The Chronicle that appeared in the August 25, 2010 edition.

Q: I got a letter that said I won the lottery in the United Kingdom. It included a cashier’s check to cover taxes and fees. Is this for real?

A: Not even a little bit. Sorry.

What you have is a Lottery Scam letter. These have been circulating for years, and thousands of people have lost incredible amounts of money.

It usually works like this: you receive a letter than informs you that you have won a foreign lottery in which “no tickets were sold.” The lottery is most often based in the United Kingdom, but South Africa, Australia and other countries have been used as well.

The letter further states that, to claim your prize money, you have to pay some sort of taxes or fees up front. The cashier’s check included is supposed to cover this amount. You are instructed to cash the check at your bank or credit union, then take the cash to Western Union and wire it back to the sender.

A few days later, your financial institution informs you that the check was counterfeit, and that you’re now on the hook for the amount you cashed it for – usually in the $3,000-$4,000 range. The problem is that you have already wired this money out of the country. Once you make a wire transfer, you cannot get that money back.

Some people are under the impression that the financial institution that appears on the check will cover the loss, but that is not how it works. They did not issue the check – they had nothing to do with it at all. If someone made fake checks with your name on it, would you feel responsible to cover them?

Others believe their own financial institution will cover the loss, but once again, that is just not the way it works. From their perspective, all that happened was that you came in, you presented a monetary instrument, you received cash in exchange for it, and that check turned out to be counterfeit. They have no way to verify where it came from – you could have printed it yourself. They handed the cash to you. You are the one who has to pay it back.

The above is sort of the “classic” version of a Lottery Scam. Like most fraudulent activity, this scam has been adapted to new technologies. While some people still receive Lottery Scam postal mail that includes a counterfeit check, e-mail has become the main channel for this crime.

It starts the same way – you get an email that informs you that you have won the lottery in a foreign country. Since they cannot send you a check through e-mail, crooks will attempt to convince you to call a “claims agent” for further instructions, or to e-mail personal details back to the sender.

Next, they either mail you a counterfeit check with the same instructions as before – cash it and wire it back – or they will simply attempt to get you to wire money directly to them, skipping the check altogether. This second scenario often turns out much worse; while the counterfeit check usually nets the crook around $3,000 one time from each victim, if they can string you along and get you to keep wiring more cash, they can bilk you out of much more. There are people who have lost tens of thousands of dollars to this scam – victims’ entire life savings wiped out before they realize they have been had.

Like so many forms of fraud, this scam can be avoided by just remembering a few simple facts. First, you have to play the lottery to win the lottery. They do not just draw random names or e-mail addresses out of a giant hat.

Second, any time someone sends you a check and tells you to cash it and wire the money back to them, you are looking at a scam. There is no scenario in which this is a legitimate request.

Finally, if a stranger is offering you large amounts of money for free, do not trust them. What seems like the answer to your prayers could turn out to be the start of a financial nightmare.