Things the FTC doesn’t do: hold sweepstakes and give away cash prizes

Scammers are really getting meta- these days; it seems people have received phone calls, allegedly from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), informing them that they have won a large cash prize in a sweepstakes.

Among other duties, the FTC normally tries to protect consumers from scams. I guess the victims are supposed to think, “Well, surely if this call’s from the FTC, it’s legitimate.” Never mind the years of warnings that all begin with, “No matter who a caller claims to be…”

Naturally, the victim is told they have to pay taxes and fees up front by wiring between $1,000 and $10,000 to someone. So it’s a standard-issue sweepstakes scheme.

Folks, you can argue about whether different government agencies waste money or not until you’re blue in the face, but I can assure you of a couple things:

  1. The FTC isn’t running a sweepstakes and does not give away cash prizes.
  2. The FTC has never given away cash prizes (unless “giving away cash prizes” actually means “nailing rogue debt collection agencies to the wall” in some obscure regional dialect, which it doesn’t).
  3. The FTC is never going to run a sweepstakes. Or give away (say it with me) cash prizes.
  4. Whenever you do hear about a government agency giving a person or organization money for something, those aren’t sweepstakes prizes, and it’s not a random selection process. Those are grants, and the recipients had to apply for them. It’s a vastly different thing.

Also, you’d do well to remember this little nugget: it doesn’t matter if a caller claims to be from the FTC, the FBI, the ATF, Microsoft, Canada, or your Aunt Tilly, if they’re saying you won a sweepstakes you never entered and asking you to pay money up front before receiving the prize, they’re running a scam.

I haven’t run into an exception to that rule yet.


This one is just dandy:

Date: Thursday, February 11, 2010 8:35 PM
To: undisclosed-recipients:
Subject: YOU HAVE WON (£ 500.000.00 GBP)

YOU HAVE WON (£ 500.000.00 GBP)

 You are to Fill the below details…

5. OCCUPATION…………………6. SEX………..

Yours Sincerely,

Esta mensagem foi verificada pelo sistema de antivírus e
 acredita-se estar livre de perigo.

Do I even need to tell you this is a scam? Probably a 419-style setup; after you contact them, they’ll have you wiring money overseas to pay “fees” for a prize that will never arrive.

There are some things I really love about this:

  1. “Microsoft National Lottery.” I wasn’t aware Microsoft was its own nation. Facebook, on the other hand
  2. Scam emails usually have some clunky English, but the language is butchered beyond belief in this one. Whoever wrote this hasn’t even got the rudiments wired.
  3. “Mr. Alex Winter Fall.” A man for all seasons (or at least two of them).
  4. Isn’t Microsoft based in the United States? What would they be doing hosting lotteries in the UK and handing out British Pounds to random people?
  5. Hotmail is owned by Microsoft, so they somehow managed to get something almost right. However, a real email from the company would be hosted at
  6. Does anybody honestly believe that large corporations just give away millions of dollars to random people? They don’t. Not even the richest ones.
  7. I wonder why the virus scanning information at the bottom of the email would be in Spanish, if this were actually sent from the U.K. to a U.S. recipient.
  8. “Microsoft E-mail Award-Winning Draws.” Not a very snappy name, is it?

Jokes about linguistic butchery aside, I actually think this message isn’t targeted to native English speakers. These things go all over the world, and if you only know a little English (or none), you might not immediately realize how “off” the grammar and spelling are.

Publisher’s Clearing House scam: Don’t hold your breath waiting for the Prize Patrol.

This was a new one on me.

The other day, a REGIONAL member called the credit union because he had received an interesting phone call.

The caller claimed to represent Publisher’s Clearing House and informed the member that he had won something like three million dollars, and that the Prize Patrol would be stopping by his house that day.

However, in order to claim his prize, he had to pay some sort of fee up front—$3,500, to be paid via wire transfer immediately or the prize would be forfeit.

Well, our member didn’t take the bait at all. It was yet another version of the same old advance fee fraud.

I wondered if this was a local job, since Publisher’s Clearing House was kind of a goofy choice. Well-organized fraud rings are usually a little sneakier than that (they’re just as easy to see through, though, if you’re paying attention).

No matter, though—the takeaway here is that in a legitimate sweepstakes, you never send money first in order to claim your winnings.

What is a Nigerian 419 scam?

In the world of fraud prevention, you’ll see the term “Nigerian 419 Scam” come up quite a lot. But what is it?

Simply put, a Nigerian 419 scam (or just “Nigerian scam”) is a type of advance fee fraud; the victim sends or wires money to the scammer in hopes of receiving a large payout. Naturally, this payout never comes.

In the early days of the scheme (1980s), crooks used postal mail and fax to try and hook people, but email is the preferred medium today—you can send millions of messages at the same time, for free.

Here’s the hook: the con artist claims to be a relative of a deposed dictator, an African prince living in exile, a government employee, banker, or similar. In every case, they claim to know of a large sum of money, either their own or someone else’s, but need your assistance in obtaining it. In return for your help, they will give you a percentage of the fortune, usually to the tune of several million dollars.

The victim will be asked to help by sending money, either to bribe a bank official or to set up a bank account (they are given the impression that they must keep a certain amount of money in a Nigerian bank in order to get a piece of the fortune). Once the victim starts sending money, the con artists will claim to experience various delays and the need for more cash, in hopes of further stealing from the victim.

At some point, the victim either realizes they’ve been had, or the crooks move on to new victims. There have been cases of victims being kidnapped, robbed and murdered, as well.

It sounds so obvious when you deconstruct it, but the simple fact is that an awful lot of people still fall for this scheme. Crooks don’t keep hammering away at scams that don’t work.

There are a thousand different signs to watch out for, like messages sent from free web-based email addresses or persons asking you to wire money via Western Union or Moneygram, but I think we can narrow it down to just this one point: never send money in an attempt to get money (or gold, diamonds, or anything else).

For one thing, how many Nigerian princes do you think there are in the world? How did this prince, banker, government official or whatever, just happen to pick you, out of over six billion other people on Earth? How do you know you’re dealing with a real person at all?

More to the point, why in the world would you even attempt to get your hands on a pile of stolen or embezzled cash? Think about that—stealing is stealing, no matter what country it originated in. Even if it all turned out to be true, how do you think you’re going to explain $2,500,000 to the IRS? They’re going to ask. You know they will.

Of course, that won’t happen, because it never turns out to be true. Stop asking yourself, “But what if it is?” right now. It’s not. In the history of the entire universe, there has never been a single case of this deal being legitimate.

By the way, why is it called a “Nigerian 419 scam” in the first place?

Well, these things originated in Nigeria in the 1980s, when their economy was circling the drain in a major way (they’ve never really recovered). Many of these scams still come from Nigeria, and there may be actual Nigerian government officials involved in some of these schemes, which can be run by single people acting alone, or by powerful organized crime syndicates. “419” is an article of the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with fraud.

Walmart Gift Card Scam: This one is for real.

Last week, I wrote about false reports of the Walmart Cash Back Scam, and how these hysterical emails are nothing to worry about.

A lot of people have been getting these messages, apparently—that article has brought in a lot of traffic to this site. I hope that means people are relaxing a little, rather than being nasty to Walmart cashiers because they let an email hoax frighten them.

However, I just heard about a new one that involves Walmart and is real—thieves are calling victims with news that they’ve won a $200 gift card from Walmart if they only pay $1 for shipping. The victim reveals their credit card information, and you know what happens next.

(In case you don’t: the card never arrives because it’s a scam. The crooks weren’t from Walmart at all. They just take the victim’s credit card information and use it to make purchases or get cash advances).

If somebody tells you you’ve won something, never pay in advance. Walmart doesn’t just give gift cards away, anyway.

The full story is over at The Money Coach’s Blog. It goes into a little more detail.

Scam Alert: Microsoft Awards 2009

Here’s one that seems to mostly circulate around Europe, but I’m sure some folks here stateside have ended up with this message in their inbox, too:

Microsoft Lottery Promotion
Unit 7, Metro Trading Centre,
Second Way, Wembley, Middlesex,
HA9 0YU – United Kingdom

DATE: 14th of March 2009

Microsoft Lottery! E-mail is pleased to announce you as one of the 10
lucky winners in the ongoing Microsoft E-mail Promotions.

Microsoft Lottery! is a free service that does not require you to register
or be a Microsoft registered user before winning.

This award program is conducted anually to promote the use of the
Internet.You have been awarded ONE MILLION GREAT BRITAIN POUNDS.

To file for your claim, do contact our accredited corresponding claims
agent as below for category “A” winners immediately with your Name and
Phone Number for the speedy release of your fund;

AGENT: Gabriel Phillip
Tel: +44 703 5963368

Warning!!! Winners that do not respond to this notice within seven days of
receiving this E-mail will authomatically be disqalified.


There is no need to include any additional information in your reply.


Notification Department
Microsoft On-line Email Draws

Let me make this perfectly clear: This is a scam. Éste es fraude. C’est une escroquerie. Dieses ist ein Betrug. Ciò è un raggiro. This is a scam, innit, guv’ner?

(By the way, I used Babelfish for those translations. English is the only language I speak reliably well. If I’ve said something bizarre in your native tongue, please correct me.)

More specifically, this just is a variation on the old advance fee fraud. If you respond, you’ll be instructed to wire money or send a cashier’s check to someone. Then you’ll never hear from them again. Just like with a lottery scam.

As it turns out, Microsoft does give away awards every year. However, they give them to people like Peer Bork from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, not randomly to people like you and me (to be somewhat blunt about it). Unless you happen to be a research scientist of some renown, in which case you might be in the running for 2010.

But even then, they’re not going to notify you by email and say “Winners that do not respond to this notice within seven days of receiving this E-mail will authomatically be disqalified.” For one thing, Microsoft knows how to spell “automatically” and “disqualified.”

For another, they give their awards to people who are doing notable work and advancing knowledge. It’s not a random giveaway.