April 04, 2020

You are a winner! This is your official prize notification and it won’t cost you a penny!” was published on one side of the pink card; on the other said it read, “For more information about your free prize offer, call our 800 number.”

Rather than hearing a high-pressure sales pitch, or finding that they had to pay a fee to collect the award, people who called the toll-free number got a recorded message from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service warning them about the dangers of responding to such offers. And, unlike some “official notifications” they’d responded to in the past, this one really didn’t cost them a penny.

Last May, the U.S. Postal Service took unusual steps to educate the public about an increasingly common scam: fraudulent sweepstakes or prize offer mailngs. Aimed mostly at elderly and low-income people, typical mailings guarantee that you’ve already won a luxury car, a vacation cruise for two, or a big cash prize. All you have to do to claim the prize is … send money, of course. Some folks have lost their life savings this way.

A poll, conducted by the Lou Harris group, found that 92 percent of American adults acknowledged receiving what they believe were fraudulent postcard offers guaranteeing a free prize, and that 29 percent responded to the offer. In fiscal year 1992, postal inspectors opened 210 investigations on “telefraud” operators, made 174 arrests, and shut off mail to 43 “boiler rooms,” companies consisting solely of a room from which solicitors make marketing calls for phony sweepstakes. Inspectors logged over 142,000 consumer fraud complaints of all kinds during that time.

The public information officer who coordinated the postcard program said the Inspection Service wanted to teach people that the prize offers are often fake, so they decided to “be sheep ih wolves’ clothing” when they mailed over 200,000 cards that looked just like the real thing to people who have responded to similar contests, as well as sampling to other groups commonly targeted.

Within weeks, more than 55,000 people had called the number on the card, a figure the inspector stated, “would make many telemarketers very happy,” and even more amazing when you consider that many of the callers were people who had complained to the Inspection Service in the past about getting ripped off in similar rackets.

This time, callers heard a recorded message warning them about the sort of scam usually invoved in such mailings, including advice about what to look out for. Inspectors also mailed out over 2,000 letters explaining the “friendly sting,” as they called it, to those who called or wrote in wanting more information.

“The hard fact is that these kinds of post cards and letters usually require you to pay your hard-earned money before yo receive anything. You may find that the prize is not what you expected, or you may not receive anything at all,” goes the recorded message.

Before you respond to any “guaranteed prize” offering, the Inspection Service recommends you consider following these precautions:

Don’t pay anything for a “free” prize if you don’t know what you’re getting. Remember, calling a “900” number costs money.

Don’t deal with firms or individuals that make high-pressure demands for an answer right now. Take time to check them out.

Don’t give out your credit card numbers to anyone you don’t know. Callers who want a credit card number or expiration date to verify anything about you aren’t to be trusted.

Many of the people hit by the “friendly sting” were grateful. “Many thanks to all of the staff in the Postal Inspection Service. You are doing us a great service by curbing mail fraud,” read one letter. “I do hope the many recipients of the Official Prize Notification called and took to heart your fine message,” read another.

Consumer Forum is a collaborative effort of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast COMBAT. Send your questions to Consumer Forum, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. COMBAT is a membership organization with basic dues of $10 a year. For membership information write to the above address. Please enclose a large, stamped, self-addressed envelope.

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