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Beware of con artists impersonating government officials

Updated December 23, 2009

A recent rash of scams involves con artists impersonating government officials.

Some con artists use the lure of a sweepstakes to convince consumers to send in money to claim a “prize” they’ve supposedly won. They tell consumers that the only thing that separates them from their “winnings” is a fee to cover the taxes or service charges. But as all too many scammed consumers now know, these winnings will never materialize.

In a new spin on the age-old sweepstakes scam, crooks are getting bolder, and are now using names of government agencies and legitimate phone numbers that mask their actual locations. Claiming to represent the “national consumer protection agency,” the non-existent National Sweepstakes Bureau, and even the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), they say that the delivery of the sweepstakes prize is being supervised by the supposed government agency.

These scammers then convince consumers to wire money to a foreign country — a commercial money transfer company like Western Union is usually suggested — to an agent of Lloyd’s of London or another well-known insurance company to ensure delivery of the “prize.” In fact, no insurance company is involved; con artists take the money and disappear.

The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers recognize, stop and/or avoid them.

The Federal Trade Commission offers the following precautions to avoid the sweepstakes scam:

  • Don’t pay to collect sweepstakes winnings. Legitimate sweepstakes don’t require you to pay insurance, taxes or shipping and handling to collect your prize.
  • Hold on to your money. Scammers pressure people to wire money through money transfer companies because wiring money is the same as sending cash. If you discover you’ve been scammed, the money’s gone, and there’s very little chance of recovery. Likewise, refuse any request to send a check or money order by overnight delivery or courier. Con artists recommend these services so they can get to your money before you realize you’ve been cheated.
  • Realize that look-alikes are not the real thing. It is illegal for any promoter to lie about an affiliation with — or an endorsement by — a government agency or any other well-known organization. Disreputable companies sometimes use a variation of an official or nationally recognized name to try to confuse you and give you confidence in their offers. Insurance companies, including Lloyd’s of London, do not insure delivery of sweepstakes winnings.
  • Phone numbers can deceive. Some con artists use Internet technology when they call you, allowing them to disguise their area code. Although it may look like they’re calling from Washington, DC or your local area, they could be calling from anywhere in the world.
  • Take control of the calls you receive. If you are being bothered by telemarketing calls, place your telephone number on the National Do Not Call Registry. To register on-line, visit To register by phone, call (888) 382-1222 from the phone number you wish to register. If your number has been on the National Do Not Call registry for at least 31 days and a telemarketer calls, or if you receive a call from someone trying to arrange for you to collect sweepstakes winnings, file a complaint with the FTC using the contact information above. Your complaint should include the date and time of the call and the name or phone number of the organization that called. Although scammers may call using a telephone number that disguises their location, law enforcement may be able to track the number to identify the caller. The FTC enters consumer complaints into the Consumer Sentinel Network, a secure on-line database and investigative tool used by hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad.

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