Canadian sweepstakes scam artists hook victims

TACOMA, Washington, AP

When an 81-year-old U.S. woman got word she had won a Canadian sweepstakes contest, she didn’t remember sending in a check to participate.

But the prize of US$1 million sounded good. Contest officials said she needed to pay the international taxes on her winnings, so she wired five payments totaling US$31,000 to the address given.

Now she realizes she was duped into becoming a victim of a sweepstakes scam operated from Canada. Similar cases have been reported elsewhere in this area near the northwestern U.S. border.

“All of it was very plausible,” said the woman, who asked that she not be identified. “I didn’t want it for myself. I wanted to be able to help people.”

Organizers of the Canadian sweepstakes mail out about 3.5 million letters at a time, said Daniel Williams, a fraud specialist with the Ontario Provincial Police. They expect about 3 percent of the letters to return. The letter arrives in the mail and tells the recipient he or she is a finalist in a US$1 million sweepstakes. To register, the recipient must send in a US$20 check.

If someone sends in the money or replies in another way to the letter, he or she is put on a list of potential scam victims. The organizers figure these people have proved to be “good marks.”

About six weeks later, a contest official calls the letter recipient and claims he’s a lawyer or Canadian judge.

The official tells the recipient he or she has won between US$500,000 and US$1.5 million. The caller says the award money will be delivered in a lump payment once the winner pays the international taxes.

The caller also warns the winner not to tell relatives or government authorities about the winnings, or the deal is off.