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Everyday thousands of Americans win a free prize. They are the lucky recipients of a luxury vacation, a new car, or even just some cold-hard cash. Except, they’re not. For years, thieves have been notifying consumers of their winnings in an attempt to scam money from them. And usually, it’s elderly friends and loved ones who are the victims.

According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) mail fraud is “any crime in which the U.S. mail is used to further a scheme–whether it originated in the mail, by telephone, or on the Internet.” And it’s a lucrative business. In fact, a recent article by CNN Money called attention to the story of a 91-year old widow from Iowa who had been duped into giving away almost $30,000 in response to several notices that she had won prize money.  Another victim, an 84-year old woman from Florida lost $50,000 in an attempt to win money to assuage her financial worries.

Why do so many elderly people fall for these scams? Thieves put a lot of effort into making their mailings looks legitimate, personalizing the mailings and using official-looking letterhead or seals. And they make it easy to “collect your prize.” Consumers simply need to pay a small processing fee. The prize never comes but the scammers keep the victims hooked, sending notice after notice.

However, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently took action against several companies in an effort to halt the victimization of our elders by targeting three key players in mail fraud schemes: the payment processor, mailer printers, and lead generators.

The DOJ’s efforts are part of a coordinated attack by several government entities and non-profits including the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, the USPIS, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, AARP, and the Consumer Federation of America, among others, to crack down on mail fraud and educate consumers on how to identify a scam.

So how do you spot a mail fraud scam?

  • Be very skeptical of any notice of winnings or prizes.  Think about it, have you ever met anyone that has won money through the mail?
  • Read the notice. Look for red flags such as “not affiliated with any government agency” or “for a small fee.”
  • Do your research! Search the prize or the company offering it. Chances are you will find information confirming it is a scam.
  • NEVER send or wire money or provide your credit card information to someone you don’t know.
  • Ask a trusted friend or loved one. There is no shame in needing a second opinion.

For more information on the many different types of mail fraud, check out this guide from the USPIS.

If you have additional questions, contact the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation by calling our Consumer Hotline at (617) 973-8787, or toll-free in MA at (888) 283-3757, Monday through Friday, from 9 am-4:30 pm. Follow the Office on Facebook and Twitter, @Mass_Consumer. The Baker-Polito Administration’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation along with its five agencies work together to achieve two goals: to protect and empower consumers through advocacy and education, and to ensure a fair playing field for all Massachusetts businesses. The Office also oversees the state’s Lemon Laws, data breach reporting, Home Improvement Contractor Program and the state’s Do Not Call Registry.

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