It’s nice to think about being suddenly and unexpectedly rich, especially if you’re struggling on a limited income or relying upon Social Security.

So, when a Lewiston man got a letter announcing he had won a big prize in a contest, he followed the instructions, sent the company $20 and waited for his prize to arrive, which it never did.

And that, he thought was the end of that. A $20 disappointment.

But it wasn’t.

Since then his mail has been flooded with similar offers from other companies announcing he has won their contests as well.

Wednesday, the Ash Street man handed us a thick stack of letters, most of them marked “urgent” and telling him he was “already a winner” even though he had never entered a contest.

A quick scan of the official-looking correspondence showed he had “won” about seven separate contests and was eligible for a share of more than $18 million in prizes.

The letters gave him various ways to obtain his unexplained fortune. He could send in $20 in order to register or to cover the cost of verifying his identification.

Another letter, signed by “Joe Ryan, Accounting Department,” offered him a puzzle to solve: “20 + 5 = 25, 21 or 23?” Simply circle the right answer to become a winner.

“This is a contest of skill,” Joe Ryan explained, “not a lottery, game of chance or gambling,” which would be illegal under postal regulations.

The letter contained an official looking “Stamp Of Approval from the Accounting Department.”

Another offer said the Lewiston man had already won some portion of $8.6 million.

The fine print explained that there would be one $10,000 prize, one $1,000 dollar prize, one $100 prize and one $50 prize. The odds of winning any of those prizes “are 1 in 3,000,000,” it said.

The major prize winners of that $11,150 bonanza would be notified by mail, with no further mention of the advertised $8.6 million.

But the odds of winning a $1 prize were 1 in 1, allowing the scammers to technically claim that everyone receiving the letter had “won.” There would be no mail notification of those “winners,” and there were no instructions for receiving the $1 prize.

“The cash is definitely yours,” the announcement letter said, “as guaranteed by law!”

The elderly man admitted he had brought this inadvertent avalanche of scams upon himself. He had responded to a single contest announcement by mailing in the $20 entry fee, and he had receiving nothing in return.

Soon he was being inundated with similar offers from around the U.S. and from as far away as Australia.

Clearly, the first company had sold his name, and likely thousands of others like it, to other thieves in the same business.

The local man had been identified as a possible mark, or sucker, or pigeon or a patsy — a potential target for a swindler.

Now, other liars and cheaters were lining up to help drain his bank account.

These letters are really sent by unprincipled leeches who prey upon trusting people, particularly the elderly.

These scammers dream up official-sounding names for their organizations, names they probably change with regularity, sometimes to stay one step ahead of law enforcement.

In this bundle of scams we found PriAir, with its “Notice of Pending Cash Award,” loaded with official looking stamps, bar codes and “Authorization” signatures.

The PriAir contest is a scam, according to several Web sites that track fraud.

There was also UBI Payment Services in his stack, with its “Guaranteed Delivery Statement,” and Capital Management Group with its warning that you will “be responsible for any taxes that may become due” on your “prize.”

Monetary Benefit Delivery company enclosed an “actual Certificate of Authenticity” and required a “Sworn Statement of Identity,” which was just a signature line.

All these offers fall into a common category of misrepresentation called an unexpected prize scam.

These con men ask you to buy a ticket, pay a fee, provide personal information or call a premium-rate phone number that usually starts with 190.

When you call, the scammers will keep you on the phone for as long as possible, or have you listen to an endless prerecorded message as the expensive telephone minutes add up.

Obviously, these scams are successful and the unsavory people behind them continue to make money by depriving trusting people of their hard-earned cash.

These offers should go directly into the trash can. Do not respond. Do not write back, call, send money or provide personal information, security experts warn.

If you are tempted to respond, talk to a friend, neighbor or relative first. Or talk to the police.

Remember, strangers do not give money away. These people are simply looking for a way into your wallet or purse.

They will gladly drain your life savings, if they can, and leave you with little or nothing in return.

Don’t give them that opportunity.

[email protected]

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.


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