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In honor of my Caught Dead in Wyoming mystery series, my assistant Kay Coyte is writing for my newsletter and blog a series of consumer tips inspired by TV reporter Elizabeth Danniher.

I haven’t seen much Publishers Clearing House junk mail these days – maybe a new address has helped. But I sometimes see its network TV ads zip past in fast-forward, so the Prize Patrol is still on the road. (How does PCH make money, you ask? According to its Facebook page, “Sources of revenue for the company are online and mobile advertising, lead generation and the sale of merchandise and magazines.”)

Scammers have always seen opportunity in the hope and excitement of a possible sweepstakes windfall, and today’s hard times have many looking for any answer to money woes. AARP recently reported that sweepstakes and lottery scams are going strong. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission received nearly 125,000 reports of fraud involving prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries that swindled the unwary out of $121 million. The median loss was $860.

Jim Kreidler, an FTC consumer education specialist, last month wrote a cautionary article about reports of calls from con artists pretending to represent PCH or Reader’s Digest. After the congratulations for your luck in winning a car or $1 million or thousands “a week for life” comes the catch: you’ll need to pony up a “processing fee,” “taxes” or “shipping and handling” to claim your prize.

Kreidler notes that PCH “never notifies winners in advance. And anyone who says, ‘You’ve won. Now pay us,’ is always scammer.”

If you get such a call, the FTC suggests you consider:

– Legitimate sweepstakes don’t make you pay a fee to get your prize. Nor will they ask for your checking account or credit card number to validate a sweepstakes claim.
– Don’t send money transfers or gift cards, or give personal information. Sending money transfers or gift cards (or providing the card numbers) is like sending cash: once the money’s gone, you can’t trace it or get it back.
– Don’t trust your caller ID. Scammers can make any name or number show up on your caller ID. I recently answered a robocall that tricked me by using “Norton Health” – a large hospital and medical provider in Kentucky – as its caller ID.

And here’s a few more tips from AARP:

– If you didn’t enter a contest and are told you won, it’s a scam. You can’t win a legitimate sweepstakes or lottery that you didn’t enter.
– Don’t fall for (or share) social media messages or posts that appear to be from celebrities or business moguls offering a big cash giveaway.
– Don’t call a number with an 876, 809 or 284 area code to confirm that you’ve won a prize. Those codes belong to (in order) Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and the British Virgin Islands, which have become hotspots for contest fraud and other scams.