Nigerian Sweepstakes Lottery Fraud from Canada
12/07 - The check looked real and everything seemed on the up and up.
Well known names, like Reader's Digest and Publishers Clearing House, were among several on a letterhead that accompanied the check sent to a Gaffney couple from a sweepstakes. How could their good luck be anything but legitimate?
Six months after depositing their apparent winnings in their bank account, Clyde and Joy Taylor now find themselves climbing a relative mountain of debt.
The sweepstakes check was a scam and the Taylors say their bank, SunTrust, is demanding repayment of all the funds the scam depleted from their account - and then some.
As far removed as possible today from the good luck they initially imagined, the 80-year-old Clyde and 74-year-old Joy say they've already lost about $1,000 of their Social Security income and the bank's collection department wanted $2,000 more, paid within four months, to make things right again, Joy Taylor said.
Such a repayment schedule would have eaten more than half of the Social Security payments they receive each month. And while all this was going on, late fees, overdraft fees and bounced check fees kept deepening the hole they fell in.
"We've been in hell for the past six months," Joy said.
While it's little consolation, they're not alone.
"(These scams are) more prevalent here now than ever and seniors are being targeted," warned Alice Brooks of South Carolina Consumer Affairs. "The thinking behind that is seniors tend to be more trusting and not as much in the know of new scam techniques."
The Better Business Bureau of the Upstate recently estimated that more than 3,000 Upstate residents fall prey each year to such ripoffs.
Anyone, however, can be a target, Brooks said. "How many of us have been tempted by lesser scams, like eat all you want and lose weight while you sleep?"
While investigators and U.S. Postal Service inspectors have been having success in catching scams domestically, Brooks said it's often difficult to track down thieves and make recoveries when money is sent overseas.
The Taylors' refrigerator and freezer now are practically empty. With no money, the bills have been piling up. Unable to comply with a warning letter from the bank, their case has since been transferred to a collection agency.
Even bankruptcy apparently is not an option. They were told by an attorney it would cost $1,500 to file.
"If we had $1,500, we could make payments," Joy said with an irony-tinged sigh.
Responding in an e-mail to questions about the situation, a spokesman for SunTrust Bank said he could not discuss any specific customer's accounts or business dealings.
"Bottom line on issues of this nature is that an individual is ultimately responsible for items deposited into their account," spokesman Hugh Suhr wrote. "Therefore they should know and trust who they are doing business with."
Although computers have taken over much of the chores in banking, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of the Comptroller for the Currency in Washington, D.C., which regulates national banks, said criminals have been getting very inventive at taking advantage of banking rules designed to benefit the consumer.
Funds from a deposited check generally have to be made available within 48 to 72 hours under uniform rules for banking, said OCC spokesman Kevin Mukri, but that doesn't mean the check has cleared.
"The bank is actually advancing the money to you (when it cashes or deposits a check)," he said. "The rules are written to help consumers."
Scam artists, however, know the same guidelines and they purposefully try to delay the amount of time between a bank's posting of funds from a check and when the check is cleared, such as by routing a check to the Federal Reserve bank located farthest away.
Under the rules, however, he said consumers ultimately remain responsible for the checks they cash or deposit.
The scam that snared the Taylors was far from rudimentary.
The Taylors received notice last June through the mail they won a sweepstakes and were given a genuine-looking check for $2,980. A finely-crafted letter congratulated them on their good fortune and directed them to call a number for redemption information. A smooth-talking operator then took over, walking them through the process.
Applicable laws, they were told, required them to send back $2,500 from the $2,980 check to cover taxes, fees and the like. Once paid, the remainder of the sweepstake money would be forthcoming.
The check purportedly was being drawn on a Chase Bank account of a Mesquite, Texas-based company. It was deposited on June 7 and the couple waited until June 12 before redeeming the funds, believing that had been enough time for the check to clear.
Unfortunately, they withdrew funds from their account that never existed and sent the $2,500 to an address in England. By the time the check was deemed bogus it was too late. Their account was negative, leading to bounced checks, unpaid bills, and now ongoing trouble with their bank and a collection agency.
Knowing there might be little, if anything, that can be done to ease their situation, the Taylors were willing to tell their story as an example to others about the danger out there. "Be careful," Joy warned. "This is what we have to look forward to until we pass on."
The golden rules of protecting yourself in situations like this is that you should never have to send money to get money, and anything that sounds too good to be true is too good to be true, Brooks said.
If you have specific questions about an offer or notice you receive in the mail, you can check it out with Consumer Affairs by calling 1-800-922-1594. You also can contact your local U.S. Postal Inspector.