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Scammers say "Merry Christmas" to area residents

Some local residents are receiving a lottery scam letter in their mail boxes that may look familiar. The same form letter was received by thousands of U.S. citizens last year, particularly in southern states like Tennessee.

Some area residents have reported receiving official-looking letters in the mail that claim they won a $4.5 million prize during the October release of the “Mega Millions Spanish sweepstake international lottery” in Madrid, Spain.

The letter states that the recipient's name was entered in the lottery as an independent client and “selected through Visa Card, Master Card, American Express Card & Computer ballot system draw.”

The recipients are told to begin the process of claiming their lottery winnings immediately by contacting their claim agent, Rev. Miguel Angel.

Aside from having a really trustworthy name, Angel is also the foreign services manager of “Diamond Trust Security & Finance,” according to the letter.

His contact information is provided for the winners to call for specifics or rather, as it states in the letter, “for the processing and remittance of your prize winning prize to a designated choice of yours.”

The international phone number provided begins, after the prefix, with 34, Spain’s country code.

The prefix “011” on all the company’s listed phone lines indicates that the scam is specifically targeting people in North America.

It's explained in the letter that the winner is expected to make themselves available in the Madrid office to claim their millions.

In the event that the winner is somehow unable to make it over to the Madrid office, the company will be generous enough to send the prize money directly to them, but only after a few fees have been paid.

“A home delivery fee and insurance fee will have to be paid to our accredited diplomat before your certified check will be sent to your home address,” the letter’s writer explains. “Consequently, a wire transfer could also be made directly into your bank account however you must be responsible for the cost of Transfer Charges.

“This is the responsibility of the winner in order to avoid unnecessary delays and complications,” they write. “Therefore no deduction whatsoever is permitted to be made from your winning prize.”

Most people who own a phone or receive mail have likely been contacted by someone offering a deal or prize that was either too good to be true or just plain nonsense.

A good majority of people will quickly recognize that they are corresponding with a scammer and generally cease communication.

Others might even have some fun receiving calls from "IRS agents" demanding delinquent taxes be paid via iTunes gift cards.

However, some unlucky area residents have failed to spot the scams in the past and have lost thousands of dollars as a result.

Elderly people appear to fall victim to these fraud schemes in higher numbers. Some may not recognize the red flags or warning signs that are sometimes hiding in small print.

In this particular scam, several red flags stand out immediately.

The requirement of fees to be paid upfront and the fact that the recipient had never entered the lottery were obvious signs of a scam.

Smaller red flags came with the poor grammar and the fact that the letter is nearly identical to a scam letter that made its way to mailboxes across Tennessee last summer.

The contact names on the new letters being sent to St. Francois County have been changed but some of the phone numbers have remained the same, including the office number of “Mega Millions Commission Board President, Don. Raul Martinez.”

The scammer’s technique does show signs of improvement from last summer as they’ve added some graphics behind the letter body and the letterhead now contains a Christmas stamp to add a touch of holiday cheer.

In an attempt to make the document look more official, page designers added a bar code below the stolen Mega Millions logo at the bottom of the page. The illusion is lost when the bar code is scanned and revealed to have come from the packaging of a new-age jazz collection titled, “Assemblage 1998-2008: A Ten-Year Retrospective.”

A scammer can print anything they want and distribute it to millions of people. They don’t necessarily expect millions of responses but, by playing the law of averages, they are all but guaranteed to get a few hundred responses from people who read the top lines of the letter, saw the familiar Mega Millions logo at the bottom of the page, and ran to the phone.

“Basically you're not going to win a Missouri Lottery prize, including Mega Millions prize, unless you've bought a ticket,” explained Wendy Baker, communications manager for the Missouri Lottery. “And we will never reach out to someone and ask for personal information over the phone to tell them that they have won.”

She said the Missouri Lottery would also never involve a third-party finance company in the claims process like the “Diamond Trust Security & Finance” company to which the fraudulent letter directs its recipients.

Baker further explained that the Mega Millions program is only operated within the U.S.

“These kinds of things make the rounds once in a while,” said Baker. “So we just always want to encourage our players to make sure that they're not giving up that information and if they have any questions at all, they can call us here and we can kind of talk them through the steps [in determining if it's a legitimate Missouri lottery ticket claim.]”

Ultimately in this case, even if the lottery claim had been real and wasn't a scam, it's illegal for any U.S. citizen to enter a foreign lottery. Additionally, Missouri law prohibits lotteries from being played through the mail.

The Missouri Lottery and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have several online resources for not only learning about scams like these but also for reporting scams, robocalls, harassment, and other crimes to authorities.

The FTC’s Consumer resource website has several scam databases and information on what to do when encountering or falling victim to a certain scam. Visit the FTC to stay up-to-date on the latest types of scams in the works at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0030-pass-it.

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Bobby Radford is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at bradford@dailyjournalonline.com

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