IT PAYS TO KNOW: If You Didn’t Enter, You Didn’t Win

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Judd new 3.14By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.

If you’re looking for a good movie to see before the 86th Academy Awards on March 2, I would suggest seeing “Nebraska.” Now I’m not a movie critic, but “Nebraska” has been nominated for six Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay. (Warning — this column contains spoilers.)

What I liked about the movie was that it focused on things I could understand and relate to. If you know an 80-something-year-old man — stubborn and senile — you’ll relate to it too. The movie is about a pathetic (yet endearing) quest of Woody Grant, who foolishly believes he has won a $1 million sweepstakes.

Since Woody can’t drive anymore, the movie opens with him walking down the highway on his way to collect his prize in Lincoln, Nebraska on foot. From his home in Billings, Montana, it’s a 900-mile trek in the freezing cold. After the local law officer takes Woody back to the station, his son picks him up and eventually agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska to claim his prize.

At the sweepstakes office in Nebraska, Woody is informed that his number was not a winning number. As a consolation, the secretary offers him the choice between a backpack or a hat. “The hat,” Woody answers. The son asks, “Does this happen often?” The secretary answers, “Every so often, mostly people like your dad. Does he have Alzheimer’s?”

Did you know that the elderly lose more than $1 billion a year to scam artists? Lottery and sweepstakes scammers tend to prey upon the elderly. If you are 65 and older, you’re nearly three times more likely to fall for prize promotion schemes compared with other Americans. (Source: Federal Trade Commission)

In an Oct. 15, 2013 article, AARP writer Sid Kirchheimer says, “You get an email, phone call or letter saying you’ve won a jackpot, often a foreign lottery. But there’s a caveat: To receive your winnings, you’re told, you have to first pay taxes, or fees for insurance or other expenses. It’s usually requested via a wire transfer or Green Dot prepaid Money Pak card. You send off the money, and guess what? No payout ever arrives.”

The article suggests that when lottery fever hits, you know these 10 facts to keep you from being the target of a lottery scam:

1. Any lottery or sweepstakes requiring up-front fees is a scam. The one exception involves “skill contests” (solving puzzles, submitting recipes, etc.), where participation may legally require a small entry fee or purchase.

But know that if you do win a legitimate contest, a portion of your jackpot may immediately be withheld for federal and state taxes, and you’re responsible to pay any balance when filing that year’s taxes (the IRS and your home state are notified of winners).

2. If you didn’t enter a contest, you didn’t win — no matter what you may be told. If you play Powerball or a state lottery and win, it’s up to you to produce the ticket as proof; lottery officials don’t contact you.

3. If congratulations come with a check — with instructions to deposit it and send a portion back — the check’s a fake. No legitimate contest issues partial-payment checks and asks for a portion back. Counterfeit checks are often used in lottery scams. Your bank may accept them and credit your account. But if you forward any funds, you’ll lose them and will be on the hook for any other money drawn from that deposit.

4. Beware of regional rip-offs, too. Scammers sometimes set up phony state lottery websites. The latest spin: county-themed cons, like one recently targeting seniors and veterans and purporting to be from San Diego County.

5. The $7,000-a-week-for-life prize in the popular Publishers Clearing House contest will be announced Nov. 26, and mailings for 2014 will follow months later. So prepare for a new season of scams claiming you’ve won the PCH.

6. Duped once? You’ll be targeted again, maybe right away. If you send up-front fees for a contest, expect to be hounded for additional fees to claim that same nonexistent prize. It may be touted as a larger jackpot than originally promised. And your name will likely find its way onto scammer-shared “sucker lists” that detail names, contact info and even specific pitches that victims fall for, for use in future fake winning notifications.

7. Clues to a sweepstakes swindle are often in the fine-print “rules.” It’s a sure scam if any of the following required info is missing: start and end dates; judging date; methods of entry, including judging criteria; type of proof of purchase required; description of prizes and approximate retail values; legal disclaimers; and sponsor’s name and address. Even with these included, it’s wise to do an online check of the contest name before entering.

8. If a “skill” contest seems too easy, it may be a scam. Likely the real purpose is to collect entry fees and personal information. Legitimate contests only ask for your name, address, email or phone number. It’s identity thieves who seek more sensitive data, such as Social Security numbers and driver’s license and bank account numbers.

9. Told you’re “guaranteed” to win something? Another scam, since that claim is usually illegal. The same applies to simulated checks or items of value in sweepstakes or skill contests that don’t prominently bear the words “SPECIMEN” or “NON-NEGOTIABLE.”

10. Threatened with violence or arrest if you don’t pay up-front fees? That’s the calling card of Jamaican scammers, who’ve made up to 30,000 phone calls per day to American lottery “winners.” They rely on sucker lists for your name. They call saying they’re at a public place near your house and are coming to rough you up (they find out about that place through online maps). Incoming calls with area code 876 indicate they’re still in their homeland, though — too far for a beating, or to apply handcuffs.

The same author wrote a related article for AARP dated Aug. 20, 2013, entitled “Protect Your Parents from Scams.” If you are the adult child of an elderly parent who is being targeted, Sid Kirchheimer says, “Giving your parents stern warnings or demanding power of attorney to control their finances may seem like the way to go — but often those tactics come with nasty emotional fallout.”

So how can you help your parents without hurting their feelings? The article suggests the following four approaches that might work:

1. Don’t just tell your parent to hang up or throw out the letter. Have a talk about why. You can’t win a contest you didn’t enter, Dad. You never have to pay fees to collect lottery winnings, Mom. Government agencies don’t make unsolicited phone calls and never ask for personal information — why would they? They’ve already got it on file.

2. Don’t shame or blame. Remind them what they taught you decades ago: Don’t trust strangers — especially those seeking personal information and money.

3. Try some reverse psychology. If you become aware that an aged parent is playing a sweepstakes or making a “double your money” investment, ask how you can do the same. Psychologists say this tactic sometimes prompts a warning — your parent doesn’t want you to lose money, too. That’s your cue to ask, “Then why do you do it?” This could start a conversation that helps the parent come to terms with the scam.

4. Turn patsies into protectors. Talk with your victimized parents about how their experience could be important for other people facing the same situation: “The authorities are looking for these guys, so maybe you can help others.” This may make them willing to part with the details of what happened.

In the meantime, stay alert for the warning signs. If you don’t live nearby, ask a trusted neighbor to be your eyes and ears. What kind of mail is coming into the house? Does there seem to be a pattern of scam callers on the phone? These could suggest that your folks are on “sucker lists” for sweepstakes and “investment opportunities.” These lists are developed and sold among scammers to identify past victims as candidates for future fraud.

Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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