While local residents have yet to fully experience summer’s increased temperatures, they have experienced another area in which things have really heated up.
Scam artists claiming to represent a range of organizations, from reputable companies to make-believe lotteries, have made false promises of riches galore in an effort to separate Atmore and Escambia residents from their money.
“It’s all over the place,” said Atmore Police Chief Chuck Brooks. They’re basically all the same scam, but there’s so many variations of it. There’s one called the Brazilian Lottery, there’s one called the Jamaican Lottery, there’s the Publishers Clearing House scam, and there are several others. In every one of them, they tell people to send them a check for $950 or some figure to pay the processing fee or taxes on the money, and they will send the person $34.5 million or some figure like that.”
A large number of the scam attempts have come from an 876 area code, which is a Jamaican telephone exchange, from callers who have become more brazen in their attempts to pull off the con.
Diane Elkins of Atmore was one of the intended victims who received such a call. Elkins said she received a call saying she had won $750,000 from Publisher’s Clearing House, which runs a legitimate annual sweepstakes.
“The fellow that called told me to go to Walmart and get a gift card to pay the one-percent tax on the money I won,” she said. “They left a phone number, 1-876-286-2023, and when my daughter looked this number up in Google, it came back as Jamaica.”
The local woman said she enters the PCH sweepstakes on a regular basis, but quickly got a feeling from her caller that “the whole thing was just a scam.” She said she hung up, but the bogus lottery official called back in a very few minutes. When her son-in-law, Don Little, answered the phone, the caller insisted on speaking to Elkins again.
“I told him that I was handling that kind of thing for her, but he demanded that I put her on the phone,” said Little, who reported the calls to police. “I hung up, and he called back again.”
Robert Johnson, also an Atmore resident, was promised the same amount of prize money as Elkins, but from a different source.
“They told me they were from something like the Worldwide Clearing House, and that I had won $750,000 in the Mega Millions Sweepstake,” recalled Johnson, who had been contacted numerous times in the past by other scam artists. “They gave me a confirmation number and asked me if I would be home that day. They told me what kind of vehicle they would be driving, a brown van like a UPS truck, and that there would be some paperwork to sign. Then they would go to my bank with me, take my check and deliver my check to me.”
Johnson said that when he hesitated and informed the caller that he “would not sign anything until he was sure of what he was getting,” the alleged scammer began to lay a thicker line.
“They told me there would be two beautiful women there and that they would take pictures,” he laughed. “They asked me if I wanted to have my close family members or the paparazzi there. They did their best to try and sound professional.”
The caller identified himself as “Ralph Luther of Mobile,” and that’s when Johnson’s last doubt that he was being scammed disappeared.
“First, he didn’t pronounce ‘Mobile’ right,” Johnson continued. “Plus, I heard a rooster crow in the background. When I told him that was the only business I ever heard of that had chickens in the office, he said it was his watch alarm, letting him know that it was time for his coffee break.”
Johnson also said that he had been contacted several times through his computer by persons who took control of his computer, locked it up and offered to prevent others from getting into it by selling him a firewall. He said he has received three more contacts from the same scammer or scammers since the first one, including two that came in on a new phone he purchased.
Elkins also wondered how those who tried to scam her knew that she was a possible candidate for a con.
“I enter the Publisher Clearing House all the time, but how did these people know that?” she asked. “I have an unlisted number, too, so this makes me think that somebody has been getting my information from the applications I filled out when I entered the sweepstakes. I don’t know how else they would know that I entered, or how to get in touch with me.”
The Better Business Bureau has addressed the PCH scam on its website, noting that “Publishers Clearing House reports that they do not call anyone to notify them that they’ve won money. If you’ve won less than $600.00 they will mail you a check. If you’ve won between $601 and $10,000.00, an affidavit is mailed, which must be completed and returned, and after the information has been verified, a check is sent by mail to the winner. If you’ve won more than $10,000.00, the prize patrol delivers the money in person.”
Those who receive suspicious calls from persons claiming to represent the sweepstakes are urged to call the PCH fraud hot line at 800-392-4190 and report the attempt. The website also includes a note that PCH “does not exist in Jamaica.”
The BBB also offers the following tips to help you avoid any scams claiming that you have won something:
* You can’t win a contest you didn’t enter;
* You should never pay in order to receive a prize – not even a small fee;
* Never give your personal information to a stranger over the phone or Internet;
* It is illegal to participate in a foreign lottery by using U.S. mail services.
Brooks said he’s surprised that some people still let themselves become victims of such cons.
“We (law enforcement agencies) tell people all the time, and they see it on (local television newscasts) all the time,” he said. “Everybody should know better, but some folks still fall for it.”