Hey, you've just won $3.5 million! Now, send us $99

The call of a lifetime can turn into a nuisance call.

Any day now, any one of us can pick up the phone and hear the amazing news that we've won a million dollars or more. Trouble is, it's a scam, and you could end up losing.

The other day, my sister Linda picked up the phone and a man told her she had won $3.5 million. The more he talked, the more legitimate he sounded. He kept saying he was from Publishers Clearing House, and they could be delivering a check soon.

"This is real," he said over and over again.

My sister handed the phone to her husband, Larry. All they had to do was register and pay $99.99 via a wire transfer within the next 45 minutes. Publishers Clearing House, the man claimed, had a crew sitting in the neighborhood.

"Look, why do I have to pay money to get money?" Larry said sarcastically before hanging up the phone.

The scammer called back immediately to try to get them going again. Fortunately, my sister and her husband didn't fall for it. At one point, though, it did sound really good, my sister said.

The lottery scam, the sweepstakes scam and what some call the Publishers Clearing House scam are alive and well this fall.

A Texas woman was told she won $3.5 million and would get $10,000 a month for life. But she hung up after being asked to pay a $25,000 registration fee. But a Kansas man in his seventies paid taxes upfront to receive his nonexistent prize. He lost about $575.

Publishers Clearing House says it never informs a winner of a major prize by phone. The company also won't ask anyone to send money to claim a prize — or pay taxes or a registration fee upfront.

And be careful about Facebook posts you supposedly received from the company. They're not making friend requests on Facebook, either. Doug Johnson, senior vice president of payments and cyber security policy for the American Bankers Association, said the scam is one of several recurring schemes that bank tellers are trained to spot to protect customers.

"It's part of standard teller training," he said.

Another common scam is a really scary one. Sometimes a bank customer is talked into withdrawing a large sum of money by a con artist pretending to be a bank examiner. The "examiner" has convinced the older customer that they can help catch a bad guy. The customer withdraws the money and turns it over to so-called "authorities," who are the scammers.

Con artists work throughout the year. But the big sweepstakes scam can be more popular as we move closer to the big budget holiday season.

"People are particularly excited about having money around the holidays, frankly," Johnson said. "The person thinks they have a little windfall going."

The Michigan Attorney General's office said it has received 11 complaints against Publisher’s Clearing House in the past year, two of which were related to scam phone calls. Michigan consumers can file complaints with the state's AG office by calling 517-373-1140 or going online at mi.gov/ag.

Americans are receiving more than 30 million nuisance calls every day just to their mobile phones, according to a survey by First Orion, an Arkansas company that sells caller ID technology.

More than 4% of those surveyed gave away credit card information to a scammer — which would add up to more than 15 million Americans getting tricked.  And those who gave their Social Security number increased to 2.4% from 1% in last year — which accounts for nearly 10 million U.S. mobile subscribers, the report said.

Scammers aren't just using the phone, of course.

The Federal Trade Commission in September sued a handful of companies and people that allegedly mailed hundreds of thousands of notices proclaiming "YOU HAVE WON A CASH PRIZE!"

These guaranteed "cash prizes" sounded wonderful and ranged from $800,000 and up.

But to receive the prize, you had  to pay a fee of $25 or more before an expiration date.

The deceptive notices came from fictitious companies, such as Paulson Independent Distributors; International Procurement Center; Keller, Sloan & Associates, and Phelps Ingram Distributors, the FTC said.

According to the FTC's complaint, the defendants received substantial sums from consumers who responded to the personalized letters.

A legitimate sweepstakes is not asking you to pay taxes, shipping and handling charges, registration fees or processing fees in order to get a prize. You can file complaints about such scams at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

Contact Susan Tompor: stompor@freepress.com or 313-222-8876. Follow her on Twitter @Tompor.


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