Phil Luciano: Check every check
Usually, I'm no sucker.
At least, I like to think that's the case. No one wants to think of himself as an easy mark.
I routinely get complaints from people who sniff out a scam. If it's something new or targeting the elderly, this paper will typically run a cautionary story. Usually, though, most cons involve the kind of ruse most of us can easily identify, like propositions about Nigerian lotteries.
But I tell you, if I were to get a check like one sent to Homer Williams, I would've run to the bank to cash it.
It looks real. Really real.
I get bogus checks all the time in the mail. They carry some sort of tiny-print disclaimer, usually something about the act of cashing the check putting you on a financial hook of joining some club or buying some item or otherwise ensnaring your wallet.
But this one, which arrived on a Friday, looked legit. So Williams and his wife did a happy dance and spent a weekend thinking how they would spend the $2,900.
"My wife and I were talking about a nice college fund for our kids, Disney and maybe taking a (second) honeymoon," he says. "Then common sense kicked into gear."
The following Monday, he called the company whose logo graced a letter that had come with the check: Prize America. It also carried the logo of Publishers Clearing House. Further, the check bore the name of a third firm, Usana Sense Co. Inc.
Three companies? Hmmm.
Still, Williams gamely spoke to someone at the other end of the listed "customer-service" line. The voice on the other end repeatedly assured Williams that the check was bona fide.
Echoing the letter, the rep told Williams that the check would cover taxes on his big prize: $35,000. Williams said the amount seemed generous, especially since he and his wife absolutely never enter sweepstakes.
"That's OK," the voice said cheerfully. "Sometimes you just get lucky."
The voice never pressed him for anything else. Nor did the letter - as with Nigerian lottery scams and other frauds - ask for any money.
Still, Williams smelled a rat. After he got off the phone, he called CEFCU, where he is a member, and the Illinois Attorney General's Office. Both said he had been targeted at random as a pigeon. Both told him not to cash the check.
Says Tom Hafele, a loss-prevention specialist at CEFCU, "I have a drawer full of checks like this, and I've seen different forms of this letter."
He says all unsolicited sweepstakes checks should be greeted with high suspicions. He says you should ask yourself, "Why am I getting this?"
In other words, if you didn't enter, you shouldn't be getting any prizes. Plus, don't rush off to cash any check unless you're absolutely sure of its authenticity. Whoever cashes a bogus check must reimburse the banking institution where it was cashed.
And don't make the mistake of keeping the money in an account to let it sit around until it feels "safe" to spend, says Natalie Baugher, spokeswoman for the Illinois Attorney General's Office. People have tried that tactic before, only to spend the money and find out much later that the check is bogus.
"There is no protection" with time, she says.
So what are these fake-sweepstakes outfits trying to do? Likely, had Williams cashed the check, he would have been contacted by another voice from Prize America, telling him to send money to the alleged company to pay purported taxes or fees. Coincidently, that sum likely would've been exactly $2,900, the amount of the check.
The voice also would have promised to send the rest of the $35,000 prize. Of course, it never would come. And Williams would have to reimburse $2,900 to CEFCU or whoever else were to cash the check.
Baugher says scammers are more subtle and slick these days. Technology allows them to crank out legit-looking checks, and their demands for money are more of a soft touch. They reel you in slowly, and no hard sell is needed.
I'd like to talk with the people with Prize America. Oddly, though it's supposedly headquartered in Niagara Falls, N.Y., it has a very un-American phone number in Quebec. No matter: That number is now disconnected. And if you pop "Prize America" into the Internet, you'll find numerous hits, a great many also including the word "fraud."
So, if you get a check like this, don't cash it. Instead, contact the attorney general's consumer-fraud line: (800) 243-0618. Or, check out illinoisattorneygeneral.gov
Remember, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Even if the check looks good.
Phil Luciano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (309) 686-3155.