By Jim Palmer
I was a teenager when I first received mail from Ed McMahon and Dick Clark. Well... not personal mail from Ed and Dick, but their picture was on the front of the envelope. The letters were from American Family Publishers, a now defunct marketing business that sold magazine subscriptions. The company was best known for its mailings that said things like “You May Have Already Won $10 Million!” or “You Are A Top Ten Finalist And Will Be Paid $5 Million,” or “It’s A Two Person Race for $11 Million.”
These mailings promised big winnings. All you had to do is return your “winning number” by a certain date and you a were probably a millionaire. Of course, these mailings were not just filled with big promises. They were also filled with lots of fine print, too.
Last month, while cleaning out some boxes in the garage, I found some stuff from my high school and college years. Included in one box was a stack of letters from Ed and Dick. The letters were in near mint condition. None of the letters had been opened and I never sent anything back to them. So... you may be asking, why did I keep them? Two reasons -- One, I liked to collect weird things back then. I was a teenager and teenagers do weird things. And two, I thought they might come in handy if I decided to go into journalism, buy a senior newspaper and write a column in that senior newspaper someday... 30 years in the future. Well... here we are!
In the mailings, I was notified that I was a finalist; then I apparently moved in the top 218,609 nationwide, then I was a top five candidate, a top three winner and finally the confirmed winner of $10 million! Wow. That was quite a run! After looking at the fine print, the finals actually came down to me and David Brumbalow of Los Angeles, California, for the $10 million prize. And he must have won, unless there is a check in one of these unopened envelopes. This all happened without me sending in one entry form.
Of course, it really wasn’t between just the two of us, and drawings like this aren’t always legit. Sometimes they are scams trying to get more personal information or money out the unsuspecting entry “winners.” American Family Publishers no longer exists. While they did give out cash prizes, the misleading marketing techniques were questioned and eventually challenged in court. A court order forced a change to their marketing strategy and the company was eventually sold and later filed for bankruptcy in 1998. American Family Publishers wasn’t classified a full fledged scam operation, since drawings were held, but it has many of the elements that scammers use today -- big claims, request for information, sense of urgency, etc.
Just in the last week, the word scam has come up three times in my life. One involved a call on my cell phone, one was a shipping scam we sniffed out before making a purchase on Facebook Marketplace, and one involved one our staff members, whose mother was scammed out of quite a bit of money over the phone.
Law enforcement agencies at the local, state and national levels are consistently trying to catch scammers and inform the public about possible scams. And senior citizens are by far the most targeted age group when it comes to scams. It is important that everyone (especially seniors) is aware of the different types of scams so red flags come up when they are approached by a scammer. Often times, the scammers are very believable, which makes it all the more important to be aware and suspicious.
The following information comes directly from the office that helps give direction on scams at the national level (www.usa.gov/common-scams-frauds). These are some of the most common scams in America right now:
During the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, scammers may try to take advantage of you through misinformation and scare tactics. They might get in touch by phone, email, postal mail, text or social media. Protect your money and your identity by not sharing personal information like your bank account number, Social Security number or date of birth.
Telephone scammers try to steal your money or personal information. Scams may come through phone calls from real people, robocalls or text messages. Callers often make false promises, such as opportunities to buy products, invest your money or receive free product trials. They may also offer you money through free grants and lotteries. Some scammers may call with threats of jail or lawsuits if you don’t pay them.
Banking scams involve attempts to access your bank account. Use this information to recognize, report and protect yourself from them.
Government Grant Scams
Government grant scammers try to get your money by guaranteeing you a grant for costs like college or home repairs. They ask for your checking account information. With it, they say they will “deposit the grant money into your account” or withdraw a “one-time processing fee.” In reality, government grants are rarely awarded to individuals. They usually go to state and local governments, universities, and other organizations. The money is awarded to help pay for research and projects that benefit the public.
Lottery and Sweepstakes Scams
Prize scammers try to get your money or personal information through fake lotteries, sweepstakes, or other contests. Many claim that you’ve won a prize but must pay a fee to collect it. Others require you to provide personal information to enter a “contest.” These scams may reach you by postal mail, email, phone call, robocall, or text message.
Some scammers set up fake organizations to take advantage of the public’s generosity. They especially take advantage of tragedies and disasters.
How to know if you are being scammed?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers the following signs that someone is a attempting to scam you...
• Scammers PRETEND to be from an organization you know.
• Scammers say there’s a problem or a prize.
• Scammers pressure you to act immediately.
• Scammers tell you to pay in a specific way.
What can you do to prevent being scammed? The FTC offers up these suggestions...
• Block unwanted calls and text messages.
• Don’t give your personal or financial information in response to a request that you didn’t expect. Legitimate organizations won’t call, email, or text to ask for your personal information, like your Social Security, bank account, or credit card numbers.
• If you get an email or text message from a company you do business with and you think it’s real, it’s still best not to click on any links. Instead, contact them using a website you know is trustworthy. Or look up their phone number. Don’t call a number they gave you or the number from your caller ID.
• Resist the pressure to act immediately. Legitimate businesses will give you time to make a decision. Anyone who pressures you to pay or give them your personal information is a scammer.
• Know how scammers tell you to pay. Never pay someone who insists you pay with a gift card or by using a money transfer service. And never deposit a check and send money back to someone.
• Stop and talk to someone you trust. Before you do anything else, tell someone — a friend, a family member, a neighbor — what happened.
Reporting a scam or fraud is also important. The FTC advises that you report any suspicious activity to ReportFraud.ftc.gov. You can also report fraud to your local law enforcement.
The more you know about scams, the faster those red flags will go up and the better chance you have at keeping those scams away.
Note: This was supposed to be the end of the column... but as I was proofreading it, I got a call on my cell phone with a recorded message, “You are the winner of a $100 gift card to Target. Call us back to find out the details.” It just never ends.