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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/11/2010 6:13:03 PM ET 2010-02-11T23:13:03

Successful con artists know how to make themselves look and sound legitimate. A favorite trick is to use the name of a reputable company or organization. Right now, scammers are targeting people across the country claiming to be with the Better Business Bureau. And according to the real BBB, the crooks have already stolen tens of thousands of dollars this way.

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The swindle is simple and mighty appealing. You get a call or e-mail from someone who says they’re with the BBB congratulating you on winning millions of dollars in a lottery. All you have to do to claim your prize is wire off a few thousand dollars to supposedly cover taxes or fees.

“We don’t appreciate scammers treading on our good name,” says Alison Southwick with the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Alexandria, Va.

In some cases, the scammers use the names of real BBB employees and direct suspicious victims to legitimate bios and profiles on the real Better Business Bureau Web site. What a deviously clever way to build confidence.

“These scam artists are like cockroaches,” says Chris Hadley, director of operations at the BBB in Columbia, S.C. “Times are difficult right now, and they prey on folks who really need that money.”

Hadley tells me he recently heard from an elderly gentleman who took the bait, several times, and got reeled in for $80,000. The callers posed as members of the Better Business Bureau and the FBI. They assured the victim that they were legitimate and the lottery was real.

“I think he found himself in very deep and dug himself in deeper just trying to make that dream come true,” Hadley says. “This scam is going to seriously limit his quality of life for the future. And that’s just sad.”

The Better Business Bureau wants everyone to know that it does not run contests or lotteries and does not call people to let them know they’ve won one.

“If you are contacted by someone who claims to be with the BBB and says you’ve won a lottery — it’s not legit and just ignore it,” warns BBB spokesperson Southwick.

Lottery/contest scam a favorite swindle
I’ve warned you before about fake prize notices that appear to be from Publishers Clearinghouse and Reader’s Digest. The scammers create official-looking notification packets, complete with gold seals, account numbers and signatures from non-existent executives.

In many cases, the envelope also contains a check for thousands of dollars. It looks real, but it’s counterfeit. I’ve seen these bogus checks. Many of them have multi-colored printing, watermarks in the paper, even holograms.

Forget the check and learn how to spot the warning signs of a scam. It’s real easy. You’re told to deposit the check and wire back most of the money — to pay for taxes or some sort of fee — in order to get your winnings. That’s your tip-off to a rip-off. Don’t do it, even if the bank accepts the deposit and gives you the cash. You’re being set up.

Wire off that money and you’ll never see it again. Instead, you’ll be left holding the bag. Once the bank determines the check is a fake, the money you withdrew to wire off to the scammers will be deducted from your account.

Enough already
Fake check scams have been around for years and despite repeated warnings, far too many people still fall for it. The bad guys take in hundreds of millions of dollars a year this way.

Doug Shadel, an experienced fraud fighter and director of AARP Washington, has interviewed hundreds of victims and dozens of scammers. He has this advice: Turn off the greed and turn on the common sense.

“Pay attention to your emotions,” he says. “Most victims are not stupid. They’re just in a heightened emotional state that the con men will work them into. And this emotion swamps their rational thinking.”

Don’t make any decision when you feel this way. Step back, cool off and think logically about what you’re being asked to do. If you’re not sure, talk to a friend or family member before you do anything.

Ask yourself: How could you win a contest you didn’t enter? You can’t. Why did they send you a check and ask you to wire back thousands of dollars? Why didn’t they just take any fees out of your winnings? Because they’re con artists.

Remember this one simple rule. You never have to pay money to claim a legitimate sweepstakes prize or lottery jackpot. Never!

If you are asked for money for any reason — it’s a scam. Stay away from it or you’ll get burned. You work hard for your money. Don’t let some slimy swindler trick you out of it.

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