Sweepstakes award turns out to be scam

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, February 28, 2009

IRONTON — An Ironton resident says she feels lucky she’s only out a small bank fee after getting a check in the mail that she believes was a scam.

About a week ago, Mary Cunningham of Ironton received a letter from Shoppers Link Financial Awards telling her that she was a winner in their annual sweepstakes.

“The draw was conducted through a random computer ballot system that was held on June 20, 2008,” the letter said. “Many unsuccessful attempts have been made in order for you to claim your prize award. Unfortunately, until now we were unable to contact you due to an error in published telephone system. You are entitled to the lump sum of $55,000.”

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The letter also goes on to say that the check for $4,875 that accompanied the letter is for “government applicable tax fees on your winning. The taxes cannot be deducted directly from the winning amount because of the insurance bond policy coverage on your name.” That tax amount was stated in the letter as $3,835.

The letter directed Cunningham to call a phone number and asked for a claim analyst by the name of Kelly Carter.

Cunningham called the number and spoke to Carter who told her there were no strings attached to the check and that she was to deposit the check and then call Carter again when the check was deposited.

Not wanting a check of that amount in her home, Carter deposited the check in an Ashland bank where she has her regular checking account. The bank, at that time, put a three-day hold on the check.

Cunningham called Carter again and was told to go to Wal-Mart and take out a Money Gram for the amount of the taxes and then sent it to a tax agent in London, Ontario, Canada.

By that time, Cunningham discussed the situation with her local tax accountant. The two then checked the Internet and found entries of comparable letters being sent out and that these proved to be scams, Cunningham said. She also discovered by doing a reverse lookup on the phone number, that the number was for a cell phone in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Finding this out, Cunningham then asked her bank to put another hold on the check.

“They put an extended hold on the check and created havoc on my account,” Cunningham said. “When they did another hold on the check, they doubled the balance on the check.”

That meant when legitimate checks crossed Cunningham’s account it caused overdrafts. There were a total of six overdraft charges levied against her account before the situation was straightened out. The bank has since refunded all the overdraft charges.

Also the amount of the full check from Shoppers Link was somehow pulled out of Cunningham’s account, she said. It was not done by her.

When a Tribune reporter called the number on the letter Cunningham received, a woman identifying herself as Kelly Carter answered. When the reporter identified herself as a writer with The Tribune in Ironton, Ohio, the phone call was disconnected.

When the reporter immediately called back, she received Carter’s voice mail.

All Cunningham says she expects to be out is $10 for a fraudulent check fee.

“I would rather pay that than $4,000,” she said.