Just ask Margaret Pearl Johnson of Creston. She had several phone conversations last week with people operating what was undoubtedly a scamming operation. They knew all the right things to say, and could probably have fooled some people. But Pearl wasn’t fooled, and she wanted to make this public so other people would be aware of this particular method of thievery.
“I got a call Tuesday or Wednesday from this Robert Lopez who called and told me I had won four hundred and fifty thousand dollars in a sweepstakes,” Pearl said. “He gave me a claim number and a batch id and other numbers. He had a foreign accent, but he sounded very professional. At first I wasn’t sure. I was sick that day and I couldn’t remember if I had entered any contests lately. I get things in the mail and have entered some like the Publishers Clearinghouse. This one was called American Sweepstakes Network.”
Pearl listened to the spiel and got more suspicious as it went along. She said the man told her she would be receiving a certified check the next day by FedEx along with a wagering form and a 10-99 tax form and a secondary check marked as refundable, which had to do with the real part of the scam, the money she was going to be required to pay in order to obtain her “winnings.”
The man told Pearl she needed to call Rita Dampier, an “agent,” who would finish up the paperwork. “And I kinda figured what was coming cause I’d heard of these sweepstakes and how they try to cheat people out of their money,” Pearl said.
The phone number given to Pearl to call the “agent” was 702-879-4716 with a Las Vegas area code. The number the man “Robert Lopez” called from was 202-821-4261 with a Washington, DC area code. Of course, both numbers were untraceable by the Better Business Bureau and Attorney General’s office that she called to report the incident. The BBB told her it was a scam being run out of Jamaica, she said, and the Attorney General’s office directed her to their scam investigation office.
“I didn’t call the woman, the agent, so the man called me back and asked why I hadn’t called,” Pearl said. “I told him I’d have to talk to my husband, and he worked for the sheriff’s department (which he doesn’t). The man called again the next morning when I didn’t call the agent. Then the agent called me. I knew what she was going to do, ask me for money. She said it was Robert Johnson (Margaret’s husband) who had won, when the man told me it was Margaret Johnson. She said I’d have to pay 1 percent, or $4,500, as insurance to get the prize money. She said, ‘Ma’am, do you have the money?’ And I told her no we didn’t. I handed the phone to my husband, who was sitting there grinning, and he said, ‘Well, ma’am we don’t need that money, just go ahead and give it to somebody else,’ and he hung up.”
When Pearl shared the story with someone at her bank, the bank employee told her she had talked to a couple people who believed this scam. “She said she had a hard time convincing them it was a scam,” Pearl said. “She told them they’d lose their money.”
Pearl also called the Ashe County Sheriff’s Department and anybody she could think of who would warn people to be careful. The sheriff’s department and other law enforcement agencies get reports of scams all the time. She said she was told these type of scammers often target older people and economically depressed areas where people might be more financially desperate.
Sheriff James Williams warns people to be cautious of unsolicited phone calls and anything like this that shows up in the mail, and encourages people to report these scams. “If you haven’t entered a sweepstakes, you haven’t won it,” he said. “If you win legitimately, you shouldn’t owe money to receive the prize.”
The old adage also applies: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.