It seems like a dream come true.  You receive a letter announcing you've won a major sweepstakes.  But the letter is designed to lure you into a scam that could cost you plenty.

"It said it was from Publisher's Clearing House and it showed a sample check for $1.5 million," explained one sweepstakes victim who's too embarrassed to reveal his identity.

The victim said he was delighted when he got a letter stating he had won.  He contacted the name and number on the letter and was told he needed to pay thousands of dollars in taxes to collect the winnings.  The scammers were ready with an answer when the victim said he didn't have the money to pay upfront.

"They have a solution for him. What they describe as prior winners can sponsor him and provide payment to meet the necessary payments to get the prize," explained retired U.S. Postal Inspector Larry Dodson.

The victim unknowingly turned into a middle man for con-artists. He was receiving checks from other people who believed they are paying off taxes on their jackpot. He then converted them to cash and spent hundreds of dollars sending packages overnight to Canada.

“Get a magazine and then you get the cash and fold it into the magazine and then you get an envelope and send it,“ explained the victim.

After re-shipping almost $119,000, the victim got a call from Canadian police who intercepted one of the packages.

"'Why are you sending this to Canada?' I said to to pay taxes to win my Publisher's Clearing House winnings. They said, 'We don't collect taxes unless you are a Canadian citizen.' That kind of threw me. Then all of a sudden when I tried to call these people, the numbers were all disconnected. That's when I knew I had been taken. I was totally destroyed," explained the victim.

"Publishers Clearing House, immediately, it was something that was recognizable to him, he heard it before," said Dodson. "And you think well, finally I've won something. I've got the American Dream that I've seen on TV before. So he was eager to do whatever was necessary to collect that prize."

The victim in this case was out hundreds of dollars and says he has learned a valuable lesson.

"I should have called Publishers Clearing House to see if this exists," admitted the victim. "Had I done that, none of this would have probably happened. I have no one to blame but myself."

Postal inspectors want to remind you that no legitimate lottery or so-called contest, like Publishers Clearing House, will ever ask for fees or taxes to be paid upfront.

Postal inspectors suggest you ask yourself these questions to prevent being scammed:

  1. Does the promoter ask for your credit card number, checking account number, bank account information, or other personal account information? A legitimate prize company won't ask for this to declare you a winner.
  2. Do they ask you to wire money or make a payment in an urgent manner? Do you feel pressure to make a payment within a given time deadline to collect your prize? Take a step back and evaluate the offer. Contact a Postal Inspector to verify that you're dealing with a legitimate sweepstakes offer.
  3. Does the advertising copy clearly state that no purchase is necessary to win and a purchase will not increase your chances of winning? You never have to pay to play or to collect your prize when the sweepstakes is legitimate.