I won the lottery - now I have to pay?
My hands were shaking as I reread the letter from Ambird Sweepstakes Company:
This letter is to inform you that the Ambird International Lottery held it’s $5 million drawing on 1st February 2019. Beth Johanson, attached to ticket number 541-664913 with serial number 343-231354641, drew the lucky numbers of 51-67-12-21-06-22 which consequently won the lottery in the 1st place category.
I enter a lot of sweepstakes, but I didn’t remember entering this one. Who can keep track of them all? Just because I couldn't remember entering it, doesn’t mean I didn’t.
You are therefore a guaranteed winner of a lump sum payout of USD 5 million (five million United States dollars). There are no other winners in this category. CONGRATULATIONS!
Your funds are being held by the customs department at your local airport for pickup. Due to possible mix up of names and numbers, we ask that you keep this reward from public notice until processed for security and avoid double claiming.
Okay, even though the English and grammar were sketchy, I understood what they meant. They didn’t want anyone else trying to claim my winnings, so I needed to keep things quiet at least for now. The letter went on to tell me how the ticket was selected using a computer ballot system. I skipped down to the information about how to claim my money.
To begin claim, contact our United States offices at (555) 190 – 0110. Remember, all lottery prize money must be claimed no later than the 7th of February 2019. This date all funds will be returned to Ambird International Lottery for the next drawing.
The letter was signed by the owner of Ambird International Lottery and had an official looking logo.
I knew I needed to act fast, but a week seemed like a tight turnaround. I immediately dialed the number and received a voicemail. I left a message, and someone called me back within a few hours.
“Your check is waiting for you at the airport, but it can’t be released,” said David, the Ambird Customer Service Representative.
“Wh – Why?” My stomach tightened.
“Ms. Johanson, you have to pay taxes on your winnings before they can be released. It’s standard practice.”
“Okay – how much?” I asked as I braced myself for the answer.
“Let’s see. On $5 million United States Dollars, that’d be - $900,000.00.”
“WHAT?! I mean – oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t expect it to be that much. I don’t have that kind of money.”
David asked about my financial accounts. I told him I had accounts at more than one financial institution but was careful not to give him any more details.
“Ms. Johanson, you do understand that taxes have to be paid, don’t you? Since you live in the United States, you’ll have to pay federal, state and local taxes on your winnings. It’s really a small amount to pay in comparison to what you’ll be getting.”
I ended our call wondering how I would raise the money. David left me his number in case I changed my mind. I wanted to talk to friends and family about it, but David convinced me that if I did, one of them might try and claim the money for themselves. I’d dismissed any possibility of collecting my winnings until I received a letter from the IRS two days later.
Dear Ms. Johanson,
Congratulations! We understand that you are the sole winner in the Ambird International Lottery held on 1st February 2019. You will need to pay $900,000.00 in federal income taxes before you can claim these funds.
I wanted to cry. There had to be another way.
I dialed David’s number, and he finally answered on the 8th ring.
“Why can’t I just pay you after I receive the money?” I asked.
“It doesn’t work that way, but we might be able to help you. Hold the line, please.”
After what felt like hours, David returned to the line. “We could use your help.”
“Me? You could use my help?”
“Yes, one of our investors needs help. I think before you mentioned that you had accounts at more than one credit union. All you have to do is accept a wire to your account at one credit union. When you receive those funds simply rewire those funds to your other credit union account. Then wire the funds to our investor and a few other people.”
“Huh?” I didn’t understand, but I would do anything to get my hands on my money. I’d mentally spent my winnings before I’d even seen a dollar.
David repeated the instructions, and I took notes.
I couldn’t keep the secret anymore. The next day, I shared the story with my friend Kerry who wasn’t as excited about it as I was.
“Let’s call the custom’s office at the airport to see if they have the check,” she offered.
She put the phone on speaker as we both listened to the agent tell us they do not hold checks in customs. After telling him he had to be wrong, I finally disconnected the call.
“Have you talked to anyone other than this – David?” Kerry asked.
“Well – um, no.”
Kerry brought up the Ambird Sweepstakes Company website on her phone. There it was in black and white:
Legitimate sweepstakes and promotions never ask winners to pay anything before receiving a prize, and taxes are always paid directly to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) after receipt of winnings. If someone asks you to send money, pay fees or taxes to claim your prize, YOU ARE BEING SCAMMED.
Fraudsters illegally use our name and logo to deceive consumers with this kind of fraud every year. We are aware of our name being used for an international lottery scheme. If someone contacts you stating that you’re a winner of such a promotion, IT IS A SCAM. DO NOT SEND MONEY.
Ambird International Lottery does not exist. The fraudsters sent Ms. Johansan two bogus letters: the first stating she’d won the sweepstakes and the second from the “IRS.” The Internal Revenue Service does not send letters demanding payment to claim lottery winnings.
When David’s attempts to get Ms. Johanson to pay to claim her fake lottery winnings fell through the cracks, he attempted to get her to take part in a money laundering scheme.
Lottery scams have become more sophisticated over the years. Crooks may try to contact you via mail, e-mail, phone or social media claiming that you’ve won a lottery. They will state that you have to pay taxes or a fee to collect the winnings. Some scammers even use well-known companies and even pose as industry leaders to fool victims into sending them money. Protect yourself by following these tips:
- Ignore solicitations from companies claiming that you’ve won a prize in a sweepstake you’ve never entered.
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission FTC and your attorney general’s office.
- If you remember entering the sweepstake, confirm your prize by contacting the company at the number found on the website - not in the letter.
- If you received the prize notice via bulk rate postage, it might be a scam.
- Never give your personal financial information in exchange for lottery winnings.
- If the scam letter or communication arrived by mail or email, contact a postal inspector.
- Never take immediate action on a winning notification, even if there is a tight deadline. Scammers are counting on you to act quickly instead of checking things out.
If you’ve provided your account information to a suspected scammer, contact an F&A Federal Credit Union member representative to discuss steps to remedy the situation.