WASHINGTON (AP) — The envelope bears your name in bold letters across the top and promises thousands of dollars in winnings for a small fee.
The government has two words for you: Toss it.
The Federal Trade Commission announced a nationwide campaign Thursday to alert consumers to common mail scams and crack down on operations that con them out of money through the mail. More than 120 million households will receive a crime prevention warning from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service as part of the effort to reach every household in the nation.
The latest campaign is meant to address a host of gimmicks that bombard Americans’ mailboxes, including sweepstakes and prize promotions that require consumers to pay a fee or buy something to receive their rewards.
Other operations use government look-alike mail, playing off the names of federal agencies to give their promotions legitimacy. Some advertise free vacation getaways and entice people to call telemarketers who then inform them of the catch: They must join a travel club for hundreds of dollars.
“Consumers are conned out of millions of dollars each year by direct mail scams. Bogus sweepstakes, travel scams, chain letters, illegal foreign lotteries, sham prize offers — the list is endless,” said Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Such scams often target older Americans, who may spend thousands of dollars on products such as unwanted magazine subscriptions, hoping to improve their chances of winning a prize.
In some cases, a family member’s keen eye is the only thing that stops the deceptive practice.
“The fact that these folks have your name, that they personalize this stuff, it gives you a sense that they are reaching out to you, that you are special,” said Greg Marchildon, a spokesman for the American Association of Retired Persons. He added that some people become repeat victims, when operations sell lists of “easy targets” to other companies.
To fight such scams, the FTC plans to expand a database it developed last year to keep track of complaints related to mass mail fraud. Information from the database has led federal and state officials to take law enforcement action against more than 200 companies.
Some Better Business Bureau chapters will report their complaints to be included in the database.
The groups that publish Yellow Pages plan to run ads tipping customers off to another common mail trick: phony bills. Some operations send bills to people, mimicking the business logos of legitimate companies. Customers who don’t look carefully at their statements may pay for services they never bought.
State and federal officials have taken some steps to address the problem. State attorneys general have brought hundreds of cases against direct mail organizations. American Family Publishers, which sponsors a sweepstakes endorsed by celebrities Ed McMahon and Dick Clark, reached a $1.25 million settlement in March with 32 states and the District of Columbia.
The company agreed to stop telling consumers they are winners or have already won a prize unless that actually happens, and agreed to say no purchase is needed to enter.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., has sponsored a bill that would require sweepstakes sponsors to prominently display warning labels on their envelopes and on promotional material inside.
The Federal Trade Commission recommends that consumers toss any solicitation:
ù that asks for payment for a “free” gift.
ù that doesn’t clearly identify the company and its street address and phone number.
ù that looks like a government document and suggests contest winnings or unclaimed assets are yours for a small fee.
ù that offers a “prepaid” or “special” deal and asks for a nominal monthly “processing fee” or that asks for your bank account or credit card account number.