NEWS

Mail from Spain that offers you something for nothing is little more than a believable scam

Briefly, Maria’s eyes glistened. «Is it possible?» she wondered. She looked long and hard at the letter which the postman had dropped through the mailbox. Within the stamped, addressed envelope was a sheet of paper bearing the company logo of the well-known Spanish organization Loterias y Apuestas del Estado. She read it again. «Dear Madam…, we are pleased to inform you of the recent result of the El Gordo de la Primitiva Lottery Program held on August 15, 2004. Your name is attached to ticket number 270-05896703-254… which consequently won the lottery in the 3 category. You have therefore been approved for the lump sum payout of 415,810 euros… shared among the 14 international winners in this category. Congratulations!» the letter wrote. And it explained, «As part of our international promotions program, participants were selected through a computer ballot system drawn from 25,000 names from Asia, Australia, the Middle East, Europe, the USA, Canada, South America and Africa.» Maria was told the money had already been deposited with a security company and insured in her name. «To begin your lottery claims, please contact our agent Mr Javier Martinez of Global Security SA… for the processing and remittance of your winning prize money to a designation of your choice.» Contact numbers were provided. Initial joy soon gave way to doubt. «I knew that nothing was given to you this easily, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t understand what they would get out of it,» Maria told Kathimerini. But the mystery was soon cleared up. A quick Internet search revealed that the «winning lottery ticket» had gone to hundreds of people worldwide. The lottery was nothing more than a well-designed scam. How it worked was something we quickly found out. We contacted Mr Javier Martinez, using the phone numbers given on the letter. The representative of the supposed security company had a remarkably un-Spanish accent. We told him we had received a letter from Madrid, telling us we had won a large sum in the lottery. He asked us for the number, ostensibly tapped it into the computer, returned to the phone and congratulated Maria. «To get the money,» he said, «fill in the special form which we sent with the letter and send it by fax to our offices.» But how had she won, not having taken part in a draw and never having been to Spain? «The lottery was held as part of an international promotions program. Your name was picked at random from another 25,000 names.» It is indeed a well-designed scheme. On the form, the winner could choose the means of payment: either through a deposit with their account, or by check. «If you choose the check, it’s not necessary to write your bank account number,» Javier Martinez soothingly informed us. «We only want your details so that we can send it.» When, of course, we asked him if we would have to pay anything for the whole rigmarole, he replied: «Probably yes, a tax or something like that on delivery, but I don’t know how much yet. Send us the fax so we can send it to the company for processing and we’ll get in touch with you tomorrow.» But he followed this up with a warning: «But be careful. You mustn’t speak to anyone about any of this before the money’s in your hands. You know, in these cases, plenty of people turn up asking for the money.» Of course, when the victim sends the «tax» to finish the deal, the supposed company vanishes into thin air. According to Internet reports, as much as 2,500 euros may be extracted from the super-lucky winner. It’s an obvious trap that unfortunately quite a few have fallen into, even in this country. Over the last few months, dozens of complaints have been made to police and consumer organizations by people who have received such letters by conventional mail or e-mail. Panayiota Kalapotharakou, of the Greek Quality of Life Consumer Union’s (EKPOIZO) legal office, told Kathimerini that quite a few people had lost money in such a manner. «The phenomenon has taken on huge dimensions. The problem is that the scam is not that obvious, and many are convinced that it is the Spanish state lottery,» she said. The fraudsters also give their potential victims a deadline after which they have no right to collect the prize. Greek police say the fraud ring, headquartered in Spain, has been operating around the world for six months, chiefly over the Internet. Some members have been arrested in Europe, but there are numerous cells, as with the so-called Nigerian letters (seeking help so a fallen Nigerian minister could take money out of the country). The issue has involved the Spanish Embassy in Athens, which has received, almost daily, inquiries from people who have received the letters. «The fact that they know their personal details makes them believe that it is not a scam, and unfortunately some fall into the trap,» said the Spanish consul, Juan Luvo. «Greeks are not the only ones who have fallen into the trap; Albanians, South Africans and others have as well. Of course, the gang doesn’t operate only in Greece, but in many other cities, and Interpol has been called in.» Spanish reaction The Loterias y Apuestas del Estado had this to say on its official website: «LAE would like to inform the general public that a number of groups of criminals, of various nationalities, are using the prestige and the commercial names of the Spanish Lottery by fraudulent means in several countries, particularly in countries in the southwest of Asia and the Pacific, and countries on the American continent. They move with ease around the whole world and use mobile telephones, PO boxes, provisional or false addresses (including real addresses of official Spanish organizations), as well as names that bring to mind prestigious institutions (‘el Gordo,’ ‘la Primitiva,’ ‘European Lottery Commission,’ etc.) They also forge the printed sheets and signatures of various banks.» They added: «Spanish Lottery prizes are always free of taxes… Therefore, when you are offered ‘prizes’ that seem to be linked to the Spanish Lottery, DO NOT PAY any amount. Likewise, we would be grateful if you could inform local authorities of these crimes.» The Spanish police force, the notice said, has already arrested gang members that operated in Spain. Consumer groups also advise notifying the authorities. «People should make these cases public, even if they are victims, and make complaints to [consumer] organizations and the Development Ministry,» said Kalapotharakou. «They should be wary of giving their details, not sign anything without studying it first, and always keep a copy. And don’t forget, nobody ever gives something for nothing.»