New scam hits area mailboxes

$4,500 check too good to be true

Posted: Wednesday, August 01, 2007

If you think you won the lottery and have the $4,500 State Farm check to prove it, put your celebrations on hold because chances are you just got scammed.

After unearthing a scheme that cheats Alaskans out of thousands of dollars, state law enforcement warns residents to be wary when going to the mailbox.

"I have received other reports from around the state of Alaska through other troopers," said Derek Degraaf, a sergeant with troopers. "The Kenai Peninsula area seems to be hit kind of heavy all the way down to Anchor Point."

According to a press release, the Alaska State Troopers have received multiple reports from residents who have received a $4,500 check from State Farm Insurance.

A letter accompanies the check informing the recipient they won a lottery, telling them to deposit the check and wire a $2,800 processing fee to a Western Union account. Troopers warn residents not to cash or deposit the check.

One of the telltale signs the check isn't legitimate is that the letter accompanying it isn't printed on a letterhead. The letter's awkward phrasing should reveal its unsavory nature, as well, Degraaf said. There's also no return address on the envelope it came in and the letter is postmarked from South Africa.

"It's just a piece of white paper," Degraaf said, adding that he himself received such a check in the mail. "If you ever read a letter from a Nigerian scam, it just doesn't read right. This reads the same way."

Degraaf is uncertain who is behind this scam or why they're targeting Alaskans, but he said the scammers might have used a similar tactic credit card companies use to obtain peoples' addresses.

"More than likely they get their information the same way credit card companies and junk mail (do). Your name gets on a list and people resell it," he said, adding it's hard to determine how many people have received the check so far.

"I think most people realize it's a scam and throw it away without reporting it."

Lynn Carter, public affairs specialist for State Farm, said the company sent out a news release when they realized State Farm customers weren't the only people being targeted.

The company's special investigations unit also is working with state law enforcement to bring the scammers to justice.

"We just want to do everything we can to educate consumers on these frauds so they don't lose their money in this type of situation," she said.

This isn't the first time scammers have used State Farm's name to extort money out of people, Carter said. Many big corporations are often used to lure victims into a false sense of security.

"Every large corporation has had these types of fraudulent situations," she said. "(Scammers) go to companies you trust and use names hoping to bypass the kinds of questions we ask ourselves."

Degraaf said the suspect in this instance appears to be operating outside the country, so whatever evidence troopers collect will be handed over to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

"The troopers don't have the means to investigate this," Degraaf said. "The FTC compiles a database of these kinds of reports and the Secret Service (agency) or the FBI puts together a task force."

Over the years, troopers have come across a variety of scams targeting Alaskans from Internet purchases gone wrong to extortion. Degraaf said the suspect's location often determines what agency gets to go after them.

"When the suspect appears to be in the Lower 48, we find out what agency has jurisdiction and we forward the case to them," he said. "If the suspect appears to be in Alaska then it's a case we can pursue locally."

Degraaf added his check to the pile of evidence and said he doesn't expect anymore contact from the FBI or the FTC unless they've collared a suspect.

He and Carter encourage residents to contact their State Farm agent if they have any questions and to turn over any unusual checks to the United States Postmaster.

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.

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