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Susan Tompor: Sweepstakes scam warning: Consumer watchdog isn't confirming that you won a prize

Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Home and Consumer News

If you're a con artist desperately trying to convince a consumer that they've really won $1.5 million in a sweepstakes, why not put a government "authority" on the line to confirm that it's all true?

A man in his 70s in Washington state "heard" from Stacy Canan, who leads the Office for Older Americans at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, D.C.

Except it wasn't Stacy Canan. But the man didn't learn the truth until after he had wired some $50,000 up front to cover taxes on the sweepstakes money that wasn't real, either.

The con artists are going to great lengths to falsely use the names of big companies, like DTE Energy; big government agencies, like the Internal Revenue Service; and now even real people's names, like Canan's, that might be easily Googled to seem real.

It's all part of the plan to make the pitch seem as legitimate as possible in order to persuade someone that it's wise to wire money up front to collect on a sweepstakes. Or put cash on a GreenDot debit card to pay old heat or electric bills when a caller demands cash on the spot. And sure, put money on an iTunes card to pay off the IRS.

DTE Energy and other utilities are warning consumers this winter about a rash of bill-collecting impostors who are so sophisticated that somehow their bogus callback numbers even include recorded greetings and prompts that sound like DTE's real customer service line.

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The energy bill scam often focuses mainly on businesses in a given area on a given day -- local restaurants, auto repair shops, hair salons and the like.

"They always use what I call an artificial deadline to pressure you," said Michael Lynch, director and chief security officer for DTE Energy in Detroit.

"They'll always say the truck is on the way to shut you off."

Mary Plaza, 52, a manager for Down River Body Works in Allen Park, ended up taking $980 to a Kroger last July to pay the bill for the auto repair shop after some scammers convinced the owner that the gas would otherwise be turned off soon.

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