They're more clever and convincing than ever. That's AARP's assessment of today's junk mailers.
"These scammers have evolved," said AARP's Michelle Cyr. "They are very slick."
AARP is mailing tens of millions of colorful fliers adorned with playful text. It's a creative warning about other letters lurking in the mailbox: "If you have to send $250 the claim your prize, odds are it's a scam."
Besides its graphical layout improving, Cyr said junk mail that entices consumers into sweepstakes, lotteries, or contests, is also more costly than ever.
"This is a major problem," she said. "We're talking about billions of dollars lost."
Several mailers caught our eye. The "International Award Payment Center" and "Mr. Chasman" flyers appear to be stamped "approved." They're peppered with words like "confirmed" and "guaranteed." Large dot matrix numbers highlight cash prizes, which the recipient's name is placed along lists of others—complete with dollar amounts.
But this is not the winning notification it might seem.
It's actually an elaborate invitation to play a "game of skill" for an initial fee of $5 to $15. The puzzle starts easy and cheap, but according to court documents the game becomes increasingly complex and increasingly expensive to play.
We traced the letters to a company in Missouri called Opportunities Unlimited. It also operates as Contest America Publishers and Mr. Cashman.
In 2002, the companies reached an agreement with several state attorneys general in which it agreed to no longer employ simulated personalized checks, stamps, bar codes, and mailers that imply special delivery.
By phone, the firm's lawyer said its practices are compliance with the 2002 judgment. Despite a name of the left, a dollar amount on the right, and a border all around, Kansas City attorney Pete Smith said the top third of the mailers are legal.
"There's just no way these things look like checks," said Smith.
Smith said Opportunities Unlimited has been in business for decades and regularly pays out cash prizes.
"There are zillions of winners," he said. Smith said he would furnish us with a list of winners if we were willing to "get on an airplane" to pick it up.
Smith said Opportunities Unlimited has taken the voluntary step of cutting off players it deems to be spending too much money entering the contest.
"These people really shouldn't be playing these contests," he said. "They're not smart enough."
Cyr said exactly the opposite is happening in the industry. She said the phone calls and mail solicitations often become constant -- even if you express interest just once.
Cyr also cautioned that a single call is enough flag a consumer as a fool.
"That puts them on a "suckers list,' " she said. Cyr warned names and phone numbers of gullible consumers are for sale on an illicit black market. She said the "suckers list" gives a criminal a roadmap to easy marks.
"These scammers are buying and trading these lists to each other," she said.
Cyr suggested throwing away suspect mailers as soon as we receive them.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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