"If you didn't enter a lottery, you're not going to win one."
That's a word of advice from Lieutenant D.L. Sheffield of the Memphis Police Department (MPD) Economic Crimes Bureau. In recent months, Memphis has been plagued with counterfeit checks from an international lottery scam.
"People are receiving, either over the Internet or in the mail, a letter that says they've won the lottery," says Sheffield. "This letter explains the amount they've won, and then [the victim receives] a check in the mail."
The check is said to cover the lottery's processing fees, and the receiver is instructed to deposit that money into their bank account. Then they're told to write a check for around 80 percent of the total amount of the original check and send it back. Sheffield says the "fees" range anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000.
"We have had several of these deposited into the banks here," says Sheffield. "If you deposit it and it gets sent back as counterfeit, the bank will take the money out of your account. If it's a $10,000 check, your account is hit for that loss."
The checks appear legit, although Sheffield says that the financial institution's name in the upper left corner is generally the first clue that the check is counterfeit. He says real lottery checks generally include the name of a lottery institution on the check.
Similar in nature to the Nigerian loan scam e-mails, the lottery scams affecting Memphis originate from all over the world: Australia, Canada, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom.
Banks, check-cashing stores, and liquor stores in Memphis are aware of the scam and have been instructed to call MPD when someone attempts to cash one of these lottery checks. An officer will then arrest the person and take them to a police station for questioning.
Renita Anderson, district manager of Ace Cash Express, says her stores turn away about eight people a week attempting to cash fake lottery checks. When a check appears suspicious, Anderson says they ask a series of questions and call the financial institution that issued the check to determine if it is real. If they think it's a scam, they confiscate the check.
Sheffield says the department works two to three of these cases per week.
The offender is usually released without charges, because many of them honestly believe they're cashing a lottery check. However, there are a few repeat offenders who have been caught trying to cash the checks at several different places. They're arrested and charged with forgery, a felony.
"When they take the check to a liquor store and the guy at the counter says, 'It's a scam,' most people tear the check up and leave it alone," says Sheffield. "But some people are taking them to the next liquor store and trying it. Then they'll try a check-cashing place. If we find out that they were aware it was a counterfeit check, they may be charged."
Sheffield says the scam has been keeping his officers busy since the summer.
"It's become an issue that's taking up a lot of investigative time," says Sheffield. "I don't want my investigators spending time on a case that they're not going to charge somebody on. It's cost-ineffective."
Besides lottery scams, the Economic Crimes Bureau handles identity theft cases, stolen credit card cases, Internet theft cases, and false pretense thefts.
"Business owners should contact the financial institution on the check," says Sheffield. "If someone comes in with a $3,000 check and it's not their payroll check, they need to question that, too."