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Investigation of sweepstakes letter continues

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Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 6:08 am, Tue Feb 15, 2011.

It appears that a possible check scam emanating from New York City may be a new version of one that hit Safeco Insurance two years ago, according to Lodi banker John Tudor.

Tudor, a vice president of the Umpqua Bank branch on Ham Lane, was informed of a possible scam when a customer showed him a letter from a company called “Winners International” and a check appearing to be from Safeco on Friday afternoon.

Tudor warned the customer, a North Stockton resident, not to deposit the check because the customer could be caught up in a scam. Scammers typically target senior citizens and low-income people from selected zip codes.

According to a news release posted on the website of Safeco’s parent company, Liberty Mutual Group in Boston, the company is aware of several fraudulent letters that include counterfeit Safeco checks.

“I do not know how widespread the particular letter from ‘Winners International’ is, but this scam has been used in years past, according to Safeco spokesman Mike Plaster. “It is important to note that Safeco Insurance does not sponsor, promote or engage in lotteries.”

According to the cover letter, with “Winners International” and a New York City address on the letterhead, the North Stockton man was one of 76 sweepstakes winners, with the man to receive $252,955.93.

To claim the money, the “winner” was to call a New York cell phone number to “activate” the claim. He called the number, but Tudor said the person at the other end hung up after the alleged winner asked several questions. Tudor told the local resident, whom he knows personally, not to deposit the check.

When a News-Sentinel reporter called the New York phone number on Monday, a man answering the phone, without identifying the company, said, “Hello, what can I do for you?”

After the reporter said he was with the Lodi News-Sentinel in California and had some questions about a letter sent to a local resident, the man abruptly hung up. There was no answer when the reporter called back a couple of minutes later.

On Monday, Lodi resident Ken Downs reported that his late father received four of these kinds of checks during a 20-month period, totaling $17,975. Downs’ father lived in Palm Springs when the letters and checks were mailed to him, but they were forwarded to Downs in Lodi when his father, then 96, moved in with him.

Each letter gave a phone number to call before cashing a $4,500 check mailed to Downs’ father. He was to pay $3,400 in taxes, but the younger Downs put a stop to that.

“Once you wire the money, they have the 3,400 bucks, and they’re gone,” Downs said.

Downs said he never reported the letters to Lodi police or any other law enforcement agency.

To report potentially fraudulent lottery letters and counterfeit Safeco checks, e-mail abuse@libertymutual.com.

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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