PHONY CHECK SCAM ALERT

Hubert Harman of Floyd County is a lucky guy in myriad ways. Just for starters, the Check resident is 91 and still kicking. Few of us are going to make it to his age, eh?

The long-retired General Electric machinist also has had extraordinary luck with sweepstakes. Once, Harman “won” $20 million and was invited to Spain to collect the prize. All he had to do was first pay $1,900 in “processing fees.” Instead, Harman threw the letter in the trash. He recognized the scam for what it was.

Another occasion, the purported grand prize was $10 million. He didn’t fall for that one, either.

“Everybody has got my address and I’m always getting this stuff,” Harman told me Tuesday, chuckling. “I’m always ‘winning’ millions of dollars.” It’s become kind of like a hobby for him.

Last week, Harman “won” again. The most recent letter bore the letterhead “GEICO County Mutual Financial Services,” purportedly a division of Geico, the huge insurance company. And this one bore the acronym for one of President Donald Trump’s most famous phrases, “Make America Great Again.”

“You are the second prize winner in the second category of the MAGA Sweepstakes drawing,” the letter advised. This time, Harman’s prize was $450,000. To collect, he first needed to pay $2,100 in “processing fees,” the letter added.

Enclosed with the letter was a $4,500 check, purportedly from Geico and purportedly drawn on Woodforest National Bank, a real bank based in Texas with branches in local Walmarts. The letter advised Harman to use the check to pay the “processing fees.”

“Boy, it looks official,” Harman told me. The letter also advised him to contact a “claims agent” at a phone number that began with an area code listed for British Columbia, Canada.

“We’re very pleased and excited for you,” the letter concluded. It was signed “Mary White, promotions manager.”

“I think it’s funny, but there’s no telling how many people fall for this stuff,” Harman said. “They want a $2,100 processing fee — ha ha!”

Sweepstakes or lottery winner notifications that arrive with what appears to be legitimate checks are an old scam. I first wrote about it in 2012. The use of the Geico name is a recent wrinkle. Geico is a huge company with a recognizable brand because of all the advertising it does.

Geico appears concerned about the scam. The company created a page on its website specifically warning people about it. That page mentions some other con games for which scammers are also appropriating the Geico name, such as customer service and mystery shopper evaluations.

Here are some points I lifted verbatim from Geico’s “Sweepstakes, Fraudulent Letters and Checks” page:

  • Geico is not affiliated with any customer service evaluation, sweepstakes or lottery of this type.
  • Geico has not issued checks of this nature.
  • Neither Geico nor the bank named on the check will honor the check.

“If you have received a letter of this nature, you should be aware that these are fraudulent,” the Geico page explains. “You should notify your local postal inspector or other law enforcement.”

Frequently in a scam like this, when a victim calls, the “claims agent” instructs the victim to deposit the check into his or her bank account and wire the “processing fee” to the agent. The check bounces.

The victim “is liable [for the processing fee] if they wire money and the check later bounces back,” said Julie Wheeler of the Better Business Bureau of Western Virginia.

“Probably the best thing you could tell your readers/viewers is DO NOT RESPOND if they get such a scam letter as the one Mr. Harman received,” said Christine Tasher, a Geico spokeswoman. “Please thank Mr. Harman on our behalf for bringing this to your attention.”

The webpage Geico created said scammers also are using the names “GEICO Direct,” “GEICO Financials, a division of GEICO Indemnity Insurance Company,” and “Government Employees Insurance Company.”

Wheeler said the phony sweepstakes scam was really hot a couple years ago. Until I asked about one involving Geico, she hadn’t heard about scammers specifically claiming to be from the insurer. But when she searched the company’s name on the bureau’s national Scamtracker database, it tallied 35 separate complaints spread over 12 states from 2015 to 2019.

The most recent was in July. Most complaints were about sweepstakes or lottery scams. Though the complaints ranged from the East Coast to Hawaii, more reports originated from Texas than any other state.

Harman did not call the claims agent named in the phony letter. Nor did he deposit the check into his bank account. Instead, he told me, he drove Wednesday morning from his home to Floyd and gave a copy of the letter to a Floyd County Sheriff’s deputy.

How did Harman get so wise to the ways of scammers?

“Back in my younger days, I had an aunt who fell for that stuff in the mail,” he told me. “She never had any money, because she kept sending it to these people.”

Now you might be warned, thanks to Hubert Harman.

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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