Winning a free loto? Right!

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 29, 2003

Deck the halls with boughs of folly.

It is sad testimony to the nature of mankind that the season which brings out the best in us also brings out the worse. Even as shoppers drop change into the Salvation Army Kettles, or include checks to charities in their Christmas lists, there are predators out there taking as much as the generous give, if not more. This time of year, more than any other it seems, the con artists emerge from the woodwork like roaches in elf's clothing.

I got an e-mail this week that sent my capitalist heart a-thumping, even when I knew it was a fake:

Ref. Number: YK-958/756/0486

Batch Number: 79VD-381527-59


We are pleased to inform you of the result of the

Lottery Winners International programs held on the 2 of december 2003. Your e-mail address attached to ticket number 8224765896-642 with serial number 2917-477 drew lucky numbers 66-14-08-23-33-33 which consequently won in the 2nd category, you have therefore been approved for a lump sum pay out of US$ 500,000.00 (Five Hundred Thousand United States Dollars) CONGRATULATIONS!!!

Hooray? Riiiight. I can't even win the Florida Lotto when I do enter it, am I really supposed to believe I can win one I didn't enter? A quick search on the internet revealed the letter to be exactly what my brain knew (and my heart denied) to be a hoax. The website that had my letter - word-for-word - also had dozens of other current scams, from email lottery notifications to emergency phone messages from the Bahamas.

The scams aren't limited to the internet, either. Someone has been impersonating local police officers to cadge donations, and even the Post Office has its share of con artists, despite many precautions and warnings.

The easiest rule of thumb to remember when approached with these schemes is "If it sounds too good to be true - it probably isn't true." Other good rules are: Do not give out bank account numbers, social security numbers and credit card numbers to anyone on the internet, the phone or the mail.

If the "good news" has a statement asking you to not tell anyone, like mine did ("we ask that you keep your winning information confidential until your claims has been processed") it's a sure-fire guarantee that there's something rotten in the State of Alabama. Don't make any phone calls you are given until you've checked with the phone company to make sure you don't end up with a $1,000 phone call to Nicaragua. If there really is an emergency, contact the Red Cross. That's what it's there for. If you think you have been the victim of a scam, notify the police. That's what they are there for.

Don't write checks to charities you don't know. There are plenty of good, local causes that need your assistance, and those you can check on. One of the best options for your generosity is the United Fund, since it serves so many groups in this area, all of which have had to pass stringent examination.

Be careful, and beware of the bugs in the system. You can have a merry Christmas and express your love in charitable gifts without being robbed in the process.