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Free-Prize Scheme

It happens every day. You’re notified—by mail or e-mail—that you’ve won a free prize. The notice says you’ll receive one of several valuable items—a new car, a vacation, or a color TV. While some major stores may give away expensive items in special promotions, they rarely notify winners by postcard or e-mail. It’s a safe bet that these notices come from con artists whose sole purpose is to rip you off

Postal Inspectors warn: Don’t respond to free-prize offers—they could end up costing you hundreds of dollars. For example, Inspectors found that a California man who responded to a free-prize offer shelled out $398 in "shipping charges" so he could get a "free" 2008 Pontiac. What did he actually receive? Not a thing. The car never materialized, and neither did the man who had collected his money.

It’s rare that you’ll get any of the promised awards, but if you do, you can expect them to be inferior, overpriced, or at the very least, grossly misrepresented. That "all terrain vehicle"? Try a lawn chair with wheels. A "sport fishing boat"? An inflatable raft. A "genuine fur coat" may be a dyed rabbit pelt worth less than $30. And "designer" watches are likely to be pure junk.

But the worst part of these scams is that you invariably have to pay to get your “free” item, either by ordering merchandise or by paying shipping, handling, or processing fees to collect the prize. The one thing you can count on is that the amount you pay will exceed the true monetary value of the item.

People lose thousands of dollars to unscrupulous promoters. Working from sites known as boiler rooms, operators use high-pressure, sophisticated sales techniques to get you to send them money. But don’t be swayed by their carefully scripted pitches. Even better, arm yourself in the best possible way against these con artists: Ignore their come-ons and keep your money.

If you receive a notice promising you a free prize, or if you have been victimized in a free-prize promotion that involves the U.S. Mail, contact your local postmaster or nearest Postal Inspector. Or you can report suspected fraud online at the Postal Inspection Service Web site.