CITRUS COUNTY, Fla- — In a quiet Florida neighborhood, word of a sweepstakes winner has neighbors in a tizzy.
“There’s no question, it’s kind of bizarre,” said neighbor Bob Gregoire.
The neighborhood winner supposedly won her jackpot through Publisher’s Clearing House and was set to claim upwards of $10-million dollars, neighbors said
But that’s where the excitement ends. Turns out the woman who believes she’s a winner, really isn’t. In fact, residents in the predominately retired Citrus County community fear their 91-year-old neighbor is actually one of the latest victims of an age-old scam.
“She’s not mentally deficient, she’s just totally off the charts when it comes to this scam,” neighbor Patricia Maynard told us. Maynard has also tried to convince the woman she didn’t win.
It started a least one year ago. Maynard and Gregoire told us that’s when their neighbor, who lives by herself, revealed that she had won the Publisher’s Clearing House prize to the tune of $10 million.
“I explained to her there are some scams going on and you really need to be careful,” said Gregoire.
But a few months later, the woman, who we’re not identifying because we don’t want to embarrass her, told neighbors she was selling her car because she had won a Mercedes and needed money to pay the taxes on it before Publisher’s Clearing House would hand over the keys.
Then, it got worse. A real estate agent listed her home, neighbors said.
“Yes, they [callers] were asking for money so she tried to get a loan and she didn’t qualify so she put her home on the market,” said Maynard. Maynard contacted authorities, starting with the local sheriff’s department in Citrus County. According to reports, the sheriff’s office had visited the woman a year earlier after she, reportedly, overnighted a check to UPS for $40,000.
Citrus County Lt. Matt Baird believes the check was related to a scam.
“She had been told she won some sort of sweepstakes and in order to get the winnings she had to pay taxes upfront,” Baird said.
Neighbors have since reached out to the Department of Children & Families adult services division. They also contacted the FL Attorney General’s office. A spokesperson from the Attorney General’s office confirmed to us that law enforcement agencies are investigating the matter.
Another neighbor, also trying to help, has alerted her banks to the fraud. The same neighbor is also helping to screen the woman’s mail. She showed us a pile of so-called “winning offers” the woman receives daily.
Neighbors fear over the last year, their elderly friend has lost approximately $150,000 because of the scam.
“That’s a guestimation,” said Maynard.
On its website, the real Publisher’s Clearing House devotes an entire section to warnings about fraud, fakes, and how to avoid them. A spokesperson details how they will never notify winners beforehand or over the phone or social media. The spokesperson also explains that winners never have to pay anything to claim their prize.
Steve Baker is an International Investigation Specialist for the Better Business Bureau. In 2018, he published a study on how much sweepstakes, lottery, and prize scams have cost Americans. He recently updated the study and found while the total number of complaints about these scams is down, the total dollar amount lost by Americans due to these scams increased 35% between 2019 and 2020. According to Baker, last year Americans lost nearly $230 million due to prize scams.
Baker said it’s surprisingly easy for people to continue falling for these scams.
“The whole idea that there is no fraud and there is no prize is really a lot more than people can grasp,” Baker said adding, “the people who do make calls are very very believable, they do this for a living. They’re professionals,” he said.
Back in Citrus County, neighbors are still trying to convince their 91-year-old friend that she didn’t win and hopes by the time she believes them, it won’t be too late.
“They want to suck a nice lady dry of everything she has. They don’t care if she ends up on the streets. That’s terrible, it’s just not right,” said Maynard.