Winning Big and Scamming Big

Winning Big and Scamming Big


My 85-year-old Mom got a call from Publisher’s Clearing House. The caller told her she’d won $3.7 million and a new Mercedes Benz. The car was going to be delivered to her house that afternoon. All she needed to do was go to the store right away and get a $500 cash gift card for the delivery fee. Then the car and the prize money would be hers. Everyone knows Publishers Clearing House. I’m sure Mom started to imagine getting her picture taken with a giant check.

Mom called to tell me all about the big news even though the man on the phone had told her it was a secret. Meanwhile, she got two more calls urging her to get that gift card because the car was on its way. They also sent Mom a lengthy email with pictures of cars and stacks of money and, inexplicably, a pixelated FBI logo.

I asked my Mom, “Did you enter any sweepstakes?” No, she hadn’t. But they’d told her that she was automatically entered somehow. I had to break it to her; I was certain she was being scammed. Rule number one: You’re unlikely to win something you never entered. Later, I showed Mom the page on the Publishers Clearing House website that warns people about scams. It turns out that if you win the big prize, they don’t call. They actually show up at your doorstep in the Prize Patrol van.

Keep your wits about you

I told my Mom how glad I was that she had called me. I didn’t want her to be embarrassed that she might have been duped. Often people who fall for scams are afraid to admit it to family members. Not doing so can cause them to get into more trouble when they try to unwind the mess. Mom had taken a moment to think about what was going on. She was just suspicious enough.

Mom and I talked about the techniques fraudsters use to manipulate unsuspecting people. Asking for money in exchange for a prize is on page one of the scammer playbook, along with telling people they need to take immediate action without talking to anyone else. The idea is to overwhelm a victim with emotions—surprise, excitement, fear, confusion, and even greed—making it difficult for them to think clearly.  

A healthy dose of skepticism

Mom stopped answering the fraudster’s calls. Not surprisingly, a new Mercedes never showed up in her driveway. The scammers moved on to their next mark. I looked at the email they had sent her. It was riddled with grammatical errors and came from a regular Gmail account. The document that was pretending to be a prize announcement was obviously cut and pasted from multiple sources, with stretched images and fuzzy logos. This kind of crudely assembled communication has long been a hallmark of fraud. Unfortunately, artificial intelligence (AI) is going to make it harder to spot fake communications. Sophisticated fraudsters will be able to create extremely realistic-looking text and images. There are already documented scams that lead people to exact-copy websites.

After the Publishers Clearing House experience, Mom has been extremely cautious about odd calls, texts, and emails. She and her friends share information about the latest fraud news. And they occasionally get a laugh out of “scamming the scammer” by playing along with someone pretending to be their non-existent grandson.

Fraudsters are like vampires. They can’t come into your house unless you invite them. But some vampires are manipulative and good at disguises. If you become the victim of fraud, there’s no reason to feel ashamed. You’re hardly alone. Work with your financial advisors and financial institutions to make sure your money is protected. And share your experience so other people know what to look out for. 

Questions to think about:

  • Are you fearful of having online financial accounts? Checking your accounts online is actually a good way to spot unusual activity.  
  • Have you been a victim of fraud? Consider reporting it to the FBI. 
  • Do you get a lot of unwanted calls? Give yourself permission to block them or simply not answer. 

Action steps:

  • Young people and elders are prime targets of scammers. Share information with them about how they can protect themselves.
  • If you get a text or email that seems suspicious, you don’t have to act on it immediately. Financial institutions will never call to ask for information like an account number or password—they already have it.
  • Set up a financial buddy (family member, friend, trusted person) who you can contact as a second set of ears if you think someone might be scamming you.
  • Talk to your financial planner about good ways to protect your accounts, including password managers.


Please contact us at 206.217.2583 or if we can assist you or someone you know with financial planning.

The foregoing content reflects the opinions of Liz Behlke and is subject to change at any time without notice. Content provided herein is for informational purposes only and should not be used or construed as investment advice or a recommendation regarding the purchase or sale of any security. There is no guarantee that the statements, opinions or forecasts provided herein will prove to be correct. Past performance may not be indicative of future results. Indices are not available for direct investment. Any investor who attempts to mimic the performance of an index would incur fees and expenses which would reduce returns Securities investing involves risk, including the potential for loss of principal. There is no assurance that any investment plan or strategy will be successful.