(WDAF) – A Missouri woman said an email popped up in her inbox in August claiming she had been selected out of 400,000 people to win a $3.5 million sweepstakes prize, along with a new car, through Publishers Clearing House (PCH). The direct marketing company promotes merchandise and magazine subscriptions with sweepstakes and prize-based games.

Curious as to whether or not the prize was legitimate, Rita May, 67, of Richmond, said she called the number listed in the email.

“He just described that I would get that money, plus an SUV Mercedes Benz, I guess in 2022,” she said. “He even wanted me to pick out the color of the Mercedes Benz.”

May said she was excited at first.

“There was a glimmer of hope, like, ‘Oh my, this must be real,’” she said.

But then came the realization that someone was attempting to scam her.

“He was like, ‘Okay, you need to go to like, CVS or some other place that does cash cards and get a $1,000 cash card to have ready for us because when we present this prize to you, you will need to present the $1,000 cash card to us to get the prize,’” May said. 

May said she was skeptical and expressed her concerns to the man on the phone.

That’s when May says he became aggressive.

“He just kept calling me back, very pushy,” she said.

Christopher Irving, vice president of consumer, government, legal affairs and communication at PCH, said legitimate sweepstakes never ask the prize winner to pay money in order to receive their winnings.

“If anybody hears that, hang up the phone, delete the social media post, rip up the letter,” Irving said. “You’ve not heard from the real Publishers Clearing House or any legitimate sweepstakes because if you win a prize, you never have to pay anything.”

Nexstar’s WDAF called the phone number that contacted May, which is listed out of Los Angeles, California, but the individual abruptly hung up. When WDAF tried calling again, just two hours later, the line was disconnected.

“I want to warn people, especially the elderly, especially people with early dementia,” May said. “If they get a call like this and it’s not on the level — because Publishers Clearing House, if it’s on the level — they just show up to your house with a bunch of balloons.”

“They don’t call you ahead of time, and the fact that I got that email from them, I have never gotten an email from anybody that looked so authentic,” May added.

Am I being scammed?

Irving said it is unsurprising that the email May received looked authentic because scammers will do anything they can to fool people into thinking the offer is trustworthy.

“We started our sweepstakes in 1967 and since that time, we’ve awarded over $560 million to consumers across the country, so our brand is well known, our reputation is well known, people realize that we actually give away money, and it’s because of that,” he said. “It’s like I said in the beginning, the scammers will use our name and they’ll try to put other names on it as well to establish that legitimacy.”

The letter May received had logos from The Department of Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, Better Business Bureau, Bank of America, and even seemed to be signed by the senior vice president of PCH.

“Obviously, it causes great concern, certainly for the consumers that are being harmed, certainly for our own brand, as well,” Irving said.

PCH does not contact individuals who win prize money larger than $10,000. They show up unannounced to present winners with their earnings.

“If you’ve won a major prize at Publishers Clearing House, we won’t tell you ahead of time,” Irving said. “We show up unannounced with our prize patrol, just like you see on TV, we show up at your doorstep or we track you down at work or we track down people in lots of different places and give you that big check, just as you see on TV.”

Irving said if a scammer tries to contact you, the best thing you can do is end the conversation quickly because the second someone pays a scammer, they keep coming back for more.

“Once you start to send money, you are in line, unfortunately, for a long, long line of repeat phone calls, not just from these individuals, but perhaps from others because these scam artists will put consumers on some sort of a list,” Irving said.

May said she’s noticed an influx in scam calls coming her way, with some claiming to be individuals with PCH, while others allege they are with UPS.

“I don’t know why my number seems to appear with these people,” she said.

Irving said it’s possible that scammers have targeted May, simply because she answers the phone.

“Not responding and hanging up the phone, because once you hang up the phone and really show no interest, these people are going to leave you alone,” he said.

Where do I report fraud?

If you or someone you know has lost money to someone claiming to be with PCH, we recommend submitting a consumer complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Irving said PCH maintains its own database, which it shares with the FTC and law enforcement, so residents can also report the scam online at pch.com or through its toll free number at (800) 645-9242.

He said PCH is aware of scammers using its name and is actively working with law enforcement to try and put a stop to those who prey on PCH customers.

“The scammers, they know the right things to say,” he said. “They prey on these people’s emotions.”

“This is what they do, unfortunately, for a living, so they know the script to try to get people sucked into this but whatever they say, if they’re asking for money or a gift card or financial information, it’s just not a real prize. It’s not from us, it’s not from any legitimate sweepstakes, it doesn’t work that way.”

PCH’s website has more information on sweepstakes scams and fraud protection.