The letter sent to Tom and Irene Everingham of Bluffton from Coin Trust Financial Services announced that the couple were sweepstakes winners and even included a check for $4,356 made out to Irene.
But there was a catch: Before they could cash the check and claim the rest of the sweepstakes jackpot -- $450,000, the letter said -- they would have to pay a "processing fee" of $3,800.
The big money would be delivered by a special courier service after they sent the fee, the letter promised.
Tom Everingham didn't bite.
"I may be getting old," he said, "but I still have my wits about me."
Instead, he called the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office.
The phony prize scam pops up from time to time in the Lowcountry, each time with slight variations, said Sgt. Robin McIntosh.
"These scams evolve as quickly as these guys' imaginations," she said. "It only takes one or two people to fall for it for the (con artists) to make back any money they invested into it and then some."
The scam may include business names printed on letterheads that look legitimate, the offer of financing arrangements and checks listed with the name of a real bank. But the dead giveaway are the instructions that say the recipient will have to pay a fee or taxes on the prize before claiming it.
"Anytime you have to pay money to get money should be a red flag," McIntosh said.
The FBI lists such "advance fee schemes" as one of the most common types of fraud and also notes the many forms it can take: They may involve the sale of products or services, the offering of investments or, as in the Everinghams case, lottery winnings.
But if an opportunity appears too good to be true, it probably is.
The FBI advises people who receive letters offering financing arrangements to check whether the business is legitimate through research. Be wary of businesses that don't have street addresses and people who don't have a direct telephone line and always return your call later instead of answering when it rings, the bureau warns.
Everingham decided not to call the claims agent, whose name and number is listed on the letter. By Wednesday, the phone number had been disconnected.
McIntosh said the call Everingham made to authorities was a good step. However, with the con artists often living in other jurisdictions -- and even other countries -- there's a limit to what local law enforcement can do, she said.
"If somebody falls for this and loses a sum of money, the chances for recovery are slim to none," McIntosh said. "The best thing they can do is toss it in the trash."
- 'Grandparents' scam strikes locally, April 24, 2012
- Senior couple lose thousands in series of scams, Dec. 6, 2009
- Check scam spotted by Lowcountry resident, Sept. 16, 2006