Time to annex Canada.
Alameda resident Christopher Jones thought he was having a very Merry Christmas.
The letter earlier this month from Canada's Lotto Net Sweepstakes began: "This is to inform you of the release of the North American Prize Pool held on Friday, Nov. 17, 2006, in which your name was drawn randomly. You have been accorded 2nd Tier Winner Status."
What does that mean? According to the letter, it means Jones, 26, will receive "a lump sum payout of $99,500."
"Due to enormous participation, highly advanced security measures are in place to maintain the lottery's integrity as well as to avoid unscrupulous claims," the letter assured him.
The only thing unscrupulous about all this, however, is the letter itself, which represents one of thousands of attempts to defraud U.S. consumers each year with bogus lottery scams.
"It's a significant problem," said Frank Dorman, a spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission.
He said the FTC receives thousands of complaints annually about phony lottery rackets but can't be sure how extensive the scams really are because some victims may be too embarrassed to report having been duped.
Many recent lottery scams have attempted to defraud consumers by conning them into revealing personal information that can be used for identity theft. The letter received by Jones and at least hundreds of others represents a more sophisticated tactic.
It seeks to persuade recipients to cash a real-looking check for $2,095 drawn on a bank account at a real Hawaiian financial institution, HFS Federal Credit Union in Hilo.
"The check is from one of our financial sponsors," the letter explains. Recipients are instructed, at no risk to themselves, to cash the check and then send the money back to cover "tax and service charges regarding your winnings."
That would be a mistake.
"The check is no good," said Brenda Lee, vice president of operations for HFS Federal Credit Union. "If you cash it, we'll report it as counterfeit and you'll be stuck for the money."
She said the credit union has received at least 300 calls from recipients of the lottery letter nationwide since the beginning of the month. Virtually all callers wanted to know if the check was valid so they could collect their winnings.
Jones, who recently left his job as a dental-lab technician, was sure that his lucky day had arrived. "I was pretty excited," he told me. "I'm not very financially stable at the moment, and the letter looked real. The check looked real."
As it happens, though, Jones' mom works at The Chronicle as a sales rep. She brought me a copy of the Lotto Net letter and check, and asked if I'd check them out. Curious, I said I would.
The letter instructed Jones to contact someone named Alanna Cooper at Lotto Net's office in Saskatchewan. Most of my calls were handled by an answering machine.
The handful of times that someone actually picked up the phone, I was greeted simply with "hello," as if I'd reached a private residence and not a business with, as the letter claimed, nearly $6.5 million in total winnings to be disbursed.
Whenever I asked to speak with Cooper, I was told she was either at lunch or in a meeting. I was told that if I was a winner, I should just cash the check and send back the funds so my prize money could be released.
Each time I identified myself as a reporter and asked to speak with someone in charge, the phone went dead.
According to the FTC, the agency received more than 86,000 "cross-border fraud complaints" last year, mostly involving Canada. Such complaints comprised 20 percent of all fraud complaints received by the FTC in 2005.
Sweepstakes and lotteries accounted for about a quarter of cross-border fraud complaints. Losses involving Canadian entities topped $50 million, the FTC said.
The FTC's Dorman said many U.S. citizens might not know it, but it's against the law for Americans to purchase cross-border lottery tickets. "This should be the first red flag if you get one of those letters," he said.
In Jones' case, he said he couldn't recall entering a lottery, Canadian or otherwise. But he said he believed it was possible he'd inadvertently signed up for one at a mall promotion or an online gambling site.
Dorman acknowledged that many lottery-fraud victims end up being duped because, even though they don't remember entering a contest, they think it's possible, even likely, that they did so anyway.
The latest racket is in fact a combination of two classic frauds. The first is a traditional lottery scam that instructs would-be winners to send in money to secure their prize.
The other is the ubiquitous Nigerian 419 scam, variations of which clog most people's e-mail inboxes every day.
Typically, the victim is offered a chance to obtain a substantial fortune. He or she receives a check in the mail for a small portion of the amount, but is then told to return the funds for some reason.
The check, of course, is phony and the money sent back to the scammers -- when the ploy works -- comes from the victim's own pocket.
The letter received by Jones is unusually devious because the enclosed check from HFS Federal Credit Union appears completely legitimate, thus giving the scam an appearance of holding virtually no danger for the victim -- cash the check, send the money, collect the prize.
Jones was dismayed to learn that he hadn't actually won $99,500. "It's pretty shocking," he said. "I was excited about winning."
The FTC's Dorman, meanwhile, advised consumers who receive lottery notices in the mail to ignore them.
"Generally, our advice is to discard it," he said.
Even if there's a check?
"Especially if there's a check."