Scammers stole more than $400,000 from a woman through an elaborate Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes scam: police

  • Scammers reportedly tricked a woman into believing she won $3 million, then stole $400,000 from her.

  • They targeted the woman because she was elderly and showing early signs of dementia, police say.

  • The FTC has urged vigilance against sweepstakes scams that demand upfront payment.

Scammers in Florida tricked a woman into thinking she had won $3 million and stole $400,000 from her bank account.

Police arrested Michael Lawrence and Max Richards in connection to the scam but could only recover around $40,000 of the money, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said in a press conference on Friday, according to Fox 13.

Lawrence and Richards face felony charges of first-degree theft and scheme to defraud, according to court records.

Judd, 70, is known online for his boisterous press conferences, during which he shares information about the people the Polk County Sheriff's Office arrests.

During Friday's press conference, Judd said the scammers targeted an older woman with early signs of dementia. They told her she won $3 million in a Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes and that she needed to pay them taxes, Judd said.

By the end, Judd said she had sent Lawrence and Richards $477,000 in three separate checks.

An attorney for Lawrence did not immediately return a request for comment from Business Insider. It was unclear from court records whether Richards had retained an attorney.

The Federal Trade Commission says the best way to spot a sweepstakes scam is to look at what the party offering the money asks you to do next. The agency says that if they try to get you to hand over money or send them your account information, it's likely a scam.

"If someone tells you to pay a fee for 'taxes,' 'shipping and handling charges,' or 'processing fees' to get your prize, you're dealing with a scammer," the agency warned.

If you do pay money to a scammer, the FTC recommends asking whatever company you sent money through to help recover it if possible.

Polk said in the press conference that money lost in scams is often difficult to get back. He said the sheriff's office only recovered around $40,000 of the woman's money.

"You go obtain subpoenas and then the bank takes their time about getting data back, the money is gone, long gone," Judd said, according to Fox.

Lawrence appeared in court on Friday and does not have another hearing scheduled yet on the court docket.

Publisher's Clearing House told Business Insider it's grateful the Polk County police arrested the men accused of the scam.

The company says the best way to spot a sweepstakes imposter scam is to remember that "at Publishers Clearing House — or any legitimate sweepstakes — no purchase, payment, order, tax or fee of any kind is ever necessary to collect a real prize."

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