The very mention of the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol and all the goodies they send is enough to put many in a swoon with visions of Ed McMahon knocking on the door with a big fat check.

But not all checks sent your way, even those which appear to be endorsed by Publishers Clearing House at first glance, are going to make you rich. Some are scams that will take you for thousands of dollars.

This past March, fake award letters designed to appear as if they are sent from Publishers Clearing House were found in mailboxes across 20 states, according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

The scam artists did their homework, too. According to Better Business Bureau spokeswoman Allison Southwick, the checks are so convincing that the victims often have no idea that they have been duped until they deposit them into their accounts. By then it may be too late.

How the Scam Works
An unsuspecting person receives an official-looking letter in their mailbox claiming that they have won a sweepstakes prize, say for a million dollars. The victim also receives a check for as much as $5,900, with instructions to deposit the money.

According to Southwick, the victim is told that they must cash the check and wire as much as $4,000 back to cover taxes and administrative fees before the full prize money can be awarded. Even though the check is bogus, it often will take a few days for it to bounce. In the meantime, the scammed "winner" is wiring back the fee payment from their actual bank account monies.

Once that transfer is complete, the victim is left with nothing except a broken promise, a check that is about to bounce, potentially crushing overdraft fees and a wire-transfer form for, say $4,000, which they will probably never see again.

Protect Yourself
According to Margaret Crossan, senior manager of consumer affairs for Publishers Clearing House, the company does not ask people for money in order to receive a prize. "A legitimate sweepstakes will NEVER ask you to send money to enter a sweepstakes, claim a prize, or pay a fee, tax or deposit," states the Publishers Clearing House web site. "If you are asked to send money to claim a sweepstakes prize for any reason, you are being scammed."

The site continues: If you are contacted by someone who says you won a prize, but in order to claim it you must drive somewhere, pay a shipping, handling, or delivery fee, pre-pay taxes, pay a deposit, give a credit card number, call a 900 number, or purchase a product with a "discount voucher," the contest is not affiliated in any way with the real Publishers Clearing House.

Want to learn more? Those unsure of the legitimacy of contest literature are encouraged to contact Publishers Clearing House at 800-645-9242. Concerned consumers can also contact the National Fraud Information Center.