Ask Sindie: The Lottery 'prizes' that lure you into a fraud trap

How online scams can lead to cash or ID theft... The confusion caused by house-price surveys
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The Independent Online

Q: I've received what appears to be a National Lottery email suggesting I've won a cash prize.

At first glance I was going to dismiss it as a scam, but then I remembered recently playing the Lottery online - although I don't recall taking part in what the email describes as the online "Sweepstake International".

It seems that a cheque has been forwarded to a courier company based in Hampshire. For me to pick it up, I've been asked to email personal details including my address, date of birth, telephone number and job title.

Is it worth responding or is this a hoax?

AP, by email

A: Sadly, it's the latter. What looks like a cause for celebration is nothing more than the latest scam using the internet to dupe people into handing over money or valuable information.

In your case, it appears fraudsters are hunting key pieces of personal information that could be used to commit identity fraud, where money or goods are stolen in your name.

A spokesman for Camelot, the company that runs the National Lottery, says the email is "definitely" a scam and stresses that it would never ask customers to supply an email containing confidential information.

If you had really won any money, he adds, then the sum would simply have been credited to the online account you set up before playing - and an email alert for this sent instead.

In any event, the National Lottery will always check your identity by running through security questions established when your account was set up.

Lottery scam emails are increasing at an alarming rate, the spokesman says. Fraudsters try to persuade you to part with either money - usually an up-front payment to release a winning Lottery prize that doesn't exist - or, as in your case, personal information to carry out ID theft.

The emails often carry web links within the text that appear legitimate as they contain all or part of a real company's name.

Click on them, however, and you will be put through to hoax sites that ask you to update critical information such as online account numbers. In the process of responding to this request, you will unknowingly download "spyware" software that tracks your key strokes to uncover your passwords and identity codes and let fraudsters infiltrate your accounts.

Although millions of consumers think they would never fall for a spoof website, the fakes can be difficult to spot.

If you stick to the following general rules, you should be OK.

Don't click on any links in unsolicited emails and never send upfront fees in order to "claim your prize".

Also, it isn't a good idea to disclose personal or financial information via a so-called "claims" or "verification" form; contact the host firm direct and explain your concern.

And whenever logging on to a particular website, always key in the address directly rather than using a link "embedded" within an email's body text.

It's a cliché, but if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Q: We've been holding off from buying a two-bedroom flat in central Bristol for nearly a year in the hope that prices might fall.

Frustratingly, reports suggesting the market is on its way down have, on several occasions and often in the space of a week, then been contradicted by another survey.

How can this be? I don't understand how so many different opinions can be held at the same time.

It makes it very difficult for us to know when to put our current house on the market. Can you offer any help?

RG, Bath

A: Many homebuyers endure sleepless nights trying to time their house move to make the most of fluctuations in the UK property market.

Much depends on personal circumstances, such as where you live - last year, there was spectacular growth in the north of England while much of the South-east stagnated - and the type of property you buy. For example, in rising markets two-bedroom flats tend to be popular with buyers because of the potential for renting a room out.

But for UK housing overall, conflicting statistics about price growth are usually down to the differing perspectives of the various reports.

For example, the Land Registry - a government office that records every residential property transaction - analyses house prices at completion. However, the index is published only once every three months and is more of a historical record than an indication of trends.

Compare this to indices from Nationwide and the Halifax. These record loan-approval figures instead and are "weighted" to iron out regional biases and the impact of, say, a large number of million-pound houses being sold in a short period.

Even so, the two are often contradictory. This is because they use different samples and because the Halifax has the larger market share.

Alternatively, Rightmove - a website for estate agents - publishes an index of asking prices; these, of course, have a habit of changing quickly.

For the most comprehensive view, check prices in your own preferred area over the past few years, as well as monitoring each of the different national sources.

If you need help from our consumer champion, write to Sindie at The Independent on Sunday, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or email sindie@independent.co.uk. We cannot return documents, give personal replies or guarantee to answer letters. We accept no legal responsibility for advice given.

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