National Consumer Protection Week is a federal program, led by the Federal Trade Commission to draw attention to issues and ideas that help customers become smarter consumers of products, materials and services and improve their knowledge of how to combat fraud.

During NCPW, federal, state and local consumer protection agencies -- together with consumer organizations and industry associations -- launch consumer protection and education efforts around the country.

This year, the Postal Inspection Service is working to educate consumers about foreign lottery schemes and provide them with the information needed to combat these illegal activities.

The U.S. Postal Service® goals are to do the following:

* Increase Americans' awareness about fraudulent financial schemes.

* Give consumers valuable information about protect¬ing their assets from the schemes.

* Provide a central location where consumers can report suspected financial fraud.

Anyone can be a victim of lottery fraud. This includes retired business owners, schoolteachers, or people with advanced degrees. No one is immune. Scammers often seek out those whom they perceive to be vulnerable. Their victims include older Americans and cognitively challenged individuals.

These crimes can seriously affect the lives of their victims and their families. During National Consumer Protection Week, March 2-8, postal inspectors will be discussing with Americans how they can avoid becoming the latest victims in this crime.

During just the past three years, victims lost more than $42 million of their hard-earned savings to crooked operators. These criminals talk a good game. They ask victims to pay by wire, check, money order or cash. They try to get American consumers to send money that's just for "taxes and fees." Scammers might even provide the victim a check or money order as an advance on the winnings, with instructions to cash and return the proceeds in order to receive the winnings.

The Postal Inspection Service is warning American consumers to take heed: In a foreign lottery, it's more than just the odds against you. Potential victims and their caregivers are cautioned, if contacted to play a foreign lottery by mail, email or telephone, to do the following:

* Hang up the phone, don't respond to the email or shred the solicitation.

* Don't give out personal or financial information to anyone over the Internet or phone.

* Never wire or send money to anyone anywhere who says you have won a foreign lottery.

* Don't let anyone pressure you into making an immediate decision.

* Never purchase anything until you get all information in writing.

Foreign lotteries aren't just a risky proposition for American consumers, under most circumstances, they are also illegal. A federal statute prohibits mailing lottery tickets, advertisements or payments to purchase tickets in a foreign lottery.

An educated public is the first line of defense. Visit Deliveringtrust.com for helpful information on how to protect yourselves and your loved ones from fraud.

GARY LUCA

Postmaster Ayer