A spokesman for the Sweetwater County Sheriff's Department is reporting an advance fee scam that demands payment to collect a supposed contest prize.

Dick Blust says the intended victims are sent personally addressed letters telling them they have won $550,000 in the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes. A realistic looking check, usually made out for $7,897 or a similar amount, is also included.

The supposed prize winner is told they must contact a "claims manager" at a certain telephone number to claim the "prize" before depositing the check. The intended victim is also warned that "federal and state laws" preclude them from discussing their win with "third parties." (In other words, don't call the cops).

Once the person contacts the "Claims Manager," they are told they must pay a tax or processing fee upfront to collect the prize. They can then supposedly deposit the check they received and look forward to claiming the over half-a-million dollars in prize money.

But the check is worthless, they prize is bogus as well and the victim is out the money they spent for the processing fee or tax. Blust says the scam includes two red flags that should always serve as a scam warning.

First of all, no one is going to win huge prizes in a contest they never entered. Secondly, no legitimate contest is going to ask for money upfront to collect a prize. Investigators say many of the lottery scams are operated by violent gangs based in Jamaica.

They especially target seniors.

U.S. residents are bilked out of an estimated $300 million annually by lottery scams alone. The FBI operates a website that warns people about all kinds of common scams and frauds.