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Avoiding Sweepstakes Scams

9 tips to help you play it safe, examine the fine print and avoid fraud

You may get the come-ons in the U.S. Mail: You've won a valuable cash prize in our contest!

But how do you tell a legitimate contest from a scam? You've got to be extra vigilant. There's a host of government rules that regulate these things, but the sad fact is that even if a contest makes all the legally required disclosures, it can still be worthy of the trash can.

Such was the case with one recent mass-mailed letter that promised, in large type, $898,899 in prize money. That sum might be yours, people were told. All it took to stake your claim was a $20 entry fee.

The devil-in-the-details small print spelled out just how sleazy this whole thing was. It's too bad more people didn't read before sending in their money.

The contest organizer, Sentry Armored Dispatch, noted that it "doesn't guarantee the cash or prizes advertised." It duly disclosed that the odds of winning the top prize of $898,899 was 1 in 898,899. But the odds were much better to win 89 cents: 1-in-1.

Translation: Send in your $20 and we'll send you an 89-cent prize.

Sentry Armored Dispatch has an F rating with the Better Business Bureau. Efforts by Scam Alert to reach it for comment were not successful.

It's not only money, but your identity, that you risk losing in contests.

The requested info on your registration card may include things like your passport or driver's license number.

The bottom line: If you love contests, good luck! Just be sure to grab your reading glasses before your checkbook, and carefully examine the fine print.

9 tips for playing it safe

1. If the fine print is missing any of the following info, assume a scam: Start and end dates; judging date; methods of entry including judging criteria; type of proof of purchase required; description of prizes and approximate retail values; legal disclaimers; sponsor's name and address.

2. Carefully check for your odds of winning. Be wary of contests that don't disclose it (and even those that do, as the 89-cent contest proves).

3. Never provide personal information such as a driver's license or passport number. Legit contests will request only your name, address or possibly phone number.

4. Check the reputation and any complaints filed against the contest organizer with the Better Business Bureau and/or your state attorney general or state consumer protection office.

5. In a skill contest, gauge the difficulty. If it seems too easy, the hard truth is that it's likely a scam.

6. Told you're "lucky" or "guaranteed" to win something? Those words are usually illegal. So is, typically, the use of simulated checks or items of value unless they bear the words "SPECIMEN" or "NON-NEGOTIABLE."

7. Think twice about entry forms mailed by bulk rate. You typically have a needle-in-a-haystack chance of winning anything significant in mass mailings.

8. Don't call a provided phone number for contest details unless you've checked the contest's authenticity with an online search. Avoid any numbers with a 900 area code, which generate high per-minute charges. But be aware that some conning contests have you call toll-free 800 numbers, where you're then told to call a 900 number.

Still others may provide area codes that seem to be domestic American codes but in fact are for foreign countries, meaning you'll run up high long-distance charges. You can check a code's location by typing it and the words "area code" into an Internet search engine.

9. Avoid email or online contest entries unless they're at a trusted company website. Signing up at a public location or event can risk identity theft or your contact information being sold to telemarketers.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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