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Don't Let Yourself Get Swept Up by Sweepstakes

Winning is great, but it can make you vulnerable to scams and solicitations

As the latest $50,000 retirement sweepstakes goes live on AARP.org, I've been spending some time thinking about whether these contests and prizes have much impact on the lives of the people who play them — in our case, the 40-plus population we are targeting for this educational game.

It's not hard to see how the $50,000 prize helped our last winner, 59-year-old Joyce H. of Cincinnati. She's unemployed, unmarried and raising four grandchildren on her own, in a rented four-bedroom townhouse. She described herself as a "poor person."

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Smiling woman money, Sweepstakes changes your life

The more contests you enter, the more chances you have to win, and the more likely you'll be targeted by sales calls and scams. — Blend Images/Alamy

Given her predicament, she could barely believe her luck. She'd never won a single prize before.

"No. Never. Not ever!" said Joyce. "I used to think, 'What is wrong with me — why can't I ever win anything?' I see people winning all the time, at the casino, playing the lottery. So when I got that email saying I won, I sat there just staring at it. Then I read it again. And I still just sat there."

Joyce had good reason to be skeptical. The email from AARP was buried among dozens of other emails also claiming she had won a prize or been named in some distant relative's will.

In fact, just a few weeks before she won the AARP sweepstakes, but after she had replied to one of these sketchy emails, Joyce found herself being harassed at 4 a.m. by a "London barrister" who claimed he was administering this relative's will. He urged her to go to Western Union and wire him $350 "as a show of good faith" on her part.

Fortunately, she could smell a rat. "What would I need to wire you $350 for when you have all that money right there? Take $350 out of that!" she told the so-called barrister. "If you scam 100 people for $350 each — that's a lot of money!"

Indeed it is. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission estimates that foreign-based lottery fraud alone bilks Americans out of billions of dollars a year. Moreover, the FTC estimates that more than 90 percent of lottery scams go unreported because the victims are too ashamed to file a complaint.

They shouldn't be ashamed, because they are hardly alone. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population falls for one kind of scam or another each year, according to FTC research. Studies show that the average fraud victim is between 55 and 65 years old. Often, people with higher levels of education are more likely to trust their own judgment too much — and fall prey to scam artists too often.

Joyce herself summed it up well. "Us elderly people, we are often scammed by these things," she says. "They always try to work on us, because they know we are very vulnerable. We all need the money."

So, while I am thrilled for Joyce, our sweepstakes winner, I shudder to think that winning this prize might encourage her — and our other sweeps entrants — to keep searching for other ways to hit the jackpot. The more sweeps and lotteries you enter, the more solicitations you will get, and the more likely you are to eventually be targeted by a scam.

In our case, AARP offers sweepstakes prizes to encourage you to explore our retirement decision-making tools and educational resources. (We don't sell your information to third parties, and we will never ask you to pay a fee to enter our contest or collect a prize.) If you do happen to win a prize — whether it's the $50,000 grand prize or a $50 gift card — that's great. But it's not really the point. As your mom always said, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."

Jean C. Setzfand is vice president of the Financial Security team in the Education and Outreach group at AARP. She leads AARP's educational and outreach efforts aimed at helping Americans achieve financial peace of mind in retirement. She can be reached at jsetzfand@aarp.org or on Twitter at @JSetz.

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WATCH OUT: Foreign lottery scams are targeting older Americans, bilking them of their life savings.

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