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You’ve Won a Million Bucks!

You can't win a sweepstakes you haven't entered — and 2 other clever lies that could fool you

Briefcase with money and dynamite - Beware of prizes that require fees.


Watch out for any prize notification that says you have to pay fees up front to get your prize.

As millions of Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes envelopes begin to arrive in mailboxes across the country, you should know that your odds of winning big are pretty small: Only a 1 in 1.2 billion chance of snagging the top prize of $1 million a year for life, according to the company. Even getting a one-time prize of $2,500 has odds of 1 in 130 million.

See also: AARP Sweepstakes you can trust.
But the odds of getting scammed are 100 percent if you believe those phony congratulation letters, phone calls and emails that claim you need to pay money in order to get your winnings.

PCH’s genuine mailings began in mid-January and will continue for months. Unfortunately, they mark the kickoff of sweepstakes scam season. Already, scammers have wasted no time getting busy.

In Mississippi, “winners” of the contest are being notified with phone calls from Jamaica or Nigeria, asking that $200 in taxes be paid before their $155,000 and new car can be delivered.

In Minnesota, police says scammers are mailing letters requesting payment of $15,000 in taxes to claim millions from the national contest.

In reality, the $1 million a year for life prize will be announced Feb. 29. Only sweepstakes entry forms — not notifications of winners — are being delivered for now.

“I could cite 20 different ways scammers use to capitalize on our company name and sweepstakes,” PCH official Christopher Irving tells Scam Alert, “but it all comes down to this: At some point, a scam artist will ask you to send money, to pay some type of fees in order to get your prize. We do not make such requests.” No legitimate contest, sweepstakes or lottery, in fact, ever asks for an advance fee to claim winnings.

If you really win a PCH prize — hundreds are awarded each year, ranging from $10 to that 1-in-1.2 billion shot at $1 million per year — expect this:

  • For any prize of $10,000 or more, a Prize Patrol van (complete with oversized check and camera crew) will arrive at your door — unannounced, says Irving. You will not be notified by phone call, letter or email. Any notifications delivered those ways are scams.
  • For winnings of less than $10,000, the Prize Patrol may or may not show up, adds Irving. If not, expect a certified letter delivered by U.S. mail that asks you to contact PCH at 1-800-645-9242.

Here’s what you need to know about other prize lies:

  • The “partial” payment check.  You get a check with congratulations and instructions to deposit that “partial payment” of supposed winnings into your bank account. You’re told to use that money to make a quick wire-transfer of a required advance payment of taxes or fees or whatever. What happens: The deposited check proves to be counterfeit — this could take weeks to discover — and you’re liable for all money drawn from that deposit in the meantime.
  • The bogus claims agent. Congratulatory letters often ask you to contact a designated “claims agent.” Don’t. These smooth talkers claim to be third-party middlemen “managing” your prize award, but are actually professional con men. Once you pay the requested advance amount, they bombard you with other phone calls and letters claiming new, “unexpected” fees have arisen, until you get wise.
  • Did you even enter? If you didn’t and are told you won, it’s a scam. There is no way you can win a legitimate sweepstakes, lottery or contest that you don’t enter.

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