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Wishful Winners

What to do when a parent is a habitual sweepstakes victim

Many contests, sweepstakes and lotteries come with a catch. After the lucky winner sends a requested fee—usually for "taxes" or "insurance" on the promised windfall—he or she gets nothing in return except a smaller bank account.

The problem is, many victims don't realize they're being scammed. They just want to keep going.

Bogus games are a worry for adult children whose parents habitually respond to such offers. Says Susan Slater, 68, of Massachusetts: "My 94-year-old mother receives several mail requests per day with promises of winning money. She is positive that most are real, and is spending much of her time opening the envelopes, reading in detail, and worrying over losing the contests if she doesn't enter on time."

Where children often go wrong, says Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford University's Center on Longevity, is in getting upset at a parent's actions, and making comments such as "How can you fall for this?" or "Don't be stupid; it's clearly a scam."

This reaction only makes "the elders pull away from you," says Carstensen—especially if it's followed by threats to take over their finances or get power of attorney. It drives a wedge between victims and people who might protect them.

There are better ways to prevent rip-offs of habitual contest entrants:

  • Quietly raise questions. Rather than say, "The prize doesn't exist," ask, "Did the check come yet? It's been a few months now," or "How many times have you won?" This approach may help victims draw their own conclusions that they're being duped.

  • Turn victim into protector. It might be helpful to ask your parents to let their friends know about scams. Sharing this information may commit the scam to memory and, at the same time, help others.

  • Be aware of vulnerable periods. Seniors are especially likely to fall for the contests within three years of experiencing some type of major stress—financial problems, the loss of a spouse, or a change in health or housing.

  • Help the U.S. Postal Inspection Service crack down on these scams by sending it the come-on letters. Find the location nearest you at the inspection service's office locator.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of
Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).