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Sweepstakes and Lottery Scams

Who wouldn’t want to win thousands or even millions of dollars, or the chance to go on a luxury vacation? There are many legitimate sweepstakes and contests out there, and the idea of winning some fabulous prize can be mighty alluring. Con artists get that, and they exploit your eagerness to score that big check or dream trip.

Sweepstakes and lottery scams have been around for a long time, and they’re still going strong. In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received more than 148,000 reports of fraud involving prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries, up 27 percent from the year before. Victims collectively lost $255 million. 

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The initial contact in a sweepstakes scam is often a call, an email, a social media notification or a piece of direct mail offering congratulations for winning some big contest. But there’s a catch: You’ll be asked to pay a fee, taxes or customs duties to claim your prize. The scammers may request your bank account information, urge you to send money via a wire transfer, or suggest you purchase gift cards and give them the card numbers.

Once they ensnare someone, they’ll keep coming back, staying in contact for months or even years, promising the big prize is only one more payment away and often enlisting victims as unwitting “money mules” to transfer funds stolen from others. If you stop paying or cut off contact, they may threaten to harm you or a loved one or to report you to the authorities, according to the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica, the country of origin for many lottery cons. (Be suspicious of any unexpected call from a number starting with 876, the area code for Jamaica.) Older adults are popular targets, with people age 55 and older accounting for 72 percent of sweepstakes scams reported to the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Among this group, 9 out of 10 lost money, with an average cost of $978, more than triple the toll for younger victims, according to a June 2021 BBB study.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Some lose far more. Two Jamaican men who pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges earlier this year collected tens of thousands of dollars from many individual victims and obtained more than $9.4 million overall while running a sweepstakes scam out of a call center in Costa Rica for eight years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

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And a criminal was recently sent to prison and required to pay back more than $7.7 million he stole from California residents. In response, California Lottery officials have emphasized that:

  • The lottery NEVER charges players to claim their prize or asks for any money up front. 
  • A lottery official would NEVER personally contact you about winning a jackpot before an official claim form is filed. 
  • There’s absolutely NO WAY to win a lottery prize if you don’t play a lottery game

Warning signs

  • You get a call or an online solicitation claiming you’ve won a prize in a sweepstakes you don’t recall entering or haven’t heard of before.
  • You’re told you need to make an up-front payment to collect the prize.
  • Someone calls you and says they have a winning state lottery ticket but need help paying a fee to collect on it. According to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, “Once a ticket is bought, no money is EVER required to claim a prize.”

How to protect yourself from this scam

  • Look carefully at the envelopes of purported sweepstakes mailers. If your entry form or congratulations letter was sent bulk rate, it means a lot of other people got the same mailing. 
  • Hang up on cold calls claiming to be from well-known contests like the Mega Millions lottery or the Publishers Clearing House (PCH) sweepstakes. They will not call you out of the blue to tell you you’ve won.
  • Read the fine print on a contest form and make sure it isn’t missing legally required information, such as the contest’s start and end dates, methods of entry, descriptions of prizes and various legal disclaimers. If that stuff isn’t there, something is funny.
  • Carefully check for your odds of winning, and be especially leery of contests that don’t disclose it.
  • Beware your own eagerness. An FTC survey found that those who reported a high willingness to take risks were three times more likely to become victims of fraudulent prize promotions than those with a low willingness.
  • Don’t ever pay a fee to claim a prize you’ve supposedly won or to improve your chances of winning. 
  • Never provide personal or financial information to anyone who contacts you about a lottery prize.
  • Don’t deposit supposed winnings that come in the form of a partial-payment check accompanied by instructions to return a portion to the contest sponsors. The check will bounce, and you’ll likely have to repay your bank for any withdrawals from that deposit, including what you sent the scammers.
  • If you get a call from a number with an 876, 809 or 284 area code regarding a prize, don’t call back. Those codes belong to Caribbean countries (respectively, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and the British Virgin Islands) that have become hotbeds for contest frauds and other phone scams. 

More Resources

  • The FTC’s Complaint Assistant takes online reports of sweepstakes schemes and other frauds, and the agency’s website offers a detailed breakdown of common prize scams.
  • If you suspect a lottery or sweepstakes fraud originated abroad, report it to the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network, an organization of government consumer agencies from 60 countries.
  • If a scammer pretends to be from the Publishers Clearing House, notify PCH at 800-392-4190.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.