AARP Eye Center
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.
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.
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.
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: