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Warning Signs of Sweepstakes and Lottery Scams

How to protect yourself against Publishers Clearing House imposters and other scammers claiming you’ve won big (for a price)

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Illustration: Matt Chase

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.

These scams are similar to the romance scams “where you’re generating this ideal self, a future version of you,” says Marti DeLiema, a professor and associate director of education for the Center for Healthy Aging and Innovation at the University of Minnesota who studies scams. The criminals use phantom riches, which is an effective persuasion tactic, she says. “It gets you to imagine and fantasize about financial gain [which] feels really good. It’s those hits of dopamine.”

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Victims collectively lost $338 million in 2023 to these kinds of scams, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The agency received more than 157,520 reports of fraud involving prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries, the third most common fraud reported to the FTC.  

How lottery scams work  

The initial contact in a sweepstakes scam may be a call, email, social media notification or even snail mail offering congratulations for winning a big contest. But there’s a catch: You’ll be asked to pay a fee, taxes or customs duties to claim your prize. 

Asking for fees and taxes. One criminal stole $50 million from victims by asking for ‘"fees. " Ryan Young, of Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, was convicted in January 2024 of asking for fees of up to $50. (While out on bail during the trial, Young came up with a new scam, stealing $1.6 million by telling victims they had won a court settlement and had to send money to collect.) 

Many victims lose more than $50. AARP’s podcast series The Perfect Scam tells of a family man who spent his life savings attempting to collect on a prize. The criminals even manipulated him into becoming their money mule to steal from others.

Pretending to deliver winnings. At least one victim was allegedly sent a suitcase which he was told contained his $5.5 million in winnings. The lock combination was promised as soon as the victim paid taxes and fees. If the victim tried to open the suitcase without the code, the criminals said the money inside would be destroyed. 

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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.

Manipulating you into giving up financial information. Criminals have been forgoing demands for money, instead requesting bank account information and Social Security numbers to file notice of winnings with the IRS. It’s an attempt to steal your identity. Criminals stole $43 billion from Americans in 2023 through identity fraud, according to a report cosponsored by AARP.

Impersonating past winners. Steve Weisman, editor of, has obtained reports of criminals impersonating not lottery officials but past winners such as the 2017 $758 million Powerball winner, Mavis Wanczyk. Emails go out from criminals pretending to be celebrities like Wanczyk. In this case, the criminals claim Wanczyk wants to give individuals grants from her winnings; victims simply need to provide personal information.

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Signs of a lottery or sweepstakes scam

A call saying you’ve won the lottery. Players are the ones who contact the lottery, not the other way around, says David Gale, executive director of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, a trade association. “Lotteries have no idea who holds winning tickets,” with a few exceptions, Gale says: For example, states that offer online lottery sales may know because players must set up accounts to play. But in that case, “players are automatically credited with winnings directly into their account,” he says.

A call from Publishers Clearing House. “Any big prize of $10,000 would be awarded just as you see in our TV commercials. Our prize patrol would show up, unannounced, in person,” says Christopher Irving, vice president of consumer and legal affairs at Publishers Clearing House in Jericho, New York. For smaller prizes, the company would send out a certified or registered letter with information on how the winner can independently identify and verify the real Publishers Clearing House. 

You must pay to collect. “If you have sincerely won a cash prize or an item like a car, you will not be asked to pay any fee or taxes or transportation cost. Anyone who asks a winner to cover those costs is trying to defraud them,” says DeLiema. 

Publishers Clearing House’s Irving is emphatic about any request for fees, payments or gift cards. “Hang up the phone, rip up the letter, delete the email. It’s not from the real Publishers Clearing House,” he says. When it comes to taxes, says Irving, the company does not deduct taxes from your check and does not ask winners to pay the taxes to the company. 

“Legitimate lotteries do not require winners to pay anything up front to receive their winnings,” Gale says. He explains that lotteries take a different approach to taxes: For large prizes, taxes are automatically withheld from the amount paid to the winner. 

Must buy merchandise. “No purchase is necessary to enter or win. In fact, the majority of [Publishers Clearing House] winners have never purchased anything,” Irving says.

You didn’t enter a contest. If you play a lottery regularly, this may not alert you, DeLiema says. But if you don’t have a ticket to present, you can’t collect your winnings. “Players must show or scan their ticket when making a claim,” Gale says. 

“If it’s $600 or less, you can go to one of our retailers and they will give you that amount,” says Jayre Reaves, the DC Lottery's director of marketing. 

Gale says that’s true for most states, but there are exceptions. In South Dakota, for example, retailers can award prizes up to $100. For bigger cash prizes, security staff must verify the ticket in person at a lottery center, according to the state lotteries’ trade group.

They ask for your financial information. Criminals tell you you’ve won a prize but they need your private information to verify you as the winner. If Publishers Clearing House is sending a check to a winner, it never asks for bank information, Irving says. For large lottery prizes, winners are processed in person at a state lottery office. 

They spend a lot of time with you. Criminals try to engage you in friendly conversation. “If the person is trying to build a relationship with you, that’s not [what] the real lottery distributors do,” DeLiema says.

Promises to show up are broken. “If they keep needing more and more money in order to show up, that’s a red flag to end the engagement right then and there, and report [it] immediately to law enforcement,” DeLiema says.

How to be a smart consumer

Hang up the phone. Hang up on cold calls claiming to be from well-known contests. 

Take time to consider. Criminals urge you to move quickly, but “slowing down is always important. It helps you process the information,” DeLiema says. Plus, "Any legitimate prize or sweepstakes ... will give you enough time to check on everything,” Amy Nofziger, the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline’s director of fraud victim support, said on The Perfect Scam

Talk to friends and family. Criminals may tell you not to tell anyone because they’ll want your money, or because it will deprive you of the chance of surprising your family with big checks. But DeLiema found that speaking to someone else provided protection: “Most of the people who do [talk to others] learn right away that these lotteries and sweepstakes are not real.”

Independently verify. You always have the option to check your ticket face-to-face at a retailer, says DC Lottery’s Reaves. Gale says that in addition to checking at a retailer, customers can check the state lottery home page, see live or archived drawings on the lottery site, or call the lottery’s winning number line. To check if phone calls are from a legitimate lottery, call the lottery in your jurisdiction and ask for the security department, he says.

If collecting the prize isn’t free, pass. Don’t ever pay a fee to claim a prize you’ve supposedly won or to improve your chances of winning. 

Protect your personal information. Never provide personal or financial information to anyone who contacts you about a lottery prize.

Read the fine print. If you’ve been sent a contest through the mail, 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. 

If you’ve been a target

The FTC takes online reports of sweepstakes schemes and other frauds, and the agency’s website offers a detailed breakdown of common prize, sweepstakes and lottery scams.

Publishers Clearing House has information about criminals posing as its employees and other scams to be aware of. If you’ve been contacted by a scammer, you can notify the company by filling out an online form or calling 800-392-4190. 

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service combats fraud that operates through the mail. If you received a solicitation through the mail, report it here.

Call the free AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, to speak with trained fraud specialists who can provide support and guidance on what to do next and how to avoid future scams. The AARP Fraud Watch Network also offers online group support sessions.

The original story has been rewritten and advice from lottery and sweepstakes experts has been added.

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

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.