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 2017 alone, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 142,870 reports of scams involving prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries that swindled the unwary out of $95 million. The median loss was $511.
According to the FTC, the initial contact in a sweepstakes scam is often a call, a postcard, an email or a social media notification 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 bank account information, urge you to send money via a wire transfer, or suggest you purchase gift cards and give them the card numbers.
Regardless of the method, once scammers ensnare a victim they keep asking for more money and provide nothing in return but more promises. To protect yourself and make sure that Lady Luck is actually on your side, follow these basic precautions.
- Calls or online solicitations that claim you were automatically entered in a sweepstakes you’ve never heard of before.
- A person calls you and says he has a winning state lottery ticket but needs help paying an upfront 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.”
- Do 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.
- Do watch out for scammers who try to trick victims into thinking they’ve won a legitimate contest, such as the Publishers Clearing House (PCH) sweepstakes.
- Do read the fine print on the contest form, and make sure it isn’t missing legally required information such as the start and end dates of the contest, the methods of entry, descriptions of prizes and various legal disclaimers. If that stuff isn’t there, something is funny.
- Do carefully check for your odds of winning, and be especially leery of contests that don't disclose it.
- Do 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.
- Don’t wire money to or share gift-card numbers with someone claiming to represent a contest or lottery. “Both payment methods are a sure sign of a scam,” the FTC warns.
- 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.
- Don’t believe people who contact you via social media about a cash prize, especially if they purport to be Mark Zuckerberg — the New York Times recently reported on con artists who promise big money in the online guise of the Facebook chief executive.
- Don’t call a number with an 876, 809 or 284 area code to confirm that you’ve won a prize. Though they aren’t identified on your phone as foreign, those codes belong to Caribbean countries that have become hotbeds for contest frauds. They might be masking “pay-per-call” services (the equivalent of 900 numbers in the United States) that enable the number’s owner to charge a hefty per-minute fee — which you won’t discover until you get your next phone bill.
- 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.
Published: Dec. 3, 2018
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