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FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER

Sweepstakes and Lottery Scams

En español | 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 2019 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received nearly 125,000 reports of fraud involving prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries that swindled the unwary out of $121 million. The median loss was $860. 

Have you seen this scam?

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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 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 someone they'll keep coming back, calling victims for months or even years, promising the big prize is only one payment away. If you stop paying or cut off contact, they may threaten to harm you or a loved one or to report you to 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 people are popular targets: According to an August 2020 Better Business Bureau study, 80 percent of the money lost to sweepstakes scammers comes from people over age 65. 

Warning Signs

  • You get a call or an online solicitation claiming you were automatically entered in a sweepstakes you’ve never heard of before.
  • You're told you need to make an upfront payment to collect the prize.
  • Someone calls you and says they have a winning state lottery ticket but needs 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.”

Do's

  • 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 hang up on cold calls claiming to be from well-known contests like 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.
  • Do read the fine print on a 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'ts

  • 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 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.
  • Don’t believe social media messages or posts purporting to be from celebrities or business moguls offering a big cash giveaway. 
  • Don’t call a number with an 876, 809 or 284 area code to confirm that you’ve won a prize. 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.

Updated September 2, 2020

About the Fraud Watch Network

Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.

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