An 85-year-old retired teacher in Alaska just gave away $45,000 in two sweepstakes scams, paying fraudulent fees to supposedly allow her to collect her prizes. This is one kind of fraud that zeroes in on older Americans, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) says in a new report. She never got the Mercedes-Benz nor the millions of dollars that were promised.
The scams began in March, says the woman's son, a 57-year-old accountant who lives in the Seattle-Tacoma region in Washington state. Neither the mother nor her sons are being named, since her family is not convinced her ordeal is over. Once scammers hit the jackpot, so to speak, they may sell a victim's information on a “lead list” to another scammer. That's what the accountant son thinks happened. The family called AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, about the case.
"We tried to dissuade her from having contact with these people,” the son says. “She is deeply religious, and she said she prayed on it, and felt it was the real thing, despite all these warning signs we [children] shared with her."
This family's heartbreak is not unique. Sweepstakes and lottery scammers target adults 55 and older, and victims in this age group who actually lost money gave away an average of nearly $1,000 each, the BBB says in the report. For some, the loss is much higher.
The Alaska woman's son says the first group of scammers that defrauded his mother posed as officials of Publishers Clearing House, which carries fraud warnings on its website and notes: “At PCH the winning is always free and you NEVER have to pay to claim a prize.”
Others have been preyed on
The BBB report cites a Michigan man, also in his 80s, targeted by sweepstakes scammers in 2020, shortly after his wife died. He lost $72,000.
The widower was told he'd won $2.5 million, gold medallions and a luxury car in a sweepstakes. He began talking to the scammers daily, even after his daughter had his phone number changed.
These ruses hinge on a similar request: Pay money up front — called “taxes” or “fees” — to collect a supposed prize. Victims are told to pay with gift cards, cash, cashier's checks, wire transfers or deposits into specified bank accounts.
From Michigan to Mississippi
The widower withdrew $72,000 from his nest egg and mailed cash to an address in Mississippi. It's highly unlikely such losses can be recouped, the BBB says.
A ray of good news: Complaints to three entities in the U.S. and Canada about sweepstakes, lottery and prize scams have dropped 16 percent since 2018. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center; and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre took the complaints.
But amid the dip, the three organizations saw a dramatic rise in the dollars lost to such scams, though not everyone targeted loses money; some refuse to take the bait.
Victims have taken their lives
Compounding the damage for victims is the emotional toll, according to the BBB, which says: “The losses can put severe strain on family trust, and victims have even committed suicide."
Stop sweepstakes scammers
Here’s more on thwarting crooks hungry for your cash:
• Genuine lotteries or sweepstakes don’t ask for money up front. Remember, you must enter to win, so if you can’t remember doing so, that’s a red flag.
• Call the sweepstakes company directly to see if you won. For Publishers Clearing House, call 800-392-4190.
• Call the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, 440-361-7962, or state lottery if you’re told you’ve won.
• If you are contacted about supposed winnings, search the internet for the company and the name and phone number of the person who reached out.
• Know that law enforcement officials do not call and award prizes.
• If you are skeptical, talk to a trusted relative or someone at your bank, since they can help stop scammers.
Yet victims of sweepstakes scams are not the prototypical “frail” shut-ins that some think, says C. Steven Baker, the BBB's international investigations specialist. A lawyer, he formerly led the FTC's Midwest office.
Victim interviews show them to be “ordinary people more interested in using the imagined winnings to help their families or communities than spending it on themselves,” Baker says.
And Debbie Deem, a retired FBI victim assistance specialist, says victims believe winning will enhance their role in the family and allow them to help younger relatives financially.
The bad actors use powerful tactics as they try to swindle money from people who, amid the pandemic, may have been quarantining, says Anthony Pratkansis, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz.
Before making contact, criminals profile victims, and during the scam they “take any role — friend, authority, someone in need — to best work their crimes,” he adds. Scammers often talk with victims daily, grooming them and trying to build trust. The crooks note details about the victims and their families and try to isolate victims from traditional sources of support. The bad actors also use different voices, variously sounding authoritative, or like a partner or like a supplicant “asking for help to make the prize finally appear."
People should remember that scammers — regardless of the con — reach out in calls, emails, texts, social media posts and letters. To stay safe, it's smart to be skeptical of all unsolicited contacts.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.