“You may already be a winner!” We’ve all seen these words at one time or another. Could you be a real contest winner, or is it a scam? Here’s what you need to know about sweepstake scams and bogus lotteries. When it sounds too good to be true, sadly, it probably isn’t true.
The six warning signs of sweepstakes or lottery scams include the method of notification, origination in a foreign country, request the recipient to pay a fee, requests for personal financial information, poor spelling and grammatical errors, and the offer urges you to act quickly.
6 Signs of Sweepstake Scams
Entering contests can be fun. The idea of winning something appeals to almost everyone. However, we must be very aware of protecting sensitive personal information to avoid identity theft or someone gaining access to our bank accounts. Be leery of contests you don’t remember entering or sad stories of people unable to collect their winnings without your assistance. Legitimate sweepstakes will never ask you to act fast, or you will miss your chance to win. More likely, you are encouraged to work in haste. Take the time to read the fine print and research the company offering “something for nothing.”
Type of Notification
Notification by phone, social media, email, or bulk mail that you have won can be warning signs of a fraudulent claim of your status as a winner. Check the email address to ensure it is actually from the company it claims to be. Big chain stores do not use free email accounts, as a rule. Hotmail, Yahoo, and Gmail are free email accounts, and you may be deceived by a slight misspelling, a missing letter, or an extra letter. If you are in doubt, contact the contest’s sponsor, not the sender of the email.
Communication originates in a foreign country. It is likely an attempt to swindle or defraud you. It is against the law to enter foreign lotteries either by phone or email. Keep in mind that Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and the US Virgin Islands are popular origins of scams. The area code is a clue to the senders’ location. Look up telephone numbers before returning calls or answering emails. Research the name of the sender.
Pay A Fee
Being asked to pay a fee is a clear attempt to trick you into sending money to someone you don’t even know for a promise of significant dividends. Legitimate sweepstakes will require that you pay income tax on your winnings, especially if it’s over $600, but you will never have to pay it first. You should never have to pay a fee or charge for shipping your prize. You will never have to provide a credit card number to verify your age or mailing address.
Financial or Banking Information Requests
Requests for financial information must always be approached carefully. Do not give out your bank account number or social security number to just anyone who requests it. While your social security number may be requested for tax purposes from valid sweepstakes, it will most often be in the form of a W-9 or other IRS form. And they will never ask for it upfront.
Grammar or Spelling Errors
Suppose the notification contains poor spelling or grammatical errors. In that case, that may indicate that the speaker uses translation software or that English is their second language and is a big red flag, the person is from a foreign country.
When the winning notification is addressed to “Dear Winner,” you can safely assume that it’s a mass mailing and not an official notice that you have won a prize. A genuine notification would use your name, not a generic greeting. Also, keep in mind that lottery winners must check winning numbers for themselves. Lottery officials do not publish lists of winners. “Instant win” sweepstakes will tell you right away if you have won.
Scam contests and sweepstakes often encourage the recipient to act quickly or miss out. This urgency signifies a false claim. You will never be forced to rush your reply to real sweepstakes to claim your prize, although certain time limits certainly do apply and would be included in the official rules.
When the sender implies that time is running out to claim your prize, they hope you will act rashly. Don’t hurry and do something you might regret. Take your time to do a little investigating on your own before replying to unsolicited notifications.
Targets of Scams
Those least able to afford it are, unfortunately, the ones most likely to fall for a “too good to be true” offer. The elderly are especially vulnerable, as they may tend to believe things that others would find suspect.
Struggling families may also grasp at straws, hoping against hope that it might be true. Isolation can affect our logical thinking and leave us open to cons and scams. A sluggish economy brings out the desperation in some, causing us to throw caution to the wind. It also tends to lead to more vigorous and widespread scams.
According to AARP™, the average loss from fraud in 2019 was nearly $900, and of the 125,000 scams reported to the Federal Trade Commission, losses totaled over a million dollars. 80% of the victims were age 65 or older. That was just one year and counted only the scams that were reported to the FTC. Actual losses could be much higher.
How to Protect Yourself from Scams
Protect your private information. Never deposit a check from someone you don’t know personally, no matter how legitimate it may seem. Scammers often include a significant check with the notice that you have won. It may appear to be a proper check, money order, or cashier’s check.
Counterfeiters are getting better all the time. Banks can even mistake a good fake for the real thing, until a few weeks later when it bounces, leaving you to repay the funds and service charges or fees, while the fraudster is free to find another victim. In addition, when a check is cashed, you inadvertently give away your banking information, which can result in cash withdrawals from your account without your knowledge or consent.
Never wire money to someone you don’t know. Pay Attention to the wording of any winning notifications. Ambiguous words like “may,” “might,” and “could” indicate a possibility, and not a probability nor a certainty. Read the fine print carefully.
Even legitimate giveaways will have a list of requirements to be eligible to win. Some require that you are an adult or that you or your family is not an employee of the sponsor. You may be asked for a notarized signature to claim your winnings. These will all stated clearly in the official rules of every legitimate contest or sweepstakes.
Legitimate Sweepstakes do exist.
If you love entering contests and sweepstakes, by all means, keep entering. “You can’t win if you ain’t in” is often heard about giveaways and should also remind us that if we didn’t enter a contest, we can’t “already be a winner.”
All the cliches apply here:
- Be safe and mindful that the world is full of trickery.
- Protect yourself and your information.
- Do your homework and don’t believe everything you hear.
Wishful thinking can be dangerous. Keep track of any sweepstakes or giveaways that you have entered, so you won’t be fooled into thinking you might have just forgotten that you signed up for something that you didn’t. Many people have won big cash prizes, income for life, and even homes and automobiles.
Just remember, the odds of winning are minimal. “Millions will enter! Few will win.” That’s direct, honest advertising. You normally have a better chance of being struck by lightning (one in 3,000 in your lifetime) than winning a state lottery, which can be one in 14 million, depending on where you live.
Easily the most recognizable sweepstakes is “Publishers Clearing House™”. People do win, but the chance that you will win big is just one in 1,750,000,000. That’s One Billion Seven hundred Fifty Million. Talk about a long shot!
Do your Homework
The internet is a wonderful invention that brings the world of information to our fingertips. It, unfortunately, brings out those who would con us out of our hard-earned money. You can use this tool to your advantage by doing research to verify the trustworthiness of any person or company that you have dealings with. With a little digging, you can find others who may have been victims or reviews that can alert you that something isn’t right. You can also verify the legitimate websites and contests.
File a Complaint
If you or a loved one have fallen victim to a hustle, you can report it to The Federal Trade Commission or the Better Business Bureau. The attorney general in your state or consumer protection agencies may also be able to receive your report. While the chances of recovering money lost to a scammer are almost nonexistent, you will help warn others not to fall for their deception.