You receive an e-mail message telling you that you've won a large sum of money in a foreign lottery. But you never entered a foreign lottery. What do you do? Delete, delete, delete! It's the latest scam targeting unwitting consumers.

These con-artists invent a lottery organization that sounds legitimate, with an actual Web site and contact numbers. They may even use the name of a well-known organization to gain your trust. The e-mail message looks real. It contains specific details about the lottery, including the time and place where the drawing was held, and the winning numbers and payout information.

What's in it for the scammers? Once you respond to the e-mail message in hopes of collecting your sudden fortune, you find that you first have to submit certain documents along with a "facilitation" fee in order to process your winnings. Guess what? They keep the fee and you never hear from them again.

In another version of the scam, they actually send you your winnings in the form of a very legitimate looking check. In return, they request that you wire transfer a small fee to cover the taxes on your windfall. Wiring money is the same as sending cash. By the time you find out that your winnings check bounced, or was a forgery, the thieves have received your wire transfer funds and skipped town.

Purchasing Foreign Lottery Tickets Is Illegal

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), scam operators are also using the telephone and direct mail to get US consumers to enter foreign lotteries that promise huge payouts. Federal law enforcement authorities have intercepted and destroyed millions of these invitations, although many solicitations still fall through the cracks and reach unsuspecting victims.

Many fall victim to the lure of instant riches, and purchase these foreign lottery tickets. The US Postal Inspection Service estimates that US consumers fork over about $120 million a year in phony foreign lottery scams. This is a windfall not for the consumer, but for the con-artists promoting the scam.

Even when a foreign lottery is legitimate, you never know if you'll actually receive the lottery ticket you purchased. The scammers often keep the money and never purchase the lottery tickets as promised. If they do purchase the ticket, and your ticket turns out to be a winner, the thieves will likely keep the winnings, knowing you have little recourse to recover your money.

In addition to the money you are risking, you are also breaking the law when you respond to a foreign lottery solicitation. Federal law prohibits the cross-border sale or purchase of lottery tickets by telephone or mail.

Proceed with Caution

According to the FTC, if you are thinking about responding to a foreign lottery solicitation, you should consider the following:

  • There are no secret systems for winning foreign lotteries. Your chances of winning more than the cost of your tickets are slim to none
  • If you purchase one foreign lottery ticket, expect many more bogus offers for lottery or investment "opportunities." Your name will be placed on "sucker lists" that fraudulent telemarketers buy and sell
  • Keep your credit card and bank account numbers to yourself. Scam artists often ask for them during an unsolicited sales pitch
  • If you play a foreign lottery - through the mail or over the telephone - you are violating federal law

If you don't want to fall victim to a foreign lottery scam, you should ignore all mail, telephone and e-mail solicitations for foreign lottery promotions and turn over any written materials to your local postmaster. You can also file a complaint with the FTC on the FTC Web site.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What happens if I lose money from a bank account or face fraudulent charges on a credit card due to a foreign lottery scam? Do US consumer laws apply in these situations?
  • What are the tax consequences if someone has a legitimate win in a foreign lottery?
  • Do federal authorities prosecute people who buy cross-border lottery tickets illegally?

Tagged as: Consumer Law, Consumer Fraud, foreign lottery scam, consumer fraud lawyer