Just about everyone would be thrilled to receive a windfall of cash or prizes won in a sweepstakes or lottery. The lure of a big prize for free makes sweepstakes scams a favorite of con artists. While some lotteries and contests are legitimate, know how to spot the top sweepstakes scams and strategies so you won't be left looking at a big loss instead of a win.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) receives thousands of complaints every year about fraudulent sweepstakes, contest and prize promotions. Older consumers are often targeted. See the FTC web site for more consumer information on these scams, FTC enforcement actions and online complaint forms if you're a scam victim.

The Notice: "You're a Winner!"

You might receive a phone call, letter or e-mail message you've won a sweepstakes or lottery prize. However, you didn't enter any contest; your prize notice is unsolicited. The prize you've won might be cash, or described as diamond jewelry, a vehicle or vacation getaway.

The reality is you never see any cash, and if you receive a prize it falls seriously short of the description. The precious stone jewelry might have a diamond chip and not a killer stone, a car could be a child's model or toy, and a vacation may be coupons for a budget motel you'd never pay anything for.

Sweepstakes Scam Promoters Win Your Money

The aim of sweepstakes or contest scam promoters is to win your money. The common methods are:

Requiring payment to collect your prize. When you have to pay to collect or receive something you've won, you aren't a winner, you're a buyer. It's a red flag for a scam if you're told to pay fees for things like shipping, taxes or insurance.

Fake check scams. This tactic is commonly used for foreign lotteries or sweepstakes. You're asked for account information so the scammer can deposit a check in your account. Next, you're asked to wire back funds for "fees and taxes." The deposit to your account is a fake cashier's check, but you find out the check was bad after you've wired the money. Wired funds are the same as cash, and chances are small you'll be able to recover them. Sending funds for fees and taxes by courier is another version of this scam tactic. Never give out bank account, or credit card numbers.

Solicitations for more contests. You may be asked to buy products with the lure your purchases will increase your chances of winning related contests.

Be Cautious about Contests

Know the signs for fake contests and sweepstakes, including sources for these scams. If you fill out a contest drawing slip, or buy into a fake contest, your name may end up on lists used by other scammers. Find out who is collecting information from you and how it is used.

If you receive contests offers or notices by phone, don't trust your caller ID for accurate information about the caller. Some scam operations use local area codes and internet tools to randomly dial numbers or to hide the source of calls. The scammers may be outside the US, especially Canada.

Watch out for "foreign lotteries." Know playing foreign lotteries through the phone or mail is illegal. If you get an offer for foreign lottery tickets or notice you've won a foreign lottery, ignore it.

If you've been scammed by a lottery or contest operator, you can try these sources for help:

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I was the victim of a lottery scam, and lost money from my bank account. Will my homeowner's insurance or any victim assistance programs help cover my loss?
  • My organization holds a raffle every year. Are there specific steps to take if we want to sell tickets on the internet? Is that allowed?
  • If a bad check, which looked like a cashier's check, was deposited to my account, does the bank have any responsibility to verify it's authentic before crediting my account?

Tagged as: Consumer Law, Consumer Fraud, sweepstakes scam, consumer fraud lawyer