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Foreign Lotteries Fraud

So you've won a foreign lottery. Maybe it happened like this: you receive a call, email, or letter in the mail. You're told to mail or wire a small amount for taxes and fees to claim your prize. What should you do?

Hang up the phone! Ignore the email! Shred the prize notification!

That's good advice, but for some people, it's difficult to follow. Hearing ʺYou've won!ʺ can be very enticing. Lottery fraud victims are educated, young, old, rich, poor and everything in between. For most individuals, however, once they've sent a small fee and received nothing in return they soon realize,  ʺI've been scammed!ʺ For others though, especially vulnerable older adults, it's difficult to see through all those lies, especially once the con man has his hooks in them. 

Why are Lottery and Prize Scams so successful?

Foreign lottery offers and other fake promotions can arrive across the Internet, through the mail or over the phone, and frequently will be all three, especially if someone has shown an interest in the past for entering sweepstakes or skill contests. Scammers know who is likely to respond to their claims of sudden wealth and fabulous prizes. In addition, scammers are terrific actors. They portray themselves as lawyers, government officials or lottery representatives, whatever it takes to keep up the illusion ʺyou've won.ʺ 

Once they know their victim's phone number, the successful scammer pretends they are calling from somewhere within the U.S. even when they are sitting halfway around the world. How does that work?  The answer is simple: technology. Voice over Internet Protocol, otherwise known as VoIP, enables the con artist to make lots of calls for mere pennies, using the Internet instead of the old-fashioned way, over a regular phone line. This same Internet-based technology allows the con artist to disguise the number he's calling from. The caller ID display on the victim's phone may say ʺFBIʺ or ʺWashington DC,ʺ but nothing could be further from the truth. It's all part of the con artist's act.

Scammers have practiced the same lines over and over again. They know just what to say to make their victims trust them. They spend hours on the telephone with their next target, gathering details about the victim
's life. They are solicitous, courteous, and even flirtatious.

The scammer then takes the relationship to the next level, increasing his grip on his victim while emotionally isolating them from friends and family. Often, victims are told not to share news about their winnings with their families. At least, not until they receive their check they're told. If they do, they could be disqualified and risk losing their prize altogether. Dr. Anthony Pratkanis of the University of California, at Santa Cruz, closely studies the blind loyalty victims exhibit towards the very person who is fleecing them. He notes that people subconsciously tend to go with the person who is telling them they are doing the right thing (and their actions will reap great rewards!) rather than the person — whether it's the police, family member or bank employee — who says what they are doing is wrong, costly and may lead to having the right to make their own decisions taken away. Dr. Pratkanis calls this ʺpsychological reactance.ʺ 1

The scammer represents hope, success, productivity, and competency while intervening family members and friends represent failure, humiliation, financial loss, and incompetency. Pratkanis notes, ʺPeople naturally go with the person who is saying positive things rather than negative. Who wants to agree with the guy who says: you have made a bad and costly mistake, and you shouldn't be allowed to make decisions anymore?ʺ 2   


Once the scammer starts, he doesn
't stop. The scammer's demands are relentless. His efforts to keep his victim in line become increasingly ruthless. These criminals don't hesitate to threaten, coerce, or resort to psychological intimidation. They use technology, such as Internet mapping software, to look closely at the victim's house or apartment. Armed with these details, the scammer will describe a victim's house or building with great accuracy, right down to the crack in the driveway, or the tree in the yard. It's all an act. The scammer wants his victim to think he is just outside ... and ready to follow up on any threats he's made.

1 Pratkanis A., Shadel D., The Weapons of Fraud, AARP Publications, p 133-34 (2005)

2  Pratkanis A., Soltys F., Presentation on Victim Vulnerabilities to the National Association of Attorneys General Telemarketing Fraud Prosecution Training Conference, Raleigh, NC, January 2006

Who is at risk?

Anyone can be a victim of foreign lottery fraud or other phony pitches. Americans receive thousands of unsolicited phone calls each year, some from fraudulent telemarketers. They also receive countless fake offers over the Internet or through the mail. Often, these con artists target older Americans, the homebound and other vulnerable adults. Once someone is victimized, con men turn around and sell the names and contact details of their victims to other scammers, resulting in a cycle of victimization that repeats over and over again.

How can you avoid being scammed?

There are no guarantees. Scammers are clever. They prey on anyone who will listen to their pitch. Regardless of income, education, social status, race, age or gender—you may be a victim of one of these crimes. But there are steps you can take to help protect yourself, your loved ones, and friends.

Learn more

Case file: Foreign lottery fraud

It sounds exotic and exciting — playing the lottery in another country. Sure it's a long shot. But if you win, you could pay off your debt, travel the world and make all of your dreams come true. The truth is that foreign lotteries really are a nightmare. This U.S. Postal Inspection Service video tells the story of a lottery fraud victim and the con man behind the scam. It also provides tips to help you avoid becoming duped by this fraud.

Are foreign lotteries illegal?

Under federal law, it is generally unlawful to send lottery material through the mail. This material includes, among other things, letters or circulars concerning a lottery, tickets or any paper claiming to represent tickets, chances, or shares in a lottery, and payments to purchase any such tickets, chances, or shares. A lottery is a promotion that has three elements, for payment of a fee it offers a prize, whose winning is dependent in whole or in part on chance. If a promotion contains those three elements —payment, prize, and chance— it is non-mailable under the federal Postal Lottery Statute (18 USC - 1302).

There are a few exemptions to the statute. A state may mail state lottery materials to addresses within the state, when authorized by state law. Also, under the Charity Games Advertising Clarification Act of 1988 (18 USC -1307), the lottery statute does not apply to an advertisement, list of prizes, or other information about an American state lottery that is not prohibited by the state in which it is conducted, if it is conducted by any of the following:

  • A not-for-profit organization (qualifying as tax-exempt under the Internal Revenue Code).

  • A U.S. government organization, if not a state-conducted lottery.

  • A commercial organization, if the lottery is clearly an occasional promotional activity and not the organization's primary business.

First-time offenders who knowingly violate the postal anti-lottery statute could face penalties of up to a $250,000 fine and two years in prison, if convicted.

Victim and caregiver stories

Hear, in their own words, how foreign lottery scams have impacted these victims and their caregivers.

Jamaican foreign lottery fraud

Learn how Postal Inspectors are working to combat Jamaican foreign lottery schemes.

Norman's story, Lottery victim

Norman shares how he was preyed upon by foreign lottery scammers and the losses he suffered.

Rebecca's story, Victim's sister

While in declining health, Rebecca's sister was victimized in a foreign lottery scam.