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SweepStakes and Contests Scams

Keep your eye on the prize! And your hand on your wallet!

Many companies offer legitimate sweepstakes and contest promotions. They want your experience with their offers to be enjoyable —and they want you to respond. These games of skill and chance offer consumers an opportunity to win money and prizes in return for opening an envelope and returning the entry form by mail or online.

Unfortunately, not all sweepstakes and contest offers are legitimate. Clever con artists may promise you a prize —a car, a vacation, or a large sum of money in exchange for payment of a processing or insurance fee. Or they claim you'll increase your chances of winning by making a small purchase. Does it sounds too good to be true? You're right. Odds are, it's a scam. 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 "you've won" 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 got nothing in return, they soon realize "I've been scammed!" For others though, especially vulnerable older adults, it's difficult to see though all those lies, especially once the con man has his hooks in them.

Why are Sweepstakes and Prize Scams so successful?

Fraudulent sweepstakes, prize offers and other fake promotions can arrive across the Internet, through the mail or over the phone, and frequently by 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 prize 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 D.C.,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 with their families the news about their winnings. At least, not until they receive their check. 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 sweepstakes and prize scams 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

In her own words: Julia's story.

Anyone can be a victim of a sweepstakes scam. Today, publishing tools and technology allow scammers to generate high-quality materials that may convince even the most skeptical consumer. Hear how Julia was convinced she had won a prize.

What are skill contests and premium offers?

Skill contests differ from sweepstakes offers. Your skill or knowledge wins the contest—not chance. For example, in a skill contest you may have to write a winning jingle, solve a puzzle, or answer a question correctly. An entry fee or purchase may be required. Know how the contest works, what the prizes are, and what the fees are before paying anything to the company.

Prize promotions— also known as premium offers, are gifts that companies make available to those who respond according to the company's instructions —for example, a travel bag received with a new magazine subscription. When everyone who responds to the offer receives the same gift item, without any element of chance, the offer is not a sweepstakes. If there is a disclosure such as "This is not a sweepstakes," make sure you fully understand what the prizes are, what the odds are, and what's required before participating.

Learn the safeguards against skill contest and prize promotion scams.

Mailings for skill contests or prize promotions must state all of the terms and conditions, including rules and entry procedures, in language that is easy to find, read and understand. They must also provide the name and business address where the sponsor can be contacted.

There are additional rules you should be aware of, to help keep you safe from a skill contest scam. Remember, these items apply as a result of the DMPEA, and therefore must be present in the skill contest mailing:

  • The number of rounds or levels of the contest, the cost to enter each level, and the maximum cost for all rounds.

  • Whether subsequent rounds will be more difficult to solve.

  • The estimated number or percentage of entrants who may win, or have won the sponsor's last three contests.

  • Qualifications of the judges if the contest is not judged by the sponsor.

  • The method used in judging.

  • The date prizes will be awarded, how many, the nature and estimated value of each prize, and the payment schedule.

If you suspect you've been victimized, and you received the solicitation, sent your entry, or made a payment using the US Mail, the scammer likely violated the federal mail fraud statute.