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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, the promoter asks that you return 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—after payment of insurance or fees. They may also claim you'll increase your chances of winning by making a small purchase. Does it sound 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 ʺYou've won!ʺ can be very enticing. Sweepstakes fraud victims are smart, young, old, rich, poor and everything in-between. For most people, it only takes one 'fee' before they realize the scam. Others, particularly older adults, may find it difficult to see through the lies. This is especially true once the victim becomes hooked by the scammer.

Why are sweepstakes and prize scams so successful?

Fraudulent sweepstakes, prize offers and other fake promotions can come through the mail. The offers can also arrive via the internet or over the phone. All three means may be used if the victim has an interest in playing sweepstakes or skill contests. Scammers know who is likely to respond to their claims of sudden wealth and fabulous prizes.

Scammers are also terrific actors. They portray themselves as lawyers, federal officials or lottery representatives. It's all part of the scammer's act.

Scammers are often in foreign countries. Once a scammer knows a victim's phone number, the scammer pretends to be calling from within the U.S. The caller ID display on the victim's phone may even say ʺFBIʺ or ʺWashington, DC.ʺ

How does that work? Scammers often use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to make calls, at far less cost than a phone line. VoIP also allows the scammers to disguise the number they're calling from.

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

The scammer then takes the relationship to a more personal level. When that happens, the victim begins to have confidence and trust in the scammer. At the same time, the victim grows emotionally isolated from friends and family. Often, scammers tell victims to keep news about their winnings from their families. The scammer will warn that if word gets out, the victim could risk losing their prize altogether.

A researcher has closely studied the blind loyalty which victims exhibit towards scammers. Scammers may tell victims they're doing the right thing and they will see great rewards. The researcher says people subconsciously tend to believe those statements. If police, a bank employee or a family member try to tell victims what they're doing is wrong... the scammer will often prevail. Even if loved ones say the victim may lose the right to make their own decisions about their money... the scammer is often believed over loved ones. The researcher calls this “psychological reactance.” 1

To the victim, the scammer represents hope, success, productivity, and competence. Those who intervene remind the victim of failure, humiliation, financial loss, and incompetence. The researcher says 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 scammers start, there's no stopping them. The scammer's demands are relentless. The efforts to keep the victim in line become more ruthless. These criminals don't hesitate to threaten, coerce, or resort to psychological intimidation. They use technology, such as internet map sites, to see photos of the victim's house or apartment. The scammer will describe a victim's house or apartment in great detail... right down to the crack in the driveway, or the tree in the yard. It's all an act. The scammers want victims to think they are just outside... and ready to follow up on their threats.

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 itself.

How can you avoid being scammed?

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. However, there are steps you can take to 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 thanks to desktop publishing tools and technology which allow scammers to generate high-quality materials that can fool even the most skeptical consumer. Hear how a scammer convinced Julia 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 quiz. You may be told to pay an entry fee or make a purchase. 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 for those who respond. An example of a promotion is a travel bag received with a new magazine subscription. When everyone gets the same gift—without any element of chance—the offer is not a sweepstakes. If a disclosure such as "This is not a sweepstakes" appears, make sure you understand the details first. That includes the prizes, the odds of winning, and what's required to enter.

Learn the safeguards against skill contest and prize promotion scams.

Skill contest or prize promotion mailings must include important plain language details. These include the terms and conditions, along with rules and entry procedures. They must also publish the name and business address of the sponsor.

The Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act gives more details about contest mailings. These rules must also appear in mailings to help keep you safe from a skill contest scam:

  • 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;

  • The numbers or percentages of who 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 of prize awards, how many, the nature and estimated value of each prize, and the payment schedule.

If you received the solicitation, sent your entry, or made a payment using the U.S. Mail, we want to hear about it.