If you love sweepstakes, you might dream about getting that phone call telling you that you've won an amazing prize. But unfortunately, not all winning telephone calls are what they seem to be — some are sweepstakes scams. It's important to know how to recognize and avoid telephone scams.
Telephone scams are important to recognize because they're very common. According to Fraud.org's 2019 scam report, over a third of all scams were conducted by telephone.
Remember, VOIP services like Skype make it cheap and easy for people to call your number even long distance, you're dealing with scammers from around the world.
What Does a Telephone Sweepstakes Scam Sound Like?
Here's a real-life example of a prize notification phone call that turned out to be a scam:
Maryann Westhouse received a message on her answering machine from someone claiming to be from a car dealership, telling her that she had won a Cadillac.
Note: Most legitimate companies won't leave an answering machine message when you win, but some will, so this is not a sure sign of a scam.
When she called back to claim her prize, the person at the other end of the line started asking her a lot of sensitive information — her income, her age, and so on.
Note: Fraud.org recommends not giving sensitive information over the phone, including "your full name, mailing address, Social Security Number, bank routing number, credit or debit card number, or other types of information about yourself." Legitimate sweepstakes collect necessary information with an affidavit.
Maryann was lucky enough to have legitimately won a car several years earlier, so she knew that something was fishy with this kind of call.
When she asked what her income had to do with winning a car, she was told that she was asking too many questions, and would no longer be a finalist if she didn't answer. Earlier in the conversation, they had said that she had already won the car, not that she was still a finalist.
Highly suspicious of this behavior, Maryann's husband called the corporate office for the dealership that the callers claimed to represent. Not surprisingly, they were not running any sweepstakes for a Cadillac and had no affiliation with the person who had called Maryann.
If Maryann had not been alert enough to balk at providing this unnecessary information, the scammers could have gotten enough information to steal her identity, opening credit cards and piling up debt in her name, ruining her good credit, and costing her money, stress, and aggravation.
Differences Between Legitimate Prize Notifications and Scams
So how can you develop the same instincts that led Maryann to realize that she was being scammed before she fell victim to identity theft?
Here are some things to watch out for when you answer the phone:
- Asking for a Lot of Personal Information: Legitimate companies will already have the information you submitted through the entry form. They can request additional information by affidavit. Too many questions are a red flag that you're being scammed.
- Pressure to Answer Immediately: Legitimate sweepstakes sponsors understand that people have questions for them, too. And they won't mind answering them or giving you the chance to verify that you've really won. They won't pressure you to make an instant decision or to trust them.
- Legitimate Sweepstakes Details: The person at the other end of the line should be able to tell you the name of the sweepstakes and the company sponsoring it. It should be something that you remember entering or can find with a quick Google search.
- A Mysteriously Changing Prize: If you really won, your name was drawn to receive a specific prize. You won't be told you might win one of several different things (a car OR a trip OR something tiny is a common ploy of scammers). And you won't be told that you're a winner, no, a finalist, no, maybe you haven't won at all. (Don't be thrown if you're told you're a potential winner, though. That's normal until your information has been verified). Either you've won or you haven't.
- Other Common Scam Signals: Be sure to also know the top warning signs of sweepstakes scams by heart, many of which also apply to telephone scams. And PCH is a company that is often misused by scammers, be sure you also know how to recognize a Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes scam.
Hopefully, every prize notification phone call you receive will be legitimate. But by knowing the common signs of phone scams, you can help keep yourself safe and protect yourself from fraud and identity theft.