Imagine being so lucky as to have a big check just show up in your mail unannounced. That can happen when you enter sweepstakes, right?
Wrong. If you live in the United States, you won't ever receive a big prize win unannounced. If a prize is worth over $600, the sponsoring company has to collect your social security number and other information first.
So if you receive an unexpected check in the mail, it's much more likely to be a check scam than a legitimate prize win.
Sweepstakes check scams work like this: An envelope arrives in your mailbox claiming that you've won a large prize from a giveaway. As proof, there's an actual check for a portion of the prize amount in the envelope! All you have to do is to deposit the check and wait to receive further instructions about how to claim the rest of your prize.
The trick is that the prize comes with instructions to wire money to the scammers. The scammers make up various reasons why you have to do this; They might tell you that you need to pay taxes or customs fees or other expenses. But luckily, the check covers the expenses so you're not paying anything out of pocket.
Except that shortly after you make the payment, the check will bounce, and you will be out all of the money that you sent (and perhaps liable to your bank for cashing a fraudulent check!).
This is a particularly cruel form of sweepstakes fraud since it raises the victims' hopes. Many people take that check as proof that they really have won. Excited about the prize, victims see the comparably small amount of money that the scammers request as a bargain. Who wouldn't be happy to pay out a thousand dollars to receive $65,000 or more?
Here's an example of an actual check scam letter:
Moneywise America Lotto
Certificate of Award
Director of Promotions
Dear Sandra Grauschopf:
After a successful completion of the third category draws of the Moneywise America Lotto; we are please to inform you of the official announcement today that you have emerged as one of our monthly winners for the month of May. All participants are randomly selected through our computer ballot system drawn from hundreds of thousands of names and addresses of individuals who previously signed for the North American Sweepstakes, as part of our international promotions programs.CONGRATULATIONS!
Your ticket emerged as a winning ticket and consequently won in the third category. You have therefore been awarded a lumpsum payout of USD $65 000 (Sixty Five Thousand Dollars) in cash, which is the winning payout for third category winners. This is from the total prize money of USD $408 000) shared among Six (6) winners in the Third category .A tax and clearance fee of USD $1, 875.00 has been financed with the enclosed check of USD $1 995.80 and is deducted from your total winnings .Kindly cash your check for the tax and clearance fees .Your tax and clearance fee of UDS $1 875.00 should be remitted to our designated North American Agent .This award program has come to the public notice so in order to avoid unauthorized organizations, individuals contacting you ,please ensure that this winning is kept absolutely confidential.
If this process is not completed on or before [just a few days after letter is received], we shall assume this prize as unclaimed and the prize will be automatically null and void .Please contact your claims agent on [temporary cell phone number] Monday to Saturday for information on how to claim your prize and any questions you may have.
Once again, congratulations from our staff and thank you for being part of our promotion.
Signs that This Letter Is a Sweepstakes Check Scam
Although this letter might seem convincing, there are clear signs that it's a scam and not a legitimate win notice. By paying attention to them, you can learn how to spot any scams that you receive and avoid losing any money.
This letter is more subtle than some sweepstakes scams. It included the recipient's actual name (probably purchased from a mail-order list) and is relatively free of typos, except for some minor grammatical issues and strange spacing.
Here are some of the things that should send up warning flags that a supposed win notice you received is, in fact, a scam:
- You received a large check without having to fill out an affidavit. If you live in the United States, you would have to verify your tax information before receiving any legitimate prize worth more than $600.
- The letter claims that the prize comes from an international lottery win (which would be illegal unless you bought a ticket in the country where the lottery was held)
- The winning letter and the check arrived via bulk mail. Legitimate sweepstakes winners are not notified in bulk.
- The letter pressures the "winner" to respond quickly (before they can think twice about sending the money) and to keep the prize win secret (to reduce the chances that a savvy friend will warn them of the scam).
- The prize notification is asking you to pay taxes, which United States residents should always pay directly to the IRS.
- And of course, the biggest sign of all is that when contacting the number given after cashing the check, they'll ask you to wire money. Legitimate sweepstakes never, ever ask you to pay money to receive your prize.
- Remember, the National Consumers' League says: "There is no legitimate reason for someone to give you a check and then ask that you give them a part of the check back."
While it's always exciting to receive a "surprize" win in the mail, large cash prizes that appear without warning aren't likely to be legitimate. Before you get too excited by any prize win, make sure to vet it thoroughly and make sure you are not being scammed.