12 Warning Signs of Sweepstakes Scams to Help You Stay Safe

How to Recognize and Avoid Prize Scams

Winning a sweepstakes prize is a dream come true. However, that dream can quickly turn into a nightmare if you don't know the difference between a legitimate win notification and a sweepstakes scam. The consequences of falling for sweepstakes scams can be severe, resulting in financial loss, harassment by con men, and being added to lists of easy targets. By learning to recognize the warning signs of a sweepstakes scam, you can avoid becoming a victim of prize fraud.

On the other hand, there are some things that might seem unusual, but which are commonplace for sweepstakes notifications. Learn about some ​Unsettling Things that Aren't Signs of Scams for more information.

Sweepstakes Scams Want You to Pay to Receive the Prize

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Legitimate sweepstakes will never ask you to pay fees to participate or to receive a prize. You should never have to pay handling charges, service fees, or any other kind of charges up front to receive anything you've won.

Sweepstakes taxes are paid directly to the IRS along with your regular tax return, except for rare exceptions such as paying for port fees or hotel taxes. Anyone who asks you to pay taxes on prizes directly to them is running a scam.

Sweepstakes Scams Use Free E-mail Accounts

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It's possible that some smaller, legitimate sweepstakes sponsors could notify you with a free email address. But if you receive a win notice claiming to be from a big company like Publishers Clearing House or Microsoft, but the email arrived from a free account like Hotmail or Gmail, you can be sure that you are working with a sweepstakes scam.

Sometimes scam artists will spoof the email address so that it looks like it's coming from a legitimate company, even when it's not. Here are tips on how to spot a phishing email.

Sweepstakes Scams Tell You You've Won Contests You Don't Remember Entering

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You can only win sweepstakes that you enter. If you receive a win notification from a giveaway that you don't remember entering, it's a red flag. Now, maybe you did enter and just don't remember, but before you respond, take a moment to do some additional research.

If you organize your sweepstakes entries with folders, you can easily check to make sure that you actually entered that sweep.

Another way of verifying that your prize win is legitimate and not a scam is to look up the telephone number for the sweepstake sponsor, then call and verify your winnings. Do not use a telephone number given in your suspicious win notification unless you can verify that it is legitimate from another source like a phone book.

Sweepstakes Scams Send You a Large Check with Your Win Notice

Oversized one billion dollar check, sitting in mailbox of house
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To fool people into thinking that a sweepstakes scam is legitimate, many con artists send counterfeit checks along with their phony win notifications. Cashing fraudulent checks is a crime, and you could be liable for fines and even closure of your bank account, as well as losing any money you wire. For more information, see Check Scams: What They Are, and How to Avoid Them.

Remember, legitimate sweepstakes require affidavits before sending out any prize valued at more than $600.

Sweepstakes Scams Instruct You to Wire Money

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Criminals love to use services like Western Union to receive illicit funds because it is nearly impossible to trace who received the money. Western Union transfers are handled like cash, and you can kiss any money that you wired to con artists goodbye. In the few cases where you have to pay money to a sponsor, you would not be required to use a wire service.

A new twist on this sweepstakes scam signal: con artists are now asking their victims to buy money pack cards from retailers like Walmart. These cards let you transfer money by simply reading out their numbers, and once you've done it, there's little to no chance of getting your money back.

Sweepstakes Scams Pressure You to Act in a Hurry

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Sweepstakes scammers have a very good reason for wanting you to act quickly: they want to ensure that they receive their money before their check bounces or you read an article like this one and realize that you are being defrauded.

If you feel like you are being pressured to make a decision before you have the time to ensure that the win is legitimate, you should be very suspicious. In some cases, a sponsor might need a quick answer (for example, if they are giving away tickets ​for a concert that weekend), but you should always have at least a few hours to investigate the notification. If there is no good reason for a rush to accept a prize, then it's probably a sweepstakes scam.

Sweepstakes Scams Ask for Bank or Credit Card Info to Receive Your Prize

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Legitimate sweepstakes do not send wins by direct deposit, nor do they need to withdraw money from your bank or verify information using your credit card number. The only sensitive information that a legitimate sweepstakes sponsor needs to process your win is a social security number. Asking for a bank account or credit card number is a huge red flag that you are dealing with a sweepstakes scam, and you should never hand over this information.

The "Win" is From a Lottery (Especially a Foreign Lottery)

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It is impossible to win a lottery without buying a ticket, and even in that case, you'd have to find the winning numbers in a newspaper, the internet, or on TV and compare them to your ticket. The lottery does not contact you to tell you that you won. If your win notification says you've won a lottery, you can be sure that it's really a sweepstakes scam.

Win notices from foreign lotteries are even more suspicious. Not only do foreign lotteries have the same restriction as domestic lotteries, but it is also illegal to sell tickets for foreign lotteries across international borders. Therefore, unless you were actually in a foreign country and bought a lottery ticket, foreign lottery notifications are frauds.

Sweepstakes Scams Don't Know Your Name or Other Info

Dear Sir
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Many sweepstakes scams send thousands upon thousands of fake mails or emails to every address they can get their hands on, often without knowing the names of the people they're contacting. If your win notice has a generic salutation like "Dear Sir," it's a good indication that you're dealing with a sweepstakes scam.

Sweepstakes Scams Pose As Government Organizations

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To appear more legitimate, some sweepstakes scams pretend to come from government organizations such as the FTC or the "National Sweepstakes Board" (which doesn't actually exist).

Real sweepstakes sponsors, however, send their win notifications directly to the winners. Government organizations are not involved in awarding sweepstakes prizes, nor do federal marshals hand out the prizes. If you're not dealing directly with a company sponsoring or administrating the giveaway, you are being scammed.

Sweepstakes Scam Notifications Arrive by Bulk Mail

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When legitimate sweepstakes sponsors send out win notifications, they use first class postage or services such as FedEx or UPS to deliver notifications.

Sweepstakes scam artists, on the other hand, want to target the most people at the least cost in order to keep their profits high. They lower their costs by using bulk mail for their mailings. 

Any win notification that arrives by bulk mail should be treated with a great deal of suspicion.

Sweepstakes Scams Contain Many Typos

Cookie cutter letters (mis)spelling MESSY as MESZY
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Any company could make a minor mistake when typing out a win notification. However, glaring errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation should set off red flags in your mind.

Many sweepstakes scams originate outside of the United States and Canada and are created by people with poor command of the language. Be very cautious of any win notices that have a lot of errors, use strange or stilted language, and otherwise sound "off."