Photo by Erik Mclean
What could be more exciting to hear? And who doesn’t want to be a winner—especially when it comes to a prize?
This could be the best news you ever hear…or a trap that ruins your life.
If you play the lottery, enter contests, or participate in sweepstakes of any kind, you could be a target for scammers.
But here’s the truth: Even if you never test your luck, you might still fall victim to a sweepstakes scam. And the more you think you’re immune, the higher the risk becomes.
You lower your risk of these scams with good information and common sense safety measures. Find both below. By the end of this article, scammers will wish they’d never tried to mess with YOU.
What are Sweepstakes Scams?
Sweepstakes scams take many different forms, but they all start similarly.
You receive a message by phone, email, text, or direct message saying you’ve won something. It could be a lottery jackpot or a sweepstakes prize. It might be a sum of money, a new car, or a free vacation.
The scammers promise the prize is yours…provided you do something first.
Some will claim you need to pay a fee before you can collect your bonanza. They will ask for electronic payment by something like Paypal, Venmo, CashApp, or a similar service. Or they will have you send a wire transfer through Western Union (link to article).
You pay the fee. And then the prize never arrives.
It doesn’t matter how much you pay, how much you pay, or how many times you pay: the prize was never real, and the upfront fee was a fake charge to steal your money. The whole thing was a scam.
Sometimes these scams will target your identity. Instead of asking for money, scammers will ask for account details, banking information, and even passwords.
Once scammers have this information, they can impersonate you online. And once they can do that, scammers can start to drain your accounts, make purchases in your name, and use your reputation and resources to commit other crimes.
Sweepstakes scams range from bad to worse. The consequences can be catastrophic for those victims hit the hardest. And, as you will discover in the next section, these scams are A LOT more common than you would ever imagine.
How Common Are Sweepstakes Scams?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigates reports of scams happening across the country. In 2021, the agency received 148,000 reports of sweepstakes scams.
That’s a lot. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The people who fell for these scams lost $255 million collectively. That’s more than one-quarter of a billion dollars. Worse, few if any ever recovered the money they lost…or even saw their scammers caught and brought to justice.
The number of sweepstakes scams that year was 27 percent higher than the year before—an especially large increase, but part of a longer trend where each year sees more sweepstakes scams.
Perhaps most alarming of all: these numbers could all be too short by significant margins.
Why? Because many (if not most) of the people who fall for scams feel embarrassed and prefer to keep the incident private. They never report it to the authorities or admit how much they lost.
So the number of sweepstakes scams we know about is just part, maybe even a small part, of the real total. Let that sink in. Then see how bad things can get.
A Real Example of Sweepstakes Scams
A man living in Jamaica was sentenced to 71 months in prison for running a multi-year lottery scam that stole over $1.8 million.
Only one victim accounts for the vast majority of that amount. He was an elderly man in Connecticut who one day, out of the blue, received a phone call congratulating him on winning the lottery.
All he needed to do to collect the winnings was pay a small fee. One payment led to more.
Scammers convinced him to send checks, money orders, and even precious metals by claiming they would cover handling, taxes, and insurance. The scammers used multiple aliases and accomplices in several countries. They were so convincing and relentless that they got the victim to pay a massive sum.
He lost $1.2 million before it was over.
This remarkable case highlights how bad sweepstakes scams can get. It also reveals how persistent they can be, extracting as much as possible from victims until the well runs dry.
It’s an especially cruel form of fraud. In this as in so many other instances, though, it’s a highly effective form of fraud too.
The next section reveals who has the biggest target on their back.
Biggest Target for Sweepstakes Scams
Remember what we said earlier, about how anyone can be a target or a victim of a sweepstakes scam?
Well, it’s true, but one population is at MUCH higher risk.
Who? Senior citizens.
Scammers target older people more than anyone else. And, as a result, it’s people over 55 who most often have their money or identity stolen in one of these scams.
The numbers are shocking, really. According to the Better Business Bureau, 72 percent of the complaints they receive about sweepstakes scams come from older people.
Do you know what’s even more alarming? Most seniors targeted by sweepstakes scams lost money as a result. The vast majority, 90 percent, sent money to the scammers. And the average loss was $978.
If you are over the age of 55, take these numbers as a wake-up call. And don’t forget that scammers can be very savvy and sophisticated. Everyone needs to be careful of the threat of sweepstakes scammers—but the people at the highest risk need to take extra caution.
Identity theft protection is one option. It makes it harder for scammers to steal your money or personal information—so most get frustrated and don’t even try. Many older people have identity theft protection for this exact reason.
To get a sense of what’s at stake, learn what some common types of sweepstakes scams look like in the next section.
Different Types of Sweepstakes Scams
Fraud takes many forms, and scammers will say anything to gain your trust. Some common tactics used in sweepstakes scams include:
Why are Sweepstakes Scams Common?
Sweepstakes scams are as old as scams themselves. And they are likely to be around for all time.
The reason why they’re so common throughout history is that sweepstakes scams are effective. And scammers will return to whatever works.
Sweepstakes scams most definitely work, as some of the numbers mentioned earlier illustrate. And the reason why they work is because the desire to win is almost universal.
That’s why so many people play sweepstakes in the first place. Did you know that 8 in 10 Americans (so almost everyone) play the lottery? We all dream of a payday that comes out of nowhere, costs us little to nothing, and makes our lives better than before.
Just the idea of it is fantastic.
So when the prospect of it actually arrives—YOU WON!—we are overwhelmed with excitement and we stop thinking rationally. Something VERY desirable seems so close within reach. So, of course, we would do whatever it takes to make the winnings a reality. And when the promised winnings are millions of dollars, going to great lengths seems justified because the final payday will more than cover the upfront costs.
Scammers know all this. They know how to push people’s buttons, catch them off-guard, get them to ignore red flags, and act recklessly without realizing it.
Sweepstakes scams are a perfect way to manipulate people. That’s why they’re so common. And with so many ways to connect with people these days—phone, email, social media, etc—they’re more common than ever.
That makes it essential for you to have sweepstakes scams on your radar—or take proactive measures to keep yourself safe with something like identity theft protection.
No matter what you do, you need to know how to spot sweepstakes scams (it’s not as easy as you expect).
We rundown what to watch out for in the next section.
How to Spot Sweepstakes Scams?
The good news about sweepstakes scams is that no matter how smooth or convincing a scammer may sound, there are a few telltale signs that reveal their true intentions. Scammers can’t hide them. And when you see them, you know a scam is afoot:
How to Avoid Sweepstakes Scams?
You avoid sweepstakes scams by having as little contact as possible with scammers.
That starts by taking the warning signs outlined above seriously. When you recognize any red flags, cut off contact immediately, even if you have doubts about losing a legitimate prize.
This is a sound strategy, but it has two weaknesses. First, tomorrow’s scams will only be more convincing. You might not be able to spot any warning signs or tell real winnings from fakes. So what do you do about the scams you can’t see?
Second, sweepstakes scams are designed to catch you in a moment of weakness. That moment can come suddenly, unexpectedly, at the worst time possible. Even if you’ve seen the warning signs in the past, it doesn’t guarantee you will see them next time. So how do you avoid what you can’t ignore?
The people at the lowest risk of sweepstakes scams—or any other scam, for that matter—are the ones that don’t rely entirely on themselves for protection. They enlist professionals.
Identity theft protection makes you more immune to scammers by giving you tools to see scams in progress, stop the scams that impact you, and scale down the damage of anything bad that happens.
But what about those people—far too many, unfortunately—who get hit with sweepstakes scams before they have identity theft protection in place? What can they do to recover?
We cover that next.
What Should Victims of Sweepstakes Scams Do?
First and foremost, stop all contact with the scammer, ignore all future messages, and send no additional money for any reason. Also, ignore any calls, texts, or messages that come from new senders but reference the old scam—it’s probably the same people.
You may want to send a final message with some harsh words or threats, but ignore that instinct too. The sooner you’re done with the scam, the better.
We mentioned earlier how common it is for victims of sweepstakes scams to keep what happened privately. But in order for the people who did this to be caught and to keep this from happening to other people, you need to alert the authorities.
Get in touch with your local law enforcement; contact the local or state consumer protection office; alert the state attorney general; and file a report with the Federal Trade Commission. Investigators may want to see evidence of the scam, so save any texts, emails, or direct messages, but do not click any links or download any attachments.
The final thing you should do is contact your bank, credit union, or wire transfer provider. If you do this ASAP after sending the money, they may be able to cancel the transaction so you lose nothing. They can also help you prevent future fraud and provide authorities with evidence about scammers. Get your payment provider involved immediately.
Anyone who’s been a victim of sweepstakes scams needs to know another alarming fact: past victims are more likely to be future victims—by a wide margin.
It’s not because they’re gullible. It’s because scammers return to the same targets over and over again. They also sell or share your personal details with other scammers. You get targeted by more scams, more often, and more aggressively once you’ve been a victim of one.
With that fact in mind, many victims of sweepstakes scams, whether recently or far in the past, get identity theft protection. They may choose a service like Aura which does all the monitoring and alerts them if malicious activity occurs. Having this protection can give anyone some peace of mind.
Sweepstakes scams use human nature against us, exploiting our feelings of excitement over winning something to scam and steal from us instead.
These scams happen often, take many forms, and target everyone (but especially the elderly). And for those who fall victim, the losses can be significant.
Scams like these are a fact of life, unfortunately. But your risk is already lower now that you’ve made it to the end of this piece. Keep your eyes peeled for the warning signs and add identity theft protection to the mix – and you know what? Scammers don’t stand a chance.
✎ Check out these articles on how to spot and avoid unique scams: