12 Warning Signs of Sweepstakes Scams

How to Recognize and Avoid Prize Scams

Winning a fabulous sweepstakes prize is a dream come true. However, that dream can turn into a nightmare if what you think is a legitimate win notification turns out to be a sweepstakes scam. So it's vital to know the warning signs of scams before you respond to any potential win.

Everyone should know how to recognize and avoid sweepstakes scams, but it's especially important when you have a legitimate reason to think you may have won a prize.

The consequences of falling for sweepstakes scams can be severe. With bad luck, you could lose money, be harassed by con men, and even be added to lists of easy targets, making you more likely to be scammed again. 

To help you avoid all of those things, check out these important things to watch out for, when you receive a prize notification.

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Sweepstakes Scams Demand Payment to Receive a Prize

Phishing credit card for information
Never hand over your credit card number to get a prize. Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Does your notification ask you to pay money to receive your prize? If so, you're almost certainly dealing with a scam. Legitimate sweepstakes never ask you to pay fees to enter a giveaway or to receive a prize.

Scammers might say that before they can release your prize, you have to pay for:

  • Sweepstakes taxes
  • Customs fees
  • Handling charges or shipping fees
  • Service fees
  • Withholding
  • Any other charges

However, you never have to pay upfront to receive a legitimate prize. Sweepstakes taxes are paid directly to the IRS along with your regular tax return.

Except for rare exceptions, such as port fees for a cruise prize or a nominal amount for hotel taxes, anyone who asks you to pay taxes on prizes directly to them instead of to the IRS is running a scam.

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Sweepstakes Scams Use Free E-mail Accounts

Icons on a computer screen
Why isn't your win notice coming from an official email address?. Caspar Benson / Getty Images

If you receive a win notification by email, check the email address that sent it. If it's from a free email address, like Gmail or Yahoo Mail, take care — that could be a warning sign of a scam.

Some very small companies legitimately notify winners from a free email address... though not many. These days, there are so many ways to get email addresses that match your business that most legit companies have them.

Large companies should definitely have business email addresses. If you receive a win notice claiming to be from a company like Publishers Clearing House or Microsoft, but the email arrived from a free account, you can be sure that you're dealing with a sweepstakes scam.

Also, be wary of email addresses that look close to, but not the same as, those from official companies. Like "sweepstakes@publisherclearinghouse.com" might look OK until you notice that the official company has an "s" after "publisher".

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. Stay alert for phishing emails.

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Sweepstakes Scams Tell You You've Won Contests You Didn't Enter

Reminder Ribbon Tied to Finger
You might not be able to remember every sweepstakes you enter, but if it sounds completely foreign to you, it's probably a scam. Katie Black Photography / Getty Images

The only sweepstakes you can win are ones you've entered. If you receive a win notification from a giveaway that you don't remember entering, it's a red flag. 

It's possible you did enter and then forgot about it, or you used an easily-overlooked method like scanning your grocery store club card. But before you respond, take the time to do some additional research.

Another way of verifying that your prize win is not a scam is to look up the telephone number for the sweepstake sponsor, then call and verify that you really won.

However, don't use a telephone number from your suspicious win notification. Get a legitimate number from another source, like a phone book or the company's official website.

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Sweepstakes Scams Send You Large Checks with Your Notifications

Oversized one billion dollar check, sitting in mailbox of house
Stephen Stickler/The Image Bank/Getty Images

If your win notification comes with a check as your prize, it's a sure sign that you've won, right? Wrong. If the check is worth more than $600, you're definitely being scammed.

To fool people into thinking that sweepstakes scams are legitimate, con artists send counterfeit checks along with their phony win notifications. This is called a fake check scam.

Fake checks are dangerous in more ways than one: Not only do you not get the money from the check, but cashing fraudulent checks is also a crime. If you deposit that check, you could be liable for fines and could even have your bank account closed. Finally, you'll also lose any money you send to the scammers.

Remember, legitimate sweepstakes must send affidavits before sending out prizes worth over $600.

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Sweepstakes Scams Instruct You to Wire Money

Neon blue dollar sign on black background
Ben Miners/Ikon Images/Getty Images

Does your win notification include instructions to wire cash to the sponsor? If so, run. Even in the few legitimate cases where you have to pay money to a sponsor, you wouldn't need to use a wire service.

Criminals 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, meaning that the con artists can simply pick it up and disappear. You can say goodbye to any money you sent. 

Another twist on this sweepstakes scam signal: con artists are now asking their victims to buy Green Dot Money Pack cards from retailers like Walmart. These cards let you transfer money by simply giving the recipient the numbers printed on the card. Once you've done that, there's little to no chance of getting your money back.

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Sweepstakes Scams Pressure You to Act in a Hurry

Businessman holding a clock in front his face
Glow Images, Inc/Glow/Getty Images

Does your win notification pressure you to respond immediately or lose your chance to claim your prize? If so, proceed carefully.

Sweepstakes scammers have a 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.

In some legitimate cases, a sponsor might need a quick answer. For example, if the prize includes tickets ​for a concert taking place during the upcoming weekend, they might need you to claim the prize right away or the tickets won't be any good.

But you should always have at least a few hours to investigate the notification. And if there's no good reason for a rush to accept a prize, then it's probably a sweepstakes scam.

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Sweepstakes Scams Ask for Bank or Credit Cards to Receive Your Prize

Man at home shopping online with credit card
Martin Dimitrov/E+/Getty Images

Do you have to verify your bank account number or credit card number to get your prize? This is a clear sign of a sweepstakes scam.

Legitimate sweepstakes don't send prizes 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 your 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.

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

Markings on lottery ticket, close up
Achim Sass/Getty Images

Did you receive a notification that you have won a prize in a lottery? Perhaps the Microsoft Lottery, the Heineken Lottery, or Euromillions? If so, don't get too excited, it's almost certainly a scam.

It's impossible to win a lottery without buying a ticket. Even if you did buy tickets, the lottery wouldn't call or email you. You'd have to find the winning numbers in a newspaper, the internet, or on TV and compare them to your ticket. 

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 bought a ticket while you were actually in a foreign country, prize notifications from foreign lotteries are fraudulent.

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Sweepstakes Scams Don't Know Your Name

Dear Sir
Entienou/E+/Getty Images

Does your win notification address you by a generic title like "Dear Winner" or "Dear Sir"? If so, this is a strong warning sign.

Many sweepstakes scams send thousands upon thousands of fake mails or emails to every address they can get their hands on, often without knowing any personal information about the people they're contacting.

On the other hand, legitimate sweepstakes already have your entry information from the entry form. Most of the time, this includes your name, and they'd use that name when they contact you.

It's possible that a small company that's giving away a lot of prizes might not customize their notification letters, but it's pretty unlikely. So if this happens to you, be sure to research your prize carefully before proceeding.

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Sweepstakes Scams Pose As Government Organizations

Executive being arrested
Bill Varie/Photolibrary/Getty Images

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 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're being scammed.

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Sweepstakes Scam Notifications Arrive by Bulk Mail

Letterbox on wooden door stuffed with letters
Simon Battensby/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Take a look at the envelope that contained your win notification. Does it have first-class postage? If not, that's a bad sign.

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

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.

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Sweepstakes Scams Contain Typos

Cookie cutter letters (mis)spelling MESSY as MESZY
Lucy Lambriex/Moment/Getty Images

Scan your win notification. Do you notice bad grammar, missing words, or spelling mistakes? These are red flags for a scam.

Any company can make a minor mistake when typing out a win notification. However, multiple or glaring errors are a bad sign.

Many sweepstakes scams originate outside of the United States and Canada, and the people who write the scam letters are often not proficient in English.

Be very cautious of any win notices that have a lot of errors, use strange or stilted language, and otherwise sound "off."

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Don't Miss Out on Legitimate Wins, Though!

Although it's imperative to know and recognize the warning signs that you're being scammed, you also don't want to miss out on any real wins.

Some common aspects of claiming prizes that might seem unusual — but are actually legitimate, even expected. Read about some ​Unsettling Things that Aren't Signs of Scams for more information.