Recognize and Avoid Sweepstakes Fraud

How to Keep Yourself, Your Money, and Your Personal Info Safe

While most contests and sweepstakes offer entrants a real chance of winning great prizes, there are also some con men that prey on the hopes of winning. It's important to recognize the signs of sweepstakes fraud in order to protect yourself from falling victim to a scam.

How to Recognize Sweepstakes Scams

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How to Tell If Someone Is Scamming You. Ann Marie Kurtz / Getty Images

Sweepstakes scams convince people that they are winners when they are really not. The goal: to convince you to pay money or give up sensitive personal information because you believe it will help you claim your win.

For people who enter sweepstakes regularly, it's especially important to know the differences between real wins and hoaxes. Some sweepstakes scams are ridiculously easy to spot, while others are cunning. If you know the ​warning signs of sweepstakes scams, like never having to pay for a prize, you can usually spot the bad apples.

When you really do win a prize, you oftentimes have to share some sensitive information so that the sponsor can handle their tax reporting. Make sure that you know the "weird" things that aren't signs of sweepstakes scams as well, so that you don't miss out on a legit win.

If you've received a win notice that doesn't have any obvious red flags, it's still a good idea to investigate before you respond. Some scammers try to pressure you to make a decision fast so that you don't have time to find out that they aren't legit. Investigating the company will help you decide whether they can be trusted.

How to Avoid Scams to Begin With

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How to Protect Your Personal Information from Scammers. MorePixels / Getty Images

One way to reduce your chances of falling for a sweepstakes scam is to guard your personal information carefully.

It might not be possible to avoid every scam, especially if you enter sweepstakes. Scammers get your email address from illegally published lists, by scraping them from the internet, and more. But you can take steps to protect yourself.

Using a dedicated sweepstakes email is a good first step. You'll know that any win notification that goes to another email address is more likely to be a scam and that you'll need to take extra caution with any email that comes to your sweepstakes address.

Many sweepstakes that let you enter repeatedly make you choose a username and password to make re-entering faster. Using the same password that you use for other websites, especially those with sensitive information like your online banking services, is a big mistake. If that site gets hacked, your sensitive passwords will fall into the wrong hands.

Make sure that you choose strong, unique sweepstakes passwords instead. An autofill program can help you manage secure passwords as well as helping you submit your entries faster.

Another method that scammers use to get your information is to create a legitimate-looking sweepstakes site that really only exists to collect your info. Before you enter, make sure that you are entering a trustworthy giveaway by asking these 7 questions.

It's also important for you to know what information is reasonable to request on sweepstakes entry forms. Your address and telephone number are reasonable, your bank account number or social security number are not, for example.

Protect Your Privacy While Entering Sweepstakes

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Protect Your Privacy and Reduce Junk and Scams. Tara Moore / Getty Images

If you are careful with the personal information you use to enter sweepstakes, you can prevent scammers from reaching you easily. Furthermore, you can reduce the amount of unwanted marketing that you receive from entering sweepstakes. 

Many people think that a torrent of unwanted emails is a necessary consequence of entering sweepstakes, but it's not true. There are sensible steps you can take to reduce spam email when you enter.

If you are receiving unwanted emails from sweepstakes, you can always unsubscribe. In fact, you should do this regularly to ensure that your email address doesn't become overwhelming, making it difficult to find real win notices.

If you are getting junk postal mail, there are easy steps you can take to reduce your junk mail.

And don't forget your telephone privacy as well. I receive very few marketing telephone calls from entering sweepstakes, but it's a good idea to protect your phone number. Here are some ways to remain reachable without using your home phone number for sweepstakes

What's at Risk? The Consequences of Sweepstakes Fraud

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Identity Theft, Legal Problems, and Other Consequences of Sweepstakes Fraud. Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

If you think sweepstakes fraud can't happen to you, think again. Smart con artists can strike at any time, and the consequences can be severe. 

For example, I've heard of people who have received unexpected checks in the mail, and have decided to simply cash them instead of investigating them to find out if they are legitimate first. 

That's a big mistake. If the check is a fraud, you can be held legally liable for attempting to cash it! You will also be responsible for refunding the full amount, even if you already spent it (or sent it to a scammer).

Identity theft is another possible result of sweepstakes scams. It can be onerous and take a long time to restore your credit and get your money back after your identity has been stolen.

Other scammers are angling to break into your bank account, steal your credit cards, and more. There are many different scam tactics, and knowing them can help you stay safe.

Sweepstakes Scams on Social Media

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Don't Roll the Dice with Your Safety on Social Media!. John Lund / Getty Images

Social media is not only the hot new place to post sweepstakes, it's also the hot new target for sweepstakes scammers.

It's not difficult for a scammer to create a fake Facebook page that masquerades as a popular company, television series, etc. If you mistakenly like that fake page, it's easy for them to play on your trust to convince you that you've won a prize.

On Twitter, it can be difficult to tell the difference between fake and legitimate wins. Here are some simple steps to identifying scam wins on Twitter.

No matter where you are online, it's important to keep your head about you when you receive a win notice. It's exciting to win, but take every prize notification with a grain of salt until you have verified that it is trustworthy.

Publishers Clearing House: What You Can Trust and What's a Scam

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Did You Really Win from PCH? Or Is Something Sinister Going On?. Cultura RM/Ian Spanier/Getty Images

While PCH's sweepstakes are legitimate, Sweepstakes scams often use Publisher's Clearing House's name to try to trick people into believing they've won a big prize. 

PCH follows some strict guidelines with their win notifications to make it harder for scammers. For example, all of their big prizes are awarded in person or by certified mail. By learning more about PCH's awards process, you can make it easy to tell if you've really won from Publishers Clearing House.

If you have any questions, you can also contact PCH by email or telephone to ask if your prize win is legit. You can also report scams to them through these methods.

What to Do If You've Been Scammed

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How and Where to Report Sweepstakes Fraud. David McGlynn / Getty Images

It is very difficult for law enforcement agencies to pinpoint sweepstakes scammers and prevent them from targeting other victims. By reporting scams to the proper authorities, you can provide them with vital information that might stop someone else from losing their life savings. Here are places to report sweepstakes fraud to the authorities.

Examples of Real Sweepstakes Scams

Sometimes, the best way to learn to recognize sweepstakes scams is to see exactly how they work. Here are some examples of real sweepstakes scams.