With Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes envelopes in the mail and television commercials on the air, Sweepstakes Scam Season is now in full throttle. Although there are other Prize Lies, the biggest jackpot for scammers continues to be in pretending to be from PCH — and they’re currently offering nefarious notifications of winning the advertised “$5,000-a-week-forever” prize.
That tempting but elusive bounty — odds of winning are 1 in 1.7 billion — will actually be awarded Feb. 26. But across the U.S., police warn that supposed “winners” are getting congratulations via phone calls, emails, letters and even social media messages. Expect more of the same throughout 2016. Last year, sweepstakes scams were among those most reported to our Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360, toll-free) and website.
The catch: “At some point,” said a PCH official, “a scam artist will ask you to send money, to pay some type of fees in order to get your prize. We do not.” In fact, no legitimate contest, sweepstakes or lottery ever asks for any upfront fee in order to claim winnings.
Fraudsters typically claim that upfront money is needed to pay taxes, “transfer” or “processing” fees before a PCH or another sweepstakes prize can be awarded. Usually requested by money order, wire transfer or prepaid debit card, amounts range from several hundred to thousands of dollars. One PCH “winner” in Nevada recently lost $30,000.
Sometimes, a phony check comes with the congratulations, with instructions to deposit that “partial payment” in your bank account to use for the requested advance payment. But the check proves to be counterfeit — which could take weeks after its deposit to discover — and you’re liable for all money drawn from it.
What else to know:
- If you didn’t enter, you didn’t win. Period.
- If you entered and actually win a big PCH prize, a Prize Patrol van will contact you in person, complete with oversized check and camera crew. For smaller prizes — usually less than $1,000 — winners are notified by overnight delivery services, certified mail or email, reports the company. Don’t believe “you won” phone calls, text messages, Facebook notifications, emails (for major prizes) or “regular” USPS-delivered letters; PCH and most other contests don’t notify bona fide winners these ways.
- If asked to contact a “claims agent” — with or without an accompanying (fake) check — know the call-back number is to a scammer. If the scammer smooth-talks you into paying the initial requested amount, expect to be bombarded with seemingly endless phone calls and letters alleging new, “unexpected” fees until you’re bled dry. Be especially wary of area codes 284, 809 or 876; those are for Caribbean islands known for calling scams that also run up your phone bill and target you for future scams (in addition to asking for prize advance fees).
- If asked for details of financial accounts under the lie of “crediting” an account with your winnings, realize that’s another scam. Crooks can drain your bank account or go on a spending spree with your credit card. And don’t give your Social Security numbers to strangers who claim you won anything; it’s identity thieves who are asking.
- Don’t let age hurt you. The Federal Trade Commission reports that proclaimed “winners” ages 55 to 64 are twice as likely to fall for sweepstakes scams compared to younger Americans, and those 65 and older have almost triple the “gotcha” rate.
Photo: Ruslan Guslov/iStock
For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up to date on the latest scams in your area.
Also of Interest
- Scam-proof 2016 with these 7 simple steps
- 10 top U.S. places to visit in 2016
- Get free help preparing and filing your taxes: AARP Tax-Aide program
- Join AARP: savings, resources and news for your well-being
See the AARP home page for deals, savings tips, trivia and more.