Email Scams: Contests, Giveaways, Lotteries, & Sweepstakes

These scams are just what they sound like. They are a bogus contest, lottery or sweepstakes notification delivered by email– intended to part you from your money, your identity, or both.

The vehicle that these scammers use in order to entice you to divulge your sensitive info is the promise of receiving money from a contest, lottery, or sweepstakes.

They can also involve promises of a surprise inheritance or large money gifts from a well-known wealthy person.

Common Scams

Many scams follow a similar pattern. You’ve won some money (or someone wants to give you money for an inheritance or something of that nature), but in order to receive the money, you have to pay the sender some money first. Pay-to-play schemes are some of the most common scams out there.

Contest notifications sent in bulk that are addressed “Dear Winner” (instead of to you personally) and that require you to act fast or lose your winnings indicate a scam.

Under these circumstances, the sender needs as many people as possible to fall for the scam in order to make money.

Red Flags to Look Out For

Bogus Communication Methods

  • You receive an email from a free email account provider, like Gmail, hotmail, or Yahoo. You want branded emails that are attached to a website.
  • Beware of emails that are “close but no cigar” to legitimate organization or sweepstakes names– like Publisher’s Clearing House or the State Lottery. These sites may even come with convincing “branded” emails, but they’ll be different in some way– like the “S” in Publisher’s will be missing, an “O” may actually be a “0”, or other slightly off and easily overlooked misspellings.
  • A Facebook message from Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos… or any other type of social media contact from any other well-known billionaire is a big red flag. Some of the latest scams involve people posing as a famous wealthy person who suddenly decided to be philonthropic. Usually, scammers posing as a public figure or pretending to act on their behalf are looking to gain access to your account information.
  • So, you’ve won zillions of dollars, but the prize notification email only addresses you as “Dear Winner?” It’s best to skip those.
  • You get the notification via bulk mail, just like all the other hundreds of thousands of winners being notified in this scam. If you’re truly a winner, you’ll get something via registered or certified mail, UPS, or FedEx, and the notice will name you by name.
  • If getting your prize is contingent on you paying a fee to “free up” your funds, it’s a scam. Same can be said for contests that require you to pay the taxes, shipping fees or any other related “expenses.” If you win, you’ll win outright.
  • Never cash a check that has been given to you as a prize if you are required to send back part of the money as fees. These are usually erroneous or bad checks. Here’s how this works: Scammers will send contest “winners” a bogus check. The check recipient cashes the check and sends a portion back. By the time that the winner realizes that the check was bad, the scammer is long gone, leaving the winner with the bill to repay the bank.
  • If you are required to give out credit card or bank information in order to receive your prize, it’s a scam.
  • Many scams originate in foreign countries. There is a reason why there are so many social media memes and jokes going around about winning something from a “Nigerian prince.”
  • Most scammers need you to act quickly in order to fool you. If you have time to think your decision over, you might realize it’s a scam. Unless you’ve won show tickets for a show going on that night, it’s probably best to avoid contests that require you to act quickly.
  • The notification you win is riddled with typos, grammatical issues, and other errors.

Tips for Protecting Yourself

Much of the time, protecting yourself boils down to using common sense. Really big prizes, like lotteries, sweepstakes and other contests, are usually very well publicized. They come with a set of contest rules that often seem a mile long and prizes are often rewarded very, very publicly. 

While this isn’t always the case, it does give you a rule of thumb to go by. If nothing else, if you wind up winning an unknown contest, this frame of mind will prompt you to do some more digging before taking the plunge.

Finally, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. While there are legitimate contests and lotteries, there are many more that aren’t. If any contest you want to enter displays any of the red flags above, it’s best to stay on high alert.

Summary and Resources

Many scams follow the same patterns, but not all scams involve contests, lotteries, or sweepstakes. They could even involve a sudden inheritance. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a windfall, especially if it requires you to “pay-to-play” or that seems too good to be true, proceed with caution and enlist outside advice. All of these are signs of a scam in play.

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