National Consumers League

Sweepstakes Scams Continue to Thrive


by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Last month we blogged about the results we’ve been seeing from our national public education project on fake check scams.  Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with another consumer who we’ve been able to help.

The consumer had been receiving sweepstakes "winning notifications" in the mail for six months, and was buying money orders twice a week – convinced that sending her money would pay off. A banker from her small Texas town suspected that her 80-year old customer might be falling victim to a sweepstakes scam, and contacted NCL’s Fraud Center.

When I spoke with the consumer (who we'll call "Ms. Jones"), she described the situation to me as such: the first letter she received was from Levittown, New York, from a sweepstakes prize claim office, indicating to her that she’d won millions of dollars in a lottery. The winnings would be hers soon, but first Ms. Jones needed to send in $18 for processing fees to claim her prize. The 80-year-old eagerly did as she was told, and sent in a check for $18. Soon she received another letter, asking for a slightly larger amount to “claim her prize” – but still not enough to set off signals. The letters always included deadlines, urging Ms. Jones to send the necessary fees quickly in order to collect the prizes she’d won.

In the following months, Ms. Jones received what she described to me as “stacks” of letters from very professional-seeming operations telling her she was just one more check away from cashing in on her prize. The woman, who lives on a fixed income, reluctantly admitted to having sent away hundreds of dollars in attempts to claim her prize, little by little. When Jones' banker noticed the trend of small but regular withdrawals to her account, she intervened.

A staffer from NCL’s Fraud Center immediately followed up with the consumer, and explained that she was being duped, as you will never have to pay money to “win” money from a legitimate company or operation.

Unfortunately, this consumer’s story is not that unique. In fact, we hear from many older consumers – or their children or grandchildren – about scams perpetrated against them because many con artists have identified seniors as a vulnerable group. They often find it more difficult to hang up on predatory telemarketers, and they can end up being bilked, bit by bit, out of hundreds or thousands of dollars.

This gets us steamed, and that’s why we are committed to raising awareness about such Telemarketing and Internet Scams. We tell consumers that there is no legitimate reason why anyone would give you a check or money order and ask you to send back any money in return. No matter the details of the scam — whether they’re trying to purchase something from you, asking for your help moving money around, or saying you’ve won a foreign lottery—it’s a scam.

Consumers can report scams online to NCL’s Fraud Center here.