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Gotcha! You have (not) won $2 million!

Prize promotions claimed an estimated 2.4 million victims in 2011

Consumer Reports magazine: July 2013

The letter, from the Award Notification Commission, said, “Congratulations—you are the two million dollars winner.” It sported a “seal of record and validation” and offered a detailed payout schedule.

The “lucky winner” was suspicious. “I’m sorry, but they can’t fool me,” said Kathy Winger, of Franklin, Pa. “I’ve supposedly won cars, computers, a five-carat diamond. The list never ends.”

Legitimate sweepstakes may be entertaining (even Consumer Reports runs one). But others are problematic, leaving you with minuscule chances of winning and high chances of landing on marketing lists—guaranteeing more unwanted mail, spam, and telemarketing calls. The worst offenders steal money and personal information from their victims, who are often elderly.

The Federal Trade Commission, postal authorities, and state consumer agencies can investigate complaints about sweepstakes outfits, but more pop up all the time. In survey results released in April, the FTC found that prize promotions were the second most common type of fraud (behind weight-loss products), with an estimated 2.4 million victims in 2011.

These are among the methods fraudulent sweepstakes use:

  • Certified checks you’re told to deposit before sending part of the proceeds to a third party to cover taxes or other charges. Comply and you find that the check is bogus.
  • Promotions that seem to be from government agencies. In December a Maryland man was sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in a sweepstakes in which scammers had the nerve to pretend they were from the FTC.

Those who have been fooled once may not be off the hook: Some scammers have recontacted their victims, claiming to be law-enforcement officials trying to recover the losses—for a fee, of course.

As for Winger’s document, fine print showed that she had to reply for a chance to win $2 million and send a “premium offer acquisition fee” of $11.89—even though, the mailing said, “purchase will not increase chance of winning.” That chance? One in 300 million.

There’s no evidence that anyone has scored the $2 million, even though Kansas-based Next-Gen has been running the promotion worldwide since at least 1999, says Aaron Reese, spokesman for the Better Business Bureau of Greater Kansas City. In fact, the mailer’s fine print says there’s no guarantee that anyone received the winning number. In the 2011 sweepstakes, the company appears to have approved a payout of $4,350 to 33 people, but only to those who confirmed their address.

The BBB has awarded Next-Gen a prize of its own: a rating of F. Next-Gen’s customer service manager said the company wasn’t interested in answering our questions.

What you can do. Answer sweepstakes offers only if you know the company, and verify that the offer isn’t from a scammer using the company’s name or a look-alike website. Ignore solicitations that appear to be from the government, use “official” seals, request an up-front fee, or tell you that you’re already a winner. And be aware that in a legitimate sweepstakes, buying something does not increase your chances of winning.

   

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