Consumer Protection

How to Protect Yourself: Lotteries and Sweepstakes

Source: The Florida Attorney General's Office


If you receive a letter or phone call telling you that you have won a substantial cash award or other fantastic prize, be extremely cautious. The likelihood is great that you have won nothing of any value and are being scammed.

You cannot win a prize in a lottery or sweepstakes that you did not enter.

Should you receive notification that you have won a cash prize or all-expenses paid vacation in a lottery or sweepstakes that you do not remember entering, it is likely a scam. Additionally, know that federal law prohibits U.S. consumers from playing in a foreign lottery so any mention of winning a foreign lottery is certainly a scam.

Don’t pay to win.

Legitimate lotteries and sweepstakes do not require you to pay anything to receive the prize you have won. If you are told that you must pre-pay taxes, you are probably being scammed. Taxes can either be withheld from a cash award or, more commonly, are reported by the company to the IRS and you declare the prize as part of your annual tax return. Phrases like “shipping and handling charges” and “processing fees” that the company says must be paid prior to delivery of your prize are clear warning signs that the offer is not a legitimate one. Legitimate sweepstakes companies pay the cost of delivery for the prizes they award.

Question prize descriptions.

That “1998 model car” you are told you have just won for a delivery charge of $29.95 is likely a scale model car that will fit nicely into the bottom of your children's toy box. Be skeptical of descriptions such as “regulation pool table” and “precious gemstones.” Often these and similar terms are designed to deceive you as to the size, quality and value of the product you have supposedly won. Ask questions and demand detailed descriptions of the prize you are being offered.

Be suspicious of official-looking documents.

Legitimate sweepstakes companies do not attempt to mislead you about who they are. If you receive a sweepstakes offering in the mail that gives the appearance of being from a government agency or government sponsored or approved, be suspicious immediately. Similarly, if the mailing or telephone solicitation suggests to you that you must respond immediately and cannot take time to consider or investigate the offering, you are probably being deceived.

Be wary of travel sweepstakes.

You may have been sent a postcard saying that you have won a free vacation or one of many other prizes. Generally, you have to call a number to claim your prize. When you do, they offer to send information about your vacation package in the mail after you provide your credit card number so they can assess a small “service charge” or withhold “taxes.” Once you’ve paid the fee, your vacation never materializes or the dates you choose are repeatedly blocked out.

Don’t give out your credit card or bank account numbers.

Legitimate sweepstakes companies have no need for your credit card or account numbers. If a company says they need your credit card information “to secure your prize” or “for verification,” there is an excellent chance that this information is really being sought for another purpose that will cost you money.

Investigate the company that is offering the “prize.”

Be sure that the company you are dealing with has a good track record in the business community. Verify their name and address. A company whose only address is a post office box or other mail drop should be dealt with cautiously. Do your homework by contacting the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.org to determine whether there are complaints against the firm.

File a complaint.

If you suspect you are the victim of a lottery or sweepstakes scam, file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office online at www.myfloridalegal.com or by phone toll-free at 1-866-9-NO-SCAM.

You may also file a complaint with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which acts as the State's consumer complaint clearinghouse, at www.floridaconsumerhelp.com.