“Congratulations, you’ve won!” Those are words we would all love to hear. But one difference between a legitimate lottery and a scam is: The Winner Never Has to Send Money in to a Legitimate Lottery.
Who doesn’t dream of winning big? But for a growing number of Montanans, those words are the beginning of a nightmare. In recent years, reports of fake lottery and sweepstake scams in Montana have ballooned, nearly tripling. Along the way, they have tripped up dozens of unlucky Montanans, some of whom have lost tens of thousands of dollars.
Sweepstakes and lottery scams are not new, but they are definitely on the rise. On average, someone calls the Consumer Protection Office once a day complaining of a lottery or sweepstakes scam. Additionally, the Better Business Bureau, police departments, banks and Montana Lottery officials report that that they, too, receive many calls about such scams.
The schemes differ on specifics, but most follow a formula:
A person receives an unsolicited letter, e-mail or phone call from an organization claiming to be a legitimate lottery in a foreign country, a private sweepstakes firm or a lottery “commission.” They all bear the same message: You’re a winner!
To redeem his or her “winnings,” a person must first send or wire money to lottery or sweepstakes officials. The scammers often request that the money be wired because money sent in this way is much harder to trace.
- Sometimes, these fees are explained as taxes or administrative fees that must be paid up front.
- In other variations, the scammers promise the “winner” tens of thousands of dollars and send along a check for a smaller amount intended to cover “legal fees” associated with winning. This check is to be deposited immediately and the winner is instructed to send the money to a “lawyer” who will help them process and collect the winnings.
These checks often look very realistic; many are fakes copied word-for-word from real businesses. And while these checks will always bounce, the money a “winner” wires away is all too real – and in almost every case, that money is gone for good. An example of one of these fake checks can be viewed on our website.
How can you tell if you’re being hit by a scam?
Here is how a legitimate lottery works, according to the Montana Lottery:
- An actual lottery does not contact the winner; they don’t even know who the winner is. A real lottery knows only the winning numbers on a ticket and where the ticket was sold. The winner must keep the ticket and confirm the numbers with lottery officials. If you are contacted by someone claiming you have won the Montana lottery, it is a scam.
- In a real lottery, winners pay for nothing other than their ticket. All federal and state taxes are paid before the Montana Lottery releases money to the winner. A winner is never asked to pay such taxes out-of-pocket before receiving his or her prize.
- Lotteries of foreign countries are illegal in the United States. No legitimate foreign lottery sells tickets in the United States. If you have been contacted by a lottery claiming to be affiliated with the government of another country, it is a scam.
Avoid Sweepstakes and Lottery Scams
- Look for clues in the “award” letter. Are there unusual misspellings, grammatical errors? Rest assured that any organization that has $180,000 to give away also has a proof-reader with an excellent command of the English language.
- Look at the check. Because these checks are typically forged copies from real businesses, the business address and name on the check will be different from the name of the organization that claims to be handing out cash.
- Ask yourself: Did I enter a sweepstakes or buy a lottery ticket? If you did not, then you are not a winner.
- Does the organization ask you to cash your check “right away”? High-pressure pitches are common in such scams. These criminals are hoping people will act before they think.
- Never wire money to someone you don’t know, especially to a foreign location.
- Authentic sweepstakes require the winner to sign an affidavit assuring their identity on any prize valued at more than $600.