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Nearly all of us have received at least one official-looking notice exclaiming that we have already won an exciting vacation or other valuable prize. This may sound like a dream come true but, in fact, these claims are rarely, if ever, true. Many prize promotions are legitimate, but there are an increasing number of rip-offs, many aimed at older people. It is important to know whether you truly are a sweepstakes winner, or the target of a scam.

A sweepstakes is an advertising or promotional device through which items of value (prizes) are awarded by chance. You do not need to buy anything or pay a fee to win. Your chances of winning are determined by the number of participants and the number of prizes to be awarded; the chance of winning a large prize is quite small.

If the contest promoter asks you to do any of the following in order to collect your prize, it should be a "red flag" that this may not be a legitimate sweepstakes:

Pay money upfront -- possibly several hundred dollars, and often by overnight delivery -- to make a "refundable" deposit, to "prepay taxes," or to cover shipping and handling. In a legitimate sweepstakes, you need not pay anything to collect your prize. If you have won merchandise, the promoter will pay for delivery; if you have won cash, the promoter will withhold taxes or report the winnings to the IRS.

Give a credit card number -- legitimate sweepstakes do not require that you do this to establish your eligibility. You should never give a card number over the phone to a stranger, because this can result in unauthorized charges to your account.

Act immediately -- you may be pressured into acting quickly, with little or no time to verify the caller's identity. Be particularly wary if you are called in the evening or on weekends.

Be cautious if you are told that you have won a major sweepstakes, and you are asked to send money or give a credit card number. If you have questions about a promotion or believe you have been victimized by a scam, contact your state Attorney General, local consumer protection agency, or the National Fraud Information Center [(800) 876-7060].

Copyright 1994 by the American Association of Retired Persons

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