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If someone calls to say that you've won a trip or valuable prize in a major sweepstakes, it may sound like a dream come true. But listen carefully.

If you're told to send money immediately to collect the prize, don't do it. Instead of winning something, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that you could lose hundreds of dollars.

This brochure explains how you can tell whether you truly are a sweepstakes winner or the target of a scam.

Recognizing a Scam

In recent months, fraudulent telemarketers have been posing as representatives of the major sweepstakes, such as American Family Publishers, Publishers Clearing House, and Reader's Digest. If you become a target, you may receive an official-looking letter that instructs you to call an '800' number. Or, you may receive an unexpected phone call.

You may think the notification means you've won a prize, especially if you've already entered one or more sweepstakes. However, watch out if you're told to:

* Pay money upfront

You may be asked to send several hundred dollars -- by overnight delivery services or Western Union -- to "prepay taxes," make a "refundable" deposit, or cover shipping and handling costs. This is a clue to a questionable offer. With legitimate sweepstakes, you do not have to pay anything to collect your prize. If you have won merchandise, like a necklace or car, the sweepstakes promoter will pay the delivery charges. If you win cash, the sweepstakes promoter either will withhold taxes from the cash award or report the winnings to the Internal Revenue Service.

Overnight delivery services may be used in fraudulent schemes for several reasons. The scam operators may want to get your money before you become suspicious and change your mind. They also may avoid mail fraud charges by using a courier.

* Give a credit card number

To show your eligibility, you may be asked for your credit card number. Never give your credit card number over the phone to someone you do not know. The number may be used to make unauthorized charges on your account. Legitimate sweepstakes do not need your credit card number to award a prize.

* Take action immediately

High pressure tactics may be used to get your money quickly and give you little or no time to verify the caller's identity. Be especially wary if you're called during evenings or on weekends when you will not be able to call legitimate sweepstakes promoters.

Checking it Out

If you are contacted by someone who says you have won a major sweepstakes -- and they ask for money or your credit card number -- call the sweepstakes promoter yourself to verify any winnings. For the phone numbers of some major sweepstakes, see the box below.

Publishers Clearing House 1-800-645-9242

American Family Publishers 1-800-237-2400

Million Dollar Dream Sweepstakes (Time, Inc.) 1-800-541-1000

Reader's Digest Sweepstakes 1-800-234-9000

Getting More Information or Filing a Complaint

If you have questions about a sweepstakes promotion -- or if you think you've been victimized by a sweepstakes scam -- call the National Fraud Information Center at 1-800-876-7060 (9 a.m. - 5 p.m. EST, Monday - Friday). Also contact your local consumer protection agency or attorney general's office.

In addition, the FTC would like to hear from you. Write: Correspondence Branch, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580. Although the FTC does not handle individual disputes, the information you provide may help the agency in its enforcement efforts.
Facts for Consumers from the Federal Trade Commission

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