By Robb Hicken/ BBB’s chief storyteller
When Toni, of Payette, sent $12 to the American Sweepstakes Publishers, she was certain her entry would be a winner.
“It only asked for a $12 processing fee, and the awards was mine,” Toni says.
Little did she know that the fine print reads that her fee is not an entry to a specific contest or sweepstakes, but rather providers the consumer with a list of sweepstakes he/she may want to enter.
The cash-for-a-sweepstakes-list pitch is not new to the Treasure Valley. BBB began reporting on these pitches around 2003. Nationwide, consumer complaints about sweepstakes are on the rise, BBB reports.
All states consumer protection agencies, under the attorneys general, receive complaints about sweepstake “lists.” Promoters of sweepstakes are criticized for consistently leading people to believe they’ve won high-value money – using terms like guaranteed, confirmed and verified – and convey a sense of urgency, though the advertisements are mailed year-round and no deadline is established. The advertisements also feature confusing and ambiguous language that could lead consumers to believe they have won money. All advertisements from the company feature a small-print disclaimer explaining that the company does not offer or guarantee prizes.
How can you tell the difference between a real sweepstakes and a scam? Legitimate sweepstakes are fun and free. They specify that no purchase is needed to win and buying a product will not increase your chances of winning – you never have to pay to collect a prize.
Ask yourself these questions before you send off your cash:
- Does the promoter ask for your credit card number, checking account number, bank account information, or other personal account information? A legitimate prize company won’t ask for this to declare you a winner.
- Do they ask you to wire money or make a payment in an urgent manner? Do you feel pressure to make a payment within a given time deadline to collect your prize? Take a step back and evaluate the offer.
- Does the advertising copy clearly state that no purchase is necessary to win and a purchase will not increase your chances of winning? You never have to pay to play or to collect your prize when the sweepstakes is legitimate.
According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, inspectors nationwide responded to more than 82,000 mail fraud complaints in 2004. This year they’ve already responded to more than 53,000 complaints.
Postal Inspectors began an investigation earlier this year after receiving hundreds of complaints from people across the country about a solicitation congratulating them on winning a sweepstakes prize. Over 10 million notifications were mailed out.
The problem was, “winners” had to send a fee of $20 to $25 for “processing costs” to collect their prize. No legitimate sweepstakes offer makes you pay to collect a prize. In this case, there was no prize. Inspectors are considering criminal charges or civil penalties of up to $1 million for this scam, which involves various company names and more than 50 different solicitations.
– This post first appeared in The Idaho Statesman, Boise, Idaho.