We’ve all heard stories of people winning thousands, even millions, of dollars from Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, Powerball, MegaMillions and even Ohio Lottery scratch-off tickets. We dream about what we’d do with the money — pay bills, travel and vacations, college for the kids, donate to church, maybe a new home. The list goes on.
Even though the contests above are legitimate, sweepstakes, lottery and prize scams are among the most serious and widespread frauds happening today. The Federal Trade Commission cites sweepstakes/lottery/prize scams as the third-most common type of fraud reported in 2017. Commonly originating in Jamaica, Costa Rica and Nigeria, these scams bilked $117 million from nearly half a million victims across the U.S. and Canada. People reporting these scams to the BBB lost, on average, $500.
But more tragically, senior citizens are overwhelmingly the most frequent targets and suffer the largest losses. More than half the victims are over 60, with many over 70, and by far they lose the lion’s share of money.
Why do scammers prey on the elderly? Sweepstakes companies carefully track those responding to their mailings, then assemble leads lists they sell to other companies. Often these lists fall into scammers’ hands. Scammers know it is easier to keep track of people who have been at the same address and use the same phone number for a long time. Older people have more money, more often live alone, have the most potential to suffer mental loss and have experienced negative life events, such as serious illness or death of a spouse.
Most senior victims are contacted via phone calls or by bogus sweepstakes prize mailings. Scammers have also increasingly used social media and online methods to lure victims.
Take Ted for example, a successful St. Louis businessman that even had his own LearJet. At the age of 80, he was called by a scammer and told that he had won $60 million. He had plenty of money but dreamed of giving his winnings to charity. Scammers informed him he must send money to pay fees and taxes to claim his prize.
Ted sent them money time after time and even borrowed money from friends to make payments. To make a long story short, Ted lost nearly $8 million. Currently, he has dementia and is living in a nursing home.
For years fraudsters relied on Western Union or MoneyGram to get the money but now are having victims send money by Green Dot cards or iTunes, Amazon and other gift cards. Sending money this way is like sending cash. Once money is picked up by the scammer, there is no way to get it back.
How can people detect and prevent sweepstakes and lottery fraud? Below are some tips to prevent you or a loved one from becoming a victim.
• Remember, to win a lottery or sweepstakes, you must buy a ticket or send an entry. If you haven’t bought a ticket or entered the sweepstakes, it’s a scam!
• Contact the lottery or sweepstakes company directly to see if you won. Publishers Clearing House does not call people in advance to tell them they’ve won. You can check to see if you’ve won the lottery by calling the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries at 440–361-7962.
• Do an Internet search of the company, name or phone number of those that have contacted you.
• Before doing anything to claim a prize, talk with a trusted family member or the bank.
If you feel you have been a victim of sweepstakes/lottery fraud, file a complaint with your local Better Business Bureau at www.BBB.org, or the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov.
Cheryl Parson is president of the Better Business bureau serving West Central Ohio. The BBB may be found on the Internet at www.lima.bbb.org.