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Fraudulent sweepstakes: What can we do?

June 9, 2014

Nearly every year, complaints about sweepstakes crop up among the top 10 complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission.

Recently I received a call from a number which I did not recognize. The woman on the line told me her name was Louise and she asked me if I could help her. She told me that she had won a sweepstakes but was now being asked to send money to the man who called her with the good news.

At first, I thought this was a gag because of my recent review of the movie “Nebraska,” which was about a man who believed he had won a million dollars in a sweepstakes. But after a couple of minutes, I realized that woman on the phone really did not know what to do. She told me that she had found my name on the internet and she thought that I might be able to tell her whether she had actually won the money that she had been told was hers. 

I told her that if it was a legitimate sweepstakes, she should not have to make any kind of payment to receive the prize. She told me that the man kept calling her and told her that she would forfeit the prize money unless she sent $3,000 to him immediately. I told her not to send any money and not to talk with him on the phone. I also suggested that she call the FTC at (877) 382-4357 or file an online complaint, and contact the Missouri’s Attorney General’s Office.

After that phone call, it occurred to me that the star of Nebraska was not the only person who was deceived by these fraudulent sweepstakes. 

I am certain that the vast majority of people who receive a phone call or e-mail message telling them they have won a sweepstakes that they don’t recall entering, simply ignore it and delete the e-mail or throw the letter away. But statistics show that there are a considerable number of people who are deceived by these schemes and lose an incredible amount of money (that they can’t afford) to scammers. Many victims of these types of crimes may not report the losses because they’re embarrassed that they sent money to the criminals.

What can we do to help protect these people? One thing that I think all of us should consider is reporting the e-mails or phone calls that we receive for these types of solicitations. Rather than ignoring them, send them to the FTC, your state attorney general, or the U.S. Postal Inspector. Perhaps the additional information that these enforcers receive will help prevent someone from being deceived in the future.

By the way, I called Louise back and she told me that she had called the FTC and sent the information to the Missouri Attorney General’s office and that she did not send any money to the man who called her. And that she realizes now that there never was a sweepstakes.

This post was written by retired Thompson Coburn partner Dale Joerling. If you have any questions about the topics discussed in this post, please contact Thompson Coburn partner Hap Burke.