How to spot a lottery scam

An 82-year-old Florida woman has been targeted by scammers claiming she's won foreign lotteries but demanding that she send money to claim the prizes.

By Stacy Johnson Mar 6, 2013 2:56PM

This post comes from Trisha Sherven at partner site Money Talks News


Money Talks News logoReta is a feisty, fit, fun-loving 82-year-old who three years ago received a call that changed her life. The caller told Reta she'd won a big sweepstakes, and would soon be receiving two new cars. All she had to do was send cash to cover taxes and handling fees. Reta complied.


Several weeks later, another call: After one more small fee, her cars would be arriving. Anticipating the photographers she was told would be there, she went to the salon and had her hair and makeup done. She dressed in a new outfit and even had a professional photo of her own taken to remember the day.

As you may have guessed, the cars never came. But what did were more calls promising prizes. Hundreds of them -- sometimes dozens in a single day.

How it happens

Image: Dollars down drain (© Stockbyte/SuperStock)According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service spokesperson we interviewed, Americans lost $42 million to foreign lottery scams from 2010 to 2012.


Con artists target people like Reta -- trusting, alone and elderly. Packaged as lotteries, sweepstakes, cash prizes or charity giveaways, the scams have one thing in common: money up front to cover taxes or other expenses.


Fall for it once, and you'll have an endless stream of mail and calls, not just from the original crooks but dozens more who bought your name.


How to prevent it

As in Reta's case, victims are at first too embarrassed to report rip-offs or ask for help. Friends and family are often the first to notice something's wrong. Signs to watch for:

  • The person mentions a lottery or sweepstakes.
  • The person receives strange phone calls, especially out-of-country calls.
  • The person gets requests to send money.
  • The person is unusually secretive. 
  • The person gets lots of mail.

Reta has lost tens of thousands of dollars. And the phone never stops ringing. In the hour we were there, she got three calls from different people, including two after a postal inspector answered and told the caller the phone was tapped and never to call again.


When she began entering contests and paid the "prize fee" with a check or credit card, the scammers got her bank account and credit card information. When she changed her phone number, they sent mail tricking her into revealing the new one.


Friends and law enforcement agents are helping, but the thieves are both clever and relentless. They've even called claiming to be federal agents, saying they'd found some of her money, but that she needed to send one more envelope stuffed with cash so they could trace it.  


The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, FBI, Federal Trade Commission, the Jamaican government, and other state and local law enforcement agencies have been working together to stop this kind of fraud. There have been arrests, but the process of bringing the scammers to justice is difficult.


In addition to believing the old adage, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," here are some FTC tips to avoid becoming a victim:

  • Don't send money to someone you don't know, and don't ever send cash.
  • Don't agree to deposit a check and wire money back.
  • Don't reply to messages asking for personal or financial information.
  • Don't play a foreign lottery.

Remember, you can't win a contest you didn't enter. And playing a lottery in a foreign country is illegal for U.S. citizens.


If you suspect you or someone you love is a victim of a foreign lottery scam, contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and file a complaint


More on Money Talks News and MSN Money:


Mar 6, 2013 8:22PM

These scams have been going on for years.  I can't believe people still fall for them.

It must be desperate people looking for pie in the sky.

Mar 6, 2013 4:04PM
I think another tip should be "always tell a friend before you do anything." The friend can be your favorite bank teller, or the postal worker who delivers your mail, any police officer, the staff at your local senior center, the person who helps with your taxes. These people can remind you that if it sounds too good to be true, it isn't true. I have a dear friend who calls me every time she gets one of these in the mail. She always says she knows what I will say, but please look at it just in case it could be true. For some people, hope trumps all. 
Mar 7, 2013 9:35AM
Correct me if I'm wrong but don't all States run a lottery scam?
Mar 7, 2013 1:25AM
As part of a Government Class for high school seniors my son had to organize a peaceful protest.  His group decided to protest "cruel treatment of turtles", a totally bogus cause.  They had picket  posters and stood next to their school on the sidewalk.  In an hour's time over 10 people stopped to give cash to the "cause".  The kids, being watched by their teacher, refused the money.

Moral being....people will believe in anything.  That's why these types of scams work.
Mar 6, 2013 9:41PM

I've gotten two emails today (one from Myspace, the other form Vinicinio's Pizzaria), saying the +$100 in pizza order I made might be a scam, and if I didn't click the link, they would be delivered.


I'm still wating on my pizzas.

Mar 7, 2013 1:58AM
The Powerball and The Mega Millions is the biggest scam of them all. Uncle Sam gets his cut when you buy, when you win you get screwed again out of half. All under the rouge of going back to the community, schools etc... What a croc of pooh!
Mar 7, 2013 9:25AM
Remember, the odds of winning the lottery are the same -- whether you play or not.  ;~D
If you fall for even one of these lottery scams, you need to be hit on the head with a tac hammer, maybe it will knock some common sense into you.
Sep 13, 2013 10:52PM
Don't get caught up in the scams, Because they don't care about you or your family. They want that money nothing else
Jul 29, 2013 12:08PM

Really? Honest to goodness, unless the 'victim' has dementia or some other mental deficit... he/she must surely be just plain stupid. I have, over the last 20 years, been contacted by phone and by mail, many times and have never ever fallen for the ruses. Any person on the other end saying you must give them money now instead of waiting for your spouse to return home... SCAM!! Any piece of mail that claims you have won something but you must send a check or money order first to claim your prize... SCAM!!


Any WIN you have really WON does NOT have financial strings attached. And if your aging parent or grandparent is not aware of this... maybe you should consider that something is not quite right. Our elderly are no more intellectually challenged then the rest of society and in fact, I would wager they are quite a bit brighter than the average Jane or Joe. Therefore, when Granny or Gramps is doing things like this, he or she needs to consult a Dr or a Therapist. Loneliness does not equal stupidity either. If there is nothing 'wrong' with the 'victim'... then he/she is accountable for their own foolishness.

Mar 8, 2013 10:22AM
The whole gambling industry is a scam!
Mar 7, 2013 11:28AM

The worlds biggest scammer is our government a close second is the media that supports our government.

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