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Thousands of contests and sweepstakes are available online. Giant corporations and local businesses are handing out computers, jewelry, shopping sprees, vacations, smart phones, cars, houses, boats and cold, hard cash.

You can win small prizes (burger, T-shirt), unique prizes (walk-on role on a TV show) and incredibly useful prizes (a year's worth of health insurance).

Yes, there are scams out there, and we'll talk about ways to avoid them, but there are plenty of real chances, too. Just ask Michelle Troutt, who in five years has won 22 vacations, cash, and countless other items.

Her best win: $100,000 in a contest celebrating the 100th anniversary of Hershey's Kisses. The prize also included an appearance on a special segment of "Deal Or No Deal" back in 2007, with a chance to earn $100 million. (She didn't.)

Here's the beautiful part: The win was a "second-chance drawing." Because none of the three grand-prize game pieces was redeemed by consumers, the candy manufacturer drew its winners from 3-by-5 cards sent in by savvy sweepers.

"That's all I did: one entry," says Troutt, who lives near Fort Worth, Texas.

How can you get that lucky? Read on.

It's not just luck

First, a clarification: A contest requires some kind of "skill," even if that's just the ability to download a picture of your kid. A sweepstakes is strictly a game of chance, i.e., you don't have to do anything to enter except enter. However, I'll be using the words interchangeably, just as folks who call themselves "sweepers" also enter contests.

Second: It's not just luck. Serious sweepers know how to enter. They watch for local contests, which tend to have fewer entries. They pay close attention to the rules; for example, "a 150-word essay" does not mean 50 words, or 500 words.

Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

They enter as often as they're allowed, which can mean daily. They recognize which contests probably won't be won outright and immediately enter second-chance drawings.

Such behaviors were once described as the "three P's": patience, persistence and postage. Although some old-schoolers still enter only by mail, the Internet has made it a lot easier to sweep.

Why would companies give all this stuff away? To get attention, of course. Contests and sweepstakes encourage brand loyalty, promote new items and attract potential customers.

Of course, they're also a great way to collect data. Some contest organizers require only a name and e-mail, while others ask for addresses, phone numbers and even information on buying habits. That's why you should open an e-mail account just for these entries.

"You do get spammed. There's no way around it," says Patti Osterheld of SweepSheet, who has won furniture, nearly three dozen trips, numerous savings bonds, a piano, a trio of iPod Touches, thousands of dollars in cash and a year's worth of gas, milk and Starbucks coffee over the past two decades.

Watching for red flags

Osterheld deletes, unopened, any e-mail whose subject line doesn't include the word "congratulations!"

But be wary of any "Congratulations!" e-mails for contests you don't remember entering. Many sweepers keep spreadsheets or other records of their entries (who could remember so many on his own?).

Those who subscribe to SweepsU.com can use the site's "sweeps management system." This tool keeps track of what you've entered, notifies you of deadlines and reminds you to enter as often as you're allowed.

Other signs of scam contests are e-mails that:

  • Promote contests from other countries.
  • Are written in poorly spelled or ungrammatical English.
  • Ask for a bank-account number so your "winnings" can be deposited.
  • Require a credit-card number to pay shipping and handling for your prize.

"Sometimes the red flag is there, but people don't pay attention because they think they just won something," says Giancarlo Massaro of AnyLuckyDay.com.

The "If it seems too good to be true" rule applies, even to what looks like a reputable company. To wit: the Facebook gift card scam of spring 2010. If you have questions about a contest, go to the organizer's home page or Facebook page -- directly, rather than by clicking on an e-mail or social media link -- to see if it's legit. Hint: Ikea wasn't offering $1,000 gift cards.

How to find contests

Websites organize contests by category, prize or deadline. There's an app for all the contests on Facebook. You can use an online search engine to focus on social media giveaways. At least one site, Prizey, specializes in blog contests, which are often easier to win because of a relatively low number of entries.

Contests may be anchored to specific events, such as Black Friday or a holiday season. Or the engagement season: Apparently a fair number of people decide to get married between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so online jewelry retailer Blue Nile sponsored a contest called "Ring It, Sing It."

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That's how Indianapolis resident Perry Whan recently came to propose to his girlfriend, Michaela Maloney, at the opening bell of Nasdaq in New York. Blue Nile helped him design the ring, paid their airfare and accommodations, and threw in a rock song written about their love. (You can view the proposal here.)

Not a bad deal for a guy who previously thought that online contests were "unwinnable." But he was inspired by the assignment and won the judges' hearts with a 500-word essay (with photos) about his high-school sweetheart.

Not everyone wants to go to that much trouble. The Blue Nile contest received only 400 essays. Josh Tauber, of the search-marketing firm Wpromote, has run social-media contests that drew only 30 or 40 entrants.

"Your chances are really high," says the director of viral marketing, who's worked on giveaways of everything from coffeemakers to a Ford Fiesta. In fact, he's come to recognize certain people who enter contest after contest.

Where the best chances are

Local contests are easier to win because fewer people can enter. Countless bloggers are offering prizes, too -- what better way to get readers? -- and some of these giveaways have few to zero entries. But even with a well-known blogger your chances are pretty good, because you need to be one in a thousand, not one in a million.

Follow your particular focus. For example, parents should check out mommy blogs for the chance to score everything from board books to eco-friendly disposable diapers. Or even school uniforms: French Toast regularly stakes bloggers with polos and pants to give away, and recently ran a contest with a $10,000 cash prize to one family plus $5,000 worth of uniforms for a local school.

Such specifically targeted contests mean reaching fewer consumers -- but the right ones. A child-free reader isn't interested in school uniforms, and a Luddite wouldn't want a laptop.

Savvy sweepers share secrets

Noah Fleming's winning streak was made even more valuable by the fact that Canada (unlike the U.S.) doesn't require citizens to pay taxes on sweepstakes winnings.

Over the past couple of years the Internet entrepreneur has won, among many other things: an all-expenses-paid trip to the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, two Xbox 360s and a number of games, concert tickets, a 20-inch iMac, an autographed hockey jersey, an iPod, a Tassimo coffeemaker, a 46-inch television, a home theater system, DVD boxed sets, a Wii, a Flip Mino HD camera and two Dell laptops.

"Luck" had nothing to do with it, Fleming wrote in this post on his website. It was simple persistence -- "and you can do the exact same thing."

A few more (sometimes conflicting) tips from the pros:

  • Enter everything. Not having to "analyze every contest" means you can enter more of them, according to Troutt. You can always turn down a prize if you don't want it, she says. But there's another school of thought, which is . . .
  • Be selective. Would you really ride that mountain bike or use that golf weekend? If not, then let someone else win. And there's another approach on this, too . . .
  • Sell things you don't want/can't use. Some sweepers are horrified at the idea. Others suggest that the money you make could offset taxes, get you through lean times or help you build a stake.
  • Check out Twitter. Sign on and search for the word "win." You'll get a bonanza. Or search by end date, e.g., "ends 12/10."
  • Consider a newsletter or website. Some charge but may offer a free trial. Others, like SweepsGoat and Prizey, are free. Online-Sweepstakes.com has both free and premium sections.
  • Multitask. Sweepstakes are relatively simple to enter, especially if you use software that fills in contact information. "I would die without Roboform," says Troutt, who enters at least 400 contests during each 10-hour overnight shift as a hotel reservations agent. (She works at home and uses a separate computer during quiet spells.) Click that Roboform while you're watching TV, or waiting for a friend to show up at the burger joint. Or, like Fleming, while you have your morning coffee.
  • Prizes = presents. Remote-control cars, MP3 players and other items go well under the tree or at the many birthday parties your kids attend. The fisherman next door might appreciate the foam cooler. "There's nothing like walking up to somebody and just handing (something) to them," says Carol McLaughlin, who publishes This n' That Sweepstakes Stuff. Or you could . . .
  • Donate your winnings. Toys for Tots always needs gifts. Family shelters and senior centers could make use of toiletries, robes and other small items. That spa gift basket would make a swell door prize at the next PTA meeting.
  • Set a Google alert. Troutt uses "second-chance drawing," because these have decent odds.

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  • Bookmark local TV/radio sites. Troutt checks these once a week. In the past five years she's won 10 trips, theme park and concert tickets, jewelry and other items.
  • Follow your faves. If you love Coca Cola or American Girl dolls, "like" their sites and watch for giveaways. Remember to follow local sites, too; twice in recent weeks I have won free meals at Harley's Old Thyme Café in Anchorage, Alaska -- just in time for my Christmas vacation. Sweep on!
  • Don't forget about taxes. If you're lucky at contests, you'll need to claim the value of your winnings at tax time. If you're not sure how a big-ticket item will affect your filing, you should consult a tax professional, call the IRS at 800-829-1040 or visit the IRS "Help with tax questions" page. Contest sponsors usually send a 1099 for items worth $600 or more.

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").