There are thousands of companies which use sweepstakes offers (in cards and letters) to entice consumers to send them money. Unfortunately, senior citizens seem to be especially likely to receive and respond to these solicitations. The California Attorney General, the attorneys general of other states, the Federal Trade Commission and the Postal Inspector have prosecuted many of these companies criminally and civilly, but most disappear before action can be taken. In addition, the companies seldom are found in the same state as the consumers, often are in another country, or cannot be found at all. They hide their true ownership, thereby making prosecution very difficult. Others may not be violating any laws, but are nevertheless successful at confusing consumers.
Here are some tips as to what to watch out for:
- Statements that you are a winner but that you must first send money for taxes or as a fee. Never send money in advance of receiving the prize. Most likely you will not receive the prize or the prize will be worth less than you paid, even though the prize sounds expensive;
- For a sweepstakes, to be legal you must be given the opportunity to enter without cost of any kind. Sometimes that information is hidden, or in small print, or in language intended to confuse you;
- Never give your credit card number or bank information when entering a sweepstakes;
- Be careful if you are asked to call a phone number to enter the sweepstakes. If you call the number you will often be asked to buy an overpriced product or service or to make a contribution to an organization you never heard of before;
- Solicitations which suggest your chance of winning a prize are better if you buy something. A legal sweepstakes cannot favor the buyers over those who enter without buying something or who obtain a free entry;
- Requests for payment to enter a raffle. Raffles in which you must pay money are only lawful if conducted by charitable organizations that are registered with the Attorney General's office to conduct raffles and only if at least 90% of the gross receipts from the raffle are used to benefit or provide support for beneficial or charitable purposes. To find out whether a charity has registered, use the Attorney General's Charities Search feature;
- Be mindful that if you pay money to a sweepstakes marketer. Your name and address may be sold or given to other marketers who will also send you solicitations. Your name and address will likely be added to what is known as a "suckers list" or "mooch list."