Sweepstakes scam prompts warning from Michigan sheriff's office

Photo of Scott Nunn

Thanks to quick work and perfect timing one Michigan sheriff's deputy was able to stop someone from being duped out of their hard-earned money Jan. 17.

According to a Tuscola County Sheriff's Department Facebook post, an administrative deputy was at an unnamed bank yesterday and came into contact with an "elderly citizen" who had been targeted by scammers.

"Basically, the scammer wanted her to pay all sorts of fees while she tried to deposit a bogus partial payment check for sweepstake winnings," the post reads.

The scam was a fake prize, or sweepstakes scam, which tells people they have won a significant sum of money, but first, need to pay various fees and taxes before collecting their prize.

In this instance, the purported sender of the letter was "Atlantic Million Promotion Sweepstakes Inc." and told the recipient they had won $947,000 from AMPSI. The letter directs the recipient to contact a "Mrs. Susan Brown and Mr. Timothy Webster" who are said to be the legal representatives "specialized in recovery of both international and offshore funds."

Included with the letter was a bogus check in the amount of $7,910.47, which was said to help cover the outstanding fees for the winnings.

The letter and check are indicative of a prize scam, according to a list provided by the Federal Trade Commission. 

Signs of a prize scam:

  1. You have to pay to get your prize. But real prizes are free. So if someone tells you to pay a fee for "taxes," "shipping and handling charges," or “processing fees” to get your prize, you’re dealing with a scammer. And if they ask you to pay by wiring money, sending cash, or paying with gift cards or cryptocurrency to get your prize, don’t do it. Scammers use these payments because it’s hard to track who the money went to. And it’s almost impossible to get your money back.
  2. They say paying increases your odds of winning. But real sweepstakes are free and winning is by chance. It’s illegal for someone to ask you to pay to increase your odds of winning. Only a scammer will do that.
  3. You have to give your financial information. There’s absolutely no reason to ever give your bank account or credit card number to claim any prize or sweepstakes. If they ask for this information, don’t give it. It’s a scam.

The FTC says scammers often try to say they are from the government or claim to be from organizations with official or recognizable names. To avoid being scammed, one way you can check this is by looking up the entity or organization's contact information yourself and verifying the information.

While the Tuscola County resident was almost scammed by a fake sweepstakes, the FTC says there are some ways to distinguish real sweepstakes from fake ones.

"Plenty of contests are run by reputable marketers and non-profit organizations. But there are some things to know before you drop in a quick entry or follow instructions to claim a prize," the FTC's website reads.

  • Real sweepstakes are free and by chance. It’s illegal to ask you to pay or buy something to enter, or to increase your odds of winning.
  • Contest promoters might sell your information to advertisers. If you sign up for a contest or a drawing, you’re likely to get more promotional mail, telemarketing calls, or spam.
  • Contest promoters have to tell you certain things. If they call you, the law says they have to tell you that entering is free, what the prizes are and their value, the odds of winning, and how you’d redeem a prize.
  • Sweepstakes mailings must say you don’t have to pay to participate. They also can’t claim you're a winner unless you've actually won a prize. And if they include a fake check in their mailing, it has to clearly say that it’s non-negotiable and has no cash value.

A special note about skills contests. A skills contest — where you do things like solve problems or answer questions correctly to earn prizes— can ask you to pay to play. But you might end up paying repeatedly, with each round getting more difficult and expensive before you realize it’s impossible to win or just a scam. Skills contests can leave contestants with nothing to show for their money and effort.

If someone encounters a prize scam, it is a good idea to report it to the authorities, such as the FTC, state attorney general, and U.S. Postal Service.