How to Protect Yourself from Scams

Geek!This is Auriette’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

About 20 years ago, my mom called me at work, concerned that my dad was about to wire a couple thousand dollars to an outfit that claimed he had won a Jeep. They asked him to send the money to cover some sort of delivery fee. The Jeep would then be sent to our local dealer.

The most obvious red flag in this story is the request for money up front for a prize. 99.9% of the companies that sponsor giveaways will cover all costs except taxes, and you pay those to the government, not to the sponsor. Of course, another clue that my dad hadn’t really won anything was that he didn’t remember entering any contests or sweepstakes.

Still, Dad was pretty convinced that he’d won a Jeep, worth a lot more than the “delivery fee.” He had gotten a phone number, and today, I’d try to look it up online. Back then, I simply asked him to call the number and ask for more information about where the Jeep would be delivered. Red Flag number two was the location of the “local” dealership, nearly 400 miles away. Dad called that dealership, and no one there knew of any forthcoming prize deliveries.

On my direction, Dad called the number again and asked for more information about the “company,” like an address. By that time, the scammers were on to our line of questioning and my dad acknowledged that Mom and I were right and just saved him a couple of thousand bucks.

Now, I have nothing against sweepstakes, contests, and giveaways. Don’t buy into the “Nobody wins those things” argument. People do win prizes every day. It is, however, always worth reading the fine print.

The hot tub store at the mall used to keep a podium right outside their door offering passersby the chance to win a hot tub. The fine print on the form showed an entry deadline that was long past. The form also failed to indicate a date for the selection and notification of winners. I skipped that one.

Many entry forms and collection boxes tout great prizes, but their main purpose is in collecting sales leads. That’s not to say that these companies are scamming you, but read the rules and make sure that you are still within the entry period and don’t be surprised if someone calls to sell you something.

Another popular way some companies build sales leads is to tell you that you’ve won a “free three day, two night stay” in a beach town. You have to pay your own way, cover your own meals, and sometimes there are other fees involved. You may also have to sit through a sales presentation. If you get a call like this, be sure you understand what costs you’ll have to pay and what is expected of you.

Some scammers will send you a legitimate-looking check and a letter stating that this is a small portion of a larger prize payout. All you have to do is deposit the check and then wire some of the money back to the sender to cover taxes and fees. Then they’ll send you the balance of the prize. The checks look very real. My husband works in a bank and says sometimes these fake checks look more legitimate than real checks. The account numbers are often real, so calling the bank to verify funds won’t do any good. Some customers at my husband’s bank deposited the check and even got the money deposited into their account, but if that works for you, don’t rush out and spend it. The banks involved will catch up with you eventually and ask for the money back. Remember the cardinal rule: if it’s really a win, you don’t have to pay anything.

Before we go any further, let me say that I have noticed a few online stores and blogs that state clearly in the rules that the winner will be asked to pay shipping cost on the prize. If you read the rules before signing up, you’ll know that in advance, and you can decide if you’re willing to incur that cost to receive the prize.

If you sign up for sweepstakes and contests regularly, whenever the call or e-mail arrives telling you that you won, you may be able to find the rules online. Go to your favorite search engine and plug in the precise name of the contest. You may find the official website or one of any number of contesting websites where rules are summarized or archived. Don’t be afraid to ask the caller to fax or e-mail you a copy of the rules for your review.

Once you have determined that your win is really a win, you may be asked to complete an affidavit of eligibility. This usually includes your name, address and other contact information, and it may ask for your Social Security number. Companies are not required to report small prizes under $500 to the IRS, but they’ll often ask for the Social Security number anyway. If the company and the giveaway is legitimate, you really don’t have anything to worry about, but you can decline the prize if you are afraid of identity theft.

Just today, my husband read about a group of scammers that claim to be shooting a reality TV show about families. They give their marks a date and directions to a remote location for filming. The next morning, all their vehicles have been stolen and their homes have been robbed.

Just because something sounds really good, doesn’t mean it has to be a scam. I once received a very casual-sounding e-mail along the lines of, “I just wanted to check in with you and verify your address and Social Security number because we’re going to be sending your prize this week.” Huh? The e-mail address pointed to an organization that was involved with a contest that I had entered, so I cautiously e-mailed back and made it clear I wasn’t really sure what was going on. I soon got a very apologetic call. Due to a staffing change, he thought I’d been notified already. I won the grand prize of $5,000!

  • Do your research.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Do read the rules before entering.
  • Don’t send money.