Savvy Consumer: Don't Get Fooled by Foreign Lotteries

They say you can't win if you don't play, but when it comes to foreign lotteries, you'll definitely lose. Americans lose tens of millions of dollars this way each year.

Crooks running these foreign lotteries typically claim that you've won but tell you that you need to pay the taxes on your jackpot before they can forward it to you. Of course, they ask that you send the check to them. And what about the pesky fact that you never actually entered any foreign lottery? In their eagerness and greed, most victims never even consider that.

At all hours of the day, when Eva and Ken S. were minding their own business, strangers would interrupt them. It happened for five years. The callers claimed they'd won a big foreign lottery. Canada, Australia, China, Germany, Japan -- a different country every day. Eva and Ken also received lottery come-ons in the mail. They had entered sweepstakes in the past (and that's probably how the foreign lottery hucksters got their names), but they brushed aside the foreign lottery offers because they just didn't feel right. This couple was lucky.

Not only could they have lost money, they could have lost their freedom. It's actually illegal to operate a lottery by phone or by mail, but most Americans don't realize that. So when con artists call or write claiming you've won a foreign lottery, many people fall for it. The majority of these foreign lotteries don't even exist. If a foreign lottery is for real, you can be charged with mail fraud and violating customs laws if you participate.

Postal inspectors and customs officials try to intercept foreign lottery mailings, but the volume is overwhelming. Several years ago, the government started recycling foreign lottery mail -- to make toilet paper. What symbolism! It's the perfect use.

As with the mail scams I discussed last week, if it looks too good to be true, it most likely is. And if you're not sure, there are some specific ways you can avoid being taken.

Do Your Homework:

  • To avoid foreign lottery come-ons, don't enter sweepstakes and don't buy products from the backs of magazines or other questionable sources. Your name could be sold on a "sucker list."
  • If you receive a letter saying you've won a lottery, think through whether you've ever entered a lottery and consider whether this could be a foreign lottery scam.
  • Keep in mind that in the United States, legitimate contests must provide you with a way to enter without paying any money upfront. You should never have to pay money to win money.

Where to complain:

If the lottery pitch comes in the mail, complain to the U.S. Postal Service inspector. If the con men contact you by phone, report the incident to your state attorney general.

Author's note:

This is the third in a series I am writing about classic scams. Recent college graduates -- and the rest of us -- need to know how they work so we can avoid them.

-- EL

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