April 17, 2010 -- They're on almost every Web site and Facebook page: annoying pop-up sweepstake ads offering free vacations and iPods, for example. But can anyone actually win anything?
"Good Morning America" technology contributor Becky Worley spent an entire day entering contests and tracking results for a week. Did she win, or did she make her life miserable with spam and telemarketers?
I decided to try entering online contests for myself. Every pop-up offer I encountered, I said yes. I searched Google for "contests" and just started entering one Internet sweepstakes after another. For an entire day, I committed to the task and ended up entering dozens if not a hundred or so contests.
I created a new e-mail account to use with all the entry forms. I wanted to keep my working e-mail account free of junk, but I also wanted to determine how much spam the contests generated. I thought that would be enough to keep myself isolated from the contest solicitors, but almost every entry form mandated a phone number and street address. I used the general ABC street address and bought a prepaid phone to handle any incoming calls or texts.
And did I get texts! Almost instantly after filling out some contests' entry forms I received text messages with a PIN number. They exhorted me to go back to the entry area and enter the PIN so I could receive even more chances to win.
Buried on the Web sites was information about this resulting in a $9.99 monthly charge on my cell phone bill. These were premium text scams, third party companies get you to enter a PIN and accept their charges. While premium texting is a great way to pay for ringtones or use your mobile phone to donate to the Red Cross, it's also an easy way to trick you into paying $10 a month or more into a black hole.
I didn't accept any of the premium text offers, but I did continue to enter contests. I found some that looked really legitimate like one on the nba.com site and one on the M&M's site. I also entered Facebook contests where you become a fan of a company or group to gain a chance to win.
Twitter proved to be an interesting new venue for contests. I entered nine contests there. Most seem like ploys to get more followers, including some very legit-looking contests from designer Vivienne Tam, and a Web site I know and like called DealsPlus. But many Twitter contests looked completely bogus, including one offered by a guy with 72 followers and a page rife with typos.
We asked the folks at the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) about these contests online to determine if the legal issues for Internet contests are different from those in the real world, and they told us they are exactly the same. And they said they've never had a complaint about an online contest.
But I posit: It's hard to get all worked up about not winning a contest -- who can know if it was a scam or the odds.
So that leaves the big question; does anyone win these online contests?
Top Sweepstakes Web sites
WinPrizesOnline.com is a sweepstakes aggregator with an interactive community identifying the highest quality sweepstakes so that users can quickly find and enter them. Users get free access to sweepstakes from across the Internet. The Web site also has a sweepstakes community with forums and interactive comments where users can swap hints and information about general strategy as well as specific sweepstakes.
SweepstakesHub.com publishes daily promotions and prizes. The site searches for grand prizes and only publishes premium giveaways such as international vacations and home makeovers. They also find college scholarships to apply for; the search tools are free.
Insider Sweepstakes Tips
Wendy Limauge, founder and blogger for SweetiesSweeps.com, reveals her top four secrets to becoming a professional and successful sweeper. She's won electronics, vacations and even a car through sweepstakes.
Create a Separate E-mail Address Sign up for a free e-mail address to use just for entering sweepstakes. A personal e-mail inbox can get filled up with extra e-mails. Companies will send newsletters sponsoring the sweepstakes and confirmation e-mails once you enter some instant win games and sweepstakes. Players will also get notified when they win a prize, but those e-mails could get lost among personal emails.
Use Autofill Shortcuts to Complete Forms Download and install a form filler program. Autofill and Roboform are programs that help fill out entry forms without having to type the same information each time. They are often free to download and install.
Only Play the Best Odds Start by entering the most winnable sweepstakes and instant win games. A winnable sweepstakes is one that gives better odds for winning a prize. It might be a sweepstakes that offers more prizes (1,000, 2,000, 10,000, etc.) so more people have a chance of winning. It might be a sweepstakes that is being held for one day, week or month. The less time the sweepstakes is available for entering, the fewer people who will find out about it. Or, maybe it is restricted in some way. It might only be open to an entrant of a certain age group, or teachers, military members, or maybe just open to residents of a particular state. By focusing on the winnables, players have better odds of winning a prize.
Safeguard Against Scams Watch out for scams and sweepstakes that sell players' information. Some sweepstakes throw in special offers that must be opted out of by unclicking tiny boxes at the bottom of the online entry form. Skip anything that asks for a credit card number. A legitimate sweepstakes would never ask for it. And never pay money to enter a sweepstakes. The purpose of contests is to generate buzz for a product or brand, not for them to make money from players.