A new report by the Better Business Bureau says sweepstakes, lottery and prize scams are using ever-changing methods to hurt victims financially and emotionally.
The frauds concentrate on seniors, targeting them by direct mail, cold calling, social media, text messages and smartphone pop-ups.
BBB warns consumers to be on guard against the serious frauds and their perpetrators.
The report — "Sweepstakes, Lottery and Prize Scams: A Better Business Bureau Study of How 'Winners' Lose Millions Through an Evolving Fraud" — notes these scams bilked at least $117 million out of half a million Americans and Canadians in 2017 alone.
Seniors are the most frequent target and suffer the largest losses by far in these scams.
The report found the scams commonly originate in Jamaica, Costa Rica and Nigeria.
The report recommends stronger law enforcement efforts in Jamaica, which has seen an increase in violence related to lottery fraud profits; in the U.S., where law enforcement is urged to step up extraditions and prosecutions of overseas fraudsters operating in the U.S.; and globally, as law enforcement agencies worldwide are encouraged to take steps toward holding deceptive mailing organizations accountable and stopping mail fraud.
The report also urges social media platforms to take steps to weed out fake profiles and make reporting fraud easier.
Among the report's key findings:
- The majority of lottery or sweepstakes scam victims are between 65 and 74 years old. Among that age group, people who recently experienced a serious negative life event and who expect their income in the near future to remain steady or decline are even more likely to be victimized.
- Sweepstakes or lottery fraud can strike through many channels — phone calls, text messages, pop-ups on a smartphone's Internet browser, social media and mailings.
- In 2017, 2,820 individuals reported sweepstakes and lottery scams to BBB Scam Tracker. These reports show a median loss of $500, with wire transfer as the most common method of payment.
Jamaica is a major source of "cold calls" to victims who are told they have won money.
Although similar calls come from Costa Rica, the scam has had a major impact in Jamaica, where the amount of money generated by lottery fraud has resulted in gang wars among rival fraud groups.
This has also led to a dramatic spike in violence. More than 95 percent of reported fraud in Jamaica involves lottery or sweepstakes scams.
BBB offers the following tips for consumers to avoid lottery or sweepstakes fraud:
- True lotteries or sweepstakes don't ask for money before you claim a prize. If they want money for taxes, themselves or a third party, they are most likely crooks.
- Call the lottery or sweepstakes company directly to see if you won. Publishers Clearing House does have a sweepstakes but does not call people in advance to tell them they've won. Report PCH impostors to its hotline at 800-392-4190.
- Check to see if you won a lottery. Call the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries at 440-361-7962 or your local state lottery agency.
- Do an Internet search of the company, name or phone number of the person who contacted you.
- Law enforcement does not call to award prizes.
- Talk to a trusted family member or your bank. They may be able to help you stay in control of your money in the face of fraudster pressure.