The $18.5M Elder Fraud Sweepstakes Scam

A lot of elders like to enter sweepstakes. They’re hoping for a big win, and a huge check, just as they see folks receiving on TV. What they never know is whether they

are being lied to or tricked.

The Federal Trade Commission tracks and reports fraud to Congress. Their most recent report highlights a case brought against Publisher’s Clearinghouse for deceiving entrants, many of them older, into believing that they had to buy something to enter or that buying something would increase their chances of winning. That is illegal. They used tricky language on their website, meant to get people to buy. They then hid their shipping and handling fees, which added almost 40% to the cost of the purchase. Their suggestion that the purchase was “risk free” was also untrue, as returning an item required that the purchaser pay the cost to return it. The case was settled with the results publicly reported by the FTC. Publisher’s Clearinghouse had to pay $18.5 million to refund customers, among other things.

Any one of those customers could be your aging parent. Here at, we have seen this kind of fraud more than once. The only thing standing between the deceived elder and losing a lot of money or all their resources is the family.

Case Study

A 93 year old woman was told she has won the sweepstakes and the caller was very excited to tell her the “good news”. She was told all she had to do to get her winnings was to pay the tax on it and she would get her check. Her son found about this at the last minute, and with our guidance, he intervened and stopped his mother from going to her bank with the sweepstakes representative, who pretended to be a lawyer. That was a very close call. The naive mother had agreed to let the fake lawyer accompany her to her bank so she could withdraw the “taxes”. It was scary to watch how close she came to being wiped out. This particular scammer wanted to go to the bank with her so he could get her account information and gain access. The son disrupted his attempt and the would-be thief disappeared after that.

The FTC keeps track of publicly reported instances of consumer fraud and elder financial manipulation. Here is some information from their website about sweepstakes:

  • Real sweepstakes are free and by chance. It’s illegal to ask you to pay or buy something to enter.
  • If you sign up for a contest, the promoters might sell your information to advertisers. If they do, you’re likely to see targeted ads online and get more junk mail, telemarketing calls, and spam email.
  • Scammers try to trick you into believing you won a prize. Never share your financial information or pay fees, taxes, or customs duties to get a prize.

It is important for families to know that your aging parents can be easily fooled, particularly if they like these contests. The naive 93 year old described above entered multiple contests and had stacks of records of entries in her apartment, her son reported after the narrow escape from disaster. If your aging parent likes sweepstakes, keep a close eye on their actions, especially if they tell you they’ve won. That’s a point when predators want to make them pay for collecting winnings and use the occasion to steal their identity or their money.

The other important point from the case study is the 93 year old had memory issues and should not have been in charge of her finances any longer. She was close to her son and when we urged him to ask her to resign from her substantial trust, she did so. He admitted that he had simply not been paying attention to his mom’s finances and just let her go on being in charge, even in the presence of warning signs.

The Takeaways

Every family can learn something from the Publisher’s Clearinghouse case and from the actual case study of the matter we addressed at If we can summarize it in a few words, they are:

Pay attention to your aging parents’ finances. Offer to help. Track their actions. If they are having any memory loss issues at all, do all you can to have them step down from managing their money.

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