Businesses and organizations in California and around the country run thousands of sweepstakes and contests each year, but not all offers to send in entries that could win money or prizes are legitimate. The Federal Trade Commission receives more than 100,000 complaints each year about fraudulent contests and sweepstakes from fraud victims that have lost an average of $860. The individuals who operate these schemes once relied on direct mail to lure their victims, but most fraudulent contest notifications are now sent electronically by email, text message or social media.
Signs of fraud
Individuals who enter legitimate contests are rarely asked to pay a fee, but fraudulent schemes are different. Victims are often told that they must pay taxes or customs duties on the prizes they have won, and some are asked to provide their bank account details so their “winnings” can be transferred. When the individuals who run these schemes find people who are willing to pay or provide confidential information, they may send them further enticements weeks, months or even years later.
Individuals accused of running a fraudulent sweepstakes or contest are usually charged with mail and wire fraud or conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and the penalties they face are severe. In March 2020, a 55-year-old man was sentenced to spend 10 years in a federal prison and pay more than $100 million in restitution after admitting to running a bogus sweepstakes scheme that targeted elderly Americans. He could have been sent to prison for 20 years if he had rejected a plea agreement and been found guilty by a jury.
Wire and mail fraud defenses
Cases involving white-collar crimes like mail and wire fraud often hinge on the admissibility of computer files and other electronic data. Criminal defense attorneys with experience in this area may seek to exclude this evidence and have charges dismissed when police acted without a digital search warrant or lacked probable cause to obtain a warrant.