Winning the lottery may be a dream come true, but it’s unfortunately a fantasy that many fraudsters will happily take advantage of. In 2018, the Better Business Bureau reported approximately 500,000 complaints related to sweepstake and lottery scams over a three-year period, amounting to losses of almost $350 million. The problem isn’t limited to the US, either; there were almost 3,000 complaints in Australia between January and April 2019 alone.

The allure of unimaginable riches makes it all too easy to fall victim to one of these cruel schemes unless, of course, you know what to look out for. Here, we’ll explain how to spot a lottery scam, and what to do if you’ve been  targeted.

How do lottery scams work?

Typically, a scammer will try to target you through email, text, letters, or phone calls, attempting to persuade you that you’ve won big on the lottery. The catch is that they’ll only let you claim the prize after making payments to cover expenses like “taxes” or “processing fees”. Once you’ve transferred the money, the crooks may attempt to extort even more cash through further correspondence, claiming that winnings can’t be released without extra hidden fees.

In some cases, fraudsters will ask for personal information and copies of official documents, like passports, as proof of identity. These details could be used to commit identity theft. Victims might also be asked to share bank details so their “winnings” can be paid to directly to their accounts. Of course, having access to this information simply enables scammers to take money from their target’s account.

What clues expose a lottery scam?

  1. You haven’t entered a lottery

If you haven’t even entered a lottery draw, there’s absolutely no way you can win it. No legitimate lottery will ever randomly select you as a winner or contact you directly about claiming a prize. Things like “email draws” or instances where “no tickets were sold” don’t exist and are archetypal examples of lottery scams.

  1. You don’t recognize the organization

While you’ve probably heard of Mega Millions, EuroMillions, and the UK Lotto, you should be wary if you’re unfamiliar with any lottery you’ve supposedly won. If you are looking for a new lottery to enter, the best way to ensure any organization is legitimate is by searching for user feedback on reliable review websites. Trustpilot is a particularly good source, as it lists smaller games and other ways to play—such as in a lottery syndicate—alongside the biggest lotteries.

  1. The email address or phone number is suspicious

In addition to looking out for fake organizations, be aware that lottery scams may use the names of legitimate brands in a bid to fraudulently gain your trust. However, this doesn’t mean that the real company is involved. You can spot an impostor by paying attention to the method of communication they’ve used; no genuine company would contact you using a free email domain like Hotmail or Gmail, or call from a cell phone number. If the source looks unofficial, odds are it is. Still unsure? Try Googling the contact details in the email. Unless you’re directed to an official website, steer clear.

  1. There are inconsistencies in the message

A big tell-tale sign of a lottery scam is a message littered with bad spelling and grammar. Many of these schemes originate outside of the US and are created by people who do not speak particularly good English, so take note if any correspondence doesn’t read well. Another thing to look out for is how you’re addressed, as scammers are more likely to use a vague greeting such as “Dear Winner” rather than your name. Country-specific inconsistencies, such as using the wrong currency for that nation’s draw, also point to a lottery scam.

  1. You are asked to keep your “win” quiet

Fraudsters will often ask you not to tell anyone about your “grand prize”. They hope this will prevent you from sharing stories with people who have been tricked by the same lottery scam, or from seeking advice from those who might see through the deception. Alarm bells should also be ringing if you’ve been given a strict time limit on claiming your prize. This is designed to put pressure on you and discourage you from thoroughly investigating the communication. No real lottery organization would ever do either of these things.

What do I do if I’m contacted by a scammer?

First of all, never send money in response to any suspicious correspondence, or disclose any personal information or bank details. You may feel angry at being targeted and be tempted to give the scammer a piece of your mind, but it’s best not to engage with the scammer. This will only encourage them to barrage you with even more emails, texts, letters, and phone calls.

If you have been contacted electronically, don’t open attachments or click on any links. These could contain dangerous malware, allowing the fraudster to access your device and steal your personal details, and any data—like photos and call history—saved on the gadget. Reporting your experience to the relevant authority can go some way to stop this from happening again. In the US, you can use the Federal Trade Commission’s Online Complaint Assistant to help them detect any patterns of fraud and abuse and assist them in preventing others from falling victim to lottery scams.