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Foreign Lottery Fraud

So you've won a foreign lottery. It usually happens like this: you receive a call, email, or letter in the mail. You're told to mail or wire a small amount of "taxes and fees" to claim your prize. What should you do?

Hang up the phone! Ignore the email! Shred the prize notification!

That's good advice, but for some people, it's difficult to follow. Hearing ʺYou've won!ʺ can be very enticing. Lottery fraud victims are smart, young, old, rich, poor and everything in-between. For most people, it only takes one 'fee' before they realize the scam. Others, particularly older adults, may find it difficult to see through the lies. This is especially true once the victim becomes hooked by the scammer.  

Why are lottery and prize scams so successful?

Foreign lottery offers and other fake promotions can come through the mail. The offers can also arrive via the internet or over the phone. All three means may be used if the victim has an interest in playing sweepstakes or skill contests. Scammers know who is likely to respond to their claims of sudden wealth and fabulous prizes. ʺ 

Scammers are also terrific actors. They portray themselves as lawyers, federal officials or lottery representatives. It's all part of the scammer's act.

Scammers are often in foreign countries. Once a scammer knows a victim's phone number, the scammer pretends to be calling from within the U.S. The caller ID display on the victim's phone may even say ʺFBIʺ or ʺWashington, DC.ʺ

How does that work? Scammers often use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to make calls, at far less cost than a phone line. VoIP also allows the scammers to disguise the number they're calling from. Scammers have practiced the same lines repeatedly. They know just what to say to make their victims trust them. They spend hours on the telephone getting details about the victim's life. They are solicitous, courteous, and even flirtatious.

The scammer then takes the relationship to a more personal level. When that happens, the victim begins to have confidence and trust in the scammer. At the same time, the victim grows emotionally isolated from friends and family. Often, scammers tell victims to keep news about their winnings from their families. The scammer will warn that if word gets out, the victim could risk losing their prize altogether.


The scammer then takes the relationship to a more personal level. When that happens, the victim begins to have confidence and trust in the scammer. At the same time, the victim grows emotionally isolated from friends and family. Often, scammers tell victims to keep news about their winnings from their families. The scammer will warn that if word gets out, the victim could risk losing their prize altogether.

A researcher has closely studied the blind loyalty which victims exhibit towards scammers. Scammers may tell victims they're doing the right thing and they will see great rewards. The researcher says people subconsciously tend to believe those statements. If police, a bank employee or a family member try to tell victims what they're doing is wrong... the scammer will often prevail. Even if loved ones say the victim may lose the right to make their own decisions about their money... the scammer is often believed over loved ones. The researcher calls this “psychological reactance.” 1

To the victim, the scammer represents hope, success, productivity, and competence. Those who intervene remind the victim of failure, humiliation, financial loss, and incompetence. The researcher says ʺPeople naturally go with the person who is saying positive things rather than negative. Who wants to agree with the guy who says: ‛You have made a bad and costly mistake, and you shouldn't be allowed to make decisions anymore?’ ʺ 2

Once scammers start, there's no stopping them. The scammer's demands are relentless. The efforts to keep the victim in line become more ruthless. These criminals don't hesitate to threaten, coerce, or resort to psychological intimidation. They use technology, such as internet map sites, to see photos of the victim's house or apartment. The scammer will describe a victim's house or apartment in great detail... right down to the crack in the driveway, or the tree in the yard. It's all an act. The scammers want victims to think they are just outside... and ready to follow up on their threats.

1 Pratkanis A., Shadel D., The Weapons of Fraud, AARP Publications, p 133-34 (2005)

2  Pratkanis A., Soltys F., Presentation on Victim Vulnerabilities to the National Association of Attorneys General Telemarketing Fraud Prosecution Training Conference, Raleigh, NC, January 2006

Who is at risk?

Anyone can be a victim of foreign lottery frauds or other phony pitches. Americans receive thousands of unsolicited phone calls each year, some from fraudulent telemarketers. They also receive countless fake offers over the internet or through the mail. Often, these con artists target older Americans, the homebound and other vulnerable adults. Scammers may even sell the names and contact details of their victims to other scammers... and the victimization cycle begins again.

How can you avoid a foreign lottery scam?

Scammers are clever. They prey on anyone who will listen to their pitch. Regardless of income, education, social status, race, age or gender, you may be a victim of one of these crimes. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself, your loved ones, and friends.

Learn more

Case file: foreign lottery fraud

It sounds exotic and exciting — playing the lottery in another country. Sure it's a long shot… but if you win, you could pay off your debt, travel the world and make your dreams come true. However, the truth is that foreign lotteries are a nightmare. This U.S. Postal Inspection Service video tells the story of a lottery fraud victim and the con artist who committed the scam, along with tips to avoid becoming duped by this fraud.span>

Are foreign lotteries illegal?

Under federal law, it is generally unlawful to send lottery material through the mail. This material includes, among other things, letters or circulars advertising a lottery, tickets or any paper claiming to represent tickets, chances, or shares in a lottery, and payments to purchase any such tickets, chances, or shares. A lottery is a promotion that has three elements, for payment of a fee it offers a prize, whose winning is dependent in whole or in part on chance. If a promotion contains those three elements — payment, prize, and chance — it is non-mailable under the federal Postal Lottery Statute (18 USC § 1302).

There are a few exemptions to the statute. A state may mail state lottery materials to addresses within the state, when authorized by state law. Also, under the Charity Games Advertising Clarification Act of 1988 (18 USC § 1307), the lottery statute does not apply to an advertisement, list of prizes, or other information about an American state lottery not prohibited by the state where it is conducted, if it is conducted by any of the following:

  • A not-for-profit organization (qualifying as tax-exempt under the Internal Revenue Code).

  • A U.S. government organization, if not a state-conducted lottery.

  • A commercial organization, if the lottery is just an occasional promotional activity and not the organization's primary business.

First-time offenders who knowingly violate the postal anti-lottery statute could face penalties of up to a $250,000 fine and two years in prison, if convicted.

Victim and caregiver stories

Hear, in their own words, how foreign lottery scams have impacted these victims and their caregivers.

Jamaican foreign lottery fraud

Learn how Postal Inspectors are working to combat Jamaican foreign lottery schemes.

Norman's story, Lottery victim

Norman shares how he was preyed upon by foreign lottery scammers and the losses he suffered.

Rebecca's story, Victim's sister

While in declining health, Rebecca's sister was victimized in a foreign lottery scam.