(ARA) - You've probably dreamed about what you'd do if you won the lottery - quit your job, build your dream home or even donate a large sum of money to your favorite charity. The allure of a huge amount of money falling into your lap cannot be denied. Scammers know these dreams and feelings well, and prey on them, making lottery and sweepstakes scams one of the most prevalent types of scams out there, according to the Better Business Bureau.
While your chances of winning the actual lottery may already be slim, you not only won't win with scammers - you'll likely lose money. These types of scams work in a number of ways, and all of them end with an unsuspecting victim losing. Here are three common ways scammers use the promise of big winnings to their advantage:
* A scammer claiming to be associated with a government agency, a well-known celebrity or someone associated with a sweepstakes or lottery tells a victim he or she has won a large sum of money. The victim is told to send money to cover processing fees or taxes before receiving the prize. The victim then pays these "fees," and never hears from the scammer again.
* A scammer sends a victim a check or money order and claims it's a prize. The victim is asked to deposit this money and send a smaller portion of money back to cover fees or taxes. The problem occurs when the victim deposits the check or money order and sends the scammer the money as directed before the check clears which can take weeks. Banks don't always immediately identify the "winning" check as fake until it's too late and the money has already be sent to the scammer. The victim is responsible to the bank for any used funds from the check.
* A scammer emails or sends a victim information about a foreign lottery, or another alternative lottery or sweepstakes that offers better odds of winning than a traditional lottery. The victim sends money to the scammer for a chance at winning, but the lottery or sweepstakes doesn't actually exist.
The common thread in all of these scams is they require victims to send money in advance to claim a prize, which is never the case with a legitimate lottery or sweepstakes. "The No. 1 rule consumers need to remember to protect themselves from falling victim to this scam is to never, ever send money to claim a prize," says Shelley Bernhardt, director of consumer protection at Western Union, a leader in global payment services. Bernhardt offers these additional tips to avoid becoming a victim in a lottery or sweepstakes scam:
* Never send money to pay for taxes or fees on lottery or prize winnings. Legitimate sweepstakes don't require you to pay or buy something to enter or improve your chances of winning or to pay taxes or processing fees to get your prize.
* Never play anything claiming to be a foreign lottery. And this is not just because it might be a scam - it's actually illegal to play a foreign lottery.
* Only send money to people you have met personally, know and trust.
* Never provide your banking or any other sensitive personal information to an individual or business you don't know, especially if they claim they need it in exchange for a prize.
* Always wait to withdraw funds from your account until after a check or money order clears, which can take weeks.
* If you suspect a scam, check out the company or individual who contacted you with law enforcement, the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov) or another trusted source.
As a trusted method for sending money to family members and friends, Western Union encourages users of their services to be vigilant about scams and fraud. To learn about more ways you can protect yourself from fraud, visit www.westernunion.com/stopfraud. For more information and videos on how some of the most common check fraud scams work, visit www.consumerfed.org.