I've Won Big in Sweepstakes, and You Can, Too

coconut palm trees at a tropical beach in Virgin Islands, the Caribbean
Getty Images
So here's my dirty little secret. I am a "sweeper," as aficionados call it. Entering sweepstakes is a hobby for me and 55 million other Americans. But it's a hobby that frequently pays off. I've won a Toyota Prius (affectionately called MA, short for "major award"), three trips to the Caribbean and one to space camp, jewelry, spa treatments, gift cards and cash. In fact, I just received an $100 gift card.

For hobbyists it is an undeniable thrill to win but what are the odds? Warren Buffett made news when Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B) insured the Quicken basketball bracket challenge with nine quintillion ways to fill a bracket and a $1 billion prize. No one won it. Odds of winning the famous Publishers Clearing House sweeps are only slightly better, the latest one with odds of 1.3 billion to one. These mega sweeps have worse odds than the Powerball lottery game.

First, Understand the Following

Thousands of companies offer legitimate sweeps -- including major corporations like Procter & Gamble (PG), PepsiCo (PEP) and McDonald's (MCD) -- to generate buzz and brand familiarity and loyalty. These are usually judged by D.L. Blair, ePrize and other organizations known for their integrity. When I get a letter from D.L. Blair, my heart begins to race.

Years ago, "sweeping" required tedious envelope stuffing and a generous outlay on postage. Now it's as simple as a few keystrokes, without costing you a penny. Most days I can enter a hundred or more just by running through my bookmarks and using Roboform.

Let's clarify. A contest is judged (photo, essay, recipe or video required) and may require a fee to enter. A legitimate sweepstakes will never require a purchase to enter and an alternative means of entry will be listed in the official rules if the sweeps asks for a proof of purchase or universal product code. This is required under federal law, to eliminate what is called a "consideration" and why sweepstakes aren't considered gambling.

Finding legit sweepstakes is easier than ever. Several websites list hundreds of new vetted sweepstakes every day. My favorites are the free www.sweepstakestoday.com, www.wholemom.com and www.sweepsadvantage.com. Facebook (FB) is also a new source of sweepstakes I have been exploring.

Optimize Your Odds

The biggest hurdle is increasing your odds. Many sweeps offer the opportunity to enter daily, and some offer unlimited entries. You can bookmark these easily and either use your browser's autofill options or a free application like Roboform to fill out entries to save hours of tedious typing. I like to get in at the beginning of an entry period and enter daily until the end.

A recent trend, according to sweepstakestoday.com founder Craig McDaniel, has been Fortune 1,000 companies using sweeps to boost their Facebook likes and fans. Although he notes this is winding down somewhat, it has led to the emergence of giveaways on other social media venues, like Pinterest, Twitter (TWTR), blogs and Instagram.

Many sweeps will offer extra entries if you share on social media. Why not? You can double the number of your entries by sharing. After sharing on one Facebook sweep my entries were quintupled the next time I signed in.

Helpful hints:
  • Have an antivirus software installed on your computer and pay attention to its warnings.
  • Dedicate an email address just for sweepstakes. You will get more spam than you are used to, but this annoyance is easily offset by the thrill of a win.
  • Check this email account often. Companies often use email to notify winners. If I hadn't checked my email, I wouldn't have known of the trip I won to Turks and Caicos to be a judge at the annual Conch Fest. Fun!
  • Delete without opening emails announcing wins from Nigeria or international lotteries. They are invariably a scam. With a good antivirus program and some common sense I haven't had any problems.
  • Never, ever, give out your credit card or bank info. You may, however, need to give your Social Security number on an affidavit of a win so the tax man knows of your good luck.
  • Read the rules at least once -- and follow them.
  • Only enter sweeps where you want the prizes. A car, cash, trips and electronics are the most popular prizes, according to McDaniel. Unusual prizes have included a trip to New York City for a colonoscopy ("CBS Cares") and a chance to be a CEO (chief egg officer).
  • Keep a positive attitude. This is supposed to be fun, an easy way to while away the time. It's pleasant to dream of what you'll do with a win.
  • When you win, be sure to respond to the announcement promptly. If you receive an affidavit to notarize, most FedEx, UPS stores and banks can handle that for you. My bank calls me "Lucky Lady" when I come in because that's where I go to notarize.
  • Remember the tax man. Although prizes are untaxed in Canada, they are in the U.S., and any win with a value of $600 or more will generate a 1099-Misc.
  • Write the sponsor a thank you note. It's the least you can do with a big -- or little -- win.
"The keys to winning are still the same," McDaniel noted. "It takes consistency and persistence."

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Advice for Recent College Grads

Prepare yourself for the "real world".

View Course »

Banking Services 101

Understand your bank's services, and how to get the most from them

View Course »