Home Advice & How-ToSafety Too Good to Be True: Watch out for Scammers Posing as Publishers Clearing House
Home Advice & How-ToSafety Too Good to Be True: Watch out for Scammers Posing as Publishers Clearing House

Too Good to Be True: Watch out for Scammers Posing as Publishers Clearing House

by Fred Decker

Imagine answering your door one day to find a crowd of strangers with balloons and TV cameras handing you a check for a million dollars.  As fantasies go, they don’t come much bigger and shinier than that.  Yet however implausible it may sound at first blush, Publishers Clearing House actually does this. 

The whole thing veers perilously close to the kind of “if it’s too good to be true” territory your mother warned you about, but Publishers Clearing House is a legitimate marketing company that’s been around for decades.  Unfortunately — because it does sound a lot like getting something for nothing — scammers often leverage the familiar sweepstakes’ name recognition to relieve you of your own money

What Is Publishers Clearing House? 

PCH started in the Long Island basement of Harold and LuEsther Mertz in 1953.  In those days, magazine subscriptions were sold door-to-door, and Harold managed a few of those sales teams.  He recognized that it was inefficient, and hit on the idea of using direct mail to cover the territory more efficiently.

It was an immediate success, and Harold used his massive sales volume to negotiate ever-bigger commissions from the publishers, who in turn benefited from renewals and the ad sales that came from increased circulation.  The company diversified into general merchandise beginning in the 1980s, and now generates much of its revenue from its websites, online advertising and a variety of games and apps. 

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The iconic sweepstakes started in 1967 as a way to drive sales, and quickly became a mainstay of the company’s marketing.  The path hasn’t always been smooth — the company has been accused of misleading marketing, and paid numerous settlements as a consequence — but the sweepstakes and the company are legitimate.  You can enter the sweepstakes in many, many ways, prizes are awarded as advertised (if you read the very fine print) and ordinary people do indeed find the Prize Patrol arriving at their door to surprise them with an oversize check.

Publishers Clearing House Scams

The problem, of course, is that wherever there’s a well-known prize — like Cash App’s Friday giveaways on social media — scammers will swoop in like vultures to profit from its familiarity.  In fact, there are several common versions of the Publishers Clearing House scam

These include: 

Faked “You’re a Winner” Letters

They look impressive, and they’ve got a good copy of the PCH logo.  You’ve won one of the grand prizes, is the message, and the only catch is that you’ll need to send them a modest amount to cover fees or taxes on your prize.  Usually they’ll request payment in the form of a transfer from Western Union or Moneygram, or on gift cards, which means it’s virtually impossible to get your money back afterwards. 

Email Prize Announcements

Sending real mail is relatively costly, so many scammers rely on email instead.  This can take a couple of directions, once you open the bogus notification.  One ploy is the same: you’ll need to pay them in order to cover fees or taxes on your prize.  A second is a straight-up phishing attack, providing a link to click (or a number to call), where you’ll be prompted to divulge a lot of personal information on the pretext of direct-depositing the winnings into your bank account. Pro tip: You can run a reverse email search to learn more about suspicious email senders.

Scam Phone Calls

Phone scams are common because they’re cost-effective for criminals, so of course there’s a phone-based variation on the PCH scam.  The format is the same: the caller tells you you’ve won, and will cheerfully walk you through the prize-claiming process, which of course involves giving them money or your personal information. 

Text-Message Scams

This is basically the same as the email scam, except you receive the bogus prize notification through text messaging rather than your inbox. 


Social Media Outreach

Yet another variation on the theme involves direct messages and friend requests on social media from scammers claiming to be PCH, or one or another of the high-profile PCH employees who make up the Prize Patrol.  If you respond, they’ll again hit you up for either money or personal information. 

Fake Checks

Another variation on the mail scam cuts to the chase and sends you a fake check, along with instructions that after it’s deposited — say it with me now — you’ll need to send them some money to cover fees or taxes on your prize.  Of course the check will eventually bounce, and you’ll be out any money you’ve sent (plus a chargeback from your bank for the bad check, which will add insult to injury). 

Recognizing Publishers Clearing House Scams

If you’ve read the previous few paragraphs, it’s not hard to spot the recurring theme that distinguishes all of these scams.  When you win a prize, the money should flow in only one direction — into, not out of, your pocket. 

If you have any doubts about what PCH does or doesn’t do when reaching out to its winners, your best bet is simply to look at the company’s own Fraud Protection page.  First and foremost, the real Publishers Clearing House will never, ever, under any circumstances, ask you to pay.  Period. 

A few other things they don’t do:

  • They won’t tell you in advance that you’ve won one of the big prizes (they really do like to surprise you at the door). 
  • The big-name Prize Patrol staffers won’t call, text, email or reach out to you on social media. 
  • The real PCH will never ask you for financial information or your Social Security number. 
  • They never inform you by telephone that you’re a winner.  Never. 

There are a few potential gray areas, because the real PCH does send email notifications if you’ve entered any of their online giveaways, and winners of the smaller prizes will often be notified by registered mail or courier.  You’ll know the legitimate ones because they don’t ask for money or personal information, and — an important point — you won’t receive one unless you’ve actually entered a sweepstakes. 

If You’re Contacted in a Publisher’s Clearing House Scam

If you receive one of these scam calls, texts, mails or emails, there are a few things you should do.  First, of course, just don’t engage.  Hang up the phone, don’t deposit the check, don’t reply to the friend request and above all don’t click on any links. 

Next, you should report the scam at the FTC’s ReportFraud website.  This helps the FTC and law-enforcement agencies track how the scam evolves and where it’s actively exploited.  Also, if you’ve fallen victim to the scam, it will help you create a recovery plan to minimize the damage. 

Publishers Clearing House itself would love for you to file a report if you’ve been approached by a scammer.  It’s very much in their interest to draw a clear distinction between the real PCH sweepstakes and impostors, and they’ll frequently circulate information about new scams through their sites and social media feeds. 

It doesn’t take long, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you may have helped others dodge a costly life lesson.