Dreaming of winning big? Try sweepstaking

Those who win luxury cars, fabulous trips, big-screen televisions and laptops — they’re the luckiest people in the world, right? Nope. They’ll be the first ones to admit luck has little to do with the truckloads of loot frequent contest winners lug home. For these diehards, and others who make entering contests and sweepstakes a full-time hobby, winning means working at it. They even hold sweepstakes conventions where they trade tips for success. Here’s a look at how some people — who call themselves “sweepers” — take home more than their fair share of the loot.

To win, first you have to enter

To win, first you have to enter

Almost everyone’s thrown his or her name in the hat to win a prize, and almost everyone’s won something, even if it’s as simple as a cake at a cakewalk. But the first rule of winning is entering — and entering more than one contest. Frequent winners devote lots of time to their hobby.

Connecticut resident Wendy “Sweetie” Limauge, who’s won a truck and luxury trips, says she came to sweepstaking from couponing. Limauge first learned about the science of entering contests at a 1996 monthly coupon swap at a local library. “I started entering right away and won my first prize within weeks,” says Limauge.

Although many sweepers devote hours to finding and entering contests, Limauge says she usually spends about an hour a day on contest entries. On busier days, that might be whittled down to as little as 15 minutes, but what really counts is making entering a daily habit.

Increase your chances — get organized

Increase your chances -- get organized

Maybe you’re an Internet whiz and so organized that even your pantry’s alphabetized. But sweepers who win the most say they leave little to chance, instead relying on chat rooms, newsletters and websites to help them determine which contests and sweepstakes are worth their time.

Patti Osterheld began as a subscriber to SweepSheet.com, one of the oldest and most respected newsletters for sweepers, and ended up as its editor. Osterheld says the key to winning is to let someone else do all of the digging and drudge work for you. “There are about 800 to 1,000 new sweepstakes released each month; nobody has time to keep up with those,” Osterheld says. She recommends subscribing to a good newsletter and checking out reputable sweepstakes websites for information. Osterheld says SweepSheet has a staff of 10 who spend their workdays finding sweepstakes and verifying they’re legitimate.

Not all sweepstakes are for real

Not all sweepstakes are for real

As Osterheld notes, the sweepstakes world, like the rest of cyberspace, has been overrun with con artists out to make a quick and dishonest buck. It’s important to make sure sweepstakes are on the up-and-up. One way to avoid sweepstakes scams is to ignore all of those emails you get that say you’ve won $1 million or more in a sweepstakes. Few ever have that kind of prize money. Osterheld says she has only seen about five $1 million-or-more sweepstakes in her entire career.

One big sweepstakes that’s on the up-and-up is Publishers Clearing House. If you decide to try your luck in the PCH sweepstakes, keep in mind your chance of winning the $10 million prize is tiny at best. Although odds of winning are determined by how many entries a sweepstakes receives, one expert says the average PCH entry has about a 1 in 505 million chance of winning. The expert adds if you do decide to play the odds, you increase your chances with multiple entries scattered over a period of time.

You’ve won! How to vet a contest

You've won! How to vet a contest

Osterheld offers this checklist for making sure a contest or notification is the real deal:

  • You can’t win something you didn’t enter. If you receive notification that you won and you don’t remember entering, delete it.
  • You should never have to pay to receive a prize.
  • Real corporations don’t run their own contests. They use judging agencies such as ePrize. If there’s no judging agency associated with the win, be suspicious.
  • Some contest ads are fronts for uploading viruses onto your computer. Be especially careful clicking on banner ads. Even better, let a newsletter company check out and verify a contest’s legitimacy.
  • Any contest you have to pay to enter is not legitimate.
Know where to look

Know where to look

At the heart of the art of winning is the equally important art of knowing where to look for opportunities — and they’re not all on the Internet. In addition to searching online for contests and sweepstakes, don’t forget about grocery stores. Often, manufacturers will tout sweepstakes on the wrappings of their products or on large product displays. Many consumers will ignore the items on the top and bottom shelves of stores, but sweepers say to look high and low for contests casual shoppers might miss. And the good news is the law says you don’t have to purchase an item to enter.

Another great place to look for opportunities: blogs. Bloggers often have small and large giveaways there for the taking. And many blog-centric contests draw few entries, so your chances are even better. GoodBadAndFab.com, PursePixie.com and FamilyFocusblog.com are a few blogs that regularly run contests and giveaways.

Mine social media sites

Mine social media sites

Work-at-home mom and sweeper Linsey Knerl of Tekamah, Neb., says she finds great contests through Facebook and Twitter. Knerl, who started sweepstaking when her now-13-year-old daughter was born, has won concert tickets, spa treatments, iPods and, most recently, a giant-screen LED TV. She won that last item through a contest posted on Facebook, but she says a lot of them are only open to fans of a company’s Facebook page.

“I’d opt out of the company’s newsletter, though, just to keep the clutter in your inbox down,” says Knerl. And, while Knerl says many online sweepstakes sites and newsletters are valuable, she’d avoid books on the subject, not only because the information is already free on the Internet, but because the field changes so rapidly.

Play by the rules

Play by the rules

All of the experts agree: Don’t enter if you’re not really eligible. They say to read the rules carefully. Don’t simply fill out the form and hit “enter.” If the rules call for you to be in the military, fit a certain demographic or be at least 21 years of age, then don’t fudge. Even if you do win, you won’t be able to accept the prize and you’ll forfeit.

One shortcut many experienced sweepers use is a good auto-fill program on their computers. For those who enter tons of online contests, auto-fill drastically reduces their entry time, allowing them to enter a dozen contests in the time it takes the average person to enter one. But beware: Some contests specifically ban the use of auto-fill.

Don’t sweat the taxes

Don't sweat the taxes

Lots of people won’t bother to enter contests because they think taxes will wipe them out. While winning millions could certainly require some hefty taxes (though coming out of hefty winnings), winners say not to sweat it: Winnings count as taxable income, but they are not subject to Social Security and other withholdings.

Paying taxes on her winnings certainly hasn’t discouraged Osterheld from sweeping. Among the prizes she’s racked up are tons of trips and opportunities such as riding in the pace car at a NASCAR event, throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game and playing golf with the pros. The strangest prize she’s come across in her career? “A couple of years ago, there was a trip to New York to have a colonoscopy,” says Osterheld.

Want to learn more?

Want to learn more?

Who wouldn’t want to learn more after talking to Limauge, who once won a $25,000 trip to France where she stayed in a 400-year-old castle and was given $6,500 in spending money? While Limauge’s experience may be unusual (she also won the first sweepstakes she ever entered, which she found on the side of a Cap’n Crunch box), there is a lot of truth to the old saying, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Some resources that can help you get started include Limauge’s site and online community at SweetiesSweeps.com. Search for sweepstakes on HGTV’s site at HGTV.com. Click on the “sweepstakes” tab at Elle Magazine’s Elle.com. Or check out these newsletters: SweepingAmerica.com and SweepSheet.com.