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I'm lucky.  I don't actually believe in luck, but that doesn't stop luck from believing in me!

It started when I was eight years old. I was key to a win of $10,000 for my grandmother. Back then (when playing records was super groovy), that kind of money was really "something" (hey, it's still a lot of dough even today!) After that, I seemed to win quite a bit. Once I even won $1,000 on a Friday, only to win $1,000 again the next day. It's not easy being in the green.

So, when I was recently contacted by a national sweepstakes that informed me I had won an all-expenses paid trip to New York including a $2,500 shopping spree, I said…”What??? You're kidding me!" (Really, I was shocked! I don't really ever expect to win!)

Now that I have you thoroughly annoyed with me, let me make it up to you. (No, I can't take you with me to New York. Hubby has dibs on that trip!) If you’re like me and love anything free, you enter contests with prizes you'd love to have. Well, here are some tips to consider before you enter another contest:

1. The Real Thing: Do real people really win those things? Yep, I can attest that real people do! (I'm a real person, last time I checked!) If the sweepstakes is offered by a legitimate source, a winner will be chosen. Note, I said "legitimate source." If you don't recognize the sponsor of the prize, you don't enter.

2. Timing is Everything: It's not just about winning. It's also about your valuable time. Is it worth your time to enter? Of course, only you can know that for sure. I don't enter every contest that I see. I weigh all of the factors below before I submit an entry form.

3. Gotta Have It: Do you really want the Grand Prize? (Sounds silly, no?) But ask yourself this question: what if you won? After your celebratory end-zone boogie dance is over, do you really want the grand prize after all? If not, don't waste your time entering, since you will owe taxes, may have publicity requirements, and more. For example, since I live in Colorado, a Grand Prize for a trip to the glorious state of Colorado might not be worth winning to me, as much as I love it here!

4. Dear Uncle Sam: He's that relative that knows everything. And he'll know about this, too. He wants to enjoy the win as well, so plan to give him a piece of the prize pie. You will owe taxes! If it's a large value prize, you will want to consider how you’re going to pay those additional taxes come April 15th. Do you have the additional funds to pay the taxes? Often, the prize (like a trip) does not give you any money to pay for the taxes, but you will have to claim the value of the trip as income during the year in which you receive the value. (Yikes, did my accountant write that?? Let me break it down for you: the year you take the trip, you owe the taxes.)

5. Private Eyes: This one is ugly, scary, and hairy! No two ways around it: if you've won big-time, you're going to have to share your private info at some point. Only enter sweepstakes that you can trust and that you can verify are legit. At some point, if the prize meets the minimum tax threshold for 1099s, the sponsor of the prize is going to need your Social Security number for tax purposes. Where do you stand on giving that private info up? If you can't imagine doing this, then don't enter contests with only big ticket prizes. (I understand, friend. Still gives me the heebie-jeebies, too!).

6. Winning! Oh, this is the best part!!! The thrill, the joy…the skepticism (true!) Right away after they told me that I had won the New York prize, I was half-excited (oh my, did I really win?!?) and half-skeptical (oh my, what if this is a scam?!?) A healthy dose of both is important to keep a reasonable perspective. I knew I had entered that particular contest, so that was the first step for me on my way to confirming the authenticity of the contest and my win, which I then did over the next 72 hours.

7. "Thank" all the Lawyers: Once you've won, you will have a bunch of legalese to comb through. You should be under no pressure to sign anything right away. Read the rules for the contest, but you usually will have about 72 hours to accept the prize and sign the paperwork. Anyone who is rushing you into any decision on the phone is probably not legitimate. Also, they won't need info like your Social Security over the phone. You have to sign a W-9 with that info, so don't release that over the phone either. NEVER give your Social Security number away without being 100% confident that you need to and that you have truly won a great Grand Prize. Of course, you can definitely contact a lawyer to review the paperwork with you.

There you have it! Seven tips to safeguard yourself in a sweepstakes!  Good luck!  Hope you win!

This has been a guest post by Rebecca from Highlands Ranch, CO
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