They're everywhere from banner ads to direct links and e-mail announcements — online sweepstakes that promise chances to win big. But should you gamble?

I have made entering online sweepstakes a hobby for the past two years as a no-cost alternative to lottery tickets! In that time, I've learned how to identify a reputable sweepstakes and how to increase my odds of winning. I’ve been awarded gift cards, makeup, housewares, clothes, gift items and even coupons! Follow these seven tips to safely enter online sweepstakes and increase  your odds of winning:

1. Never Pay Money: Let me repeat that. Never pay money. Legitimate sweepstakes opportunities sponsored by companies whose names you will recognize are available online for free. If a site asks for a fee, bank account information, or a credit card number, exit immediately.

2. Protect Your Data: Avoid entering any entirely private data, like a Social Security number, in exchange for an entry. Legitimate sweepstakes companies will not ask for it. Legitimate companies will ask for your date of birth, mailing address, e-mail and possibly a phone number. Follow your instincts and don’t enter information that makes you feel uncomfortable.

3. Seek Reputable Companies: Nationally-known companies like Hershey's, Clorox, and Dove routinely sponsor sweepstakes directly through their websites, as do magazines like Good Housekeeping, O, Lucky, and Self. These are great sources for safe sweeps.

 4. Check the Internet: Check your favorite online stores and sites monthly for sweepstakes and contests. My favorite is Dollar General. You'll have more fun entering sweepstakes through familiar stores and sites.

5. Follow a Blog: posts sweepstakes, but also try a dedicated blog site like this or this, which list current sweepstakes along with their rules and links to enter.

6. Play the Odds: Find the number of prizes awarded along with odds of winning by clicking on the sweepstakes "Official Rules" page of any sweepstakes. Rule of Thumb: only enter contests giving away 1,000 or more prizes (I do make entry exceptions for favorite stores and companies).

7. Know the Rules: Read and understand the judging criteria for any entry that requires a photograph, written response, or essay. If a contest entry requires something creative, read the official rules and understand how items will be judged. Stay within word requirements, style, and file size.

Follow these tips and confidently enter online sweepstakes safely. Good luck!

This has been a guest post by Audrey in Texas
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