Is Publishers Clearing House a Scam?

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It can seem too good to be true if you’re among the many people who’ve opened their mail to find a letter from Publishers Clearing House, the household name of direct marketing.

Somewhere on the packaging in bold letters you may see “You’ve won,” or something similar to that.

If you or someone you know have ever really won their sweepstakes, the question of legitimacy may be moot, but for the majority of us, the question — “Is Publishers Clearing House a scam?” — is very relevant.

In this article I’m going to answer that question, in addition to some other ones around Publisher’s Clearing House (PCH).

Is Publishers Clearing House Legitimate?

First off, let’s get to the big question: Is Publishers Clearing House for real? The answer is yes. The New York-based company’s core business is direct marketing of all types of merchandise.

That merchandise, including magazine subscriptions, subsidizes huge cash giveaways — or, it may be the other way around.

Publishers Clearing House began in 1953 as a service that hawked magazine subscriptions. Responding to competitors, the company began to entice homeowners by offering them “sweepstakes” — chances to win tens of thousands and then millions of dollars.

Customers who bought subscriptions were led to believe that it would increase their odds of winning, but that was never the case.

Troubled Past

Big legal troubles began in the 1990s as Publishers Clearing House and rival companies began to address customers with words like “finalists” — lawsuits followed.

Publishers Clearing House steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, but reached settlements in the cases. As part of the agreement, Publishers Clearing House vowed to define terms like “finalist” so that people wouldn’t be deceived into thinking they had already won.


The negative publicity has continued through the years, but so have the sweepstakes.

In 2018, Publishers Clearing House was hit with yet another lawsuit for email subject lines that ensnared people, especially the elderly, into thinking they were sweepstakes winners.

According to, here are some of the email subject lines that tricked people:

  • Deposit of (Recipient’s name) Prize Number Must Be Accepted! 
  • Payment Transfer Notice Alert – Authorized
  • (Recipient) will Become the Immediate Owner
  • Office Of the Controller: Funds Authorized For Release On 10/13
  • Less Than 5% of Our Members Will Receive This (Recipient) 

Has Publishers Clearing House Crossed the Line?

If you have received a letter or email from Publishers Clearing House and wondered about the legality of its claims, here’s what you need to know.

The Can-Spam Act, which was passed in 2003, stipulates that any email you get can’t use “false or misleading header information.”

The Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act says that companies can’t state “that the recipient is a winner, unless that person has actually won a prize.”

(Here’s a U.S. Postal Service guide on the law to help homeowners.)

If you believe your Publishers Clearing House mailing has run afoul of any of these two laws, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

But here’s the worst of it: Because Publishers Clearing House is wildly popular, criminals are using the name to defraud people.

“Scammers are pretending to be Publishers Clearing House and tricking people into sending them money,” the FTC says on its website.


Look Out for Fake Publishers Clearing House Scams

Here are three warning signs that you have been or are about to be scammed:

1. If you have to pay to collect a prize: Every single time someone asks you to pay money to claim a prize — even if it’s just a “fee” —  it’s a scam.

2. If “Publishers Clearing House” ever calls you to say you’ve won:  The company does not call winners. It’s a scam.

3. If you receive a “partial” prize: According to the company’s website,”If you are sent a check, told it’s a partial prize award, and asked to cash it and send a portion back to claim the full prize award, DO NOT follow these instructions. The check is fake, but the SCAM is real!”

Final Thought

The truth is that people do win Publishers Clearing House prizes. In 2018, an elderly Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, woman won PCH’s $5,000 A Week “Forever” Prize, according to a newspaper account.

But far more people end up feeling disappointed and tricked by reading too much into PCH’s well-written “You may be a winner” headers on its correspondence.

Money expert Clark Howard is not a fan of get-rich-quick schemes, even if there is no scam. The bottom line: The only windfall that you can truly count on is the one you save for.

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