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Giveaways and contests can be worth your time

When Erin Thompson was pregnant with her daughter Lillian, the North Tonawanda mom got everything she needed – and then some – by entering online contests.

She won a stroller, a bassinet, a swing, a high chair, a very expensive breast pump, two toddler walkers and a hospital bag filled with supplies.

She has also won three Kindle e-readers, hundreds of dollars in gift cards, a meet and greet with celebrity chef Paula Deen, a CrockPot, DVDs, toys, shoes, dozens of books and a 2-foot-tall chocolate Easter bunny.

Her luck was so incredible, people started joking that she had a horseshoe in her belly instead of a baby.

Donald Weis of East Aurora won a Corvette in Tops Friendly Markets’ Monopoly sweepstakes by collecting game pieces he received at the checkout. He opted to take the cash prize and pocketed $50,000 ($12,500 of which went toward federal taxes).

Christine Musielak of North Tonawanda has won a slew of exotic trips and vacations. Most recently, she won a trip to the Kentucky Derby.

Whenever you’re invited to “Roll up the rim to win” or urged to “Tell us how we’re doing and be entered to win $10,000!” on the bottom of a takeout receipt, your first thought might be, “Does anybody ever really win these things?”

Thompson, Weis, Musielak and many others are proof that the answer is yes.

“A lot of people said to me, ‘Wow, you never see anyone you know win,’ ” said Weis. “People said, ‘You know, I didn’t even bother [with the contest].’ ”

In fact, 71 of the 200 winning ticket holders for Tops’ recent Golden Anniversary sweepstakes threw away their winning tickets – forfeiting their guaranteed consolation prizes and their shot toward unlocking a vault filled with $250,000.

No one is saying you should quit your day job to make a living entering contests. But for those Western New Yorkers who love to try their luck, we’ve got some advice on how to maximize your chances of winning.

• Divide and conquer. Use websites that compile and vet contests for you. Websites such as Sweeps- and do a lot of the work that will help you narrow down which contests are worth entering and which ones may not be worth your time.

The sites weed out contests that are scams, then organize them by category: where they’re being held (Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, a blog or manufacturer’s website), prize (money, trips, merchandise), how many times you can enter (once, daily, monthly), how to enter (online, by mail, with a photo, essay or by garnering votes) and tips to increase your chances of winning, such as what times of day are best to enter.

• Look for quick deadlines. Contests that run for a year will garner more entries than contests that run for a week. Shorter is better.

• Pay special attention to bloggers with small audiences. Companies often send bloggers samples or products to use in giveaways to try to create buzz about their brand. Unless it’s someone like Perez Hilton, bloggers tend to have a very small pool of readers. If they host a giveaway, the pool of people who will actually enter to win it is even smaller.

That’s how Erin Thompson, the uber-lucky mom from North Tonawanda, won so much loot, including one of her Kindles. Contestants were asked to comment on a blog as their entry into the giveaway. Thompson’s comment was chosen from among just 25 entries.

“There are so many out there online. The possibilities are endless,” Thompson said.

Aim low. Clearinghouse websites will show how many times a contestant has clicked on any given contest, so you’ll get an idea of how many people have entered to win a prize and, in turn, how good your chances are of winning.

Sure, you might as well throw your name into the hat with millions of others trying to win a dream home or a $1 million prize, but you might want to focus your time on contests where the competition is a little less stiff.

Narrow the field. Look for local contests. When Tops held its Golden Anniversary sweepstakes last year, the contest was basically restricted to New York and Pennsylvania, where Tops has stores, and further narrowed to the people who actually shop at those stores.

Last year, Tops gave away more than $3.3 million in cash and prizes, including a $250,000 cash prize and $10,000 in tuition. Nearly 5,000 people at Tops’ 150 stores received game pieces good for a prize worth $10 or more. (Don’t get too excited: The odds of winning the grand prize were still 31 million to 1, but you get the idea.)

You can also pare down the competition by entering contests available only to specific genders, age groups or other criteria.

Tell your friends. When you share links to Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest-hosted contests on social media, you’ll often receive additional contest entries for every friend who submits an entry through your link.

Enter as often as you’re allowed. If you can enter once a day, do it.

Set your computer to “autofill.” Filling out contest entries is much quicker if you don’t have to submit your information by hand every time. If you use Mozilla Firefox, try the Autofill Forms extension. If you use Google Chrome, give the Autofill extension a try.

Do the work. Not everyone wants to take the steps necessary to enter an essay contest or photo competition. If you enjoy writing or photography, you’ll find less competition when entering those kinds of contests.

The same goes for contests that require you to collect information, enter bar codes, answer questions or hunt for clues.

Avoid widely advertised contests. The more people who know about it, the more people who are entering to win.

Watch out for scams. Prize winnings will not come unsolicited. If you didn’t enter to win an iPad with a certain company, you’re not going to win one. Don’t click links sent via email, Facebook or Twitter to enter contests or claim prizes. Don’t ever send money or personal information such as credit card, bank or social security number to redeem prizes.