That letter naming you as a semi-finalist and praising your work may be flattering, but don’t write off that check just yet. Scammers know what writers want: to hear their poem is great and to see their work in print. That title of “semi-finalist” loses some of its luster when it’s applied to all or most of the thousands of writers who entered. The real motive of such contests is to make money—not recognize true talent. (That fee multiplied by thousands really adds up.) No real selection based on merit has gone into such a process. It’s just a poem publishing mill available to anyone with cash.
Scams can be hard to detect when you’re starting out and this gets even more complicated because many legitimate contests do require fees. How do you tell the difference? Legitimate contests state their reading fees up front. You include your fee when you submit your entry. And the fees are usually reasonable given the prize. It’s common to pay $5 to $15 for a contest offering a $1000 top prize. Still, that practice alone doesn’t mean a contest is above board. Always pay attention to the sponsoring organization. Is the contest connected to a well-established organization or journal? One run by a reputable literary journal may garner you some prize money and a legitimate publication—one you don’t have to fund yourself.