Broken Dreams

Florida demands sweepstakes end deception

By Paul Wilborn, Times Staff Writer (Jan. 15, 1998)

In a month when sweepstakes letters are filling Florida mailboxes, state Attorney General Bob Butterworth has demanded that American Family Publishers stop mailing "deceptive" and "reprehensible" sweepstakes pitches.

The Jan. 12 letter, written by Special Counsel Gary Betz three days after a Baltimore woman flew to Tampa to claim an $11-million prize she hadn't won, accused the company of misleading the public.

Marilyn West of Baltimore was merely the latest victim of American Family Publishers' deceptive tactics, Betz wrote.

The Times has documented at least nine cases in the past two years of people who flew to Tampa believing they were sweepstakes winners.

"The pain these people have gone through -- having their hopes of receiving something for the first time in their life, then having them dashed and trampled because everything was a deception is reprehensible," Betz wrote in a letter to an attorney for American Family.

The letter asks the company to stop what has become a standard practice in the growing sweepstakes industry. "It will be necessary that your client stop informing people that they are winners when they are, in fact, not winners," Betz wrote.

The letter suggests the state's request is a prelude to a lawsuit. "They're on notice now unless they do something constructive to stop this problem, we're going to take legal action," Betz said Wednesday.

He gave Michael P. Zweig, an attorney for American Family Publishers, until 5 p.m. Wednesday to respond to Betz's letter. Betz would not comment on Zweig's response.

Zweig said American Family Publishers is working with the attorney general's office to resolve the issues raised in the letter.

"I look forward to having a constructive and productive discussion with them," said Zweig, who declined further comment.

The state already has withdrawn from a proposed multi-state settlement with American Family over deceptive practices, allowing the attorney general's office to conduct its own investigation.

Betz said Butterworth is "very concerned" about misleading solicitations sent to people in Florida by sweepstakes companies. "He wants it stopped," Betz said.

West, 52, flew to Tampa with her daughters Hope, 19, and Elizabeth, 11, after receiving a "Letter of Instruction" from American Family saying "we will inform bank officials to release prize checks to you Marilyn West, if you come forward in the next 5 days."

State investigators said the disclaimers in West's letter were unusually subtle. West thought she had won after a hidden number she scratched off matched the "prize claim number" on the entry form. "This is not one we've seen before," said Jim Lyons, an investigator with the attorney general's office.

When West and her daughters showed up at a Time Customer Service telemarketing office at 3000 University Center Drive to claim their millions, they were turned away with little explanation.

Sweepstakes entries are processed at another office in Tampa by Time Customer Service employees. Time Customer Service and American Family Publishers are part of Time Warner, a massive corporation with interest in television, music, movies and magazines. American Family, which employs Ed McMahon and Dick Clark as celebrity spokesmen, is based in Newark, N.J.

©Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.