Broken Dreams

Sweepstake firm yanks 2 mailings

By Paul Wilborn, Times Staff Writer (Jan. 17, 1998)

Faced with a possible state lawsuit and stung by reports of contestants flying to Tampa to claim millions they haven't won, American Family Publishers says it will stop mailing two sweepstakes solicitations.

Gary Betz, an attorney with the Florida Attorney General's Office, called the company's announcement an admission that it has deceived people.

"Evidently they know they've done the wrong thing, and they are trying to do a partial correction," Betz said.

Betz is leading a state investigation into what he calls "reprehensible" and "deceptive" solicitations by the giant magazine sales and sweepstakes company.

One of the mailings being halted is a "Letter Of Instruction" regarding an $11-million prize. The letter includes a scratch-off number that matches an adjacent "prize claim number." Recipients are instructed to "come forward in the next 5 days and be identified as our winner." The letter, which bears the signatures of company spokesmen Ed McMahon and Dick Clark, carries a Tampa return address.

Marilyn West and her daughters got the letter last week and flew to Tampa from Baltimore to claim their prize.

That same letter already has been mailed to some households in Florida.

The other solicitation, which has been distributed extensively in Florida, says: "It's down to a 2 person race for $11,000,000 -- you and one other person in Florida were issued the winning number. "

Lonni Miller, a company representative, said the stop order applies to future solicitations, not "ones that are already in the pipeline." The order also applies nationally, not just in Florida.

She did not know how many homes around the country had gotten the two solicitations or how many more were still in the process of being mailed.

So far, though, the company has not done anything to help West, who borrowed $1,500 to fly to Tampa with her two daughters, thinking she was a winner.

"Nobody has reimbursed me for any money," West said Friday. "I'm struggling to figure out how to pay it back."

West said she had discussed her situation with a lawyer.

Betz said the Florida Attorney General's Office continues to investigate the company and is keeping open the option of filing a lawsuit.

"We have no agreement with them," Betz said Friday.

And Betz's boss, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, said his office plans to keep the heat on AFP.

"We're here for the long run. We will talk to the people involved with this. If it can be resolved, it will be resolved. If it can't be resolved, we'll take the appropriate legal action," Butterworth said.

A company lawyer issued a statement asking contestants not to come to Tampa to claim any prizes: "American Family Publishers does not wish for any recipient of its mailing to come to Tampa, Florida, to submit a sweepstakes entry or to claim a prize," said AFP attorney David Carlin in a prepared statement released Thursday.

But apparently people continue to come.

Tampa taxi driver Dan Berkley, who took West and her daughters to the company office at 3000 University Center Drive last week, took an elderly man from Phoenix to the same address two weeks earlier.

"I wanted to see the envelope he had clutched in his hand," Berkley said. "But he wouldn't let it go. I did see "American Family Publishing.' "

The Times has identified 12 people who have flown to Tampa thinking they have won a sweepstakes prize or trying to return a "winning" entry.

Sweepstakes solicitations carry a Tampa address because they are processed by Tampa-based Time Customer Service, a sister company of American Family Publishers.

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