Ensnared in sweepstakes' hype
By PAUL WILBORN, Times Staff Writer (Oct. 24, 1997)
Richard Lusk, age 88, lives in the desert just off Interstate 15, the highway that carries California gamblers to the high stakes dreams in Las Vegas. But for six years, Lusk has done his dreaming from home.
As his wife's health declined, Lusk entered sweepstakes. American
Family Publishers. Publishers Clearing House. Readers' Digest.
His family estimates he has spent at least $50,000 on magazine subscriptions and charitable donations connected to sweepstakes. His house is littered each month with magazines, many of them duplicates, some with subscriptions running through 2010.
And when his promised millions didn't arrive, Lusk took his obsession one step further.
Last week, he bought a ticket to Tampa, from where a company called American Family Publishers had sent him a letter that trumpeted: "RICHARD LUSK HAS WON IT ALL AND WILL DEFINITELY RECEIVE $12,000,000.00 CASH GUARANTEED!"
Lusk was convinced that other winning tickets he had sent had been lost in the mail. So this time, he didn't take any chances.
Lusk took off on a cross-country odyssey to Tampa to claim his millions in person. But there was no gold at the end of his sweepstakes rainbow, only a post office box and a mail and telephone marketing company called Time Customer Service.
Time Customer Service and American Family Publishers are part of Time Warner, a massive corporation with interests in television, music, movies and magazines. American Family Publishers, which employs Ed McMahon and Dick Clark as celebrity spokesmen, is based in Newark, N.J., Lusk discovered.
His trip to Tampa ended in confusion and tears on a concourse at Tampa International Airport.
When Bill Lusk found out, he couldn't stop his father from catching a 6 a.m. flight to Tampa. His father wouldn't even tell him why he was going. All Bill Lusk could do was get on a plane with him.
During the trip, Lusk found the entry. He quickly saw his father was traveling in vain, that he hadn't won anything at all.
Not only that, according to the contest fine print, hand delivery is cause for disqualification.
Last Friday, the two men, both about 5 feet 5, with matching blue eyes and white hair, stood waiting at Tampa International to see if seats were available for a return flight to California.
Richard Lusk clutched his precious entry form. He would send it from home when he got back, he said, and wait for his check.
"You can't give up at a time like this," he said.
At that moment, Bill Lusk, realizing his father was still convinced he was a winner, broke into tears. His father looked at him sadly, a sheen of tears forming in his eyes.
"We spent $2,000 and all this stress for nothing," said Bill Lusk, who is 63 and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.
Lusk said his father is the victim of marketers who prey on the elderly and who have cost the retired steamfitter and union finance official most of his retirement nest egg -- more than $50,000.
"He's very viable," Bill Lusk says of his father's mental condition. "But these letters are so effective, they've brainwashed him."
American Family Publishers referred calls from the Times to David Carlin, a lawyer in New York. Carlin, who was traveling in California, did not return numerous calls this week.
Under state and federal law, sweepstakes cannot require an entrant to buy anything or donate to any cause to qualify. But that information is not always made clear on the pitch letters.
"What Publishers Clearing House and American Family and the others are doing is legal," said Steve Mehlman, a regional consumer representative with the American Association of Retired Persons. "But we question the ethics of it."
Mehlman, who is based in Atlanta, said the elaborate, personalized pitches can convince some people that they are winners when they aren't.
"It's misleading, it's confusing," Mehlman said.
A Tampa postal inspector agreed.
"There's a problem with the way it's worded," said Gary Smith, a postal inspector who tracks mail fraud. "The elderly don't see the small print."
Richard Lusk didn't read the small line that said: "If you have and return the top winning entry, we'll say. . . . "
What he saw were the four bold lines below it: "RICHARD LUSK, THIS IS YOUR TICKET TO A GUARANTEED TWELVE MILLION DOLLAR WIN AND A LIFETIME OF LUXURY AND EASE!"
Lusk says he wasn't looking for a lifetime of luxury. He just wanted to make sure there was enough money to take care of his wife of 65 years, Jeanette, who is bedridden.
"God knows how long she's going to live," he said.
So to assure her care, he entered sweepstakes. First it was the magazine companies, and then he got more pitches, often for charities, like the National Children's Cancer Society Super Sweepstakes, Easter Seals, National Park Trust Sweepstakes, and the Consumer Awards Sweepstakes.
"For the last six months at least the headings on the paper that came out said that I had won. So I kept after it," Lusk said.
Bill Lusk, who lives 400 miles away, has tried to intervene. He has confiscated letters. He has called magazines asking them to stop. But he doesn't want to take away his father's checkbook.
"He jealously guards these entries. If Itried to, that would turn me into an enemy," he said.
As Richard Lusk's bank account drained, he became more desperate to win.
He stopped giving Christmas presents to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, because he was worried about money, Bill Lusk said.
Richard Lusk makes two trips a day to the small post office in Victorville. He comes back with more copies of Popular Science, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Sunset, Discovery, Sports Illustrated, Conde Nast Traveler and others, including health and computer magazines. (He does not own a computer.)
Does he read them?
"Good God no!" Lusk said this week.
He does read the sweepstakes entries that continue to arrive in the mail.
After he returned from Florida, Lusk put the entry he carried to Tampa into an envelope.
He attached stickers ordering another copy of Sunset and Popular Science. He wrote a check and put the entry in the mail.
And settled back to his dreams of winning.
"I expect to hear something from them by Friday," he said.
©Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.