Too many miss the fine print
St. Petersburg Times editorial (Oct. 29, 1997)
We've all seen the come-ons. They litter our mailboxes several
times a month.
And if we didn't know better, we would believe the blaring headlines
telling us that we're instant millionaires: "YOU, E.Z. MARX OF
2234 PRIMROSE PATH, ARE DEFINITELY, POSITIVELY OUR GRAND SWEEPSTAKES
WINNER AND WILL RECEIVE $12,000,000.00 CASH ABSOLUTELY GUARANTEED!!!!!"
Except some of us don't know better. Some of us don't know to
search the come-on for the hard-to-find fine print. Some of us
are too innocent or too incapacitated to realize how unscrupulous
some solicitors can be.
Some of us are like 88-year-old Richard Lusk, the confused California
resident who flew to Tampa to collect the $12-million prize he
was sure he had won. He and his son wasted $2,000 on that fool's
errand, but that was just a fraction of the more than $50,000
Lusk has thrown away on duplicative magazine subscriptions and
other unnecessary expenses connected to sweepstakes advertisements.
Since Lusk's story appeared in the Times, many other people have
come forward with similar tales. They tell of relatives who frittered
away their life savings in the pursuit of sweepstakes prizes.
They tell of customers who buy cars, jewelry and other luxury
items in the false belief that they have won multimillion-dollar
prizes that will be arriving any day.
None of this comes as a surprise to officials in the Florida attorney
general's office. Along with officials in more than a dozen other
states, they already are investigating whether the most devious
of these sweepstakes solicitations violate Federal Trade Commission
standards governing unfair and deceptive trade practices.
The companies engaged in the mail-order sweepstakes business already
are held to some rules that govern the size of their prizes and
the wording of their disclaimers, but those rules obviously aren't
sufficient. Companies know what they're doing when they advertise
their prizes in huge, bold type and then make their disclaimers
as tiny and inconspicuous as possible. They know what they're
doing when they entice people such as Richard Lusk to subscribe
to the same magazine multiple times.
Fly-by-night characters are drawn to the sweepstakes business,
just as they are drawn to many others. But Time Warner is the
parent company of American Family Publishers, whose mailing address
in Tampa lured Lusk to town. Reader's Digest and other major publications
use the sweepstakes tactic. Even many charities, legitimate and
otherwise, have turned to sweepstakes as fund-raising tools.
Florida and other states have been in negotiations with American
Family Publishers for years, attempting to ensure that the company's
sweepstakes solicitations will add new information, such as a
prominent posting of the odds of winning, that would reduce deception.
The major companies and charitable organizations in the sweepstakes
business should be responsible enough to do what is right, regardless
of the pressure from state and federal regulators. If Richard
Lusk's sad story were unique, they might be able to write it off
as an honest misunderstanding. But far too many other people have
been harmed by the deceptive come-ons that keep appearing in their
Readers who wish to lodge a complaint against a sweepstakes solicitor
can call the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services:
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