Broken Dreams

The lure of big money

Would-be-millionaires fly to Tampa

By Paul Wilborn, Times Staff Writer (Nov. 2, 1997)

It seemed to be an isolated incident -- an elderly California man flies to Tampa to claim his promised sweepstakes prize from American Family Publishers and leaves confused and empty-handed.

But 88-year-old Richard Lusk, featured in a Times article Oct. 24, is not the first sweepstakes victim to fly into Tampa International Airport in search of winnings.

Airport police report at least eight identical incidents over the past few years.

"They are all elderly, and they are looking for Ed McMahon," said Lt. Kevin Perridge of the Tampa Airport Police.

McMahon, Johnny Carson's former sidekick, is the celebrity spokesman for the American Family Publishers Sweepstakes, along with former teen dance host Dick Clark. American Family's sweepstakes entries carry a Tampa post office box address.

The Florida Attorney General's Office and officials in 19 other states are investigating whether American Family Publishers, a subsidiary of Time Warner, uses deceptive advertising practices.

Last week, the head of a Florida Bar committee on elder law called for new laws regulating an industry that is taking money and peace of mind from the elderly and others across the country.

Scott Solkoff, an elder care attorney in Fort Lauderdale and head of the Bar committee that tries to combat exploitation of the elderly, said state and federal legislators should consider requiring warning labels on sweepstakes entries in the same large type that tells people they are winners. Many people miss the fine print disclaimer saying that they will be winners only if they have and return a winning entry.

In Tampa, airport police know only that something is causing older but otherwise rational adults to buy a ticket to Tampa, often with the last of their money, to claim a prize that doesn't exist.

About two months ago, an elderly woman stopped Officer Anthony Cesino inside the airport. She showed him a paper with a Tampa address.
"Do you know where this address is?" she asked him.

Cesino recognized the sweepstakes letter. He asked the woman why she was looking for the address.

"I'm here to claim my money," she said.

Cesino asked her how she knew she was a winner. She showed him the letter from American Family Publishers with McMahon's picture on it.

"She told me she subscribed to magazines all the time and that she was planning to go home rich," he said.

When Cesino finally convinced her she had not won any money, the woman broke down in tears.

The Tampa address on American Family Publishers material actually leads to Time Customer Service, another subsidiary of Time Warner, which processes sweepstakes entries. The sweepstakes operations are based in Newark, N.J. David Carlin, an attorney for American Family Publishers, has said that the company's practices are legal and not deceptive, but that some people can't "separate reality from fantasy."

Six months ago, Tampa Airport Police noticed a 75-year-old woman from Fort Lauderdale who seemed lost. When Lt. Perridge stopped to help her, she said she was expecting a greeting party from the sweepstakes.

"I'm here to see Ed McMahon and collect my money," she said.

Perridge said the woman had spent the last of her money on a one-way ticket to Tampa.

"She didn't have enough money for a return trip," he said. One of the airlines helped the woman get home.

A year ago, an elderly woman from New York flew in to Tampa telling a similar story.

"She said she was here to see Ed McMahon," Perridge recalled.

The woman had just enough money for a bus ticket home.

Before that was the man from New York who packed lots of bags so he could stay in Florida and enjoy his winnings. And the woman from Texas with her sweepstakes letters in hand. And the woman from California who used the last of her money for a ticket to Tampa.

"She cashed in everything to come to Tampa convinced that she had won," Perridge said. An airline also helped that woman get home.

"The airlines have been very helpful," Perridge said.

Since these incidents don't involve a crime, Perridge said airport police don't keep official records. The stories came from his memory and from talking to officers on the night shift and two airline clerks.

When he asked the day shift officers, Perridge heard similar stories.

"And those are just the people we've come in contact with," he said.

Others, such as Richard Lusk, might fly in and out without ever telling their story to a police officer or a ticket agent.

The victims are elderly and confused about their winnings, Perridge said, but they are not senile. "They know where they are, and they know why they are here," he said.

But the stress of the trip and the anxiety over sweepstakes winnings can take a toll.

Lusk, who spent the night in Tampa two weeks ago before going home empty-handed, had a small stroke a few days after arriving back in California.

He fell, bruising his knee and breaking the ring finger of his left hand.

His son, Bill Lusk, who traveled to Tampa with his father when he couldn't keep him from getting on the airplane, thinks the stress of the trip contributed to the stroke.

But he said his father seems to have backed off his sweepstakes enthusiasm.

"No, I'm all through with contests," Lusk told his son.

But Richard Lusk did return a sweepstakes entry just before the stroke, and it is still on his mind.

"There's one still in play, and we'll see what happens," he said.

Times staff writer Paul Wilborn can be reached at 226-3346.

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