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Another sweepstakes 'winner' lured to Tampa


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 1998

TAMPA -- George Lum was so certain he had won the American Family Publishers sweepstakes that he wrote $1-million checks to each of his five children, left his home and ailing wife in Honolulu and flew to Tampa to collect his prize.

Lum, 78, wrote to his children that he hoped the prize money would heal a family rift. "Dreams do come true in beautiful Hawaii," he said.

But Lum's dreams crashed soon after arriving at Tampa International Airport at 5:15 a.m. Tuesday. He called the local American Family office and was told the prize already had been awarded. Airport officials later referred him to the Florida Attorney General's Office in Tampa.

"I can't get it out of my mind," said Lum, his solitary carry-on bag at his feet. "Any normal person would have done the same thing I did."

In fact, more than 20 people have flown to Tampa thinking they were American Family sweepstakes winners. Investigators believe Lum's story is the latest evidence of deceptive practices by American Family, which processes entries in Tampa.

In January, Attorney General Bob Butterworth sued the company and its celebrity pitchmen, Ed McMahon and Dick Clark, accusing the company of violating state consumer protection laws. Connecticut and Indiana also have sued the company.

"It certainly indicates that the recent solicitations are increasingly misleading," Assistant Florida Attorney General Victoria Butler said after Lum told his story. "It's very disturbing to us. He has come a long way. His wife is very ill. He's told no one.

"We think it's a real problem."

Lum, who said he gets by on a $703 a month Social Security check, said he didn't want his ailing wife, Narcisa, to know he had been buying dozens of American Family magazine subscriptions or that he was flying to Tampa to collect winnings he thought would make him a millionaire.

He told her he was "visiting a friend in Virginia."

Lum said he flew to Tampa for free because his wife is a retired United Airlines employee. But he has spent money for 10 new magazines he said he has subscribed to every month for the past five years.

He said the pictures of Clark and McMahon helped convince him the sweepstakes contest was on the up-and-up.

"I trusted them because they're well known," Lum said. "They have lots of money, so why would they stoop to something to get more?"

Lum said he had no need for some of the magazines he ordered, such as a second copy of U.S. News & World Report or People magazine in Spanish, which he can't read. Lum said he believed his chances of becoming a sweepstakes winner increased with each subscription.

On Jan. 27, Lum received the mailing he thought declared him the winner. It read "George Lum is one of our all-time top winners," with "one of" and the "s" in winners crossed out. Lum said he tried to call American Family to verify his prize but never reached anyone. He said he also wrote letters to the company but got no response.

Finally, he boarded a jet and flew through six time zones to Tampa, only to discover he had been fooled.

After hearing of Lum's plight Tuesday afternoon, an American Family Publishing spokeswoman said the company was "extremely pained" that Lum misread the mailing.

"I want to reiterate that this is why we have taken steps to make sure people understand the sweepstakes rules," said Jeanne Meyer, the publishing company's spokeswoman in New York.

She said American Family withdrew two mailings this year and those reaching consumers in May will boldly state that no purchase is necessary to win and offer a money-back guarantee, she said.

Meyer said the changes reflect a settlement the company recently reached with 32 states -- including Hawaii, Lum's home -- where attorneys general had investigated allegations of deceptive trade practices in American Family mailings. Meyer pointed out that last year's $11-million sweepstakes winner, J.D. Gryder of Texas, purchased no magazines before collecting American Family's top prize.

When he realized Tuesday that he didn't win, Lum said he wouldn't sign up for any more magazine subscriptions.

He lamented that the five checks he wrote to his children, each for $1,100,100.01, won't help fix the discord that has overtaken his family, the nature of which was unclear Tuesday. But, with a faint smile, Lum revealed that he had left himself an out with his children -- just in case he didn't collect the $11-million.

All five checks were dated today -- April Fool's Day.

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