Broken Dreams

Sweepstakes mail sweeps hope along


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 1998

LARGO -- Anna Merl just wants the mail to stop.

Her 42-year-old son, Karl, who was brain-damaged when his car collided with a train 14 years ago, is hooked on American Family Publishers sweepstakes. For the past 10 years, Anna has written and called the company numerous times asking that it stop mailing her son.

One of those letters was addressed to Ed McMahon and Dick Clark, the celebrities who represent American Family, asking that Karl's name be removed and scolding the pair for "giving people false hope."

Merl also wrote an industry trade group, the Direct Marketing Association, asking the organization to place Karl's name on a list designed to block direct mail solicitations. She said the company gave her the DMA address and advised her to put Karl on that list as a way of stopping the solicitations.

Nothing worked.

So far this year alone, Karl Merl has been promised a total of $54-million in five different solicitations American Family sent to the house he shares in mid-Pinellas County with his parents.

Why is Karl still on the American Family mailing list?

Because the Merls find themselves in the Catch-22 of sweepstakes solicitation. It's easy to get off a sweepstakes mailing list if you haven't ordered anything. But people obsessed with sweepstakes, like Karl, order magazines and other products thinking it will help them win. Getting them off a mailing list isn't so easy.

"If you elect to become a customer of a given company they are going to keep mailing to you," said Chet Dalzell, a spokesman for the Direct Marketing Association. "Our list doesn't stop mail to customers, it stops mail to prospective customers."

But that's not the message sweepstakes companies and consumer groups give the public.

In a January 1998 story on the sweepstakes industry, Consumer Reports told its readers that writing to the DMA would get people off most legitimate sweepstakes mailing lists. The Times Action column also gives the same advice.

In fact, in June 1997, the DMA put Karl Merl's name on its "Mail Preference Service" list of people who don't want direct mail solicitations. But because Karl had bought magazines, the mailings didn't stop.

A spokeswoman for American Family Publishers said Karl was placed on a "Do Not Promote" list in January this year, apparently at his mother's request.

But that won't stop the mailings until sometime in April. Those mailings are too far along to stop, said the company representative.

Spokeswoman Jeanne Meyer said she doesn't know why Karl wasn't taken off the list when his mother called the company in March 1997. "If that wasn't communicated we're sorry," said Meyer. "We don't envision that a customer service representative who is specifically asked to take a consumer off the list didn't do that. It would be against company policy and highly irregular."

But the company has had trouble stopping its own mailings in the past.

Richard Lusk, the 88-year-old California man who flew to Tampa twice chasing sweepstakes prizes he hadn't won, continued to get AFP mailings months after top company officials promised his family he was off.

Like Richard Lusk, Karl Merl has spent thousands of dollars on magazines and sweepstakes "processing" fees.

Before his accident in Alaska 14 years ago, Karl Merl was a husband and father and owned his own tree-trimming business.

The accident killed Merl's co-worker and left him in a coma for months. When he regained consciousness, he had lost much of his memory and parts of his former personality. He was brought back to his parents' home in New Jersey while he recovered. It was a slow process. Merl's wife eventually left him and took their son back to Alaska.

Since then, he has lived with his parents, Anna, 73 and Charles, 78. They moved to Largo 12 years ago.

"I'm a fool, I guess," Merl said, when asked about why he entered so many sweepstakes.

But there is another reason. It's a 16-year-old boy who lives in Alaska.

"If I win I'm going to put away money for my son," he said.

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