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State amends sweepstakes suit

The state says American Family Publishers sends repeat customers increasingly misleading solicitations.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 7, 1998

TAMPA -- Repeat customers of American Family Publishers were targeted by the company for increasingly deceptive sweepstakes solicitations, according to an amended lawsuit filed Friday by the Florida Attorney General's Office.

As marketers identified frequent buyers, they sent them more suggestive mailings with more direct language, the lawsuit states.

"The more a consumer orders, the more solicitations the consumer receives, thereby reinforcing the message that purchases enhance the entrant's opportunity to win," reads the complaint, which is the revised version of a complaint filed in February in Hillsborough County Circuit Court.

"The frequency with which an individual consumer receives a solicitation varies based on a complicated formula that takes into account the consumer's ordering pattern and other factors," the complaint said.

Some customers in Florida were told, "We will instruct bank officials to release prize checks to you (named recipient) if you come forward in the next 5 days and are identified as our winner," according to the lawsuit.

The progression of mailings, termed "spamming" in the complaint, has resulted in people wasting millions of dollars on magazine subscriptions in hopes of improving their sweepstakes chances, the Attorney General's Office says.

It has also resulted in dozens of elderly residents flying to the company's Tampa operations to claim millions in prize money they mistakenly think they've won, the Attorney General's Office says.

The suit says American Family Publishers is able to identify the age range of sweepstakes entrants and sells the names of senior citizens and retirees to other contest operators. Fraudulent telemarketers often bilk older consumers out of substantial sums after buying their names from mailing-list providers.

The suit did not link American Family Publishers lists to any fraudulent operations. But it said that last year the company advertised for sale or rent the names and addresses of 349,542 people age 55 and older who had entered sweepstakes, and the names and addresses of 118,081 retirees who had entered.

The amended complaint details what the Attorney General's Office says are unfair trade practices, civil fraud, unlawful games and civil theft.

The new complaint adds corporate parents Time Inc., Time Warner Inc. and Time Customer Service president Timothy Adams to a list of defendants that already includes American Family Publishers, Time Customer Service Inc. and celebrity spokesmen Dick Clark and Ed McMahon.

Time Customer Service, with operations in Tampa, handles mail and telephone inquiries for American Family Publishers. Time Customer Service is owned by Time Warner, which also owns 50 percent of American Family Publishers.

Spokesmen for Time Inc. and American Family Publishers blasted the amended lawsuit, saying the addition of defendants was unwarranted and that the court filing repeated unsubstantiated allegations.

"It appears to be an action designed to intimidate and harm reputations of corporations and individuals," said Peter Costiglio, a spokesman for Time Inc. and Time Warner Inc.

Jeanne Meyer, a spokeswoman for American Family Publishers, said it's no secret that the company sends more mail to people who order more.

"It's standard industry practice in the direct-mail business," Meyer said. "You mail to people who are more than likely to purchase from you."

But she rejected the accusations of fraud and deception. The quoted promise to "release prize checks" was probably taken out of context, she said.

Meyer said anyone who doesn't want to continue receiving American Family Publishers mailings should mail a written request to the company at P.O. Box 62000, Tampa, FL 33662-2000. A similar service is provided by the Direct Marketing Association through its Mail Preference Service, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY, 11715-9008.
-- Information from Times files and the New York Times was used in this report.

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