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If you must pay a price to win a prize, take heed

If you have a mailbox and receive mail, you need to read this article.

Like most people, I return from work everyday only to find my mailbox crammed with advertisements, offers to receive low-cost health insurance or low-cost loans. Then comes the moment before I get to the bills when I read that I have just won a free vacation to Bermuda or a new car or better still, money.

These types of advertisements are typically known as "game promotions." The purpose of the game promotion is to get you, the consumer, to purchase whatever product(s) the promoter happens to beselling. By offering prizes the seller/promoter wants to induce you into further contact in the hopes of making a sale.

It is common for these types of sellers/promoters to sell magazines, time shares, land or services. It is important to remember that Section 849.094, Florida Statutes prohibits the payment of an entry fee or proof of purchase as a condition of entering a game promotion.

In other words, if you are being asked to pay an entry fee or purchase a product from the seller to be eligible to win a prize, then you should beware. A legitimate game promotion should not require you to pay or buy anything to be eligible to win a prize.

Scams that have been successful in the past play on the hopes and greed of average people who still believe they can get something for nothing. In most instances the consumer will receive a mailing that states they have just won some prize and that the consumer should call a toll-free number immediately to claim the prize. In doing so the salesperson tells the consumer that to claim the prize he must first pay a prize processing fee or buy a certain number of magazines or other items to claim the prize.

If you receive such a mailing, here are some ways to protect yourself. Florida Statute 849 requires that any person, firm, corporation or association operating a game promotion in the state of Floridain which the value of the prizes exceeds $5,000 shall file with the Department of State. Also, the game promoter shall list all prizes offered at least seven days prior to the commencement of the game promotion.

The Department of State also requires that game promotions of more than $5,000 must provide a trust account or surety bond to cover the prizes offered, unless granted an exemption by the Department of State.

If you receive a mailing for a game promotion with more than $5,000 in prizes and you are required to pay an entry fee or purchase a product, you should contact the Florida Department of State. You also may contact the U.S. Postmaster's Office to report a potential mail fraud. To determine if the promotion is registered, you may call the Florida Department of State at (904) 488-5381.

If you think you have been the victim of a crime, please contact your local law enforcement agency. If the suspected crime involves any type of consumer fraud, you may call the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at (800) 435-7352, or you may call the State Attorney's Consumer Information Line at (904) 620-3752.

Mark D. Simpson is an assistant state attorney. This is the first in a series of guest columns by members of the office's Public Interest Unit in Ocala.