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Too many miss the fine print

Published Oct. 2, 2005

We've all seen the come-ons. They litter our mailboxes several times a month.

And if we didn't know better, we would believe the blaring headlines telling us that we're instant millionaires: "YOU, E.Z. MARX OF 2234 PRIMROSE PATH, ARE DEFINITELY, POSITIVELY OUR GRAND SWEEPSTAKES WINNER AND WILL RECEIVE $12,000,000.00 CASH ABSOLUTELY GUARANTEED!!!!!"

Except some of us don't know better. Some of us don't know to search the come-on for the hard-to-find fine print. Some of us are too innocent or too incapacitated to realize how unscrupulous some solicitors can be.

Some of us are like 88-year-old Richard Lusk, the confused California resident who flew to Tampa to collect the $12-million prize he was sure he had won. He and his son wasted $2,000 on that fool's errand, but that was just a fraction of the more than $50,000 Lusk has thrown away on duplicative magazine subscriptions and other unnecessary expenses connected to sweepstakes advertisements.

Since Lusk's story appeared in the Times, many other people have come forward with similar tales. They tell of relatives who frittered away their life savings in the pursuit of sweepstakes prizes. They tell of customers who buy cars, jewelry and other luxury items in the false belief that they have won multimillion-dollar prizes that will be arriving any day.

None of this comes as a surprise to officials in the Florida attorney general's office. Along with officials in more than a dozen other states, they already are investigating whether the most devious of these sweepstakes solicitations violate Federal Trade Commission standards governing unfair and deceptive trade practices.

The companies engaged in the mail-order sweepstakes business already are held to some rules that govern the size of their prizes and the wording of their disclaimers, but those rules obviously aren't sufficient. Companies know what they're doing when they advertise their prizes in huge, bold type and then make their disclaimers as tiny and inconspicuous as possible. They know what they're doing when they entice people such as Richard Lusk to subscribe to the same magazine multiple times.

Fly-by-night characters are drawn to the sweepstakes business, just as they are drawn to many others. But Time Warner is the parent company of American Family Publishers, whose mailing address in Tampa lured Lusk to town. Reader's Digest and other major publications use the sweepstakes tactic. Even many charities, legitimate and otherwise, have turned to sweepstakes as fund-raising tools.

Florida and other states have been in negotiations with American Family Publishers for years, attempting to ensure that the company's sweepstakes solicitations will add new information, such as a prominent posting of the odds of winning, that would reduce deception. The major companies and charitable organizations in the sweepstakes business should be responsible enough to do what is right, regardless of the pressure from state and federal regulators. If Richard Lusk's sad story were unique, they might be able to write it off as an honest misunderstanding. But far too many other people have been harmed by the deceptive come-ons that keep appearing in their mailbox.

Readers who wish to lodge a complaint against a sweepstakes solicitor can call the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services: (800)-435-7352.


An editorial published Monday incorrectly described the elected office Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt held. He is a former governor of Arizona.