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Sweepstakes "winner' isn't

I sent back a sweepstakes entry I received at my New Jersey address back in February which, as I see it, stated that I had definitely won $10,000. I have never received my money and I cannot find any clause in the letter accompanying the entry that states "if you return the winning number. . . ."

I filled out the form and gave the information about what bank I wanted the money deposited to. I also sent in the $10 fee that was required. I have the canceled check.

It all looks like the real thing. I wrote to the sweepstakes headquarters but have received no reply. In the meantime, I have received two more letters like the first one, stating that I have won. I am beginning to think it looks suspicious. What do you think? E.S. Wright

Response: We think this is just another sweepstakes hoax that makes it look like you've won something when all the sponsor wants is to get some money from you _ which it did, $10.

Let's take a careful look at some of the wording of the letter, bearing in mind that you no longer have the actual entry form, which possibly had further disclaimers buried deep in the fine print.

We noticed first the statement in the upper right-hand corner that "this is a contest based on ability." A contest would seem to preclude the sponsor from knowing in advance that you are indeed the winner. The word contest appears again in the body of the letter.

There are other clues as well, beginning with the "absolutely true and accurate statement" that you are being sent a "winner's bank selection form." This doesn't mean you're the winner, especially when a few lines down we read about "your nominee status vying for the first prize of $10,000."

But the sentence that most got our attention was that "once your documentation is complete, verified and officially recognized as the first place winner. . . ." A case could be made that this does not mean it will be verified and officially recognized.

Finally, the instructions on completing the initial form and the two parts that were to follow thereafter, filling in little squares using valued letters and doing this in an accurate, neat and readable manner, made our heads spin. Would you be automatically disqualified, for instance, if you did not stay precisely within the little squares?

We also must point out that it is illegal in Florida to require payment as a condition for entering sweepstakes. The situation may be different in New Jersey. It may also be complicated by that little "contest" factor.

Our standard advice to sweepstakes entrants is to always look for the little word "if." It seems that sweepstakes sponsors are becoming more sneaky and hiding the "if" behind a host of other qualifying statements.

Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Certainly, if you continue to enter sweepstakes, it pays to read, and question, every word. Better yet, however, is to pitch the entries as soon as you receive them and never, under any circumstances, send in any money.

Delay not okayed

Too late I read an item in this column about Carole Martin Gifts. My order was placed Oct. 8, my check cashed Oct. 15, and I still have not received the wallets or a notice about delayed delivery. I am now on the company's mailing list because I have received two different catalogs. For two days I tried to call the company's 800 number, but all I hear is a busy signal. These wallets were to be Christmas presents. Doris S. Fox

Response: Oh dear, it's now a bit late for Christmas. We heard from Karen Doucette in the customer service department of Carole Martin Gifts in Champlain, N.Y., who said that the all-together wallets were on back order until the end of December and would be shipped as soon as they became available. She asked that you allow three to four weeks.

Your mention of never having received a notice about delayed delivery indicates that you are aware of your rights. According to the Federal Trade Commission's mail or telephone merchandise rules, items must be shipped within 30 days of receipt of the order unless a longer time was clearly indicated.

If the order cannot be shipped on time, the company must notify you of the new shipping date and give you the option of canceling your order and receiving a refund. If you don't respond within 30 days, the company may assume the delay is acceptable.

If it fails to meet the new shipping date, the company must again notify you and cancel the order and issue a refund unless you specifically let it know that you still want the merchandise.

If you elect to cancel the order, the merchant has seven days to issue a full refund if you paid by cash, check or money order, and one billing period if you paid by credit card.

Try to resolve problems with the company first. Next contact your local Better Business Bureau, consumer protection office and the U.S. Postal Service (for suspected mail fraud).

The Direct Marketing Association's Mail Order Action Line will also contact a company on your behalf. Send a letter with detailed information about your order and the problem to: Mail Order Action Line, Direct Marketing Association, 1111 19th St. NW, Suite 1100, Washington, DC 20036.

Complaints may also be directed to the FTC at: Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20580; (202) 382-4357 (FTC-HELP). The FTC does not intervene in individual disputes, but it does look for patterns of complaints.

If you have a question for Action, or your attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write: Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request for Action. Names will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

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