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Man, 87, swept up by sweepstakes

February 08, 1998|By STEVEN T. DENNIS

by Kevin G. Gilbert / staff photographer

click below for enlargements

In the past year, Glenn Helman, 87, has spent more than $4,000 trying to win sweepstakes offered by Publisher's Clearing House and American Family Publishers.

All the Hagerstown man has to show for it is a boatload of unwanted knickknacks, coins and magazine subscriptions.

Helman said he first entered the contests about a year ago. Once he entered and purchased something, the companies kept sending him more and more mailings, sometimes up to four a day.

"I thought I might win something," he said.

Helman said he thought, mistakenly, that he would have a better chance of winning if he purchased products.

"If you don't order, you don't get nothing," he said.

The sweepstakes, under federal law, can't require a purchase to enter.

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"I guess I was a fool for doing it, but if you don't try, you get nothing," he said.

Helman said he's now sworn off sweepstakes after seeing an article in the Jan. 31 Herald-Mail about a class action lawsuit against American Family Publishers.

The suit, filed by two professors at Georgetown University Law Center, claims that the sweepstakes is a fraudulent scheme to get people to buy magazines. It asks for customers to get the money back that they paid for magazines, asks for punitive damages and seeks an injunction against American Family's practices.

Gary Peller, one of the professors, said he is getting 5,000 to 6,000 telephone calls a day from people interested in the lawsuit, clogging the university's phone lines.

"We intend to put a stop to these kinds of practices in the marketplace ... They don't seem to respect anything except money."

Helman said he was fooled by one of American Family's mailings in particular that he received in January.

"It's down to a 2 person race for $11,000,000 - You and one other person in Maryland were issued the winning number - Whoever returns it first wins it all."

Helman didn't read the fine print, which read "If you have the winning number." He got excited, called up members of his family, and, to make sure he beat out the competition, sent the entry via Federal Express at a cost of $10.

Peller said Helman shouldn't feel bad. Lots of other people, including Peller, were fooled by that mailing, he said.

Peller said the reason he decided to file a lawsuit came after he received the "2 person race for $11,000,000" mailing and hurried to get the entry in. As he was leaving his front door to head to the post office, he realized he'd been duped.

Peller said the companies try to target people like Helman, who continue to buy products. The companies also make it much easier to enter when purchasing a product and imply that purchasing a product will ensure "Priority Processing," Peller said.

Peller said the odds of winning are far better in a lottery. With entries received by the companies running into the hundreds of millions a year, people spend far more money on postage than the amount of prizes that are awarded, he said.

He said the companies try "to squeeze everything out of people. It's just disgusting."

"Even the magazine stamps are misleading," Peller said.

He noted the stamps will say $4.99 in large print for a magazine subscription and then, in small print, say that it's in four easy payments of $4.99.

American Family, which is 50 percent owned by Time-Warner Inc., didn't return phone calls Friday for this article.

In January, American Family promised to stop distribution of two of its mailings that Florida officials said were deceptive. The decision came after a wave of people rushed to Tampa, Fla., to collect their supposed winnings, only to go home empty handed.

Publishers Clearing House defended its practices.

Christopher Irving, director of consumer affairs for Publishers Clearing House in Port Washington, New York, said the company has given away $125 million since 1967.

"We're proud of our relationship with customers ... All of our mailings are clear."

Irving said the company receives far more entries without orders than those with orders, so people must realize that not ordering doesn't hurt their chances of winning, he said.

Irving said the company will give people who show an interest in different types of merchandise the opportunities to buy the merchandise.

"We'll send them as many as we possibly can," he said. But he said the company wasn't targeting the elderly or trying to squeeze people and said that about half of the company's profits are donated to charity.

Irving refused to say how many contest entries the company receives a year.

As for Helman, he said he's going to return the 28 unopened boxes of books and knicknacks he's received just since Jan. 25.

His basement is littered with boxes of contest entries, books and knickknacks.

One of the items he ordered was a set of 24 hummingbird sculptures, each about three inches high. They come once a month and cost $24 each. "I like hummingbirds, but who wants 24?" he said.

He also has a set of little bears at $19 each. He said he saw similar ones in Waynesboro, Pa. for $3.

He bought a $50 set of silver dollars that he saw at a local coin dealer for $10.

Helman said the companies thanked him for being a good customer. "But I didn't want to be that good a customer," he said.

"They just keep after you to get more and more and more."

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