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Stick to real crimes

February 26, 1999

Anyone in America with a mailbox knows the drill: A letterarrives, sometimes with a celebrity's picture on it, saying in large type that the recipient has won $10 million. But if you read further, tiny type reveals that you get the big money only "if your number matches the one drawn on Super Bowl Sunday" or some other condition.

For most citizens, this sort of come-on is so familiar it doesn't prompt anything but a quick move to the wastebasket. But for some others, the quest for the big payoff prompts them to buy merchandise they don't need, or pay additional entry fees that don't buy anything but a chance at greater disappointment.

It's those people who need protection, say the attorneys general of 11 states, including West Virginia, who met Wednesday to map anti-sweepstakes stategy.

The ideas were all over the lot, ranging from a proposed federal bill to fine sweepstakes operators who deceive people into buying merchandise to a New Mexcio proposal that would effectively outlaw their use in sales promotions.

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In our view, there's a difference between a sweepestakes promotion where the prize is actually awarded and the outright fraud committed by some mailers who notify consumers that they've won a prize, then request a "shipping fee" which the crooks then pocket before moving on to their next scam.

One is a contest in which the odds of winning are astronomical (not unlike the lotteries run by various states), while the other is a criminal scheme in which there's no chance of winning.

Assuming that those indignant attorneys general are not also going to seek legislation to protect citizens from the outrageous and misleading promises of the lottery ads, we feel that they should confine their activities to fighting real crimes.

Yes, there are some people who buy magazine subscriptions they can't afford in the mistaken belief that a million-dollar payoff is only weeks away. Some people also buy state lottery tickets with money they should spend on groceries. We hope that after some study, the attorneys general are smart enough to conclude that it is impossible to legislate good sense.

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