Q: I just got a letter from Publishers Clearing House. They are coming to Grindstone. They say all the local television stations know about this and the newspapers, too. They even sent me a card to hand to the prize patrol to double my prize. I don't believe them. I have been putting money in this thing for 10 years and all it means is that I am a sucker.
Grindstone, Fayette County
A:Joe, there must be some mistake. Roberta Raith of North Versailles called to tell me that Publishers Clearing House is coming to North Versailles. Her letter says Prize Patrol Deputy Keith Bergendorff is arriving on TWA Flight 3991, renting a van from Avis and camping out at the Pittsburgh Airport Marriott. They are bringing Roberta roses. What did they promise you? I'm willing to bet people are waiting for them in just about every small town in the country.
That's the way these sweepstakes companies work. Personalized letters, notes and photographs. All the more likely to make you think maybe this time it's you. In past years, I have interviewed people who spent hundreds of dollars on magazine subscriptions and special promotion items thinking they would win. I have interviewed people who gathered their family together waiting for the Prize Patrol, and why not? They had been given the date, the time and the promises.
Edwin Jackson of Derry wrote: "We, the Jacksons, along with some friends, waited on June 26, 1998, into the night, but Publishers Clearing House never showed up." Jackson had been buying magazines and merchandise from Publishers Clearing House every month for 15 years. I saw the bills.
The only bright spot in the sweepstakes game is that it might be winding down, thanks to a slew of lawsuits filed by attorneys general around the country.
The Pennsylvania attorney general filed a lawsuit against Publishers Clearing House in January, accusing the marketing company of "intentionally deceiving thousands of Pennsylvanians with sweepstakes offers that falsely led consumers to believe that they won or were close to winning a large cash prize."
"A significant number of Pennsylvanians were deceived into believing that they were 'Definite' or 'Certified Cash Winners' and that their prize checks were coming in the mail," Attorney General Mike Fisher said when filing that lawsuit. "In many cases, consumers were lured into spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars only to obtain what amounted to a 'Guaranteed Prize' of one dollar."
The lawsuit asks for refunds for consumers. It also asks that Publishers Clearing House quit promoting misleading sweepstakes in our state.
But don't get out the champagne yet. These things take time.
Pennsylvania isn't the only state to take action. In April, Washington state and 24 others settled a lawsuit against Publishers Clearing House. Nationwide, Publishers Clearing House will pay $18.3 million in restitution and $5 million in fees. Among the settlement agreements are promises to stop claiming that consumers got these offers because they are good customers and to set up a toll-free number for consumers to call if they wish to be placed on the company's "Do-Not-Contact" list.
Hey, Joe, Publishers Clearing House is a slick, successful marketer. Doing business with it does not make you a sucker, but you can bet your name is on a "suckers list." That's what many of these marketing companies call the list of "good customers" who take the bait and keep on biting.
Post Your Problems appears Tuesday through Friday, addressing questions and problems from readers.
Yvonne Zanos from KDKA-TV looks into consumer-related issues, including difficulties with products and
services. Post-Gazette Staff Writer Lawrence Walsh helps sort through bureaucratic problems.
Yvonne Zanos is KDKA-TV consumer editor. She can be reached at 412-575-2234, email@example.com,
or go to www.kdka.com and click on Consumer Action and follow prompts, or
write c/o KDKA-TV, One Gateway Center, Pittsburgh 15222.