'Guaranteed Winner!' postcards promise trips, cars, cash to millions of sure losers

November 18, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The postcards promise cash prizes, free vacations and expensive cars, and they begin by trumpeting the good news: "Congratulations, You are a Guaranteed Winner!"

Better not believe it, say federal investigators and consumer advocates who sounded a warning yesterday about an increasing flood of fraudulent get-rich postcard schemes.

"The postcard is now the calling card of more and more con artists" who are defrauding the elderly, the poor and others by the millions, said Linda Golodner, president of the National Consumers League, a Washington advocacy group.

With the public now wary of costly "900" numbers and other phone schemes, fraudulent telemarketers are flooding mailboxes with postcard offers. Postal inspectors say one such company in Omaha, Neb., mailed more than 12 million cards in three months.

"They sound so good," said Dorothy Collins, 71, of Silver Spring, Md., displaying a thick sheaf of postcards from official-sounding companies that appear to promise gifts or cash.

She is not alone. A July Harris poll found that nine of every 10 consumers had received such offers and that three out of 10 -- almost 54 million -- took the bait.

The come-ons share some features, according to postal inspectors and Federal Trade Commission officials.

One is that to qualify for a prize, the recipient has to pay a registration or processing fee as high as $1,000 or buy overpriced items.

Another is that instead of the "guaranteed" prize, what the consumer gets is "vastly different than advertised, or nothing at all," said John Brugger of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Ms. Collins, for example, said postcard schemes cost her $3,000 for such items as overpriced vitamins and worthless costume jewelry, and that she did not win any big prizes.

"I've gotten nothing but more mail," she said.

The Alliance Against Fraud in Telemarketing, a coalition of 90 government, consumer and corporate representatives, identifies the top five postcard scams as:

* Sweepstakes/free prize. To qualify for his "free" prize of a Cadillac or cash, Brandon Zeigler, 21, of Burke, Va., had to buy a $600 camera. His only prizes were a cheap gold bracelet and earrings.

* Travel. The postcard says the recipient has been chosen for a free Florida vacation, but callers are pressured into paying for an expensive "vacation package" that never materializes.

The FTC forced a Maryland company, JetSet, to make a $12,000 settlement last year for not disclosing that its offer of two free air tickets to Florida required the purchase of 14 days' lodging.

* Prize recovery. Victims are drawn from "sucker lists" of previous sweepstakes contestants who are told that "unclaimed funds" are being held for them.

* Credit cards/credit repair. Aimed at poor neighborhoods, the credit card can't be used everywhere, only at a specific store, and it costs $35 to $50. Credit repair is a packet of advice, for a fee, that is available free from credit counselors.

* Money from the government. The Postal Service is investigating a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., company that charges $10 for a refund claim available free from the Internal Revenue Service.

Consumers receiving suspicious mail offers are encouraged to report them.

"The only time a consumer should take a postcard sweepstakes offer seriously is when Ed McMahon shows up in person at the door," Ms. Golodner said.

SCAM TIPS

Here are some tips for protecting yourself against postcard scams:

* Stay away from schemes promoted by strangers via postcards.

* Don't pay for something that is supposedly free.

* Ignore demands for immediate action.

* Don't give out your credit card or checking account number to strangers. Check statements for unauthorized charges or withdrawals.

* The best defense against a postcard offer: Ignore it and report it. The National Consumers League operates a toll-free hot line: (800) 876-7060.

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