Too good to be true

March 23, 1995

To enter the offices of Research Awards Center Inc. of Reisterstown was to enter any workaday office. There was a mailroom and an accounts receivables department. There were 70 employees working a couple of shifts a day sending out 5 million pieces of mail a month, an impressive amount but much less than the average direct mail advertiser. There was a customer service number with a sing-songy voice from the "customer care team" to help troubled customers. And the solicitations the company mailed out looked as official as anything from the Internal Revenue Service, with notary seals and explicit rules.

Just the business of business going on. . . unless it might have been in the business of ripping off the elderly, as a federal indictment suggests.

U.S. District Judge Fredric N. Smalkin of Baltimore has frozen the assets of Research Awards Center Inc. while authorities pursue civil and criminal probes into its operation. Investigators have been looking into this company for years, since the U.S. Postal Service and consumer protection groups received the first inklings of what mushroomed into 4,800 complaints against the firm -- the largest such case the Better Business Bureau of Maryland has ever seen.

The inducements the firm sent out were just technical enough to be confusing, just professional enough to be fetching. "For grand, first and quarterly prizes, odds depend upon total number of persons who activate their entries in accordance with these rules," which is meaningless. "Odds for second prize are 1:1," which sounds infallible, although left unsaid is that second prizes totaled 50 cents. The company's pitch was that it was essentially charging a service fee to enter clients in various sweepstakes around the country, although it is not believed to have fulfilled that obligation.

The more cautious of us might scoff that no one would believe such a promise, but thousands of people did, including senior citizens who had retired from careers as corporate executives, doctors and lawyers, a postal investor said.

Unfortunately, it often takes years to unravel such cases and refund money, if any assets exist to be returned. Mail fraud is an insidious crime that violates and humiliates people in the supposed sanctuary of their home. It's breaking and entering through the mail slot; the rape of a daydream. We hope the government's pursuit of the Reisterstown operation discourages sweepstakes rip-offs. Its more assured benefit, however, may be in reminding consumers, especially seniors, that deals too good to be true likely are.

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