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    Cashing in On Sweepstakes Mania

    By Melinda Deslatte Staff
    Thursday, April 30, 1998


    Amber, 9, (left), and Morgan, 6, mugging with stuffed gargoyles their mother, Joanne Roehling, won in a contest.
    Amber, 9, (left), and Morgan, 6, mugging with stuffed gargoyles their mother, Joanne Roehling, won in a contest. (Khue Bui/

    Opening the mailbox has become an adventure for Anne McCunney and Joanne Roehling. They never know what prizes they might find.

    McCunney, a 7th grade teacher from Fairfax City, and Roehling, an Ashburn, Va., bookkeeper, are members of the Northern Virginia Fortune Seekers – a group of sweepstakes and contest enthusiasts.

    They meet with other members the third Sunday of every month to share contest and sweepstakes entry forms, trade tips, report winnings and exchange unwanted prizes.

    "This makes it so exciting to go to the mailbox every day," said Roehling, 36, who has been involved with the club for a year. "My husband and I fight to see who gets to go check the mail."

    Started in July 1996 by an Associated Press reporter, the Northern Virginia Fortune Seekers now has more than 120 members in several states. The club is informal, with no membership dues and no officers. Members stay in touch through e-mail and the monthly meeting, and exchange information on the group's Web site, which launched in April 1997 with the motto, "We sweep 'til we weep."

    "It's an interesting and fun hobby, which sometimes seems a little more like a full-time job. You would not believe the hours put into this," said Michelle Arnett, 48, a member who participates long-distance from Sacramento, Calif.

    Many members spend hours a day on the hobby.

    Working on a schedule, Arnett said she enters about 200 daily contests, 25 weekly contests and 10-15 monthly contests each day, in addition to any "one-time-only" contests she finds surfing the Internet.

    The former disc jockey said she discovered contests and sweepstakes on the Internet after buying a computer in October 1997.

    "I won the very first contest I ever entered," Arnett said. "It was on a Web site called 'The Cat Basket.' I had to answer questions about cats by finding the answers that were located on the site. [The prize] was a handmade bookmark from the UK. I thought it was lovely."

    The most common prizes members win are baseball caps and T-shirts.

    McCunney has won her fair share. "I've won enough baseball caps for a team," she said.

    But sometimes the winnings are grander. McCunney, 50, who has been a club member for nine months, has won a trip to Barbados for herself, a trip to New York for her daughter, a trip to Club Med for her sister and a house cleaning for her dad.

    She said winning is in her blood. Her father entered sweepstakes and contests faithfully throughout her childhood, winning a car and $25,000 for a family reunion.

    Arnett didn't have a family history of entering contests, and she said her husband was not originally thrilled with her dedication.

    "In the beginning, my husband thought I was nuts spending my time doing this," she said.

    "[But] during lunch one day, he said, 'Why don't you win us a vacation?' He lay down to take a nap, I went to check my e-mail and there it was. I had won a vacation. He's very supportive now."

    Arnett has won a four-day trip to Mexico, books, computer software, a camera, free phone cards, food, cookbooks, $50 cash, a savings bond and of course, T-shirts.

    "I have not yet won the biggies, like a car, but I certainly haven't given up," she said.

    To join: Add your name to the club mailing list or get more information at the group's Web site.
    Membership fees: none
    Upcoming meeting: Sunday, May 17, 1 p.m., at the Red Robin Grill & Spirits Emporium, 13056 Fair Lakes Parkway, Fairfax, Va. It's in the Fair Lakes Shopping Center, next to Best Buy. Ask to be seated at the "sweepstakes club" table.

    What does it take to win contests? According to Fortune Seekers members, sweepers need patience, persistence and postage.

    "Enter as often as you are allowed," advised Chris Ditty, 27, a Tennessee member who has run a sweepstakes Web site since February.

    McCunney said last year she spent about $1,500 in postage and won about $5,000 in prizes. "Everybody wants to get prizes, but nobody wants to enter the contests. People ask why I win all the time. That's because I enter so much," she said.

    McCunney has other tips for picking sweepstakes that deserve dedication.

    "The bigger the contest, the harder it is to win. Reader's Digest and Ed McMahon, don't deal with those," she said. "Stay with locals when you can."

    The odds of winning the $5 million grand prize in Reader's Digest's largest sweepstakes are 1 in 206 million, but magazine representatives still recommend entering.

    "It's definitely worth a try," said Carol Parker, with Reader's Digest customer service.

    A Publishers Clearing House representative agrees. "It's absolutely worth trying," said Isaac Hou, of its customer service staff.

    McCunney said she also stays away from lotteries.

    She recommends entering local sweepstakes, such as the kinds offered at record stores or grocery stores. She also enters contests she finds on the Internet.

    Both McCunney and Roehling decorate some of the entries they send in with stickers or stamps. They hope this will make their envelope stand out just a little bit more for the person pulling the winning entry.

    That's not so, said Bruce Stone, vice president of consumer relations at United States Purchasing Exchange, a direct mail company that offers more than 100 sweepstakes a year. "Be assured that as long as the rules of the sweepstakes are followed, all entries are treated equally," he said. "No enhancement can possibly increase one's chances of winning."

    McCunney said choosing the contest by looking at the prizes offers another way to weed through the thousands of possibilities.

    "If it's not something you're willing to pay taxes for, don't even bother entering the contest," she said.

    Roehling, who fills out more than 100 sweepstakes entries a week, said she only enters contests if she wants the item offered. She has won a snowboard, a limousine ride to the Washington Monument, duffel bags, a two-year supply of dog food and 4-foot-tall stuffed gargoyles, similar to those in Walt Disney's animated movie, "Hunchback of Notre Dame."

    Roehling meticulously keeps track of her entries with detailed records, describing the name on the entry and the type of envelope used. When she wins, she reviews what type of envelope she used for that sweepstakes and uses the same type again when filling out entries for that company or agency.

    Beverly Collins, 62, a long-distance Fortune Seekers member in Oregon, has another tip: winning is great, but, in the end, there's more to entering sweepstakes than the prizes.

    "This is a wonderful hobby. It's productive, profitable, healthy, fun and a great way to meet some good people," she said.

    Though the hobby can be fun, sweepstakes contestants should be aware of some of the scams and pitfalls that come along with contests, said Marion Horsley, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Consumer Affairs.

    Remember, she said, that contest players "are providing names and personal information that can go anywhere."

    And, she said, "It's difficult to assess if a sweepstakes or contest is legitimate or not."

    Horsley advised participants to read the fine print carefully on each entry, especially the disclosures, the name of the company sponsoring the contest, the number of prizes awarded and the odds of winning. Enter only those contests that advertise "no purchase necessary," she said.

    Contestants should also be wary of "contests where a minimum salary is required, or where they ask for a marital status," Horsley said. Fraudulent sweepstakes groups may use this information to choose a recipient and require that he or she send money before receiving the prize -- an act that is illegal in Virginia and most other states, Horsley said.

    "Also, if a company is giving away a big prize, like a car, people should know that they require a Social Security number so [the company] can report the winnings to the IRS," she said.

    The Internal Revenue Service will tax those winnings as if they were part of a yearly income, she said.

    Anyone who feels he might have been a victim of sweepstakes or contest fraud can call the National Fraud Information Center Hotline at 1-800-876-7060 to report it.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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