My late brother Mitchell was such a trusting soul. He believed that people meant what they said.
I can't count the number of times he called me about some sweepstakes promotion he had received announcing that he had won a car, a sun-filled vacation trip, big-screen television or a motorboat. He would get so excited and want me to either drive him somewhere to pick up his winnings or take him to the bank to cash an official-looking check he had received in the mail that proclaimed him a millionaire.
But they were all lies. Damnable lies.
Each time, I tried as patiently as I could to convince my brother that those sweepstakes mailings were bogus. I stopped him countless times from sending money to collect his so-called free prizes. Half the time I had to read and reread a letter to find the slick phrases that would prove to him that he hadn't really won a doggone thing.
More often than not my brother was led to believe he was a winner. Mitchell would come to me with a sweepstakes letter or postcard in his hand hopeful that he had won money that could help supplement his disability check. I hated to tell him he hadn't won. It hurt me to my heart to see how dejected he would become.
My brother died two years ago at age 32, and thinking about how he was manipulated by sweepstakes companies still makes me angry. The fact is, most mailings are deliberately deceptive.
The National Consumers League recently told Congress that 92 percent of consumers surveyed said they interpreted sweepstakes announcements they had received as telling them that they had definitely won a prize. Nearly a third responded to the offer.
Sweepstakes mailings consistently rank among the top 10 complaints received by the National Consumers League. The consumer group claims that sweepstakes victims--people who are duped into spending money to enter contests or defrauded outright--are losing thousands of dollars to these operators.
Congress is trying to clean up the sweepstakes game. But this racket is so filthy that no mere cleansing will do; only outright abolition will suffice.
Last week the Senate passed the Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act, which aims to curtail the deceitful, near-criminal mailings from sweepstakes companies. Similar legislation is being considered in the House.
Under the measure, companies would be prohibited from describing recipients in their mailings as "winners" unless they have actually won a prize.
Sweepstakes offers would have to include assurances that no purchase is necessary to win and that a purchase will not increase the chances of winning. Such disclaimers would have to be placed in three prominent locations in mailings so that they could not be overlooked.
The bill also would stop companies from sending mailings that imply a connection or endorsement by the federal government. In addition, firms would have to remove customers' names and addresses from their mailing lists within 35 days after they have been requested to do so. They also would have to provide a telephone number or address that consumers can use to make the request.
Legislators, regulators and consumer advocates who have been working on sweepstakes legislation said they tried to come up with a measure that would root out deceptive practices in the sweepstakes industry. The bill passed by the Senate, they argue, is the best they could do to keep a balance between protecting consumers without inhibiting or stifling free enterprise.
"This legislation will help on the enforcement end and help establish some better guidelines," said Bruce Gentile, program manager for congressional and public affairs for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. "This does start drawing lines in the sand. It does establish something we can work from. But I also recognize that there are some extremely creative minds out there. If there are some holes in this legislation, they will find it."
In that case, why don't we just ban such mailings?
Congress is tiptoeing around trying to find just the right way to legislate away deception, and in the end, a lot of consumers, like my brother, are still going to be hoodwinked.
My brother was taken advantage of whether a sweepstakes company made a demonstratively false and fraudulent claim or whether it made misleading promises. Lying is lying, my grandmother used to say, whether it's outright or by omission.
The sweepstakes industry's compliance with current laws is disingenuous: All the marketing come-ons may be true on their face, but in spirit they are lies. The industry is inherently manipulative. With or without disclaimers, it will not change: It thrives on deception and cannot survive without it.
Just shut them down. If they want to play games with our minds and money, they don't deserve to be in business.
Michelle Singletary's column appears in this section every Sunday. While she welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice or answer detailed questions about individual situations. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
Cleaning Up Sweepstakes Mailings
Last week the Senate passed legislation aimed at ending deceptive practices in sweepstakes mailings. Among the provisions of the bill:
The U.S. Postal Service's power to investigate and punish violators would increase, giving postal inspectors the authority to impose civil fines of up to $2 million.
The Postal Service also would be granted subpoena powers to investigate alleged violations and the authority to stop a mailing nationwide when abuses are detected.
Sweepstakes offers would have to include assurances that no purchase is necessary to win and that purchases will not increase the chances of winning. Such disclaimers would have to be placed in three prominent locations in mailings.
Companies would be prohibited from describing recipients in their mailings as "winners" unless they have actually won a prize.
All mailings would have to include clear statements of sweepstakes rules, procedures for entering, estimated retail values of all prizes and the estimated odds of winning each prize.
Companies would be prohibited from sending mailings that imply a connection or endorsement by the federal government.
Companies would have to remove a customer's name and address from their mailing lists within 35 days once a consumer makes the request. Companies also must provide a telephone number or address consumers can use to make the request.