The official-looking notice Sydney Ann Barr received in the mail raised her suspicions at once. Supposedly legal papers regarding a class action suit filed against Metromail Corp., the notice asked that "similarly situated" plaintiffs send personal information to Gilardi & Co., identified as the claims administrator. The return address on the enclosed postage-paid envelope was for a post office box in Corte Madera, Calif.

"They want people to respond with their name, address, home and business telephone numbers, Social Security number and signature," reports Barr of Dunkirk, Md., who wondered about the wisdom of providing personal information to someone you don't know.

Within days, Barr received another class action notice, describing the settlement of a suit against Publishers Clearing House. "How does one know whether this is legit?" she asked.

Good question. But, in fact, both of these "notices of class action" are legitimate.

Consumers who purchased magazines from Publishers Clearing House (PCH) between February 1992 and June 1999 received announcements in August detailing the proposed settlement of a PCH suit brought by a group of consumers. It focuses on deceptive sweepstake marketing practices, including the implication that buying magazines from PCH increased the chances of winning.

In the settlement, PCH agreed to an "ironclad guarantee" it would remind consumers that no purchase is necessary, list the odds of winning, and state cancellation and refund policies. Past customers? PCH will pay up to $10 million to cover refunds and legal fees. Consumers can return merchandise for full refunds and cancel current subscriptions to receive refunds for undelivered copies. They can get refunds for expired subscriptions by providing a notarized statement saying the only reason they subscribed was to increase their odds of winning. Refund requests must be postmarked by Oct. 18, 1999.

(For more information, call PCH, 800-645-9242, or go to http://www.pch.com/customer/classaction.asp.)

The Metromail suit, ironically, evolved from a 1994 outrage involving misused personal information. Ohio grandmother Beverly Dennis filled out a customer survey, providing personal data and shopping preferences to get coupons and free samples Metromail promised. What she didn't know was that Metromail, a large database marketing company, had hired the Texas state prison system to process the data from her survey and about 2.2 million others. A rapist keying in Dennis's data liked the details and mailed her a sexually explicit, 12-page letter.

"This case was primarily about stopping Metromail's conduct," says attorney Mike Lenett of the District-based Cuneo Law Group and lead counsel on the case. "It had taken the position that people didn't have any ownership rights or control over their own information."

Among the terms of the proposed settlement, Metromail agreed never to use prison labor again. It must disclose in clear language how it will use personal information and adopt new confidentiality practices. It also will establish a fund to compensate claimants who were or are in the future injured by their information being processed by prisoners.

Lenett says responses are coming in from survey participants -- despite possible reluctance to fill out personal information. "That's the Catch-22 of a privacy class action," he says. "Since it concerns privacy, everyone is on a heightened alert."