THE PRIZE PATROL IS NEVER coming to your house. But you knew that already. Now comes a six-page pamphlet crammed with tiny print promising you revenge and recompense for every second of your life that you've wasted combing through those Publishers Clearing House mailings, finding the itty-bitty stamps, licking them and pasting them in and generally acting like a complete idiot while suppressing a giggle and telling yourself that, well, somebody has to win, right?

It's a legal notice, and it went out to more than 40 million American households last month, and if you bothered to open it and slog through the boilerplate, you learned that all you have to do to finally get some actual money from Robert H. Treller (the guy who used to sign all those missives from Publishers Clearing House, and, yes, he was a total fabrication) is to write a letter saying you subscribed to all those boring magazines because you figured you had to buy them or you wouldn't really get your shot at the Big Money. Write the letter, get a check. Simple as that. The legal process at work. Some might call it justice.

Except, of course, that this one-time-only, stupendous, incredible offer is coming to you jointly from Publishers Clearing House and a coven of lawyers. Which means that you might as well get back out on the porch and resume your vigil for the Prize Patrol.

The sweepstakes people put up $10 million to satisfy the claims of Americans who were so terribly confused that they subscribed all at once to Ladies Home Journal, Grit and Wired. Of course, $3 million of that goes to the lawyers. And the rest? Well, Steven Katz, the lawyer who filed this suit because his very own elderly aunt was pumping big bucks down the Publishers Clearing House rat hole, tells me he wants every wronged consumer to get back every penny he or she spent.

On the other hand, Christopher Irving, the consumer affairs director at the Clearing House, tells me that there are several thousand people who spend more than $180 a month on his company's stuff. Do the math. It doesn't add up. Those extreme cases alone could eat up more than half the available compensation. And tens of thousands of claims are already pouring in.

So if customers aren't going to get all their money back -- and we know that the lawyers will get their cut no matter what -- then what's the purpose of all this? Katz says the lawsuit is meant to force sweepstakes companies to reform, to stop playing with people's emotions.

As for Irving, the PCH executive says his company settled because "litigation is very expensive." The mailings "are very clear, and we'll make them even clearer." He offers this proof: 70 percent of PCH's mailings are never returned, and of those that are, the number of folks who enter without ordering is more than triple those who do buy something.

And then he goes on about how Publishers Clearing House wouldn't want even one person to buy something unnecessarily, and how PCH even calls its biggest-spending customers at home to remind them that they need not buy any PCH products because "we want to assist customers in any way we can to avoid confusion."

All of which only shows that the state of American business has sunk so low that to write a fair story, I must now brush away a truckload of such bull and make up what the guy from Publishers Clearing House should have said. Which is: We run a sweepstakes. We really do give away the money. We also sell products. Obviously, no one's forcing you to buy them. If you do buy them, even if you for some insane reason think it's going to help you win the contest, tough. Have a nice day.

But no one will say that. You can't even get a decent debate going between the two sides in this lawsuit. Katz believes that people who waste big money buying stuff from sweepstakes companies have a right to be protected from their own gullibility. Irving agrees! "We are in business to delight consumers, not to confuse them," he told me as I gasped for the oxygen of truth.

Shouldn't there be consequences for doing something that's not so bright? Maybe people who subscribe to People magazine because they think it will enhance their chances of winning $11 million should actually have to read People for a year.

My late grandmother, to the embarrassment of everyone around her, played the lottery. Relatives would explain to her as if to a child why her chances of winning the big one were considerably worse than her chances of getting hit by lightning and a bus. No matter. "Someone's going to win," was her stock and unwavering reply.

She was intelligent and savvy, in other matters a piercingly sharp customer. But she had her fantasy, and it involved winning big money and giving it to her children. We sought to disabuse her of this, but she wouldn't hear of it. She liked spending money on the lottery; it was her game, her dream. What was she supposed to do, sit home and order magazines?

Marc Fisher's e-mail address is fisherm@washpost.com.