America's love affair with getting something for nothing has invaded the Internet.
Millions of people each day are now staring at their computers, both at work and at home, and clicking on their favorite numbers in free online lotto games promising million-dollar-and-up payouts, answering trivia questions, playing parlor games, and searching for cash and prizes hidden on the computer screen. And it's all paid for by advertisers, who hope to recoup the prize money and then some from the millions of eyes that will see their product messages.
Want to try for $10,000 every day? Just call up a handful of news or informational items on iWon.com and you're automatically entered in a daily drawing for $10,000 and monthly $1 million giveaways. Or play online bingo, keno and video poker for several-hundred-dollar jackpots at Pogo.com and other World Wide Web sites.
Want bigger payouts? Check out FreeLotto (freelotto.com), LuckySurf.com or Extreme Lotto (extremelotto.com), all of which offer $1 million payouts, or WebMillion.com, which has a $3 million prize.
And the chances of winning? They're minuscule. Like the pay-to-play state lotto games they mimic, the free Internet games require correctly picking six or seven numbers drawn daily out of 50 to 94 possibilities. The odds of hitting the $1 million FreeLotto jackpot are posted on its Web site as 1 in 25.8 million, and odds are even longer at other sites.
But that hasn't stopped millions of people from trying. PC Data Online, a Reston research firm that monitors 100,000 home computer users, says that in December 8.3 million people called up the FreeLotto site from their home computers, which does not account for any of the vast numbers who played the game from office computers.
"We've got 2 1/2 million players daily now, and we're adding 42,000 new players a day," said Kevin Aronin, the 45-year-old chairman and founder of PlasmaNet Inc., the New York firm that operates FreeLotto. He said the corporate name was picked because it stands for the "lifeblood of Internet marketing."
Many of the big-prize games on the Internet are so new, or designed with such long odds, that the operators have not yet had to give away the biggest prizes. But the 7 1/2-month-old FreeLotto--the most popular Internet sweepstakes game, according to PC Data, or the second most popular, according to Nielsen//NetRatings--has had two $1 million winners, both in November.
Glenda Sexton, a front-desk supervisor at a resort on the Oregon coast, said she had never won more than $25 playing state lottery games, but when she randomly picked the numbers 7, 8, 10, 16, 23 and 34 in the FreeLotto game her luck changed dramatically.
Sexton, 58, said that with about $550,000 of the $1 million hers to keep after taxes, she and her husband will be able to buy their first house, for $139,000.
"I will be paying cash," she said of the house purchase. "I paid all my bills. I don't owe anyone anything. It's still hard for me to believe."
Susan Vazquez, FreeLotto's other $1 million winner, said she and her husband, Roman, both longtime employees at the Abbott Laboratories pharmaceutical firm outside Chicago, had never been able to save any money to send their two daughters, Michelle, 19, and Jennifer, 17, to college, but that is no longer a problem.
"We were living kind of week to week, so this is going to help," the 44-year-old Waukegan, Ill., woman said. "But I haven't made any big changes in my life. We didn't go nuts. I'm very practical-minded. I'm taking it slow. I don't feel like a millionaire."
Still, she has taken a year's leave from Abbott, where she checked the quality of intravenous-fluid bags, to see if the family can live on her husband's salary and some of the winnings.
And now, she said, she devotes an hour a day to playing FreeLotto and other Internet games. "I like the ones that are simple, where you don't have to download a lot of things," she said. "I had to think at my job for 23 years. So now I don't have to."
Aronin said: "There's nothing to lose. It's not gambling. It's free. We tell consumers they're going to have fun and we don't sell the data [collected from occasional questions about their consumer preferences]. We don't rent the data. We don't give it away.
"From the time they pick their numbers to the time of the drawing, they're a potential millionaire," Aronin said. "That's the kind of mood we deliver them in to advertisers."
FreeLotto players must click on an ad banner to submit their entries, and some ads can be targeted to players based on their responses to consumer questions on the site. Other sites have similar privacy policies promising to keep players' names confidential.
He said his informational surveys have shown that the typical FreeLotto player is a good prospect for advertisers--42 years old with a $66,000 median income. Sixty percent are women. Half play from home, half from work.
One regular FreeLotto advertiser is the Heritage Bank of Commerce of San Jose, which hawks the Next Visa credit card, which it calls "the first true Internet Visa." It advertises on numerous Web sites, telling would-be card holders that they can apply online and get an answer in less than a minute. Other advertisers on sweepstakes sites include such well-known brand names as the Barnes & Noble bookstore chain, Dell computers, L.L. Bean, Amazon.com, eToys.com and Victoria's Secret.
There is no independent way to determine how successful these Web sweepstakes are for their promoters or whether the advertisers are generating valuable business from the sites.
Aronin started FreeLotto last June 1, charging each advertiser 40 cents whenever a player clicks into the advertiser's Web site.
With $10 million in revenue in the first six months, it is already profitable, he said. He said that he owns 60 percent of the privately held firm but that, "God and the SEC willing," PlasmaNet will make a public stock offering in the not-too-distant future.
Scott Lynn, a 19-year-old part-time student at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, started Virtumundo Inc. on a $3,000 shoestring. Virtumundo runs TreeLoot.com, a game in which cash prizes of up to $25,000 are hidden on designated pixels in a picture of a tree.
Players point their cursors to where they think the cash is hidden and click. And mostly they lose.
No one has won the big prize yet, since it is hard to find it among 170,000 possible locations. But Lynn said $300,000 has been handed out in smaller prizes.
The potential lure of the games is such that an old media firm, CBS Corp., is backing one of the giveaway sites, iWon.com, with $100 million in cash and on-air ads. But the iWon site, unlike the other major giveaway sites, can lay claim to being something other than just a place to pass the time playing a game.
It acts as a search engine as well, with news, informational sites and plenty of shopping opportunities as well.
The popularity of online games has raised questions for corporate America, such as whether it's a good place for advertisers to fly their banners and how companies feel about the time employers spend playing the games when they're supposed to be working.
TreeLoot's Lynn readily concedes that his game "is the ultimate time waster."
"We waste people's time more than anyone else," he jokingly bragged.
Gamesville.com, a site where one can, among other things, pass the time playing blackjack, answering music trivia or entering online office sports pools, boasts that it has been "Wasting Your Time Since 1996."
Kimberly Young, executive director of Center for Online Addiction in Bradford, Pa., said: "What I see is people goofing off at work. It's like putting a television on an employee's desk.
"There's this element of playing the game," she said. "There's this element of something free. And all of a sudden an hour goes by."
But what happens if someone does hit the jackpot while entering a game from a company computer?
Rick Lane, director of e-commerce and Internet technology at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, laughed and said: "Like all e-commerce issues, a lot of them haven't been addressed. But our position is that any and all information [transmitted on a company computer] is property of the company. Our advice is that those who are conducting private business ought to get their own Internet account."