Sweepstakes Under Scrutiny

  • With a box of tissues beside him, Eustace Hall, a retired medical technologist from Brandon, Fla., broke down and cried. A confessed mail-order-sweepstakes addict, Hall, 65, said he has spent at least $15,000 on contests since 1992 trying to help put his daughter through law school. "After all the time and money I spent, I have nothing to show for it," he admitted.

    Hall was one of several witnesses to testify last week before the Senate's subcommittee on investigations, chaired by the G.O.P.'s Susan Collins of Maine, who wants to regulate sweepstakes and fine companies engaged in trickery. Sweepstakes organizers, who use the contests to hawk magazines, books and videos, would be required to display prominently on their mailings the odds of winning. And they would be barred from telling contestants they are winners when they are not. Facing a room full of industry lobbyists--they could be winners!--Collins charged that contest organizers are "exploiting people's dreams through these deceptive mailings."

    And their gullibility. The companies, which include American Family Enterprises (partly owned by Time Inc., publisher of TIME), Publishers Clearing House and the Reader's Digest Association, might prefer to avoid regulation. They testified that contest rules and odds are being made clearer and that the names of people who spend exorbitant amounts of money on subscriptions in the hope of improving their odds were being dropped from their lists. That might avoid the complications created by one elderly contestant who signed up for magazines stretching until 2086. The subscriber then died, presumably wiser but poorer. His estate is trying to sort out the problem.