Out of America: Sweepstake junkies] Send in your dollars and beat the system]

WASHINGTON - About a month ago, I gave in. Only so many times can you ignore a fat, official-looking letter from American Express, proclaiming: 'Rupert Cornwell You may win dollars 1,666,675 ( pounds 1.09m).' Or an even more categoric missive, from American Family Publishers (AFP), declaring: 'Rupert Cornwell, one of the region's top winners, will be paid ten million dollars . . . guaranteed.'

Yes, you know that small print, artfully concealed behind the envelope's window, will state that only if in the unlikely event that the recipient returns the entry form promptly, and has the winning number, will R Cornwell be nicely set up for life.

But, you wonder, after a while, maybe this is different, maybe there is such a thing as a free lunch. And thus, do America's direct mail marketeers entice another victim.

American Express is pushing a glossy travel guide; AFP is offering subscriptions to magazines, from Newsweek to The American Handgunner. The lures range from sweepstakes to 'free awards' - which prove to be anything but free. Common to all of them, however, is a breathtaking cheekiness.

First you will be informed of your incredible good fortune. 'Congratulations Rupert Cornwell, you have qualified to enter . . .' (Along with 80 million other households in the US). Next you are told that as a 'finalist you must respond before a given deadline, or this heaven-sent opportunity will pass to someone else'.

AFP tells you its 'urgent documents have been rushed to your door today' (at bulk postage rates of course). Then there are 'Confidential Prize Acceptance Affidavits,' where you specify to whom the cheque should be made out. Publisher's Clearing House (PCH), even asks you what kind of party you'd like when you win. But don't rush to draw up a guest list.

Of course, the ideal bet is one where the reward is in line with the odds, a dollars 10 prize say, for a dollars 1 bet. Now, technically, a sweepstake has no entrance fee. But the stamp on your reply envelope costs 29 cents. Statisticians put the odds of hitting the jackpot on AFP or PCH, on the first draw, at a trillion to one, making the prize dollars 290bn: a top prize of merely dollars 10m doesn't look so good. Still, it's a lot better than one which briefly intrigued the Cornwell family.

Coming from an outfit called Southeastern Promotions in Chattanooga, Tennessee, it began in almost intimidatory fashion: 'You have only 72 hours to respond,' before the 'ABSOLUTELY GUARANTEED' award would pass to someone else. We could choose one of four prizes: a car worth dollars 15,000, a dollars 2,000 television set, dollars 2,000 in cash, or a holiday. We called the toll-free number, to find a special bonus number on the card qualified us for yet more goodies. Moreover, we could have cash instead of the prizes. And were we flexible on the holiday date?

There was only one snag: we had to pay dollars 700 up-front as a 'promotional fee.' Only afterwards did we notice, in microscopic print, the information that 199,996 times out of 200,000 an entrant would 'win' the holiday. Which all goes to show, there's more than one way to unload off-season hotel rooms on Waikiki Beach.

But at least this was not one of the many scams on the fringes of the sweepstakes business, such as being asked to call a special 1-900 number, which charges you an exorbitant fee for being told you've won nothing - a practice banned by several states. Then there are straightforward con- tricks. You receive a phone call, saying you've hit a zillion-dollar jackpot. But just to make absolutely sure, please send dollars 500, as an 'insurance fee' against the cheque being lost in the mail. That, naturally, is the last you hear of the cheque or your dollars 500. Not surprisingly, some want to ban sweepstakes altogether.

But try telling that to the thousands of true believers, who've just held their annual gathering, the National Convention for Sweepstakers, in Indianapolis. 'One decent win and you're hooked,' says Nick Taylor, publisher of Best Sweepstakes.

The trick, he explains, is to look for smaller competitions, which attract fewer entries. The prizes may be only a few hundred dollars. But if you're a sweepstakes junkie playing 100 different competitions a month, at least you cover your postage. In other words, you beat the system.

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