The Better Business Bureau
(BBB) in St. Louis, Mo., is warning consumers to be cautious when entering puzzle contests sponsored by Opportunities Unlimited Publications, Inc.
, of North Kansas City, Mo.
The contest promotions are mailed around the world and charge entry fees ranging from a few dollars to more than $40 per puzzle, with the cost of playing a complete, four-part game often totaling more than $100. The mailings report that grand prizes for the games usually range from $5,000 to $30,000.
An Overland, Mo., woman who spent nearly $100 to enter several of the contests last year said she found herself overwhelmed and confused by more than 80 prize mailings sent to her apartment over a period of several weeks. The mailings were from Opportunities Unlimited Publications or related businesses, all with return addresses at 1401 Armour Road in North Kansas City.
Many of the contest envelopes were marked with messages communicating a sense of urgency: “Dated Materials! Money Advisory, Important Notice! Deadlines Approaching! RESPONSE URGED NOW.” Inside, official-looking documents with facsimile signatures and seals warned: “Do not delay your response as someone will certainly be issued the $15,000 1st Prize Check” or “I strongly advise you to respond to this Official Memorandum immediately.”
Opportunities Unlimited Publications, which also uses the names International Award Payment Center
, Contest America Publishers
and Entertainment Award Center
, has an “F” grade with the BBB, the lowest grade possible. Several complaints are from family members of senior citizens who said they feel the mailings are misleading, difficult to understand or make it seem as if the recipients are on the brink of winning thousands of dollars in prizes.
Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO of the BBB in St. Louis, said the Opportunities Unlimited contests are notorious for operating questionable direct mail marketing. She said the BBB has asked company officials for specifics on how its contests are monitored and audited, but the company has not responded to those issues.
“They tell us their contests conform to all state and federal rules and regulations, and that could well be true,” Corey said. “But a company’s responsibility to consumers extends well beyond the law. It has an obligation to conduct business ethically and make sure it is not misleading the public. That is where Opportunities Unlimited may be falling short.”
Among BBB concerns:
- The company lures players into the early stages of its contests by asking them to solve simple puzzles. One example says: “When Reaching into a large box, you pull out three prizes. Prize No. 1 is $24,989; Prize No. 2 is $28,979 and Prize No. 3 is $29,879. What is the total value of all three prizes: $73,947, $83,847 or $93.847?” It appears that the simplicity of the puzzles pulls consumers into multi-part games requiring additional fees with each subsequent puzzle. The final puzzle can be extremely difficult and time-consuming, and the company notes that a grand prize may be split among several top winners.
- The mailings communicate a sense of urgency and a feeling that a consumer is sacrificing a golden opportunity by not paying the contest fees and responding immediately. A typical mailing says, “This could be your Last Opportunity to win a share of the money! If you fail to reply, you will forfeit your eligibility in the Money Magic Awards Skill Competition.”
- The sheer number of contests running at any given time appears to contribute to confusion. During a several week period last summer, the Overland consumer received entry forms for more than 20 different games with names such as Capital Reserve III, Cash Transfer Award III, Blue Series IX, Money Motion VI, Cash Connection II, Gold Series 9 and Strike It Rich XVII. Each game had multiple stages, different entry fees and different prize amounts.
- The company contends that the contests are games of skill and not games of chance. As such, they may not fall under state and federal gambling regulations. The BBB has questioned what seems to be a lack of independent oversight of the contests. The company did not respond to a request for information asking who is responsible for guaranteeing that the contests are fair and legitimate.
- The contest mailings contain numerous names of prize officials and judges, creating the potential for more confusion. The Overland woman received Opportunities Unlimited mailings that made reference to more than 20 different contest judges and other officials. The company did not respond to a BBB request for information about those identified in the mailings.
- In spite of the company’s contention that it does not target senior citizens with its mailings, many of the inquiries and complaints to the BBB involve seniors or the families of seniors who believe the seniors have been misled.
- The company acknowledges that it sells its player lists to other businesses that solicit by mail, offering the names and addresses of people who are “highly responsive to promotional offers” and “ideal prospects” for offers including astrology, fundraising, insurance and business opportunities.
C. Floyd Anderson of Kansas City founded Opportunities Unlimited Publications and was the former president of the company. The current president is Joseph H. Lawson.
In 1997, the Connecticut attorney general sent cease and desist letters to businesses tied to Opportunities Unlimited, noting that pay to play contests were illegal in that state.
Five years later, the Washington attorney general’s office announced that Contest America Publishers agreed to make refunds to consumers after the company “misled Washington consumers, many of them elderly, into believing they could win big prizes by solving easy puzzles.”
Attorneys estimated that 860 people from nine states could be eligible to apply for refunds. At that time, the company was prohibited from soliciting high-risk persons who had paid $1,500 in entry fees in a year, or $3,500 in their lifetimes, or others whose past submissions showed that they had little or no chance of ever winning.
In 2006, an official representing the Minister for Fair Trading office in New South Wales, Australia, told legislators that Contest America and Opportunities Unlimited had sent mailings to residents of Australia suggesting they could win a “guaranteed prize” of $13,000 for answering a simple question and paying a $23 entry fee. She said the office had encountered some people who paid a $23 fee more than 100 times, “convinced that they have the correct answer and will receive a windfall.”
A Granite City, Ill., man said he entered one of the contests for $9, but will never play again. “It’s a lesson learned,” he said.
A man from Lincoln, Neb., said he spent more than $400 in entry fees. “I never won anything,” he said.
A woman from Sacramento, Calif., said her 81-year-old father had been entering the puzzle contests for months. She said he paid entry fees of at least $200 before she confronted him. “At first, he said he was really embarrassed and said he wouldn’t do it any more,” she said. “Then I found out he was still doing it. He is really trusting.”
Trisha Estes, administrative assistant to the company’s president, said that since 1974, Opportunities Unlimited Publications has awarded more than $4 million to people from around the world, including France, Germany, India, Norway, Belgium, Japan and the U.S. She said all customers receive a set of rules with each game and a consumer pamphlet with their initial mailings. She said the company does not target senior citizens in its mailings and enclosed information pointing to the company’s liberal refund policy.
A copy of the rules for one of the contests – Money Bank XII – says that of about 100,000 entries expected, about 82,000 contestants were expected to correctly answer the first question, 23,000 the second question and less than 2,000 the third question. A final tiebreaker ultimately would determine the winners.
The rules also state that less than 5 percent of the entry fees will be distributed in prizes.
The BBB offers the following advice for persons considering paying an upfront fee to enter a mail contest:
- Understand what type of contest you are entering. While most states have not outlawed paying entry fees for games of skill, paying an entry fee for a mailed game of chance is usually considered gambling and is illegal. Find out whether your state allows entry fees for games of skill.
- Be wary of marketing hype that makes it appear that you already have won a prize or are on the brink of winning. Also, beware of marketing that attempts to entice you with promises of large prizes or tries to push you into acting before you feel comfortable.
- Make sure you read and understand all contest rules.
- Understand that in most skill contests distributed by mail, the initial puzzles are very easy, but later ones become increasingly difficult. The final puzzle may be extremely difficult to solve and obtain a winning score and, even then, you may have to divide the prize payout with several other co-winners.
- Try to find out what checks and balances are in place to guarantee a fair contest. If you are uncomfortable with the company’s explanation of its auditing process, you may want to avoid the contest.
- Check out BBB Business Reviews at www.bbb.org.