I would be very surprised if everyone has not been getting the same mysterious mail that I have. At least twice a week I receive a computerized "priority message" telling me that I've won either a new Ford Bronco, a Toro riding lawnmower, a home movie TV entertainment system, four days in Atlantic City or $500 in cash.
All I have to do is take a two-hour tour of a time-sharing condominium at Newport's Inn on the Harbor - or one of numerous similar opportunities on Cape Cod. Mustering great strength of character, I have managed to resist so far. But one person who did not resist recently found that after he lasted through the two-hour tour that he did not qualify for one of the big gifts - instead, he received a "Flintstones-era Super 8 movie system with TV," and could get it if he agreed to pay $58 to have it shipped to his home.He refused and walked away with a flimsy set of six steak knives, allegedly a $69.95 value.
The latest twist in this never-ending avalanche of mail is a postcard approach that has no obvious loopholes. It said: "Congratulations! You have been selected to receive an exciting luxury cruise to the Grand Bahamas, for a five-day, four-night stay in Freeport, PLUS a five-day, four-night stay in fabulous FLORIDA, including the ORLANDO/DISNEY WORLD area. To claim your vacation, please call this WEDNESDAY, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., the below listed number, and we will add a vacation for either five days, four nights in MEXICO, or six days, five nights in HAWAII."
I was intrigued by this, because I could not find the loophole, even though I read it over several times. It even promised at the bottom, in small letters, that the cost of the initial call would be reimbursed.
Only the week before I had watched a television report on "20/20" that described scams that promised vacations in exotic places. In most instances, the people had been asked to pay $200 or $300 for service charges, but they agreed to do it because they thought that a luxurious vacation was worth a small initial fee. Only thing was - after paying the initial fee they could no longer locate the people who promised the vacation.
Being properly warned, I was still curious. I decided to call the number. After all, I would be reimbursed. And I could just ask them to explain to me, and I could ask them their gimmick.
I called and got a very fast-talking woman who was determined to read a long spiel. She began by asking me three questions: Are you married or single? Are you between the ages of 25 and 62? Do you possess a major credit card? After I answered, she read a description of what I had won that sounded like an extended version of the postcard.
The luxury cruise would be 6 hours long (fairly short), but there was dancing and a casino on board. It originated at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., meaning that I would have to provide my own transportation to Florida. OK, I thought, it is really a very short distance between Fort Lauderdale and Freeport. Better take proper advantage of the big 6 hours!
Then she described the stay in Freeport, with hotel paid for; a stay in Florida with hotel paid for, plus an extra vacation either in Mexico or Hawaii, hotel paid for. She announced that this offer was a $2,600 value, and when I asked her what the gimmick was, she said, "None. We have no condos to sell or anything."
I would, of course, have to arrange transportation to all the points of origin myself. They would help me with a discount airline ticket to Hawaii, and 30 percent off the rental car. "OK," I said, "what do I do to get this great vacation?"
"You just send a check to us for $299, a one-time fee that is actually a service charge, plus $100 to the cruise line as a deposit to pay for port tax, the meals during the cruise, and the paperwork necessary for entering the Bahamas."
Oh. It suddenly sounded exactly like "20/20." I asked once more why it was that they would offer this deal. There had to be some motivation. "Well," she said, hesitantly, "we are promoting a new cruise line. We think if people come and see how great it is, they will come back again and again."
I hung up without providing my credit card number, and my conclusion is pretty straight forward: when this mysterious mail comes to your house - even when there is no discernible loophole - heave it in the circular file.