Instant Winner Scams: Promotions You Lose If You Win

Instant Winner Promotions: Offers You Should Refuse!

Did you receive a phone call, email or notice in the mail that you are an "instant winner" or that you are guaranteed to have won one of several prizes? Maybe you completed a card at a store or put your name and address in a box to win a vacation, or perhaps you dropped your business card into a fishbowl. Often, this is a way for marketing companies to harvest your name, address, email and phone number to approach you for a scam.

Some of these promotions are legitimate; restaurants often give away a lunch for one person or a small group. Radio stations also do similar giveaways.  But some car dealerships, time-sharing condos, vacation time shares, fitness centers and other downright shady groups have a history of using this as a way to lure you into buying something at a grossly inflated price.

There is a fine line between marketing hype and outright lies, but some "deals" are  are only good for the company selling the product and and for you!

Read the account below sent in by a reader to get an idea of what can happen.  We're following up with this individual to obtain a a copy of the complaint with the attorney general. We've visited a similar shopping promotion winner website and were able to compare some of the prices.  The prices appeared to be full retail, not the highest and not the lowest we've seen.  Oddly, we were NOT able to see any of the fees, handling or shipping charges - unless we submitted the order! Alarms bells ought to go off at that point! We were able to view this statement:

By agreeing to this order, I acknowledge that I have read and understand all posted Store policies, terms, and conditions. I also acknowledge the following policies; If you are using a gift certificate you will only be charged shipping, handling, and processing. You must be logged into your account to receive the merchandise credit. Upon approval of your transaction all charges listed on the following page will be immediately charged to your credit card. You can only checkout one time and you forfeit the remaining balance of any gift certificate credit. There is an 8% cancelation fee for any cancelations after this transaction is completed. The order will be shipped within 2-6 weeks

We would like to hear about any and all online shopping spree winner, promotion winner, and or marketing "instant winner" companies. Have you had any experiences like this, or any experiences, positive or negative with these specific companies: (these are the promotion companies we have heard of thus far - we are no alleging they have done anything wrong - we simply want to hear your experiences with them):

Worldwide Shopping Network, WSN, ,,,,,,,, ), or with others?  Please write us!

The opinions expressed below are those of the individual involved and not of this website, since we were not directly involved and cannot independently verify all facts and charges. From what we can tell, there is no clear violation of law or fraud involved ; we'll leave that to the Pennsylvania Attorney General to determine whether prosecution is in order.  Our goal is simply to inform you to ALWAYS read the fine print and do not proceed if you do not understand or feel comfortable with the conditions.

We would recommend using well-established stores, such as Costco, Sam's Club, BJ's Warehouse and well-known online retailers like and rather than promotions like these.

Email from a visitor, December 31, 2007. We've replaced the name of the car dealer ship with "car dealership" and the name of the shopping website with "" (a fictitious name we invented) to avoid being sued or harassed by the real companies, while the complaint with the attorney general proceeds.

I am writing this letter to you because I believe that I have been the victim of a scam that seems to be fairly widespread in America. I have never written a letter like this so this is not something that I do lightly, but the whole event that I will describe was bothering me so much that I felt  I needed to write this letter. As you can probably tell by reading the variety of names listed in the "to" section of the address bar, I am sending this out to a large group of people. My hope is that I will find someone that is interested in stopping this type of fraud as soon as possible. I am filing a fraud report with the Pennsylvania office of Attorney General in parallel with this email. Filing a fraud complaint is a good start, maybe it can save people a lot of grief in the future, but it will take time. I know the government can stop this fraud but it also can move slowly at times and sometimes a little publicity can make things happen faster than the law can. This fraud is something that I feel needs stopped.

Please read the following account of my dealings with what appears to be some kind of fraud or scam being perpetrated on innocent people. While technically this may be considered legal, it seams as though people are being taken advantage of while being misled into believing they have won something of value. If this is in fact legal, then someone needs to put an end to it now.

A few days ago I received an advertisement card from a local car dealership located in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. This ad clearly stated that I was an instant winner if the scratch of area of my card matched the number printed right beside it. My number matched so it led me to believe that I was an instant winner. The card said that I would win an Iphone, 42" plasma Panasonic TV, a $1,000 shopping spree or $7,000 cash. Normally I throw this type of mail in the garbage without even reading it. But, I was curious this time so I looked into it.

I was doubtful that there wasn't a catch to this so I called a local car dealership (570-288-6576) and I was told by an employee of WB Dodge that I definitely had won one of those 4 prizes and all I would have to do is come done and turn in my card and fill out a form so I could receive my prize. I would not have driven 30 miles to collect anything from them if I thought that I would be scammed.

I figured I would have nothing to lose but a few hours out of my day and some gas money by turning in my winning card so I went down to see what I had won.

On December 26th 2007 I went to the dealership. I handed in my card and sat through 15 minutes of a half baked sales pitch. During the sales pitch the sales woman told me that she did not work for a local car dealership but for an outside sales company brought in to attract customers to WB Dodge.

Another salesman that was with her also told me basically the same thing. That they (Wiles Barre Dodge) sent out mailers to as many people as possible telling them that they were instant winners. The salesman expected that most of the mailers would get ripped up and thrown out but in the end the hoped that a small percentage of people would buy cars. But, I was told, since I was an instant winner, I was entitled to a prize. The salesman left and came back after a few minutes and told me that I had won a $1,000 shopping spree. I would have liked any of the other prizes better but I figured I couldn't complain about getting something for nothing.

The saleswoman told me that I was entitled a free $1,000 shopping spree but I could only use it on I was then given a certificate for the

The saleswoman warned me of 2 things before I left:

1) That I would have to purchase everything all at once, during my "shopping spree". If I didn't use up all the money at that time then would lose the remainder of the $1,000. No matter how little I spent.

2) That I would have to pay shipping and handling for the items that I bought online. She told me that it may be $100 to $200 if I used the $1,000 shopping spree.

I don't usually shop online, so I didn't think much of the shipping and handling fee until I got home and went online. I was surprised to find that the S&H fee was in some cases 30-50 % of the actual cost of many of the items. Also you pay a shipping, handling AND processing fee for every item that is purchased during the shopping "spree", not just one fee at the end of the order for the entire order. After all, since everything had to be purchased at once, it was just one order 

I checked the back of the shopping spree certificate that I was given and found that shipping and handling also included "all or a portion of the following cost, but not limited to":

1.) Warehousing expenses,

2.) Order processing,

3.) Order assembly,

4.) Unpacking and repacking of multiple items,

5.) Operating expenses,

6.) Labor costs,

7.) Utilities,

8.) Business profit,

9.) Business taxes,

10.) Insurance

11.) Packaging materials,

12.) Data management,

13.) Postage costs and

14.) "Our cost to obtain the item" 

If this was a true shopping spree, why would I be paying for half of these costs? If this was a true shopping spree, why would I be paying the cost for the company to obtain the items? That doesn't make it a free shopping spree. That just means I'm spending money like a madman.

This is supposed to be a prize? The salesperson at a local car dealership mentioned shipping and handling, NOT all of the additional fees.

I was not happy about having to pay this excessive S&H fee, but I figured I would still look to see what kind of merchandise this website sells. Most of the stuff that is sold on the website does not appear to be good quality merchandise. There were a few brand name items but most were very generic low quality looking items that are sold on cable TV at 3:00 in the morning. Now I can't say that for sure without touching the merchandise but I can say that it is almost all way overpriced. Generic items are hard to compare prices on other websites but the brand name items could be crosschecked between websites. Some of the products are marked up so much that the excessive shipping and handling costs are actually more than what you would pay for the same exact product if you bought it elsewhere AND paid for S&H ON TOP of the original cost.

For example, I checked a few items the website versus other website just by "Googling" the same product to see if the prices were comparable.

  • Perry Ellis Portfolio Green 1.7 oz cologne for men

On it retails at $52.00 + 19.49 S&H

On "Perfume Angel" it retailed at $19.93 and $5.95 S&H (no S&H if you spent over $100)

4 other websites sold it for $20.35, $19.95, $14.26 and $17.30 respectively. Of course they would also have S&H fees, but I doubt it would cost $19.49 to send that 1.7 oz bottle anywhere in the country. Especially not in the 2 to 6 weeks that the said it would take to ship.

Maybe the cost for the company to obtain the items is what drove the price up here? This price is only comparable after the retail price is eliminated.

  • Bellagio 3.4 oz Spray EDT for Men

On it retails at $45.00 + $24.99 S&H

On the same exact product can be purchased for $23.89 with no S&H

The free Shipping and handling may have just been an special during Christmas but it still is retailing for less than the S&H cost that would charge.

I could probably go on for a while with these examples. It only took me 15 minutes to find 5 blatant examples of what I thought were overpriced items (with proportionally overpriced S&H). I will attach what I found in a spreadsheet with this email.

I called the 1-888-398-0400 to complain about what seems to be very high prices and inexplicably high prices for shipping and handling. I spoke with a manager named Barbara who told me that she has a lot of customers that shop on her site every day and they have no problems with the prices for the products or for the shipping and handling.

When I explained to Barbara that in order for me to use my "free" $1,000 shopping spree I would have to pay probably close to $500 in shipping charges to her she said that was not true. She also told me that if I were to buy 10 leather coats at $100 each, I would only have to pay $290 S&H.

This is true because the maximum that says they will charge for S&H is $29.95 but why would I need 10 leather coats? And on for most people $295.00 IS STILL a lot to pay for some thing that they were led to believe was free in the first place.

However, when I looked for a leather coat, the only one I could find was a $59.95 woman's coat. If for some reason that was all I bought with my $1,000 then I would end up with 16 of them and at the rate of $19.77 S&H for each one, I would still end up paying $330.00 out of my own pocket.

I guess my biggest complaint about the would be the fact that the items on the website seem to be way overpriced. Since the items are "free" because of the shopping spree that I won, the price shouldn't matter. But, when the shipping and handling fees are higher than it would cost to buy some of the same items at regular cost with shipping and handling included on other websites, something does not seem right about this prize that I won. 

When I mentioned the fact that I took issue with this price difference to Barbara, she reiterated that she has lots of customers who shop on her website every day and don't have an issue with the price. The way Barbara said this led me to believe that random shoppers just buy stuff from all of the time and would prefer this site to others.

However, all of her customers come from the same type of referral that I came from, meaning that they were winners of a shopping spree or a similar prize and specifically looked for the on the internet. This is not a website like Amazon, Borders or, for example, that most internet shoppers have heard of and use on a regular basis. I never would have even found this website if I wasn't specifically looking for it. And, I was only looking for this website because I believed that I had won something from it. I would not have even looked for this website if I knew that I was not going to have to pay $200 to $500 dollars out of my own pocket to collect my "winnings."

The ONLY business that the gets is from people that have been led to believe they won something from a giveaway of some sort. In fact, the is a corporation with many arms that do the same thing to other consumers that I been describing. (other named websites) are all branches of the that work off of the same principal of promising someone a shopping spree and charging them additional extra costs for shipping and handling fees. 

The is based out of Florida and has been an accredited business member of the West Florida Better Business Bureau since January 2006.

On the West Florida Better Business Bureau website, the nature of the business is listed as follows:

" offers gift certificates that are redeemable for merchandise listed on the company's website. The certificates are sold nationwide to other companies in the marketplace that use these certificates as gifts or prizes for their consumers. According to, it does not provide any certificates directly to consumers, but to other businesses."

 With the prices of the products increased to make them appear to be more valuable to the customer, the customer will think that he is getting a great deal because he does not have to pay that increased cost. He or she will only have to pay the shipping and handling fees for the "free‘ item. However, on inspection the shipping and handling fees appear to be just as proportionally high as the suggested retail cost.  If the customer were only paying for the shipping and handling (as I was led to believe) then this may be a deal. But, when the customer has to pay "all or a portion" of the 14 items I listed above, the customer is NOT getting a deal and IS being lied to and / or misled. This is not right. By tucking these hidden costs away in a fine print somewhere may cover someone or some entity from legal action but it is dwelling in the gray area of the law and is not right. This should not be allowed to continue by any business that calls itself reputable. Whether it is the fault of the business that is giving away the "winning" prize (car dealer, time share owner, etc...) or the business that is making a profit off of the consumer ( that is being misled, this is not right and it needs to stop.

 During our brief conversation, Barbara also specifically told me that I did NOT win a shopping spree. She told me that I won a shopping certificate. I am not sure of the difference between a certificate and a spree. Maybe this is a legal loophole, I'm not sure. But, just by looking at the names of the sister websites of the it is clear that the websites a set up on the premise that I have won a shopping spree and did not just win a certificate for merchandise.

 I did contact car dealership to find out why they would help a company like this basically rip people off and I was told that I should have read the fine print that said I would have to pay shipping and handling. This was the extent of the help that I got from the manager.

 Basically, to conclude

  • If it is not already illegal to lead consumers to believe that they have won something for free and then use that as a way to collect hundreds of dollars off of them it should be.
  • If this is illegal, and I believe that it is, then someone needs to reinforce this in the minds of the corporation such as the and the companies that use the in order to get customers to come into their place of business. In my case that company was a car dealership, car dealership, but it could any be other type of business. This reinforcement should be done through fines or some sort of legal punishment. I'm sure there are precedents for punishment in cases like this.
  • We have consumer protection groups in America to look out for consumers and hopefully to prevent this type of fraud from being perpetrated. These consumer groups need to fight against this type of scam and shut down these companies or fine them heavily and force them to operate on the up and up. No corporation should be able to operate in the gray area of the law. 
  • If standards for Shipping and Handling don't exist for internet sales, then standards need to be created. One thing I learned just by a few hours of research is that the S&H prices vary wildly on the internet with apparently no regulation. Some companies offer free shipping and handling while others add hidden fees while using the S&H label as a cover. It is not right that one company can charge vast amounts more to ship the same product as another company can for no apparent reason. It is understandable that products come from different locations in the country but there must be some reasonable range of shipping cost.
  • The principle of "you don't get something for nothing" has been reinforced in my mind by this whole event. I will not use my "winning" $1,000 shopping spree. But, I hope that what I learned from this situation can help make a difference in the way these "free" shopping sprees and similar items are handed out by local businesses to Joe and Jane Consumer to trick them into coming into stores and doing business with them. If the local businesses can't operate like this then scams like the will not be able thrive without people really even knowing what they are about.
  • In my case, I would have only lost a few hundred dollars. This doesn't sound like much, not even to the average Joe on the street. But, if just a few thousand people in a country of 300 million can be tricked like this then a million dollar internet company can be created that would never be able survive on the brick and mortar streets of America. And it would be created by defrauding people by using trickery not by being honest with the consumer.

I know that sometimes I can get longwinded but when I feel that something is wrong I want to take steps to fix it. Unfortunately, some things are out of my realm to fix. In this case, some of the issues I brought up are a lot bigger than me. That is why I am writing to you. I believe that in your position you might be able to help get more done on this subject consumer fraud in a short period of time than I ever could over a much longer period.  I am not looking for fame. I'm not looking for fortune. I am looking for your help to prevent this fraud from continuing.

Is there anything that you or any one that you know of that can do anything to help stop this fraud from continuing?

Something needs to be done.

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