The fine print is frequently not fine

So I was getting my mail yesterday, and I got one of those offers guaranteeing me two prizes, if all I'd do is saunter into a car dealership in my area and show them my "Notice of Intent to Award Prize."

Now I know that I'm not about to really win a prize, or not in the way that I hope. I know this isn't a good deal. I know it instinctively, without even giving this piece of paper a second glance, just like we all do. But just for laughs, I thought I'd give this a real look. After all, while I'm sure almost everyone reading this wouldn't fall for this sort of thing, some people must, and probably either young and not yet jaded adults, or folks who are feeling a little desperate and thinking, "Maybe my ship has finally come in..."

If these forms didn't occasionally draw someone in, they wouldn't send them.

My prizes, if I would want to go into see my friendly neighborhood Chevrolet dealer, would be two of:
  • a 3 day/2 night resort getaway (retail value: $500)
  • a $2,500 instant scratch ticket
  • a home theater system (retail value: $500)
  • a $1,000 instant scratch ticket
  • $10,000 cash
Ooooh. Now that does sound nice, doesn't it? And since they put in capital letters GUARANTEED WINNER OF AT LEAST TWO (2) PRIZES and even said, "this is NOT a joke, prank or gimmick," I really did feel like this worth studying. I mean, honestly, even if there's a catch, they must be serious on some level.

So I looked at the fine print.
"Contest is open to legal US citizens who are 21 years of age or older as of 6/25/2008 (the date I received this)." OK, nothing weird there. Paraphrasing now: Employees of the place are ineligible. Contest is ongoing from June 25th to June 29th.

And then, I see it. The fine print that explains the odds of winning. Thank you, Federal Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act, which came about in 1999, governing sweepstakes -- which this essentially is --through the mail. My odds of winning the $10,000 in cash, or the home theater system, are both one in thirty-seven thousand. Actually, 1 in 37,252.

My odds of winning the $1,000 scratch ticket are the same as the $2,500 scratch ticket -- 1 out of 177,100.

But my odds of winning the 3 day/2 night resort getaway are 1 in 1. One-hundred percent.

Even with this wonderful guaranteed prize, were I to go in and claim it, the fine print reveals that my hotel prize doesn't include "transportation, hotel taxes, service charges, Florida state sales tax or gratuities." Being that I'm in Ohio, this could be a pricey trip.

So I thought about it and wondered -- what would happen if I went in, took the resort prize (and I have no idea the name of this resort or if it's on the beach or 80 miles from anywhere interesting) and then I actually beat all of the odds and won something? What would happen?

Well, I finally concluded, that the dealership owner probably would grit his teeth and give me my other prize. But he's probably happy to take that chance. And why not? He likes his odds.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale). He hopes that if you know someone who seems susceptible to these types of marketing, that you'll forward it to them.
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