Attorney General Miller alleges consumer fraud in mailings that use sweepstakes to generate charitable donations
(DES MOINES, Iowa) Two charities mailing sweepstakes-based solicitations to Iowans have been barred from any further soliciting in the state, under agreements with Attorney General Tom Miller. Veterans Relief Network, based in Schererville, Indiana, and Healing Heroes Network, out of Palm Harbor, Florida, were both investigated by Miller’s Consumer Protection Division for consumer fraud after the Division learned that Iowans were receiving the mailings.
Miller said that although the two companies otherwise appear to be unrelated, they both used prize-oriented solicitation tactics that violate Iowa laws protecting consumers from unfair and deceptive fundraising practices.
“These solicitation mailings were carefully crafted to mislead Iowa donors in several ways,” Miller said. “They repeatedly implied that the recipient was on the verge of getting a big cash prize, and that all that remained to complete the prize-award process was to send back a form – with a requested donation, of course.”
Miller added that the solicitations included statements that no prize had yet been won, but said that overall the mailings misled consumers by conveying the opposite message. “Figuratively speaking, a solicitation can’t shout ‘YOU WON!’, and then get off the hook by whispering ‘not really,’” Miller said. “There is no room for any trickery, especially when it comes to solicitations that heavily impact older Iowans, like these do.”
Veterans Relief Network (VRN)
According to Miller, VRN’s sweepstakes mailings included the following deceptive features:
- Mailings often highlight exciting, personalized statements like “Mildred W----- has won our $7,241.00 Grand Prize!” while less prominently describing the exciting news as a mere possibility.
- Recipients were asked to submit a “prize release” request, a “requisition” document, an “activation document,” a “verification,” an “affidavit” or the like -- as if the consumer had already won the prize and all that remained was the paperwork.
- Solicitations repeatedly warned of a possible “forfeiture” of the prize money, implying that the consumer had a financial stake that could be lost (forfeited) by failing to respond.
- Some solicitations emphasized the need to “confirm” the Iowan’s identity, suggesting that winner selection was no longer the issue.
- Prominent “Congratulations” convey the impression that something very special has already happened for the consumer.
- Some solicitations include what appears to be a check for $7,236.00 made out to the named consumer, a ruse to create unwarranted excitement about an imminent prize award.
- Many mailings instruct the recipient to “keep this document for your records,” as if something big is in process and recordkeeping will be important.
- Solicitations often include baldly deceptive statements like this one: “Maxine, there is only 1 more event that must take place before our judges can announce you as the winner. All you have to do is return your Release Reply Document with the pre-selected winning number by the deadline.”
Miller also pointed to a disconnect between how VRN claimed it would use donations, and how they were actually used. VRN describes its mission as helping those veterans “who need it most,” getting homeless veterans “off the streets” and providing them “a meal or a bed.” But VRN records indicate that the help it provides often covers routine expenses for selected veterans, like phone bills, car insurance, property taxes, or even retirement benefits.
“Veterans who need assistance with routine living expenses certainly deserve the help,” Miller said, “but donors deserve an accurate description of how their contributions will really be used. And adding insult to injury, this operation received more than 3000 donations from Iowans totaling more than $23,000 since 2015, but provided no financial support of any kind to any Iowa veteran in that time.”
VRN’s tax filings show that in 2016 its direct mail solicitations generated $481,853.00 in total donations, $332,239.00 (69%) of which was retained by VRN’s professional fundraiser, Precision Performance Marketing, Inc. of St. Louis, Missouri.
The VRN settlement is in the form of a written agreement called an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance. The agreement also applies to Indiana resident Helen Ignas, founder and president of the operation, whose signature often appears on VRN’s deceptive solicitation mailings. The Assurance notes that neither VRN nor Ignas admits to any wrongdoing.
The settlement requires VRN to make a refund to any Iowa donor who requests one, and to pay $25,000 to the state. An additional $10,000 payment is suspended for as long as VRN complies with the settlement terms.
Healing Heroes Network (HHN)
According to Miller, HHN’s sweepstakes mailings exhibited many of the same misleading themes as VRN mailings, including the following:
- The outer envelopes were sometimes stamped “URGENT” and referred to the consumer by name under the words “A CONFIRMED WINNER.”
- Some solicitations included an “Official Deposit Requisition” that asked the consumer to indicate a preference between receiving the $10,000 prize by wire transfer or certified check.
- Solicitations often included blatantly misleading statements, like the one that tells the recipient that a “deposit for the amount of $10,675.29 has been authorized for prize payment,” and that “we are happy to inform you that Deposit ID Number [XXX] has been issued in your name.” A consumer has to read the letter closely to get past the false belief that he or she won a big prize.
- Many personalized mailings highlight a grand prize of $10,000, and trumpet the “excellent news” that “You are the winner!” Small print divulges that despite the grand prize references the only thing the recipient has won is a “colorful notepad.”
Healing Heroes Network was incorporated in Florida in 2008. It solicited donations in its own name, and also the names Welcome Home Heroes and Tablets for Heroes. After Iowa began to investigate the operation last December, it filed papers with Florida authorities dissolving the corporation.
HHN’s tax filings for 2015 indicate that it received $2,437,451 in donations, and devoted only about $196,000 (19%) to grants for veterans. That year HHN paid more than $500,000 to Newport Creative Communications of Duxbury, Massachusetts for sweepstakes fundraising, and more than $400,000 to Outreach Calling of Reno, Nevada, for telephone soliciting. Tax filings also indicate that HHN is a family operation, involving Stacey Spiegel, Dr. Allan Spiegel, and Neal Spiegel.
HHN records show that HHN had received more than $1200 from Iowans in 2015 and 2016, and that its total assistance to Iowa veterans during that period consisted of an Android tablet given to one Iowa veteran.
“It’s almost impossible to condemn too harshly these deceptive efforts to manipulate older Iowans into donating,” Miller said. “The fact that the donations go to support questionable operations makes it all the worse.”
Because HHN has been formally dissolved, Miller’s settlement took the form of a consent judgment naming the operation’s Executive Director, Stacey Spiegel of Palm Harbor, Florida, as defendant. Miller said Spiegel signed many of the deceptive solicitations, and the settlement required her to pay $1000 into a fund to make refunds for any Iowa donors who request one.
- Sweepstakes mailings have long been a source of misleading messages and pitfalls for consumers. Among other problems, if you respond your name will be circulated to other operators out to make their own pitch for your money.
- With charitable appeals, don’t be fooled by a sympathetic name. Many causes clearly deserve generous public support, including veterans, law enforcement, fire fighters, and the fight against disease, but some marginal operations claim connections with such efforts but provide little support.
- Don’t be pressured into helping out until you have checked out a worthy-sounding organization. Charities can be checked out at the national Better Business Bureau’s “Wise Giving” site – www.give.org.
- Give wisely! Giving to a charity you know and trust is often the best option.
For more information or to file a complaint, contact the Consumer Protection Division through the Attorney General's website, by email or by phone:
Phone: 515-281-5926 (outside the Des Moines area, call toll-free: 888-777-4590)