"Congratulations," it said on the post card mailed from Trans-American Vacations in Sparta, Tenn.
The message, signed by company coordinator Joanne Kennedy, continued: "You have been selected by Sweepstakes Clearinghouse 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 the Orlando/Disney World area, in fabulous Florida."
Other post cards, mailed by other Sparta companies called Holiday House or Resorts Travel, and signed by Donna Johnson and Jennifer Regan, respectively, offered similar congratulatory messages for luxury Bahamian cruises as well as Mexico vacations.
When recipients called to collect their prizes they were told that there would be a "small service fee" of $289, followed by additional costs. I received three of these cards in one week and called the number on one of them to collect my "prize."
Here's what it really was: The "luxury cruise" was a large seagoing ferry complete with casino. No cabins, just seats. The operator also said I could get a free hotel in Manzanillo, Mexico, "where they shot that fabulous movie '10.' " The cost: $289 per person. Of course, I could upgrade my accommodations for an additional charge.
"Would you give me your Visa or MasterCard to accept this offer?" she asked. I said I'd think about it. "I'm sorry, you have to accept this award now or you can't have it," she replied.
Unfortunately, thousands of Americans, thinking they were getting a bargain, gave out their credit card numbers to this and dozens of other travel and tour operators whom federal investigators claim were defrauding the public.
Nine Sparta travel companies mailed tens of thousands of post cards a day.
"It was staggering," said James Wheeler, U.S. postmaster for Sparta. "It was much more than we could handle. In one week they mailed out more than a million cards. We couldn't process them here, so we had to truck them to Nashville."
It wasn't long before the complaints started. By last December so many complaints had been filed with the Tennessee attorney general that the state filed suit against the nine travel companies, alleging that they had violated the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act.
According to the attorney general's suit announced in January, the companies "sent out post cards to consumers, leading them to believe that they had won a free vacation when, in fact, they were required to pay for a vacation.
"The companies reportedly made unauthorized charges on consumer credit cards, failed to disclose to consumers (that) . . . extra charges applied to the vacation packages, and used fictitious names in written and oral correspondence with consumers."
The lawsuit also charged the companies with "failure . . . to deliver vacation packages, failure to give consumers sufficient time to decide whether to purchase the package, and failure to disclose clearly the refund policy."
The companies deny the charges.
"Utterly false," Bill Austin, co-owner of Southeastern Travel in Sparta, said. "We think of ourselves as the vacation capital of the world."
Hardly. Federal investigators believe that Sparta (population 4,800) is the travel scam capital of the United States.
"I know all the other people who run these companies," Austin said, "and we're not con men. We give people a great vacation deal. And we sold more than 100,000 vacations. Only 600 people complained."
Well, not quite.
"Actually," said one postal inspector, "the complaints were in the thousands. But we only recorded the written complaints."
As a direct result of the suit and a subsequent temporary restraining order, Austin's company--and others--agreed to insert a disclaimer at the bottom of each post card that reads: "This is not an all-expense-paid vacation."
But the boiler-room sales tactics continued, according to investigators. Soon the Tennessee attorney general's office was not the only agency interested in Sparta.
Since the beginning of this year most of the complaints have been received from out of state. Many of the complainants charge these Sparta firms with high-pressure tactics designed to get their credit card account numbers.
"We've been very busy on this case," said Nancy Miller, a postal inspector based in Memphis. "In just the past few months we've received 405 written complaints about Southeastern Travel alone."
On May 1 postal inspectors and Secret Service agents ran a sting on one of the companies. Agents posed as potential customers who had received the post cards. Conversations were tape recorded.
When operators asked for credit cards, numbers were given, but the callers specifically requested that they not be charged until they had time to think it over. In each case the credit card account was charged.
On May 1, armed with a search warrant, agents raided Southeastern Travel and seized two boxes of documents, including credit card charge slips.