For years, Steve Ledoux received those pesky sweepstakes entries in the mail at his Studio City apartment. He'd sort through them--the ones with promises of big prizes or exotic trips, the ones with Ed McMahon's face on the envelopes--and he'd sometimes mail them in.
He never won a thing.
But two years ago, he met Janis Cowser, then of North Hollywood, who was already a fanatic about entering contests. She has won trips to Switzerland, the West Indies, Aspen and Hawaii, where she hit the jackpot and met the man she plans to spend the rest of her life with.
Cowser, 41, has moved to Hawaii and planned to marry James Sidney Horner, 51, on Valentine's Day. She thanks her penchant for sweepstakes for her present happiness but is delaying the honeymoon--until the couple wins a trip for two in a sweepstakes contest.
"People think we're luckier than the next guy, but it's really not true," says Ledoux, an electronic graphic artist for NBC Studios. "But there are a few things I've learned from Janis that I believe have helped me."
That could be an understatement.
Ledoux, 34, has amassed a roomful of prizes including a Macintosh computer and printer, three 19-inch color televisions, a bread maker, an outdoor grill, a Fuji camera, kitchen appliances, stacks of compact discs, sunglasses and T-shirts, vitamins, long-distance telephone service, a dental examination for his dog and more.
In the next year, he'll have to find time to trek to Puerto Rico, Maui, Florida and Oakland. He has seen Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Brothers Circus, the rock band War at the House of Blues and the musical "Tommy" at the Universal Amphitheatre--all for free.
He won $300 for two "ridiculous" chicken recipes that he concocted. He's not sure what to do with the Swiss hiking boots, winter gloves, Rollerblades, watches and ice coolers he may never use.
"People might think I've become a little obsessed about this hobby of mine, but I like winning," says Ledoux with a smile.
In a little more than a year, he's collected about $12,000 worth of cash and prizes--not counting $18,500 he previously won on three game shows. All that, he says, for about three hours of work and $25 in postage a week.
Ledoux, Cowser and a growing number of upper-middle-class suburban dwellers are taking those mail-in contests seriously and becoming self-professed "sweepstakes-aholics." Sweepstakes entries have developed into hobbies, much like stamp collecting, and people are trading information, tricks and success stories.
The Contest News-Letter, published in Danbury, Conn., has mailing lists predominantly in large suburban areas like the San Fernando Valley. Contestants have a median income of $38,000, says Rich Henderson, editor of the 300,000-circulation newsletter.
"There's an emotional lift dreaming about the winnings that I think is good for you," says Henderson, who has won a key chain, T-shirt, kitchen magnet and a video camcorder, but still hopes for a big prize. "We get letters from people who say they've won the first contest they entered, but it's all the luck of the draw."
Computer Internet links like America Online have "rooms" where people discuss the hottest contests to enter, and that's where Brian Gusse of Van Nuys searches for contests. A production worker in a publishing company, Gusse has entered contests for 13 years but only last year became a big winner.
"It seemed to happen all at once," Gusse says. "I started winning little things, T-shirts and stuff, then I won $2,000 in cash and then a 1948 Ford customized car appraised at $35,000."
Gusse sold the car for $22,000 and credits his streak simply to luck. Other hard-core entrants say they have ways to hedge their bets. They get writer's cramp as they spend hours filling out their names on index cards and drive for miles to drop off ballots for a prize they may never win. Ledoux, for example, drove more than 100 miles one recent weekend in a contest quest that took him to a dozen Alpha Beta grocery stores across the Valley and Simi Valley. He filled out more than 1,000 ballots. One clerk saw him stuffing ballots and called him a "cheater."
Then, the results came in: a $100 gift certificate from one store, a television from another store, another television, a third television and, finally, the grand prize, a $4,000 trip to Puerto Rico.
"He didn't break any rules," says Celvin West, the Granada Hills Alpha Beta manager who pulled Ledoux's name and gave him a $250 television.
In the case of Alpha Beta, as in most contests, store managers don't compare winners' names, and multiple winnings are not against the rules. If the name is pulled from the box, then that's the name that wins. And, in recent years, stores like Alpha Beta are doing two or three promotional contests a year.