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Read the fine print: This is a way to get your money

November 01, 2011|David Lazarus

If someone is honest about trying to give you a raw deal, does that somehow make things better?

Edd Whetmore, 65, of Long Beach was among many people who recently received a letter from something called Sentry Armored Dispatch saying that the recipient is a "confirmed cash prize winner."

In this case, it was Whetmore's wife, Annie Wilson, who was the lucky one. She was informed that $898,899 in prize money was waiting to be disbursed, and she was guaranteed a piece of it.

All Whetmore and Wilson had to do was send $20 to a post office box in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to claim the prize.

Let me say right here that whenever anyone tells you to send in money to receive money, don't do it. It's almost certainly a bad idea.

The letter from Sentry Armored Dispatch is unusual in that details of the lousy deal are right there in the fine print. That is, if anyone takes the time to read such things.

And apparently most people don't. Googling Sentry Armored Dispatch reveals that numerous people have received the company's letter in recent weeks. Postings on the website Scambook.com, for example, show that most recipients believed they were being offered the full $898,899.

But that's not the case at all. The fine print of the letter makes clear that "winners" will receive one of the following prizes: $8,988.99, $898.89, $89.88 or 89 cents.

Your odds of receiving the top prize, the letter says, are 1 in 898,899. Your odds of receiving 89 cents are 1 in 1.

"My wife and I burst out laughing when we saw that," Whetmore told me. "What they're actually saying is that if you send them $20, they'll send you 89 cents."

That's exactly what they're saying. And the fact that they're being completely upfront is what makes this so extraordinary.

Sentry must be relying on people being too lazy to read the fine print. If you do, and if you think for a moment about what's being conveyed, you'll immediately see what's what. If you don't, well, you can't say you weren't warned.

Sally Greenberg is executive director of the National Consumers League in Washington. When I told her about the mailing, she thought it played on "people's gullibility and the fact that they seldom read the fine print."

"This is how people end up sending millions of dollars a year to people who send fake checks or to people in Nigeria," she said.

The fine print of the letter from Sentry Armored Dispatch reveals that you don't actually have to send in $20 to receive a cash prize if you don't want to, which would appear to get around many state laws that forbid the charging of money to enter a private lottery or sweepstakes.

It also says the prizes are really offered by "independent third-party sponsors" and that Sentry "doesn't guarantee the cash or prizes advertised."

Steve Baker, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Midwest region division, said federal regulators watch for deceptive or unfair business practices. If a marketing pitch discloses all relevant information, he said, it could keep the business on the fair-weather side of the fence.

So who's behind this operation? That's apparently a guy named William A. Clutter, who resides not in Florida but in Colorado.

According to the Florida secretary of state's office, Clutter applied to operate in the state under the name Sentry Armored Dispatch in June of this year. He gave a Las Vegas address in the filing.

That address turns out to be for a Vegas law firm, Black & LoBello, which confirmed that Clutter is a client.

Clutter, who property records show moved in September from Las Vegas to a house outside Denver, couldn't be reached for comment.

But searches of public records show that a William A. Clutter achieved minor notoriety in Vegas a decade ago as lead plaintiff in a case involving the right to operate as an independent limo driver in Nevada.

The libertarian Institute for Justice, which represented Clutter in the case, described the ruling in Clutter's favor as "a major legal victory for economic liberty."

The letter from Sentry Armored Dispatch identifies Clutter as the company's "chief dispatch officer." His signature is on the letter.

Clutter appears to have had enough experience with the law to understand how to keep his current endeavor on solid legal ground, even if the ethics of the enterprise are decidedly questionable, at least to me. Close readers of the Sentry letter are certainly being given all relevant facts.

Whetmore, who is a professor of communications at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said he'd give Clutter an "A" for the artfully worded Sentry letter.

"It's brilliant," he said. "It's evil, but it's brilliant."

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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