Sweepstakes Or Swindle?

Barbara Fedida, Executive Director, Talent, CBS News
If you have ever received a sweepstakes entry from Publishers Clearing House and thought you were actually a winner, you're not alone.

With its huge sweepstakes promotions, the multi-magazine subscription agency is often accused of using trickery to sell magazines.

It has always settled such charges out of court. But Wednesday, it goes on trial in Wisconsin, charged with deceiving thousands of consumers.

And CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers says it could cost the company millions more than it has already paid to settle claims brought in 24 states.

In its commercials, Publishers Clearing House often features a jubilant sweepstakes winner holding a big check.

But Geri Ohland says she has been waiting on the Prize Patrol for two years. "First thing I did was tape it right up to the window, so they wouldn't miss me. It's been out there ever since. I was [crushed]; anybody'd be crushed, with all the money I blew for all those years."

Ohland estimates she spent more than $50,000 on magazines, gadgets, all kinds of stuff, because she believed buying would better her chances of winning.

"I was really involved because of what they were writing to me -- on what a winner I was," says Ohland.

Wisconsin Attorney General Jim Doyle collected her letters and thousands of others, which he will introduce as evidence this week in this landmark trial.

"[Publisher's Clearing House] sent out letters that said 'You can't tip the Prize Patrol so buy a product now;' they sent out letters asking people what dinners they want when they went to New York in the winner's circle," says Doyle.

Publishers Clearing House denies its mailings are misleading and says it has millions of happy customers to prove it. The firm's attorney, Christopher Irving, says it sends out promotional advertisements. "Consumers understand that. There's clearly no link between ordering and winning."

But Publishers Clearing House is no stranger to charges its sweepstakes are deceptive. In fact, the company recently settled with 24 states and agreed to pay penalties of as much as $20 million. But in Wisconsin officials, including Attorney General Doyle, say that settlement doesn't go far enough.

"Part of our case is that they have focused these solicitations on older people."

People like 85 year old Hulda Riese, who spent money meant for medicine on sweepstakes.

"It got to the point where it just caught up with her. She just thought that she had to buy something every time," says her husband, Allen Riese.

In Geri Ohland case, she still has her health, but her nest egg is long gone. She still keeps her "winner" sign in her window, where it now serves as a warning, not a welcome.