Dad's Prize Patrol dreams drain family savings

Detroit Free Press

DETROIT The pile of stuff along the Florida driveway frying pans, cookbooks, picture hanging kits, wallets, barbecue gadgets, multiples of many things chronicle Karl Dowd's big dream to win the Publishers Clearing House big prize.

The clutter has crept its way into family memories, too.

Happy times growing up in suburban Detroit with a loving dad, a veteran of the Korean War who worked hard to be a good provider, are overshadowed some days by the dark cloud of obsession that financially drained Dowd's estate over roughly 2012 and 2013 and possibly in earlier years, too.

The Dowds were on a fixed income, but their children estimate Karl Dowd spent from $5,000 to $10,000 buying items on the Publishers Clearing House site over two years. They believe he wanted to improve his chances of winning the big prize.

He worked as a vice president in information technology for many years. He wasn't a gambler, buying an occasional lottery ticket.

A year after Dowd's death, his family can't believe their father got caught in a cycle of spending thousands on gadgets crazy, basically worthless gadgets.

"My dad was always really smart," said his daughter Lisa DelBusso, 57.

"Not gullible," said daughter Cindy Harbin, 58.

"He was one of the smartest guys I ever knew," said Jeff Dowd, 51, who lived near his parents for a time in Florida but moved to Phoenix.

The two daughters, who have helped their mom deal with the aftermath of the spending spree, wanted to tell their heartbreaking story because somehow the family can't let it go. They wanted to warn other families to watch over their elderly parents and to know what they are purchasing.

They feel their father was taken advantage of but maybe somehow they missed signs signs other adult children of seniors might learn when it comes to sweepstakes, lotteries and ways to spend real money in pursuit of an unlikely payoff. A year after their dad's death, their mom still talks on the phone about her anger at all the money spent.

"I don't think this is unique to us," Harbin said in the living room of her home.

Publishers Clearing House told the family Dowd was flagged for spending too much in a short period of time on the website and eventually removed from mail and email promotions. The company said he was asked to answer a survey, which included a question about whether he knew buying items from the website would not improve his chances of winning the sweepstakes.

The company said Dowd never won anything of significance.

EARLY SIGNS

Karl and Patricia Dowd raised their family of four in the Detroit suburbs. Once retired, the couple moved around 2009 to Winter Garden, Fla., to be near their son Jeff and his young family.

The Detroit-area home had been sold during the housing meltdown at a rock-bottom price before the couple moved to Florida, the two daughters said. Investments had fallen in value in the financial crisis. Their father was living on a fixed income.

There were some early signs of a problem.

At one point, Cindy Harbin said her mom had complained during a phone call that dad was buying too many things from Publishers Clearing House but the daughter tried to reassure her mother that dad was fine. Cindy said she thought it was manageable and maybe just a harmless hobby.

"If he was just buying a few piddly things, it's no big deal," said Cindy Harbin. "We didn't realize he was his own UPS stop."

One time he did convince his wife that a dealership told him he won a car and he dragged their mother there. But no car was won and the dealer later called to say: "We never said he won a car and we wouldn't do that."


Jeff Dowd said his own wife drove his father out to the other side of town meet some people somewhere from Publishers.

"She took him one time, and of course, no one came there," Jeff Dowd said.

The son tried talking to his father, even printing out a notice off the Publishers Clearing House website that stated someone did not have to buy anything to win. The notice online reads: "Your chances of winning without a purchase are the same as the chances of someone who buys something. It would not be lawful to give any advantage to buyers in a Sweepstakes."


But his dad kept buying stuff online.

SWEEPSTAKES IN THE DIGITAL ERA

Publishers Clearing House isn't limited to the regular mail these days.

Someone can go online to enter to win "$5,000 a Week 'Forever'" sweepstakes, and they can buy small items, like wallets or cookbooks.

Publishers Clearing House is on Twitter and Facebook, giving updates from the "Prize Patrol Girl," who says she travels the country surprising winners with big checks. Going online in late August one could find a 10-foot drain cleaner for $15.96, a 10-inch fry pan for $19.96, a sack of 35 World War II military coins for $35.96 and a 12-inch non-stick electric skillet for $59.96.

The company says it monitors potential compulsive shoppers or those who might be confused about how to enter a sweepstakes and about the odds of winning.

Chris Irving, the assistant vice president of consumer and legal affairs for Publishers Clearing House, said Dowd was identified as someone to be reviewed under the company's "high activity program" in November 2012 because he had spent more than $900 in the third quarter of 2012.

Dowd was asked to respond to questions on such issues as: Did he understand that no purchase was necessary? Did he think it would help him to win if he bought items? Was he having trouble paying his bills?

Irving said Dowd talked to someone from the company's independent survey company on the phone in 2012 and was deemed to be "promotable," meaning it was OK to send him promotions. He had responded by phone in November 2012 indicating that he knew he was under no obligation to buy and was not having trouble paying his bills.


Irving said the company's practice is to keep calling to get someone to respond. If they cannot be reached after a few tries, a letter can be sent.

Dowd did receive a letter from Publisher's Clearing House, and it incensed him.

"Dad was mad at all of us," Harbin said.

Lisa DelBusso was convinced her brother had written a letter to the company asking them to stop selling stuff to their father. But Jeff said he did not write a letter. The family isn't sure who wrote it now.


RUNNING OUT OF MONEY

By late May 2013, though, Irving said Dowd's account raised another flag by the company regarding a number of orders that did not go through. He had an unpaid balance. Irving said he called Dowd and spoke to him at length in May 2013.

At that point, Dowd had spent more than $2,000 in the past 18 months or so, Irving said. Publishers Clearing House said his answers in 2013 indicated something different than 2012 and that he was buying items because he thought it wouldn't be fair not to buy something and expect to win, Irving said.

Irving said Dowd was permanently removed from both the regular mailing list and the emailing list on May 29, 2013. While there's no way to block someone from accessing the website, Dowd was blocked from being sent items to that address.


The family said it cannot confirm whether Dowd stopped buying things after May 2013, and the family does not have any documentation to refute Irving's comments.

No one knows how much, really, their father spent. But Jeff Dowd said he believes it could have been anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 over a few years based on what they tried to piece together with old bank statements.


THE FULL TRUTH COMES OUT

Karl Dowd was proud, stubborn and insisted on cutting his own grass up until the end.

His two daughters flew in from Michigan to be near their dad at his death bed in the hospital after his health took a sudden bad turn.

He died at age 82 about a year ago.

After the funeral, they tried to help their mother clear out some stuff. They first ran across boxes of wallets and tons of batteries in his desk. But they discovered their dad's hidden treasures in huge Rubbermaid containers in the garage, where it's easier to hide out-of-control spending. The fry pans, the cookbooks, all the little items that cost maybe $30 or $40 but that added up to a huge expense over time.

Shocked by seeing all that useless stuff, they dragged some onto the driveway and recorded it on video.

They had so much stuff people thought they were having a garage sale.

"Want a pan?" Cindy said she asked some folks. "You almost have to laugh because you would cry."

"It escalated to the point where he really thought he was going to win," she said

REGULATING SWEEPSTAKES CLAIMS

Publishers Clearing House has taken heat in the past after some charged that the company deceived consumers by making them think they needed to buy magazines or other items to improve their odds of winning a big prize.

Over time, agreements, including stipulations on how to contact people under a "high activity customer" program have come into play.

The Senate Special Committee on Aging reviewed concerns and issued a report in April 2014. But challenges go back further than that.


In January 1999, a number of states filed claims against Publishers Clearing House under state consumer protection laws. Consent judgments were reached with several states, including Michigan, in 2001.

Then-Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, who would later become governor, said consumers would benefit when deceptive practices were stopped, such as stopping using the words "guaranteed winner" in sweepstakes mailings. Among settlement provisions, mailings had to explain that buying something does not increase the chance of winning.

Five years ago, a $3.5 million multistate settlement was reached with Publishers Clearing House to reinforce a $34 million settlement reached earlier. Publishers Clearing House denied it had violated the consent judgments and denied any wrongdoing or liability.

The agreements stemmed from allegations that Publishers Clearing House used sweepstakes hype to convince consumers that buying something from the company would improve their chances of winning the grand prize.

As part of its agreement, Publishers Clearing House agreed to change the language the company uses in its mailings, language that consumer watchdogs said insinuated that the more consumers spend with Publishers Clearing House the more likely they are to win prizes. The agreement also included stopping the use of some tactics, such as telling a recipient that his or her entry code has a "key code" for the winning entry; ceasing use of sending a communication from the "Board of Judges" to indicate that the recipient is close to winning; and, hiring an ombudsman to review the company's solicitations on a quarterly basis.

As part of its announcement in 2010, the Colorado attorney general, for example, urged family members, neighbors and friends to be cognizant of spending patterns that could indicate that a loved one is buying Publishers Clearing House products for the wrong reasons.

Publishers Clearing House started what it calls a "High Activity" program about 15 years ago that was designed and implemented to "get ahead of anybody spending for the wrong reason."

Irving said it is the company's policy to immediately and permanently remove a loved one from a mailing list after any third party contact making such a request. Where to do you call to complain? Such requests, he said, go through the general PCH number: 800-645-9242.

BUILDING AN INHERITANCE?

Does the family think maybe Karl Dowd bought things over and over because he forgot he bought some stuff?

No, they don't believe that because he knew enough to hide it all from their mother.

"He was catching the UPS guy before he rang the door bell," Harbin said. "He had one computer. Why did he have four keyboards?"

And all those barbecue tools still in original packaging?

"He didn't even barbecue," she said.

They think he was trying to build an inheritance by wining the big prize and provide financial security for his loved ones.

The daughters guess maybe their father thought the contests were one way to make some money to leave to the four kids and the four grandchildren. He'd repeatedly ask the names of the grandchildren so he could give them part of his prize.

"They lured him with the 'Wouldn't you like to leave your family $5,000 a week for life?'" Harbin speculated.

"And that's what he was doing."

TAKING ON THE PRIZE PATROL

Lisa DelBusso was so angered by all the stuff she found after her dad died that she took on Publishers Clearing House, as well as a pet rescue outfit that somehow got her father to write them a string of checks.

"He liked dogs but not $1,400 worth," Lisa DelBusso said.

Shortly after his death, DelBusso made it her mission to put the pressure on those who she believed ripped off her dad and ultimately her mom.

"I got really mad yelling at these people," DelBusso said. "They would tell me to calm down."

She called and called and called.

And she did have success in getting some money back. DelBusso obtained about $2,000 from Publishers Clearing House after her repeated calls and complaints. She made more than 20 calls over time. She talked to Irving.

"Every week or so, I'd call and say 'Where's that check you promised me?'" she said.

A check for $2,000 was made payable to Dowd's estate and sent out Oct. 2, 2014, according to Irving.

"She had some back and forth with customer service," Irving said. But they told her it was not necessary to send any merchandise back to receive the refund.

"They did send my mother a check for $2,000," DelBusso said. But even then, she's not fully convinced that more money wasn't lost over a few years of that spending. Why, she wondered, was it so easy to get any money at all?

"I always thought I should have dug further."

She also was able to recover about $1,400 in refunds from the animal rescue outfit.


OTHERS IN SAME BOAT

The family's story, of course, sadly isn't all that unique.

Anyone who saw the movie "Nebraska", which was released in 2013, won't forget that sweepstakes saga. But other stories abound, too.

Melissa Spickler, managing director for a Merrill Lynch office in suburban Detroit, said her own mother was a perfect example of someone who faced memory issues later in life and then suddenly for unexplained reasons was spending money on CDs, books and videos.

"She was getting Tony Bennett tapes every month," Spickler said.

Her mother lived in the area and passed away 2 1/2 years ago at age 90. Spickler and her sister were able to visit their mom at home regularly each week, so they're thankful they spotted some of the odd spending earlier in the game.

Such as unopened packages of books by the door.


"My mother never even opened the books," Spickler said.

"I think she was lonely. I think it makes you feel good that for $10 you're going to get a book in the mail."

Of course, it wasn't just $10. The promotions would end up costing around $40 a month for some of these deals.

To tackle the problem, Spickler stopped all her mother's mail from coming to her mom's house and had the mail forwarded to Spickler's home.

"I wanted a complete handle on who was begging her for money," Spickler said.

To make sure bills were paid on time, she had notified companies, such as the bank and insurance company, directly of an address change.


Overtime, she took over her mother's checkbook, took control of credit cards and kept watching the mailbox.

Did all of that effort work?

Not completely; when her mother died, she found about 100 DVDs in the house that she had missed earlier.

EVEN ON HIS DEATHBED

Not all family members live a few miles away from their parents or grandparents, though.

Jeff Dowd lived in Florida for a time near his parents. He made an effort to try to help control that spending.

But the dream of that big check just wouldn't go away.

Even on his deathbed, Karl Dowd reminded his son that three of those guys from Publishers would be coming to the house that very day. The family needed to take the Publishers people out to eat to celebrate when they came with the check, he said.

"Lonestar? Is that OK, Dad?" Jeff recalls saying.

"Yeah, that would be fine," Jeff remembers his dad's reply.

After his dad died, Jeff Dowd was helping clean out the house and found one yet-to-be-mailed envelope for Publishers Clearing House.

He figured why not and slapped a stamp on the envelope and mailed it in his dad's memory.


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