Clarence B. LeFeber, a feisty, 80-year-old retired postal clerk from Titusville, Fla., thought the promise from a Reisterstown sweepstakes company was legitimate: pay a few dollars a month for a chance to win thousands of dollars in contests.
"Boy, was I a sucker," Mr. LeFeber said yesterday. "I believed that outfit. I kept on sending them checks in hopes of collecting that magic $25,000. You always think that next check will do it."
The big score never happened for Mr. LeFeber -- who lost more than $1,000 -- or for thousands of other players, mostly senior citizens around the country.
Now, a federal judge in Baltimore has frozen the assets of the Reisterstown sweepstakes firm while authorities pursue civil and criminal investigations of its far-flung operations. Those assets could eventually be used to pay the firm's disgruntled customers and an unknown number of creditors.
U.S. District Judge Fredric N. Smalkin issued an injunction Thursday against the Research Awards Center Inc. and 41 related mail solicitation operations headquartered there in a civil action undertaken by the Federal Trade Commission.
He has also placed the firm's assets into receivership with a local law firm pending the outcome of the investigations.
To Mr. LeFeber, the investigations offer hope that he might recoup his $1,000. "Every time I sent out a check, they sent me more contests and promises. Finally, I called the authorities up there because it was just getting more confusing to me. I had been had."
The criminal probe is being conducted by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Its agents earlier this month raided the firm's headquarters in a suite of offices on Business Park Drive and confiscated three truckloads of documents, telephone records and other evidence.
The federal court documents allege that from 1992 until recently, the firm engaged in a "scheme to defraud and obtain money from victim consumers by means of false and fraudulent pretenses."
While investigators still don't know the full extent of the operation, the Research Awards Center told the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland last year that it was mailing more than 5 million pieces a month.
Using the least expensive postal rate, Research Awards Center paid more than $13.8 million to mail its 1994 solicitations.
The firms notified recipients they were "Guaranteed winners of brand new cars or cash of at least several thousands dollars to over a million dollars," the federal court documents said.
For a membership fee ranging from $5 to $25 per month, the company told prospects it would enter them in various sweepstakes around the country.
Often, the court papers said, consumers were promised that they could double or triple their winnings by entering additional sweepstakes by paying additional contest fees.
Nicholas Creighton Parr, identified as one of the officers of a Research Awards Center affiliate, yesterday declined to comment on the investigations. He said he was speaking for the other two people named in the probes, Fernando "Tom" Alvarez and Deborah C. Taylor, who could not be reached for comment.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa M. Griffin also declined to comment yesterday. The chief Federal Trade Commission investigator could not be reached in Washington.
The investigations were initiated by the FTC and the U.S. Postal Service after more than 5,000 complaints about the company were received by consumer protection groups and prosecutors around the country.
Paul J. Trimbur, who heads the postal service investigation, said yesterday that none of the customers ever received more than 50 cents in return for their membership fees.
"A majority of the victims were senior citizens from around the nation," Mr. Trimbur said. "As a group, seniors have more liquidable money and tend to be more trusting and naive.
"Another sad aspect to the victim group is they are generally on a limited income, and this type of operation presents them with a chance to get more income, to take a chance," he added. "They want to take that chance to get more money, and leave it to their children and grandchildren."
Mr. Trimbur said that the criminal investigation will take several weeks and that the case could go to a federal grand jury for indictments on mail fraud charges.