Sunday, November 6, 2022
Loss of the Ability to Evaluate Risk vs "Winning the Sweepstakes"
When I was a child, my grandfather had an ongoing relationship with Readers' Digest. Not just their magazine or their condensed books, but with the company itself. He was always convinced he had won their latest sweepstakes and his big-dollar prize was just around the corner. It was a bit of a family legend.
Recently an older friend, who had celebrated a 90th birthday a few months back, called to ask for help in filling out forms for the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. Over the years my friend had purchased various items from PCH, including a set of solar lights that never worked properly. The odds of actually "winning" the PCH sweepstakes are astronomically high. My friend thought buying something would increase the odds of winning no matter how often I explained over the years that was not true. Sometimes new "stuff" would appear in the mail, along with a corresponding bill for the "order." It was hard to know whether my friend had actually ordered the items.
This time, my friend was thrilled to explain the long-awaited victory was almost here -- as the latest mailing "guaranteed" the check would be arriving by mail and all that was needed was timely confirmation by return mail of a willingness to accept the prize. Two envelopes were provided to help in "claiming" the victory.
I walked patiently through the colorful documents with my friend, pointing out all my examples of clever language. I showed my friend a copy of a case, Harris v. Publishers Clearing House, an unofficially reported federal decision from 2016, that described another person who also thought he had won for the exact same reasons as my friend. The prize never came. He was suing -- without the benefit of an attorney -- for breach of contract, fraud, and alleged violations of Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act, 39 U.S.C. Section 2001 et seq. But the judge ruled against him, dismissing the case with prejudice while explaining the language in the letters "merely informed the plaintiff that he had a chance to win. . . . "
My friend seemed to understand what I was saying. My friend asked my opinion -- "what should we do?" I suggested we tear up the letters and throw them in the trash. My friend put the documents -- untorn -- in the waste can. We talked about the fact that continuing to participate with this company was wasting money, and was also an example of "feeding the troll," encouraging the company to keep sending those "too-good-to-be-true" letters to other people. We ended our discussion with a good hug.
The next morning I stopped by to drop off newspapers and a fresh donut. As I waited for my friend, I saw the top of two "official" envelopes addressed to Publishers Clearing House peeking out of the top of the home's mail box for pick up -- with fresh stamps. I couldn't help but sigh.
Here is a link to a science-based discussion about early assessment of cognitive impairment, and the importance of histories provided by a reliable informant or care partner for diagnostic assessment. Victimization in scams is one of several behavioral examples listed in the article that can point to changes in cognition, associated with the loss of the ability to evaluate risk or odds of winning.
Isn't it sad that it might be easier to diagnose cognitive impairment than to get a ruling finding deceptive trade practices?