OTTO, N.C. -- While lining his parrot's cage with an old issue of the local newspaper, Ron Haines spotted something: a quarter-page ad for a sweepstakes sponsored by Michelin, the tire company.
The grand prize was a Dodge pickup. That was a long shot, but buried in the fine print was a surer thing. Every tire dealer in the promotion area would give away one set of chrome Delgado truck wheels. Retail value: around $2,000.
Those beauties now glisten in Haines' garage, and the only luck involved was catching that ad before Harley did his business on it. The rest was doing some legwork and following the rules.
"The official rules are the bible for entering, and that's where people go wrong," says Haines, a master furniture maker, surrounded by sweepstakes entries in the dining room of his home in southwestern North Carolina.
In the past 4 1/2 years, he and his wife, Lynn, have won 78 sweepstakes. Some prizes were trifles -- a Conehead T-shirt, a Thermos, a first-aid kit. Then there were the biggies.
A custom Chevy Silverado pickup and matching ProCraft bass boat. Retail value: $50,000.
A second bass boat. $13,000.
And the one Haines got the biggest kick out of: a ride in a stock car at 180 mph. Priceless.
For just $300 a year in postage, the Haineses' success may seem impressive. But 78 wins wouldn't even get them onto the parking lot if there were a sweepstaker hall of fame.
"That's all? Since 1993?" says Nita Hodgkins of Derry, N.H., publisher of the "Rags to Riches" newsletter.
"Sweepstakers who do it on a regular basis expect one prize a week -- at least," she says. "I know at least three $1 million winners."
Her own take?
Four vehicles, including his and hers Mercurys. And 50 trips, one of them on the Concorde. All in all, around $50,000 a year in prizes, she says.
"Anything you want to win," she insists, "is out there to be won."
But wait a minute, you say. YOU'VE filled out those box tops, sent in those proofs of purchase. Why aren't YOU flying on the Concorde or driving that new car?
Winning a lottery takes luck. Winning a sweepstakes can be as easy as knowing what and how to enter, and those in the know are happy to show you the way.
Across the country, they gather in hotel restaurants and shopping mall food courts to swap stories. They belong to clubs with names like the Wolverine Winners, the Chesapeake Crabs and the Sin City Sweepers (in Las Vegas).
Some subscribe to the 50 or so newsletters that list even obscure contests. Others log into the dozens of Web sites and chat rooms.
"We have a motto of sharing," says Jackie Lewis, spokeswoman for the Puget Sound Clams in Tacoma, Wash., and editor of the newsletter "Clam Chatter."
"When it comes to winning things, most of us have just won each other's friendship."
Sweepstakes have taken it on the chin lately with the high-profile lawsuits against American Family Publishers and high-profile pitchmen Dick Clark and Ed McMahon.
But those mass-mailed "You may already be a winner!" promotions aren't what people like the Haineses are after anyway. They're scanning the supermarket aisles for product hang tags or the offer on the candy wrapper.
Sponsors are taking note.
Shelby Jones is managing director of promotions at Don Jagoda Associates in Studio City, Calif., which runs sweepstakes for name brands of bleach, charcoal and salad dressing. The number of contests her company runs has increased about 20 percent in five years.
In fact, the contests have created a class of "professional sweepers."
Todd France, vice president of sales and marketing for Career Sports Management Inc. in Atlanta, showed up to greet the three winners of a Disney World lunch with ex-Dallas Cowboys tight end Jay Novacek. Two were clad from head to toe with products they'd won in other sweepstakes.
Many devotees spend thousands of dollars each year on postage for entries. Mrs. Hodgkins says one woman sold blood to buy stamps, "like alcoholics do for booze."
"It's gambling, really," says Mark Williams, a Louisiana state auditor and coordinator of the Dixieland Winners, which is host of this July's national sweepstakes convention in New Orleans.
"You can either spend it at a casino and try your luck there, or you could try the lottery," says Williams. "Actually, you've got better odds of winning a sweepstakes."
He ought to know. Williams entered a sweepstakes on a riverboat casino. He lost at the slots but drove away in a Cadillac.
One person's gamble is another's insurance.
Mrs. Haines had to leave nursing in 1988 because of crippling arthritis and a connective tissue disorder. She got into sweepstakes to fight boredom, but the hobby came to mean much more when she and her husband lost their health insurance.
Now, they go for big-ticket items that they can sell to pay doctor bills. That's what happened with the matching pickup and bass boat they won in 1993.
"I see every win as a blessing," Mrs. Haines says.
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