Accidental scam

When was the last time an adorable child sold you a raffle ticket for some charity fund raiser? When was the last time you actually heard who won the grand prize?

Joanne Groshardt, a technical writer in Dallas, recently decided to find out who won the grand prize in a charity raffle sponsored by Little League Baseball of Dallas. Groshardt, who had bought two chances for $2, was none too happy about what she found.

The grand prize advertised on the raffle tickets last May was a spanking-new 1996 Ford Explorer, valued at $32,000. Trouble is, nobody won the much-in-demand sport utility vehicle. In fact, Little League officials never even had the vehicle in their possession.

"It wasn't like I was hung up on who won the car," says Groshardt, who bought her tickets from a co-worker whose young son plays Little League baseball. "I'm sure I'm like most people:You buy a couple of tickets for a good cause and you never expect to win; you stash your ticket stub somewhere and you forget about it. But we were just talking at work a few weeks ago and the subject came up. We just kind of wondered who ended up winning the car."

The Little League mom says she called the office of Little League Baseball of Dallas and was told the Explorer was never awarded because not enough tickets were sold.

"When I found out that the car had never been awarded--that they had never even had the car to begin with--I started thinking about how easy it would be to do something like this. No one would ever know," Groshardt says.

Representatives of Little League Baseball of Dallas--the local, nonprofit chapter of the international organization that has run the Little League program for more than 60 years--vow there was never any intent to misrepresent last spring's raffle.

"Let me cut to the nut," says Malcolm Hampton, a Little League dad and longtime volunteer for the group. "We're a worldwide program with a reputation for being honest and for helping kids. The last thing we want is to have a pimple on our butt because of some simple misunderstanding."

Nevertheless, according to the 1990 Charitable Raffle Enabling Act, the organization--whether knowingly or not--did skirt state law. Among other things, the statute requires a charity holding a raffle to have each prize in its possession, or to post a bond for the full amount of the value of the prize with the county clerk of the county where the drawing is being held.

A raffle that fails to follow the 1990 law is considered unauthorized, says Sonya Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office. Conducting an unauthorized raffle is a third-degree felony. Participating in one is a class-C misdemeanor.

The misunderstanding about the raffle, Hampton says, happened like this: Early last spring, as the group mulled the possibilities for a big fund raiser, the idea of sponsoring a raffle surfaced. Hampton explains that the $50 fee each boy and girl pays to sign up on a team hardly covers equipment costs, not to mention the cost of building ball fields and maintaining them.

The $1-a-chance raffle seemed perfect. Volunteer parents scoured the city for prize donors, and numerous merchants coughed up contributions--round-trip tickets on Southwest Airlines, Texas Rangers tickets, certificates to clothing stores, restaurant gift certificates, bowling passes.

But the top prize was the new Explorer. Hampton says an auto leasing company agreed to give Little League the vehicle for half its $32,000 cost. If Little Leaguers raised the first $16,000, the company would cover the rest.

What sounded fairly easy turned into a bit of a challenge.
"We gave the tickets to the coaches and they were to ask each kid to sell 20 to 40 tickets," Hampton says. "Quite a few of the coaches distributed them to their teams. But quite a few came back and said they wouldn't do it. They said, 'There's nothing that says I have to sell these things, and I'm not going to do it.'

"Oh, jiminy, I thought. How are we going to sell all these?"
They didn't. Although Little League volunteers had ordered 50,000 printed tickets, by the time the May drawing rolled around, only 10,000 chances had been sold. They fell $6,000 short of the price of the Ford Explorer, so league officials never received the vehicle, Hampton says.

The organization did, however, raffle off hundreds of remaining prizes. "The joke is that at least 80 percent of those people who won haven't picked up their stuff yet," Hampton says with a little scoff.

Little League officials vow to give refunds of the price of raffle tickets to anyone who wants them. The money is in escrow, and people need only present their ticket stub for an immediate refund, Hampton says. If people have misplaced their receipt, they need only show identification for a refund; their names and addresses are on the backs of the raffle tickets.

While Little League promises to do right by the ticket holders, even Hampton pauses to marvel at how easy it would be to pull off a raffle scam--if an organization really wanted to.

"It only cost us $450 to run off 50,000 tickets," he says. "I guess if it was your intention to rip someone off, it wouldn't be difficult."

Although Little League volunteers assured Groshardt she would get her $2 back, she says she was concerned enough about the appearance of impropriety to write a letter to the Texas attorney general's consumer protection division.

Sanchez says Groshardt's complaint is the only one on file with the attorney general regarding Little League Baseball of Dallas. "It doesn't sound like there was a deliberate attempt to mislead," she says.

The fine print on the tickets for last spring's raffle stated that Little League had the right to cancel the drawing at any time, and that all proceeds would benefit the organization.

"Here's the sweet part of the story,"Hampton says. "Next spring, we're going to put all the unclaimed tickets back in the hat again. And we'll sell enough tickets this time. We will give that car away next year. We sure will.

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Holly Mullen

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