SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) — The Federal Trade Commission is taking action against Publishers Clearing House for misleading consumers about sweepstakes entries, and Utahns were no exception.

The Millard County Sheriff’s Office said residents in central Utah are receiving calls from “PCH” claiming prize money. Officials said the company claims they have money for you, but that you need payment to release the funds.

“Any prize that requires you to pay first to receive your prize is a scam,” MCSO posted on Facebook.

However, according to PCH, they are not the ones making the phone calls. According to PCH, these are criminal scam artists pretending to be the real Publisher’s Clearing House.

However, in a complaint against PCH, the FTC said the company uses “dark patterns” to mislead consumers about how to enter the company’s well-known sweepstakes drawings and made them believe a purchase is necessary to win or would increase their chances of winning.

The FTC also said the company claims sweepstakes entries are incomplete even when they are not. These allegations from FTC also affect Utahns who have been misled by PCH’s sweepstakes drawings.

The FTC also claims the company has added surprise fees to the costs of products, misrepresented that ordering is “risk-free,” used deceptive emails, and misrepresented its policies on selling users’ personal data to third parties. Many people affected by these practices are older and lower-income.

As a result of the lawsuit, PCH has agreed to a court order requiring the company to make substantial changes to how it conducts business, and requiring the company to pay $18.5 million to consumers who spent money and wasted their time.

“Today’s action requiring PCH to overhaul its user interface, compensate consumers for lost time, and stop surprise fees should send a clear message that manipulative design techniques are a no-go under our laws,” Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said. “This is our second dark pattern lawsuit over the last week. Firms that continue to deploy deceptive design techniques are on notice.”

According to FTC, the deception begins at the company’s homepage, where customers complete an “Official Entry Form” with a large button with phrasing like “WIN IT! or “Win for Life!” However, users found this does not enter them in the sweepstakes.

Figure 2: “Official Entry Form” captured on July 21, 2021. Courtesy FTC.

Instead, the complaint charges, consumers go through pages of advertisements and pitches with tricky wording leading customers to believe they must make a purchase to enter, or that purchasing will increase their chances of winning, neither of which is true.

Once they fill out the sweepstakes entry, the complaint states that PCH sends emails making users believe they must complete a final step to complete their entry.

Figure 4: “Sweepstakes Landing Page for Welcome Emails.” Courtesy FTC.

When users click on the link to “complete” the final step, they are sent through pages and pages of dark patterns and deceptive sales pitches.

Figures 5 & 6: “Sweepstakes Landing Page and Product Landing Page for Critical Decision Required Email Campaign.” Courtesy FTC.

According to the FTC, the company has agreed to settle the charges it violated and turn over $18.5 million to the FTC to be used to refund consumers as well as make changes to its operations.

For more information on what PHC has agreed to fix, you can visit FTC’s website. If you believe you are eligible for a refund with PHC, there is nothing you need to do, and FTC will post updates as well as inform consumers directly that they are eligible for a refund.

“Remember, the FTC never asks you to pay or share personal information to receive a refund. Don’t pay anyone who contacts you and promises you a refund but asks you to pay a fee or attempts to obtain your personal information,” the FTC website states.

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The PCH has released the following statement on the FTC Settlement: