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INVESTIGATE: Dutch Judge: It's fine to scam UK.

Byline: Penman & Sommerlad

IT'S perfectly legal to flood Britain with rip-off "prize win" junk mail - that's the extraordinary outcome of a Dutch court case.

It threw out a legal bid to stop mail order scoundrels Best Of sending "misleading" letters that pretend you've won a big cash prize.

We get so much of this rubbish through our letterboxes, the judge reckoned, that we won't be fooled by it.

Tell that to 83-year-old Best Of victim Eric - we're not giving his full name to protect him from other conmen.

When Best Of told Eric he'd won their pounds 11,500 first prize he took the news with "a pinch of salt".

But every week the postman brought another letter with lies such as: "The cheque for pounds 11,500 that you have won has been sent to your home. We must be certain that you have received it safely."

Eric was eventually convinced. "There were no ifs or buts about it. It was a definite statement," he said. "I am very short of money and am in debt with loans and credit cards. This cheque would pay all my debt in one go."

He sent back his "cheque acceptance form" and - for "security" reasons - Best Of asked him to send back the attached catalogue order form, too.

Thinking that he'd only get the prize if he placed an order, Eric has spent more than pounds 100 he can't afford chasing the Best Of dream.

ACCORDING to Judge Steenbeek, sitting in court in Breda, Holland, Eric's nightmare shouldn't happen because we get so much junk mail that no one will be taken in.

Eric is proof this is rubbish.

The shaky pensioner, who admits he's no longer "at his best", never looked beyond the empty promises to the small print that says no purchase was necessary.

He never found the tiny lettering that reveals he almost certainly hasn't won anything except a pounds 1 Best Of voucher.

And there's no knowing when he might get that pathetic prize, because Best Of says it reserves the right to go back to square one and start the whole process of sending out more misleading junk for the same competition all over again.

WE'VE had sackfuls of complaints about this nasty operation, the bulk from elderly victims.

Best Of denies it targets the vulnerable and elderly and claims it's just a coincidence that all the victims who complained were pensioners.

Judge Steenbeek decided that "the average English consumer receives a considerable number of such uninvited mailings" and is "well-acquainted" with them.

He admitted that, on first reading, "it looks like you have to place an order to claim your prize".

But he said the "average cautious" person would "read the text again critically before actually placing an order".

The "Scambusters" team from the Office of Fair Trading has already won undertakings from two Best Of directors not to breach the European Union's rules on misleading advertising.

But the OFT hoped the Dutch courts would force the same promise from Best Sales, a Dutch-registered company which operates out of a PO box near Dublin and has a warehouse in Belgium.

Instead, his honour gave the green light to catalogue conmen to flood Britain with their misleading junk.

So we'll get more letters like this one.

"I spent two years buying from Best Of to claim my pounds 11,500," wrote one 75-year-old from Sunderland.

"I now realise it was all a trick. I am just a foolish old woman but I want to warn other people about these lies." So do we.


RULING: Steenbeek
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 2, 2006
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