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Why Brands Need to Conduct Background Checks Before Choosing Their Sweepstakes and Contest Winners

June 26, 2012

Are you choosing a fan to reward in a social media sweepstakes or contest? Many advertisers find it useful to investigate the background and history of the potential winners for criminal or unsavory backgrounds before awarding the prize. Because social media leaves the brand so exposed to negative public relations, contestant vetting is a vital due diligence step.    As the attorney drafting the promotions’ rules, I may collaborate with a private investigator on these issues. I recently discussed this trend with Shannon Tulloss, a private investigator whose company specializes in vetting potential sweepstakes and contest winners. I asked her a series of questions about the investigative side of sweepstakes and contests.

Q. Historically, when did brands start incorporating background investigations of potential winners into their prize promotion administration?

A. I started receiving calls about five years ago for this specific service.  This is roughly when social media began to be an integral part of everyone’s life.

Q. Why do you think brands started doing investigative checks on potential winners?

A. Would a brand want to publicize that it gave a $5000 prize to someone had been found guilty of embezzling money from a church? Consider the bad publicity or worse if an advertiser offers a full expense paid cruise to a sex offender. Vetting winners before they are announced through an experienced, licensed investigative company is the best step toward brand image preservation and avoiding potential bad press or litigation.

Q.  For what types of sweepstakes/contests, do your clients vet potential winners?

A. Any contest where you open yourself to bad press should include this step. If your contest results in a “meet and greet,” photo session, or any visibility for the winners, I usually recommend a background check for the winner and all of their guests. Frequently, our clients ask us to vet every member of a winner’s household, including their children.

Q.  Is there any type of prizewinner for whom you think vetting is unnecessary?

A. My opinion is not to vet the recipients of low-end giveaways like electronic devices, gift cards, tickets to shows, etc.

Q. How do you partner with legal in putting together the promotion?

A. The advertiser or brand should work with a qualified legal professional, like yourself, in the planning stages of a prize promotion. Legal usually covers what needs to be included in the rules and what kind of releases may be necessary. I also find legal assistance helpful in drafting language to reassure contestants’ that their personal information will not become publicly available through the process. While this is not legally necessary as public disclosure would never happen, I often turn to legal to help cover this point in the rules and help maintain public confidence in the brand.

Q.  I find clients are often confused between an employer background check and an investigative background check. Could you explain the difference?

A.  An investigative background check, or “vetting” is for a specific purpose not related to employment. The only way for a brand to know with whom they are aligning themselves is to complete an accurate vetting of that person and their associates.  A simple online employment background check will only provide unverified historical data on the person, not an accurate representation of that person’s criminal history, social history, personal history and life circumstances that are often the basis for entering a contest.

Q. Clients are also confused by the Fair Credit Reporting Act’s requirements even though they do not apply to this kind of background check. What do you tell your clients?

A. The Fair Credit Reporting Act’s guidelines for reporting are not applicable because there is no employment offer at stake.

Q.  Can you give an example of a vetting that turned up a problem? 

A. It is difficult to choose just one. I worked on a cover model contest for an international brand. The brand’s first choice was a young woman who looked great at first glance, but we discovered that she had been arrested in several states. She had no current driver’s license.  She was unable to locate her passport. I found evidence of two social security numbers. Because of her criminal history and her inability to locate her passport, this woman would never have been able to travel internationally and meet the brand’s schedule. Fortunately, the other finalist was clean as a whistle.

Q.  Can you give an example of a promotion that failed to vet resulting in a public relations problem for the brand? 

A. The recent American Idol contestant who lied to the show about his history, name and criminal past is a perfect example. American Idol vets as the show airs, so ultimately, their decisions to disqualify are often in front of their entire audience. Often, the public does not like the decisions that they make. In this instance, it was no wonder that it took even American Idol several weeks to discover the contestant’s lies. Liars are usually really good at lying, and even the best investigators take time to uncover the truth.

Q.  It is always best to involve legal in the planning stages of a promotion. Is the same true for a private investigator?

A. Yes! Often, our clients bring us in to consult about their investigative needs for each specific contest.  Brands also need to factor the investigation into their production timeline. We have found that it is more cost effective to agree to an investigative game plan rather than trying to furiously piece it together at the last minute.  This allows us to be staffed and scheduled in advance to facilitate a smooth completion of the contest, within their budget.  Vetting should never be an afterthought.

Q.  What would you say to an advertiser who is concerned that pulling a prize from a potential winner may seem unfair

A. By entering the promotion voluntarily, the contestant is agreeing to the rules and conditions of the contest or sweepstakes, which should always set out an investigation as a pre-condition of winning. The contestant has the option of retracting his entry should he be uncomfortable with the vetting requirements.

Q.  When I discuss vetting with clients, I sometimes find that brands are concerned about making eligibility based on a willingness to have a background check. They are concerned about alienating their customer base. How do you respond to that?

A. My take on this is that the brand needs to ask itself the following question.  Whose contest is it?  Who do they want to enter it?  Are they afraid of fewer numbers entering, and why?  Many of my clients include this wording because it helps sift out the riff raff in advance.

Q.  What kind of infractions do you let slide? Traffic tickets? Misdemeanors? Where do you draw the line?

A. Whatever the brand wants.  It is their decision.  My advice is to ignore anything that is minor, like traffic tickets for speeding or parking.  Sometimes, we will overlook petty theft as a teenager. But, if anything shows up that would cause the usual public to wince, I always discuss the allegation or proven crime with the brand and allow them to decide.

 Q. I usually recommend to clients that once they have decided to vet potential winners, they should examine more than criminal background but also political views, public behavior, etc. Do you agree?

A.  Generally, yes. Some brands want to screen for potential winners who might use the brand as a platform for extremist views or organizations.



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