Amazon Finds It’s Hard to Run a Real Sweepstakes in the Robocall Era

(Bloomberg) -- Early this month, while I was waiting in line for coffee at the San Francisco International Airport, I got a strange call on my cell phone from someone claiming to work at the very company I was about to visit in Seattle. “Hi, this is Max from Amazon Whole Foods,” said the cheerful voice.

I was immediately skeptical. We all get a lot of spam and robocalls. Also, in the two years since the e-commerce giant acquired the grocery chain, I’d never heard anyone refer to it as “Amazon Whole Foods.”

But what Max had to say made me even more suspicious. “I want you to read the email I just sent you very carefully,” he told me. “It’s going to seem like a fraud, but I assure you it’s real.” The email, Max said, described a sweepstakes to give away $10,000 in Whole Foods gift cards to 20 shoppers. The chosen winners had been named and only had to click on a link in the email and prove that they were eligible (and didn’t work for Whole Foods or Amazon) to claim their prizes and receive 20 gift cards in $500 increments over the course of the year.

Max was not telling me this because I write regularly about Amazon or because I work with Bloomberg reporters who cover the company and its many disparate businesses. In fact, he didn’t seem to know any of that.

He was telling me because I had won.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “I never entered any sweepstakes.”

Max assured me it didn’t matter. Anyone who carried an Amazon Visa card (I did) and had used it at Whole Foods last year (I had) was automatically entered. He urged me to read the email carefully and claim the prize by submitting my tax information to Amazon by the weekend.

I dismissed the odd call from my mind and later that day, at our bureau in Seattle, described it and showed the email to our Amazon reporters, Matt and Spencer. They thought it was a laughable fraud, too. I clicked on the link in the message and showed them a tax page, which asked for, among other information, my Social Security number. Overhearing the chat, our colleague Noah sprinted over from his aisle. “Do not give them your Social Security number!” he begged.

I was beginning to wonder, though. The email linked to a page on Amazon.com that looked real. There was my user name and shopping cart in the top right corner. The page had a list of “potential winners” and there was “Brad S.,” third from the bottom. Images of endless free kale salad doused in organic lemon garlic marinade were starting to dance in my mind.

Amazon Finds It’s Hard to Run a Real Sweepstakes in the Robocall Era

The next day I forwarded the email to an Amazon spokesman. When I met him later that day, he was convinced it was all fake and that he was saving me from a blatant attempt at identity theft. But he said he’d look into it anyway.

I followed up via text a few hours later.

“Shockingly, it is real,” he wrote. “Congrats!”

I was gobsmacked. I called Max back to ask him a few more questions: “What are the odds of winning this?”

“Astronomical,” he replied.

I put in a call to David Klein, an attorney specializing in marketing and promotion law. I reasoned that Jeff Bezos, who has historically preferred to spend money to improve service and lower prices for his customers, would eschew such gimmickry. But Klein said sweepstakes are common in the supermarket industry. “It’s a way to keep the name out there, get people excited about the product and service, and build a database of engaged customers,” he explained.

I was left with both a feeling of ridiculous good fortune and an ethical duty not to reap the benefits of my dumb luck. Claiming the prize would be against both journalistic norms and Bloomberg’s rigorous ethical guidelines. I tried to ask my tax accountant whether it made sense to donate the gift cards to charity, but in the final days of tax season, I couldn’t get him to take the question seriously. “Scam?” he emailed back. “My wife has received a similar one.”

In the end, I didn’t claim the prize. And so to William M., whose name now appears where mine once was on the winner’s page, I say, enjoy the kale salads. You’re welcome.

And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

Today is Tax Day in the U.S. As many Americans are still grousing about the 2017 tax overhaul, tech companies have reaped enormous savings. It lowered the corporate rate and encouraged businesses to repatriate overseas profits back to the U.S. But they used that money, not to hire new workers as they said they would, but largely to repurchase their own stock.

Uber will pitch itself as the Amazon of transportation during its IPO road show. The company is looking for a favorable comparison to draw, as investors consider how to value the business. Executives and their bankers are expected to hit the road on April 26.

Facebook is remaking its board of directors, nominating PayPal’s Peggy Alford, as two longtime directors, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and former Clinton adviser Erskine Bowles, will step off the board.

Facebook also admitted it’s shipping tens of thousands of Oculus virtual-reality headsets, which contain unusual printed messages like “Big Brother Is Watching” and “The Masons Were Here,” Business Insider reported.

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