Weight-loss contest leaves winners unhappy

Members of a Gwinnett County gym pushed their bodies over 12 weeks, dieting and exercising in hopes of losing the most weight —- and winning part of a $1,000 prize.

Yet when the contest ended in April, no winners were announced and none of the prize money was given away.

Joe Cobb of Dacula and Ingra Williams of Winder were pretty sure they had won the male and female contest divisions and deserved $500 each, based on their review of the weigh-in log for the contest at Gold's Gym of Hamilton Mill.

Cobb said he lost 43 pounds, dropping from a starting weight of 237 to just under 194 during the January-April contest period. Williams said she lost 20 pounds, dropping from 190 to 170. Each paid $40 to enter the contest, which they estimated had about 40 people competing.

Williams, a fan of the weight-loss TV show "The Biggest Loser," saw the Dacula gym's competition as a great motivation boost. "I was so excited to do something good for yourself and to say, gosh, I won this," Williams said in an interview last week.

In January, at the contest's start, she used one of the gym's personal trainers for a few weeks. But throughout most of the competition, she worked out on her own, getting up by 4:15 a.m. so she'd have time to exercise before beginning her hour-long commute to a 7 a.m. job as a pricing analyst in Alpharetta.

"I increased my cardio and watched what I was eating," said Williams, 38. "I was just ecstatic when I came to the final weigh-in."

Cobb entered the contest to meet his personal goal of losing 40 pounds by his 40th birthday in April.

Cobb praised the workout plan suggested for him by the gym's staff. It focused on spending 30-40 minutes a day, five days a week on his least-favorite machine: a Stair Master. "I think I climbed Everest four-and-a-half times over the course of the 12 weeks," Cobb said.

Cobb cut back on carbohydrates. "But after the first four weeks I was pretty much eating what I had been eating, I just broke it up into six smaller meals and didn't eat after 7 p.m.," he said.

Cobb, a school teacher, planned to use his $500 prize toward personal training fees at the gym for his wife. Williams said she was excited to use the prize money to help pay for new landscaping at her home.

E-mails show that Williams began asking gym officials on April 20 for information about who had won the contest.

As far back as April 23, the gym's fitness manager Jim Truby told Williams that the contest results "will be posted by tomorrow," according to an e-mail he sent her that day.

But they weren't.

Williams and Cobb individually continued to press gym officials —- in person and in e-mails —- to announce a winner.

On May 8, a Friday, Truby sent an e-mail to Williams saying he hadn't yet heard back from his boss about the prize checks, though he knew they had been approved. "That being said I would like to try to schedule a time to present them and take pictures for Thursday evening around 6:30 or 7," Truby wrote.

But again, no announcement was made and no checks were presented. Truby did not respond to interview requests by phone and e-mail.

"In the past they had always done award ceremonies and made it fun for people," Williams said. But as each week passed, "it was getting to the point where I started to wonder: What's going on?"

"It was always excuses: 'I'm waiting for the corporate office;' 'I need to verify everyone paid the money,' " she said.

As June arrived, Cobb was equally frustrated and concerned.

"I've been asking questions for weeks. I told them I was tired of asking questions and I was not going to ask any more," he said. Cobb filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau on June 3 and sent an e-mail to Spotlight on June 13.

Gym officials told the BBB that the complaint was moot: "The prize was mailed during the week of June 7th," according to the BBB complaint report sent to Cobb last Monday. Yet neither Williams nor Cobb had received anything, they said.

On Monday afternoon, Spotlight called gym officials and left a message seeking an interview about the delay in awarding the fitness challenge prizes. About 15 minutes later, Williams received an e-mail from Truby, the gym's fitness manager: "Your check is at the gym at the front desk. Please let me know if you have any questions."

Cobb said he never got a call or e-mail letting him know a check was available for pickup. He asked for and received his check Monday evening, after being told by the AJC that a gym official said one was waiting for him.

Scott Corless, chief operating officer for the Hamilton Mill gym and four other Gwinnett County franchises, said both winners were notified June 12 by phone and e-mail that checks were available for them to pick up. Both Cobb and Williams said this is not true. Corless was not able to explain why the BBB was told the checks were mailed earlier that same week. He declined to discuss details about the contest or explain the delays in announcing winners and awarding the prizes.

"That matter as far as I'm concerned is closed," Corless said.

Williams picked up her check Monday evening. At the same time, she said she filled out paperwork canceling her membership at the gym.

"They took such a good, positive experience and they really tainted it," she said.

Where to complain

Better Business Bureau: www.bbb.org, 404-766-0875

Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs: http://tinyurl.com/24vpls, 404-651-8600

U.S. Postal Inspection Service (for contests by mail): Take the piece of mail to your local postmaster or file a complaint online at http://tinyurl.com/n2s7ze. For more information about lottery and sweepstakes schemes, go to: http://tinyurl.com/nbonz7

Got a tip?

Tell us about your experience correcting errors on your credit reports and let us know what else you want investigated. E-mail spotlight@ajc.com or call 404-526-5041.

Protecting yourself

When it comes to contests, consumers should be wary —- especially if they are required to invest their own money, experts said.

Shawn Conroy, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs, and Fred Elsberry Jr., president and CEO of the local BBB, said sweepstakes and foreign lotteries are the most common area where problems arise.

But neither consumer watchdog agency gets many complaints about contests of skill, such as the weight-loss contests run by the Gwinnett County gym.

"One reason you don't is all of us enter contests all the time with no expectation of winning," said Elsberry. "How many places do you go and drop a business card for a free lunch? I don't ever go back an say: Who got the free meal last week?"

Elsberry encouraged people who enter contests —- particularly those they have a keen interest in winning —- to ask: Who won? "We all deserve the right to know who won. OK, I didn't win. But who did win?"

Conroy and Elsberry said their offices regularly receive inquiries and complaints from consumers who have received notices that they've won sweepstakes or "free" prizes —- but they first need to send the firm money to cover fees, taxes or something else. It's usually a a scam, they said, that can cost a consumer hundreds of dollars.

Regardless of the type of contest, experts advise consumers get the terms, rules and conditions in writing, including how many rounds there are to reach the grand prize, the time frame for announcing a winner and the name of the contest's sponsor.