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Did privacy catch-22 cost winners $10,000 prizes?

Anti-spam sentiment or a possible hitch in Recommend-It's privacy policy may be reasons why two $10,000 winners never claimed their prizes.

Who wants to be a $10,000 winner?

Two $10,000 winners, selected randomly by marketing company Recommend-It, never responded to emails saying they had won. After four weeks, the company passed the winnings on to the next winner.

The company, which awards a $10,000 grand prize every three months, never anticipated this. They sent an email to the first winner, then followed up two weeks later with another email. They also picked up the phone, leafing through the phone book and other directories.

Nothing. They picked another winner and went through the same exercise. They could not find the second winner, either.

"I want to be able to put pictures of these winners on our site," said David Rosner, a vice president at Recommend-It. "That's the whole reason for the promotion, is to announce winners and generate excitement from that."

The winners' lost opportunities come at a time when Internet users are trying to rid themselves of unwanted junk email and protect their privacy. Those issues may be tied to why Recommend-It could not find its winners.

Perhaps the winners thought Recommend-It's emails were spam--unsolicited email usually sent to multiple people at a time--and deleted them, company executives speculate. Or maybe they registered under email addresses that were rarely checked or had been discarded.

Or maybe it was a filtering system, such as Yahoo's Spamguard, that could have blocked the messages before the winners could even read them. Forrester Research reported in April that Spamguard, while successfully blocking spam, also blocked all email from FreeLotto, which also gives out cash prizes.

"While we never won, such filtering would certainly have kept us from yelling 'yahoo' if we ever did win and never knew," the Forrester report said.

A Yahoo representative said the company's filtering system was effective, noting that it puts the filtered email into a bulk mail folder that is accessible to the customer.

At Recommend-It, the contest is simple: Players fill out a form with their name, email address and the addresses of eight friends.

The company, based in New Brunswick, N.J., is a referral-marketing site, or "traffic generator," that rewards Net users for referring friends to Web sites that have partnered with the company. Prizes awarded to 28 winners since February range from the grand prize to small gifts worth $3.

Just last week, the company finally found a winner for the $10,000 grand prize on its third attempt.

"Congratulations...I am happy to inform you that you have won $10,000," read the email, a copy of which was supplied to CNET News.com. The company would not release the names of the two people who never claimed the prize, citing privacy concerns.

The privacy concerns, and the rules of the contest, worked against Recommend-It in finding the two winners, Rosner said. Despite having the names and email addresses of eight "friends" of the winner, Rosner said the company's privacy agreement allowed it to contact those people only once, to recommend a single Web site. The company's lawyers said they could not use those people to get to the winner without violating the privacy agreement.

"Maybe we should amend our rules to include these kinds of cases," Rosner said. "We have to think about revising it for that purpose."

iWon, a portal that gives away prizes every day and on tax day every year awards a $10 million grand prize, said it does not have any problems finding its winners.

That is because the company asks contestants to submit more information, such as a home address and a telephone number, to register for its sweepstakes, said chief executive Bill Daugherty.