Deloris Odum loves word-search puzzles. And for $39 on her bank debit card, a telemarketer promised the 67-year-old widow countless hours of enjoyment with a subscription to her favorite puzzle magazine.
See also: Cons that bloom in spring.
After a $39 charge appeared on her next two monthly bank statements, her daughter Belinda Arrington called the magazine sales company for an explanation.
"I was told that my mother agreed to that charge each month — for five years," says Arrington. "In order to cancel, they demanded a one-time fee of $351."
And it seems that in addition to the puzzle magazine that Odum knowingly ordered, thinking the $39 was an annual subscription, she was also enrolled in subscriptions for five other publications, also for five years. Both women say these were never ordered.
"Believe me," says Arrington, "my mother is not interested in reading Rolling Stone. Not now or five years from now."
The company later agreed to stop Odum's monthly charges, and the subscriptions were canceled.
But other people are not so lucky. Last year, nearly 11,000 complaints were filed to the Federal Trade Commission about magazine and book scams.
Other underhanded subscription sales tactics include sending out postcards that say you've won a prize and providing a phone number to claim it. When you call, you get a strong-arm pitch to buy subscriptions.
Also be wary of promises of "free," "prepaid" or "special" offers for subscriptions. And pay attention to incoming subscription invoices. Sometimes they're outright fakes. Others are for legitimate subscriptions, only they arrive months or years before the subscriptions actually expire.
But the biggest potential danger, especially this time of year, is door-to-door salespeople.
Each spring and summer, hired crews of teenagers and young adults canvass neighborhoods inhabited by retirement-age homeowners, falsely claiming they're selling magazines to raise scholarship money or collect for charity.
This can not only dupe you into paying up to three times the usual price for magazines that may never actually arrive but can put you at physical risk. In recent years, hundreds of crimes — including murder, rape and most often burglary — have been committed by door-to-door magazine salespeople allowed into homes.
Keep your door closed
So the best response when a magazine salesperson knocks on your door is to keep it closed and say no thanks. If you want a subscription, order directly from the publisher or an online company whose reputation can be vetted at the Better Business Bureau website.
If you do order magazines (or anything else) from a door-to-door salesperson and want to cancel, act quickly: The FTC mandates a three-day window for a full refund on purchases over $25. Legitimate salespeople must reveal this rule during their pitch; if they don't, assume it's a scam.
For more information on avoiding subscription scams, read this FTC fact sheet.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.
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