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How to Avoid Magazine Subscription Scams

Older Americans in every state have been targets for deceptive sales pitches

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Whether your passion is current events or computers, cars or cooking, cruising or country life, there’s a magazine tailored for you.

But before you subscribe, take time to consider whether a magazine offer presented to you is legitimate. It might not be.

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Magazine sales for years have been infiltrated by crooks and con artists, court cases show. State and federal officials warn that criminals use lies and strong-arm sales tactics to rip people off, and it’s often older Americans who pay the price.

Exhibit A: Russell “Rusty” Rahm, 53, a Kansas businessman and boat racing enthusiast from suburban Kansas City who is awaiting sentencing in federal court for his leading role in a magazine fraud ring that ran for 20 years, until 2020. (As AARP reported then, he and others were indicted in a large-scale crackdown on fraudulent magazine sales.)

Rahm and his various magazine-sales companies are alleged to have collected over $103 million using telephone sales pitches rife with lies and misrepresentations. Some consumers were billed by up to 10 of the fraudulent companies at a time. He pleaded guilty in December and, under sentencing guidelines, could land in federal prison for 24 to 30 years. He also has been ordered to pay $103 million in restitution.

Cases from coast to coast

The case is not unique. Magazine sales scams “are as old as the hills,” says Lois Greisman, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, an agency that has gone to court to shut down violators.

Between 2020 and 2022, the agency took 21,384 complaints about fraud involving magazines and books. (Its annual data combines those into one category.)  

Authorities are trying to crack down on deceptive subscription sales practices in general. The FTC has just proposed a rule that would make it easier to cancel your unwanted subscriptions (even legitimate companies can make it ridiculously difficult to do so), and impose stiff penalties on sellers that don’t make adequate disclosures about the consumer’s obligations when subscribing.

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How these scams work

California Attorney General Rob Bonta says magazine scammers contact consumers in different ways:

  • Mail. A subscription offer sent by mail may resemble a renewal notice or bill, use words such as “publisher” or billing” or “service,” and appear to be from a magazine company. “But if you look at the fine print, they are actually selling you a new subscription, usually for two or three times the cost.”
  • Door-to-door sales. People with compelling stories, such as needing money for college, sell high-priced subscriptions this way and “oftentimes you will not get what you paid for.”
  • Telemarketing calls. Callers pretending to be from magazine companies deceive consumers into paying for expensive multiyear packages. They say that you’ve won a big prize and are entitled to “bonus” magazines or a lower payment, but you have to provide personal and financial information and participate in a tape-recorded order “verification.” But the scammers will change the recording or the offer’s terms and when you don’t get what’s promised, they will use the recordings to force you to pay.
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If you do subscribe through a fraudulent seller, you could find yourself charged more for a subscription than the publisher’s going rate, Greisman at the FTC cautions. “Fly-by-night” operators take your money and you never receive magazines, Greisman adds. Or you may receive the periodicals, but be billed for things you never asked for or wanted — identity-theft protection, for example, or a roadside-assistance plan.

The smart way to subscribe

If you want to subscribe to a magazine, contact the publisher directly or subscribe through the magazine’s website, says Greisman, who offers two key tips to avoid losing money to criminals:

  • Ignore the hard sell. “Don’t take the call, don’t look at the email, text — whatever medium you may be contacted by,” she says.
  • Use a credit card if you do decide to subscribe. Then you’ll be able to refute the charges later if necessary.

If you have been defrauded, report it to the FTC at Importantly, alert the magazine, too, since publishers “care about this,” Greisman says. “It is in their interests not to have their customers ripped off, and not to have themselves impersonated.”

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Scam Tracking Map

No matter where you live, fraud is never far away. Report a scam or search for existing scams near you.