Magazine renewals often are not a favor

Posted July 11, 2010, at 10:41 p.m.

It might be called making money hand over fist.

It’s what some companies try to do while making believe they’re doing you a favor. As a result of that “favor,” you may end up with a pile of magazines you didn’t want.

The companies set themselves up as renewal services, mailing reminders to subscribers and offering to extend their current subscriptions. The prices they charge are anything but a bargain. A recent mailing to our household offered two years of Harper’s Magazine for $69.95, slightly higher than the magazine’s advertised sub-scription price of $26.97.

All of which is not news to the people at Harper’s. An alert in the magazine’s April edition says it is aware of several companies that solicit renewals without the magazine’s approval.

Harper’s went on to say that it has tried to track down Magazine Billing Services, Publishers Processing Services Inc., American Consumer Publish Association, Publisher’s Periodical Service, Magazine Billing Network and Crown Marketing. Most of those efforts have been unsuccessful.

The alert advises readers who are unsure whether a renewal notice is authentic to call them directly or visit their website, www.harpers.org. That way, readers can avoid any unauthorized “middlemen” and the huge markups that go with them.

The shady renewal companies don’t stop at offering renewals at inflated prices. Once they get a positive response, they’ll likely try to get you to renew another subscription (again, at a hefty markup).

National Magazine Services includes as a “bonus” a free one-year membership in something called Orphans Waiting, purportedly a children’s relief nonprofit. We searched the Web and found a few broad promises but no information about how much actual help the group provides to needy kids. We called and opted out.

We were interested to note that the Orphans Waiting website ownership traces back to Bell Magazine, another subscription clearinghouse.

The disclaimer on the back says the mailing is not a bill or invoice (although it looks like one) and says there’s no obligation to renew or start a new subscription. It admits NMS does “not necessarily have a direct relationship” with publications it offers. By accepting its offer, “you authorize us and our suppliers to process and clear your order with the publishers directly or by whatever means are available.”

In cases of buyer’s regret, you can cancel if you call within seven days; after that, you’re probably stuck, unless you’re willing to pay a $20 cancellation fee. As we said, hand over fist.

As with most mass mailings, these are numbers games. If a hundred low-cost mailings yield one high-cost renewal, the sender’s making money. Mailing lists are bought and sold daily, pouring fodder into the mailers’ databases. So read carefully, compare prices and buy only what you really want.

Visit the Federal Trade Commission website (www.ftc.gov) and, under the Bureau of Consumer Protection tab, search “magazine subscription” for useful tips.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to http://necontact.wordpress.com.

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