CONSUMER FORUM

Uncut bills: Ad or news?

Posted April 01, 2012, at 10:35 a.m.

On reading the full-page ad in Wednesday’s Bangor Daily News, I reacted with confusion, disbelief and a bit of outrage. I knew I would have to question the editors on this and expected they might respond defensively; I did not expect they would be contrite.

The ad in question offered sheets of uncut dollar bills “at face value,” contingent on buying three “protective banker’s portfolios” at a cost of $29 each plus shipping. The ad said “smart collectors are snatching up all the valuable uncut sheets of Gov’t issued money they can get their hands on,” although a disclaimer at the bottom admitted there’s no guarantee of increased future value.

Such a come-on probably would have been dismissed, if what was clearly labeled an advertisement had not looked, to the casual reader, like a news story. “Bangor area zip codes turn up cash for residents,” cried the headline under the large photo of uniformed guards wheeling around loads of the bill sheets. A Google search of the headline wording — minus the Bangor reference — yields hundreds of communities where similar ads have run in the United States and Canada.

Those ads have drawn fire from consumer groups and authorities alike. Last November, the Better Business Bureau reported more than 200 consumer complaints involving World Reserve Monetary Exchange, which placed the BDN ad. According to the Better Business Bureau many of those complaining said the ads were misleading. The bureau noted the ads suggest the offer is limited to a specific geographic area, which is not the case. A supposed time limit on the offer also created a false sense of urgency.

In January, a California lawsuit against Universal Syndications Inc., doing business as World Reserve Monetary Exchange, and Arthur Middleton Capital Holdings CEO Rodney Napier was settled. The firm was accused of falsely advertising “free” gold coins; it was ordered to pay $223,000 in civil penalties and court costs and to reimburse some buyers. The company also is banned from advertising in California the gift of a free item with the purchase of another item, unless it really is free.

We did some digging to find all this out. The Bangor Daily News did some initial vetting when the ad order came in. Steve Martin, BDN’s interim director of sales and marketing, told me the vetting process in this case wasn’t thorough enough.

Martin said the ad won’t be run again. In fact, he’s asking the ad agency that sent it not to send any similar ads to the paper.

“The sources [of such ads] are getting craftier and craftier” in their efforts to make ads look like news coverage, Martin said. He added the paper takes very seriously its duty not to mislead the public, and said every effort will be made to distinguish advertising from news copy in the future.

After spending most of my career as a working reporter, I know how these things can happen. We applaud the BDN for admitting a mistake and working to make sure it’s not repeated.

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 information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to necontact.wordpress.com, or email contacexdir@live.com.

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