The envelope resembled those that contain rewards coupons or important tax information or even checks — the mailers with tabs on the edges reading: “Remove both side stubs first. Fold, crease and remove this stub at perforation.”
But screaming in capital letters above my name and address were so many exclamations I could not help be suspicious. “REQUEST FOR IMMEDIATE ACTION — TIME SENSITIVE MATERIAL ENCLOSED — TO BE OPENED BY ADDRESSEE ONLY — PLEASE RESPOND WITHIN FIVE DAYS” and most interesting: “WARNING: $2,000 FINE, 5 YEARS IMPRISONMENT, OR BOTH FOR ANY PERSON INTERFERING OR OBSTRUCTING WITH DELIVERY OF THIS LETTER. U.S. MAIL TTT.18 U.S.CODE.” (Doesn’t that law apply to all U.S. mail? Why is this sender trying to scare me? How many people are intimidated by these words?)
Printed above all this hyperbole were the words: TOYOTA PRIUS, and in place of a return address: 2ND ATTEMPT.
Ah, yes. I remembered the phone call I had received a couple of weeks earlier from a person claiming the warranty on my car was about to expire and requesting mileage and model information needed to confirm my eligibility for extended coverage.
I hung up on the voice and later mentioned the call to Dick York at York’s of Houlton where I bought my car.
“You did the right thing,” he said. “People get these calls all the time.”
So I removed the side stubs and opened the mailer. The only words not in capital letters were two lines of small type at the bottom of the document:
“You may have been selected to receive this special limited time offer because of information in your consumer report or other data. Final acceptance is subject to your ability to meet our full eligibility requirements. This is an advertisement to extend your coverage.”
I wondered if this message represented compliance with a law requiring such notices to be identified as advertisements. If so, wasn’t it clever to embed the message in a compliment with a challenge to prove my eligibility for the “special limited” offer?
Equally clever was the design of the notice. The use of capital letters (instead of easier-to-read upper and lower case), a senseless arrangement of boxes and repetition suggested the document was intended not to inform but to arouse enough concern and confusion to get the reader to call an 800 number, shown in three places on the page.
The text scattered about on the notice must have been composed in the Department of Redundancy Department of the unnamed company responsible for the mailing. Under the title “IMPORTANT — 2ND ATTEMPT” and above the words “Extremely Urgent and Time Sensitive” and “Important Notice — Extended Automobile Coverage — This is Not a Bill” was this message: “Notification that your factory warranty or extended service contract is expiring or has currently expired!” Near the bottom of the page beneath a random assortment of boxes were the words: “This letter is to inform you that your service contract is expiring or has expired and you may extend the coverage on your vehicle. Extended coverage offer expires on May 5, 2012.”
The expiration date appeared in two of the 22 boxes, as did the words “coverage available, premiere (comprehensive), prestige (new car coverage).” Details of the “premiere” and “prestige” offers were listed at the bottom of the page under “COVERAGE OPTIONS.”
I was instructed to call the 800 number printed in bold here and there in the document and to speak with NAVISS to continue coverage. Instead I sent a copy of the document to Dick York and promptly received a call from Willis Nason, the financial officer at York’s of Houlton. He assured me my extended service contract was good through Oct. 13, 2015, or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. The expiration date on the mailer was fictitious and the comprehensive coverage option duplicated what I already have.
“We get at least a call a week from customers who have received notices like this,” Nason said. “Some are legit, others are not. You should always contact the auto dealer first.”
Nason cautioned me against calling the 800 number, so I emailed Russ Van Ardsdale, executive director of Northeast CONTACT (formerly COMBAT), Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization.
“The reviews we’ve seen give the sender of your solicitation especially low marks (see www.consumeraffairs.com/finance/navisis-financial.html),” he wrote. “We found this review by searching the 800 number.”
It turns out the 800 number is associated with a Chicago-based financial company that duns people nationwide with phone solicitations. Once on their call list it is next to impossible to get off.
“Some of these extended warranty plans may do as their promotional materials suggest. However, we’ve heard of many more that promise the world and then deliver on very little,” Van Ardsdale wrote in a Consumer Forum column posted in August 2011. “The truth is, many of these offers are scams that accept any money people send them, then refuse to make payments on any claims that are filed. A common excuse is ‘normal wear and tear.’”
The day I completed the first draft of this column, I received a postcard in the mail with a color photo of my car and the headline, “Kathryn, You can’t depend on today’s economy! You CAN depend on your 2009 TOYOTA, with the proper Vehicle Protection Plan.”
The card bore different 800 and code numbers, and (lucky me) an “Extended Deadline Date 5/15/2012.”
This company gets higher marks for graphic design and readability. Caps and color are used sparingly and effectively, and they say everything just once. But the sense of urgency persists: “RESPOND NOW” (in red ink). And though I am not tempted to call (especially after I Googled the 800 number), I must admit to mild curiosity about “a NO FEE payment plan and Brand Loyalty Pricing.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in print every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.