Whistleblower: Magazine renewal offers can inflate prices

  • Article by: JANE FRIEDMANN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2013 - 9:39 PM

Magazine publishers have warned subscribers against unauthorized renewal offers sometimes disguised as bills.

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John Manring of St. Louis Park, an avid magazine reader, has received fake invoices trying to get him to pay inflated prices.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA • joel koyama@startribune.com ,

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A subscriber to TV Guide, National Geographic and four other magazines, John Manring is used to getting magazine renewal offers in his mailbox in St. Louis Park. “Sometimes I would get three or four in a day,” he said.

Manring, who’s 55 and works as an air traffic controller, occasionally wrote a check for the renewal without thinking about it. But about a year ago he decided to take a second look at what appeared to be an invoice from TV Guide.

A quick call to the publisher revealed that the mailing was a fake invoice generated by an unauthorized “agent” trying to get Manring to pay an inflated price for the magazine.

Recently he received offers from two companies for a year’s worth of TV Guide. Publishers Services Center listed it at $69.95 and Allied Publishing Systems offered a seeming bargain at $59. TV Guide currently offers the same number of issues for $16.50 if you pay by credit card.

“I’m not anti-business. I’m pro ethical business. For me it’s not ethical to charge twice as much for a subscription,” Manring said.

It’s unclear how the fake-invoice folks get hold of subscriber lists, but some publishers acknowledge they make parts of their lists available to certain parties. But rogue sellers have alarmed many publishing companies, who say their reputation suffers a hit when a customer never receives an order or finds out he or she has paid an inflated price.

Some publishers, including National Geographic Magazine and the Nation, have taken to posting lists of unauthorized sellers. National Geographic Society’s consumer alert says that it is pursuing legal action and asks consumers to tell the company if they receive a solicitation.

According to the Better Business Bureau, one company, Publishers Billing Exchange, has at least 56 aliases: Readers Billing Service, Readers Payment Service, Publisher Processing Service, Publishers Service Center, and so on. The company has an F rating in part because of more than 725 complaints filed within the past three years.

In 2006, Crain Communications Inc., the Detroit publisher of Autoweek, Advertising Age and a couple dozen other magazines, sued a lengthy list of businesses and individuals for the unauthorized use of the trademark “AUTOWEEK,” accepting orders but not passing them on to Crain, and damaging Crain’s relationship with its customers.

The defendants denied all allegations and claimed their subscription sales were authorized by Crain. The suit was eventually dismissed. “We got to the stage where we thought we got the point across,” said Peter Grantz, associate counsel for Crain.

Other publishers and state attorneys general have tried their hand at litigation, but most cases settled out of court or were dismissed. In a couple cases, agents have countersued for defamation or interfering with their businesses, but Whistleblower was unable to find one in which the agents prevailed.

There are some magazine subscription agents who are legitimate. Generally, these act as subcontractors of sorts for clearinghouses. Publishers and clearinghouses agree on a price to charge and clearinghouses hire agents to bring in the subscriptions.

Company cloaked in mystery

Whistleblower called Publishers Services Center, responsible for two of Manring’s recent solicitations.

An employee who identified herself only as Olivia said she works for 125 different companies. She refused to identify her employer, saying it’s “proprietary information.”

Olivia said that about half the time customers “can get a cheaper price through us,” and when they can’t “I usually tell my customers, you know, I would go with the better deal.”

Olivia said her 125 companies are authorized to make sales, though one of those businesses, Publishers Billing Association, which offered Manring a one-year subscription to National Geographic for $59.95, is on National Geographic’s don’t-buy-from list.

By federal law, businesses sending solicitations disguised as invoices must print one of two lengthy disclaimers in a prominent place and in a type size that is about ⅜ inch tall, among other requirements. The disclaimer basically says “this is not a bill.” The three solicitations Manring sent to Whistleblower had short disclaimers buried deep in the fine print.

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