Consumers report telemarketing calls that led to unwanted and costly magazine subscriptions.
Terry Bjorke doesn't golf and has no interest in starting up a business, but the magazines piling up in his mailbox in St. Michael might give that impression. For months, Bjorke has been bombarded with unwanted subscriptions for Entrepreneur, Golf, Shape, Prevention and other titles.
Along with the seven magazines, Bjorke was also getting $45 monthly charges on his credit card, all because he answered a telemarketing call from Midwest Publishers Home Office in August. He thought he had ordered one subscription.
"It just snowballed," he said. "The only magazine I remember hearing was Motor Trend."
Bjorke isn't the only consumer who contacted Whistleblower after getting swept up by high-pressure sales pitches and then receiving magazines they would never read. In some cases, the subscriptions last for several years and by giving consent over the phone, the customer can be on the hook for hundreds of dollars of payments.
Janice Miller of Prior Lake thought she was getting a call from Reader's Digest this fall when she agreed to renew her subscription for four years for $48. Instead, AMG Magazine Services sent her a letter saying her credit card would be charged for $79.96.
Her Reader's Digest didn't show up, but she started getting deliveries of US Weekly, Self and a photography magazine. AMG Magazine Services, based in Miami, didn't return calls for comment.
"I'm 75 years old and these are magazines for kids," she said. "I would like my money back and I would like those magazines to stop."
Both the Federal Trade Commission and state Attorney General Lori Swanson have put out warnings about magazine telemarketing practices, urging consumers to be aware that, in many cases, their verbal agreement to buy a subscription over the phone is a binding contract.
Michael Tankersley, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission's marketing practices division, said there are federal rules meant to address some of the "persistent problems" with telemarketing, such as improperly claiming that a transaction has been authorized or inadequately explaining the terms of a sale. But many consumers are also misinformed about the protections, he said.
Unlike door-to-door sales, in which buyers can change their minds within three days, there is no federal cooling-off period for telephone sales. Tankersley also said federal regulations don't require telemarketing companies to provide a written contract after a sales call, though it's something every consumer should request.
Federal law prohibits companies from sending unordered merchandise, which would include magazines, to a customer and then asking for payment.
"If a consumer didn't order it, it's a gift or abandoned property," Tankersley said. "You only have to pay for what you agreed to pay for."
Consumers often have a hard time proving what they agreed to. Many telemarketing companies record sales calls and later tell the customer that the recording proves they placed an order.
Ben Wogsland, spokesman for the attorney general's office, said if a consumer believes they didn't agree to buy something, then the company has to prove it.
When Bjorke contacted Midwest Publishers Home Office in November, he was told that the company had a recording of him authorizing the purchase. In order to stop the subscriptions, he had to pay the remaining balance on the account -- $717.60.
He asked for a copy of the contract and cancellation policy, which he said he never received.
When Whistleblower contacted the company's owner, Monica Hanssen, she said her records showed that Bjorke placed an order for 10 magazines. She said that Bjorke was sent a confirmation letter that included the 30-day cancellation policy.
Hanssen told Whistleblower that her company follows FTC regulations and that the recorded call would show Bjorke knew what he was buying. When Bjorke asked to get a copy of the recording, he said he was told that the calls were only kept for a limited amount of time.
In mid-December, Hanssen agreed to settle the account for the $179.40 Bjorke had already paid.
Miller said she's still nervous that AMG Magazine Services will charge her again. Last week, she got another telemarketing call from a salesperson who claimed to be from Reader's Digest. He told Miller that she needed to renew her subscription quickly because the prices were going up.
This time, she didn't fall for the sales pitch.
Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628