Beware of telemarketers who sell expensive magazine subscriptions

Carter Foster, an associate pastor at a Texas church for 25 years, says he can’t remember ordering the magazine subscriptions by phone. He can’t remember receiving a confirmation letter either.

All he remembers is that bills started coming for a handful of magazines, totaling $1,500. When he called to protest, he found out he had purchased five-year subscriptions.

“I can’t believe I did such a thing,” he says.

“They wouldn’t let me cancel. I told them that I just couldn’t believe it. Pay that much for magazines? For five years of magazines?”

His wife, Ann, called one of the magazines and learned that he had purchased the subscriptions from Heartland Inc., an Iowa-based telemarketing company that sells magazines by phone.

Dave Lieber reports on phone solicitors who sell magazine subscriptions.

They protested the charges with their credit card company but were told the purchases were legitimate and wouldn’t be reversed.

The minister at Metroplex Covenant Church said he has prayed about it, but he can’t remember making the purchases.

“I just ask that they treat me fairly,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing this. That’s an enormous amount of money to pay for magazines.”

The Watchdog contacted Heartland. Company lawyer Allison Steuterman received permission from Foster to release to me the recordings of two of his conversations with the telemarketers.

In the first recording, a man asks if he agrees to subscribe to the magazines. Foster answers in a soft voice, “OK,” to the man’s questions.

But the salesman speaks so fast to the 67-year-old Foster that even after listening to the tape six times, I still can’t understand what he’s saying.

He rattles off the magazines’ names so fast, I can’t tell what they are. The salesman ends by saying, “The easiest way to remember our company name is, ‘We’re Heartland and we love you,’ OK?”

“OK,” Foster replies.

After Foster listened to the recordings, he wrote to me: “It sounds like me, and the information I gave was correct. As I listen to the recordings, I feel deeply heartsick. I have Parkinson’s and the medication I was taking left me less than alert.”

After listening to the tapes, Steuterman, the company lawyer, pronounced her verdict: “The sales are authorized, and the payments on the credit cards are authorized. Heartland Inc. employees identify Heartland, the magazines, the cost, the number to call for questions and the cancellation policy. Heartland Inc. complies with all federal laws.”

The Iowa Better Business Bureau gives Heartland a C-minus rating with 363 complaints in the last three years. All have been resolved or closed. Steuterman said the company works diligently with outside agencies to handle complaints.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller warns on his Web site that problems with magazine subscriptions ranked second for total number of complaints received last year by the Consumer Protection Division. While some amounted to simple mistakes, others involved illegal tactics by questionable telemarketing companies.

“Here are some typical problems,” the Web site states. “Telemarketers who trick you into paying hundreds of dollars for multi-year subscriptions to magazines you don’t want or can’t afford … so-called sweepstakes that sign you up for a subscription without your approval … solicitations for magazines at ‘pennies a day for shipping and handling’ that turn out to be very expensive … and ‘special promotions’ for ‘free issues’ that actually sign you up for costly subscriptions that are difficult to cancel.”

The Heartland lawyer told me that the company faced legal problems in three states over its selling practices — Kansas, North Dakota and Indiana — but that those problems were resolved.

As for people who buy magazines over the telephone, the lawyer advises: Pay attention.

Sometimes, “people listen with half an ear to what they’re doing,” she says. “They may be watching television at the same time they’re talking to one of our sales representatives.

“That’s why we send out the confirmation letter and give them the right to cancel. Sometimes people believe that they have discretionary income that perhaps they do not. A month or two down the line they wish they hadn’t made the purchase.

“Now I understand that, but at the same time, they have made the purchase. It’s an authorized purchase, but then they turn around and point the finger at Heartland, who actually goes out of their way to work with customers to make them happy.”

The company budged a little in Foster’s case.

“They said that if I paid off the remainder of the fees I would get a 10 percent discount,” Foster said. “I did that in order to stop any further contact with Heartland. I had several tense conversations and then decided to politely end negotiations with Heartland Inc. It still makes me sick to think that I would pay over $1,500 for magazines.”

The Watchdog saw one more play for Foster to get his money back. Heartland attorney Steuterman offered a clue when she wrote to me, “Heartland, Inc. has received no notice that he has complained to the Attorney General (Iowa or Texas), the BBB, or any other agency.”

Since we know that Heartland works to resolve its BBB complaints, Foster could file complaints with both the Iowa and Texas attorneys general, the Iowa BBB and the Federal Trade Commission. He could include a doctor’s note that attests to side effects of the medication he is taking for Parkinson’s. He can ask for a refund of all magazines not yet delivered.

After I called Heartland this week, the company called him again. But not to settle. It was another sales call.

“Since I paid off my credit on the magazines, I was in a premier position, and they tried to sell me more magazines,” he said. “I told them I was very unhappy and wasn’t interested in more purchases. They apologized and hung up.”

He asked to be removed from their call list. (Also, to stop telemarketing calls, he should verify that he is correctly listed on the state and federal Do Not Call lists.)

The other day, Foster got a phone call he wanted from Heartland. Steuterman offered a settlement: Foster pays for magazines already received and he gets reimbursed for the remainder. For that, he agrees not to sue or demand more money. The two parties are now trying to reach agreement.

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber