No Need to Pay for Unordered Goods

Times Staff Writer

Question: About two months ago I received three pairs of panty hose from a company in Philadelphia, and I enclose a copy of the letter that came with them as well as the advertisement. I did not order this merchandise. I have never heard of the company, nor have I ever done business with them. With the understanding that, legally, I am under no obligation to pay for or return unordered merchandise, I ignored the matter.

Several weeks later, I received a dunning letter (also enclosed), which I also ignored. A second letter came that threatened me by saying that it would be turned over to a collection agency.

And on Nov. 29 I received the enclosed letter from the collection agency.

I don't feel that I should expend the money, time and energy to send this merchandise back just because that company is using a shabby promotional practice. Furthermore, since I don't wear panty hose, I had given them to Goodwill Industries.

I feel harassed and am very upset. I feel like an innocent victim.

My credit rating is as high as anyone can achieve, and I am afraid that this will put a blight on it. Could that happen because of this matter? What can I do? What are my rights?--J.W.T.

Answer: The unordered-merchandise gambit is, literally, as old as the Postal Service itself. And, unfortunately, it's illegal only if the company sends the material c.o.d., according to postal inspector Mel Moore.

The teaser letter that you received held out the lure of being able to redeem the two $4 "gift certificates" attached "the instant you pay this invoice." And then slyly added the line: "If . . . you decide you do not want the hose, return them before the payment due date with no further obligation."

"Obligation"? To whom? Both the Federal Trade Commission and the Postal Service, Moore said, take the position that anything sent through the mail that has not been ordered "is a gift . . . you can keep it, throw it away or give it away, whether it has any value or not. They prey upon people, trying to scare them into paying for the stuff."

And the annoying part, of course, is the constant reference to your credit rating. Even in your first letter containing the phony "invoice," there is the statement: "Please pay promptly to protect your credit status with us." And with an even heavier hand, in the follow-up letter: "Perhaps you do not realize that we paid for your hosiery order before you received it. We trusted you and extended you credit. In truth, we considered you an honest person who pays bills out of a sense of self-respect."

Threatening letter

And then, of course, the threatening letter from the collection agency: "You are hereby given 30 days to pay this outstanding debt and clear the record. Should we not receive a payment or an explanation for non-payment we will maintain a record of your unpaid account."

Hogwash. You don't owe either the hosiery outfit or the collection agency the time of day.

But, is there really a threat to your credit rating? Don't give it a thought. There isn't a prayer that any of the major credit-reporting companies would pay the slightest attention to this fly-by-night operation even if it did have the gall to turn your name in.

"We only deal with the major credit grantors," TRW Information Services' Geri Schanz said, "not with direct-mail businesses unless there's been a credit-card transaction involved, which has become delinquent and has been turned over to a legitimate collection agency."

Go back and reread those threats to your credit from the hosiery company ("pay promptly to protect your credit status with us ") and from the collection agency ( "we will maintain a record of your unpaid account"). A couple of pretty scary possibilities, all right.

Billed for Three Pairs

As an indication of just how good this hosiery was in the first place, consider that you were billed for three pairs at $1 apiece (plus $1.95 for postage and handling) and, the Postal Service's Moore pointed out, "the markup on this stuff is such that if they can scare 10% to 25% of the people into paying for it, they'll still make a profit."

That, in rough figures, would put the true value of the panty hose at about a nickel apiece.

Q: I'd like to solve a mystery concerning a magazine subscription. The Atlantic magazine offered a one-year subscription for the unbeatable price of $11.95 last summer and would throw in a book, "Highlights From 125 Years of The Atlantic." My $19.95 check for two years saved me even more.

When the book was slow in coming, I looked in the magazine for a subscription-department address and--lo and behold--discovered that last August and September the price was $18 for one year, $33 for two years and $45 for three years. Then, for two months (October and November), the price went to $9.95 for one year, $15.95 for two years and $19.95 for three years. In December, and in the current issue, the price has changed again--still $9.95 for one year and $15.95 for two years--but with the three-year subscription now at $29.95.

Did I luck out in August, 1984, or did I lose out in October, when I could have gotten three years for $19.95? The current $29.95 for three years must be an error because you can get two years for $15.95. What gives?--B.S.

A: Trying to make much sense out of any publication's "special" subscription price at any given time is a little bit like trying to fathom the mysteries surrounding the pricing of designer jeans. And for all of its literary prestige, The Atlantic is no exception--there's a bit of whim involved in all such pricing, even though the newsstand price ($2 in this case) tends to remain fairly static.

There was, indeed, "a price reduction last year, and everything came down pretty drastically," according to Gregory Zuch of The Atlantic's circulation department in Boston. And, illogically or not, the current $29.95 price for three years (versus $15.95 for two years) is correct, Zuch added.

But you needn't feel bitter that you subscribed prior to the drop (from $19.95 to $15.95 for two years).

"People who subscribe or renew their subscription at the old, higher price," Zuch continued, "automatically have their subscription extended according to a formula that we have. It's not only required by law, but it's a matter of principle too."

If through some fluke you don't see this extension reflected at the end of your two-year subscription, Zuch promised, just call it to The Atlantic's attention, and it'll be taken care of promptly.

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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