La Habra resident Michael Blazey has subscribed to National Geographic for more than 30 years. So it wasn't a surprise when he received an official-looking notice in the mail recently seeking $59.88 for the magazine.
"It looked like my subscription was coming due and it was time to get it renewed," Blazey, 59, told me.
There were just a few small problems:
•The subscription price being charged was four times the amount National Geographic charges on its website.
•A closer examination of the notice revealed that it wasn't from National Geographic but from something called Publishers Billing Assn. in Reno.
•Publishers Billing Assn., a.k.a. Publishers Billing Exchange, a.k.a. Readers Payment Service, a.k.a. Orbital Publishing Group, a.k.a. more than a dozen other aliases, has a long history of consumer complaints and has been the subject of numerous warnings from legitimate publishing companies.
"Unfortunately, sales by unauthorized third parties have been an ongoing issue for publishers," said Beth Foster, a spokeswoman for National Geographic.
Such "subscription notices" serve as a stark reminder that unscrupulous businesses will go to almost any length to prey on the unwary, requiring consumers to be extra vigilant to protect themselves.
Blazey, who serves as assistant dean of Cal State Long Beach's College of Liberal Arts as well as on the La Habra City Council, said if the notice from Publishers Billing Assn. nearly fooled him, he wonders about senior citizens who may not think twice about responding to something like this.
"If I were my dad's age — 85 — and this came in the mail, I'd think my subscription was up and I better renew right away," he said.
And as if all this wasn't sufficiently stinky, the back of the notice says that "you will automatically be enrolled free for one year as a member of 'Orphans Waiting,' a nonprofit organization established to help orphans in need around the world."
No one at either Publishers Billing Assn. or Orphans Waiting returned my calls for comment.
The website for Orphans Waiting says its mission is "to raise funds to address immediate and life-saving needs of orphans." Becoming a member, it says, can get you $300 in grocery coupons, a hotel stay or even seven nights aboard a cruise ship.
These are, needless to say, unusual gestures on the part of an organization dedicated to assisting orphans.
The website says Orphans Waiting was established by "Bill and Dawn" (no last name provided), who say they've "always been drawn to the plight of orphans."
"For several years we were foster parents here in the U.S., and then when our biological children were older we decided we needed to do something for the orphans in Africa as their plight is so very dire," they say online.
Orphans Waiting provides a San Diego address where checks can be sent. That address turns out to be a mailbox at Village Mail & More in the Pomerado Village Shopping Center. (Similarly, the address for Publishers Billing Assn. turns out to be a mailbox at a UPS Store in Reno.)
Business records filed with the California secretary of state's office reveal that Orphans Waiting actually operates out of a house in Poway, which also serves as the base for a company called Target Impact Marketing.
The address was previously the location of Publishers Magazine Exchange and American Marketing Services before those companies were shut down, records show.
These businesses are affiliated with a couple named William and Dawn Schwiebert, according to the secretary of state's office. The Schwieberts couldn't be reached for comment.
The Better Business Bureau gives Publishers Billing Exchange (and its assorted aliases) a grade of F for having racked up 269 complaints and not being forthcoming about its business activities.
Tim Johnston, president of the Better Business Bureau of Northern Nevada, said that as best as his investigators can tell, Publishers Billing Exchange is not actually located in Reno. The bureau believes mail to the Reno address is being forwarded elsewhere by UPS.
"We don't know where they are," Johnston said. "They've been difficult to track."
If you want to subscribe to a publication — and it'd be a darn fine thing if you did — just visit the magazine's or newspaper's website. You'll get all the information you need and probably the lowest possible price.
Always look closely at any renewal or subscription notice that arrives in the mail. If it's not the real deal, there'll probably be some fine print somewhere attesting to the fact that it wasn't actually sent by the publication and isn't really a bill.
And if you want to help the orphans of the world, well, good for you. They can probably use all the help they can get.
Just make sure the charity you pick is reputable and genuinely active in its field. A good place to start is the website of GuideStar, a database of nonprofit organizations. You can search for specific charities and read reviews submitted by donors.