As newspaper renewal scam widens, NYT offers affected subscribers a refund
Sunday subscribers to the New York Times found something unusual tucked among the sections October 12 -- a legalistic form offering a refund if they had paid an inflated renewal price to an unauthorized third-party.
That marked two bits of news in the developing story of a scam that has now been noted by dozens of newspapers over the last month. It was the first indication that the New York Times was among the targets. And it appears to be the first time a publication has offered refunds rather than just a warning.
Caroline Little, president of the Newspaper Association of America, said that the organization is investigating but "hasn't gotten to the point yet" of recommending a remedy.
This kind of solicitation, long a staple in magazine subscription sales, comes in the form of an apparent billing notice from Customer Billing Service or various other trade names. It states the payment can be used either for a renewal or a new subscription. And in the case of the Times and other newspapers, the requested amount has been well above the highest rate the company itself charges.
The Times solicitations date back at least to 2011, spokeswoman Linda Zebian said, but the company found out about the practice only after a lawsuit by a subscriber this summer. "We realized we could have done more," she said. "It's concerning and it's dishonest." Hence the decision to offer reimbursement in exchange for a waiver of any additional claims.
Zebian said that the company's best guess is that about 1,000 subscribers may be affected. If that many were to file a claim for a refund averaging $400, the Times would be out $400,000 -- not a material hit financially.
The Times action is sure to be noted through the rest of the industry, but others may or may not follow the industry leader's example.
Implications could be even bigger for the magazine industry, which relies heavily on third parties for subscription sales and has been accepting orders from the rogue solicitors for more than a decade. (I left calls but was unable to get an immediate response from the MPA magazine trade group or Time Inc.)
So how can an unauthorized service place thousands of subscriptions without objection? People who accept the offer do get their subscriptions fulfilled. Magazines and newspapers, in turn, both accept group orders from a variety of sources.
The Times' "letter to subscribers" Sunday from chief consumer officer Yasmin Namini, explains the process this way:
When The Times has received payments on your behalf from these companies, these payments have been applied to your subscription account and used to pay for your subscription. However these companies also took part of the amount you sent and kept it for themselves. The Times will pay subscribers who qualify....an amount equal to the amount that the solicitation companies kept for themselves. For example, if a qualified subscriber sent the solicitation company $999.95, and the company sent The Times $609.60, the subscriber would be entitled to a payment of $390.35 under the restitution program.
The company, based in Oregon, has operated under more than 40 different names, according to a thorough report in The Arizona Republic. Not only has it wiggled away from consumer complaints, it has aggressively claimed a legal right to sell and place subscriptions, whether authorized by publishers or not.
As an avid magazine reader, I have received a steady stream of these renewal notices and have bitten more than once. I realized something was amiss when I started receiving two copies a week of Time and later Entertainment Weekly -- one in my name and one in my wife's.
I don't recall the magazine solicitations to be at inflated rates -- but given the labyrinth of varying offers for different terms, it is hard to tell.
The dimensions of the scam and its damage to the print industry are hard to gauge yet. My guess is that it won't prove as big as the newspaper circulation scandal of a decade ago when four big publishers inflated their paid circulation by hundreds of thousands of copies -- and charged advertisers accordingly.
Still, as a matter of customer relations, it can hardly be a plus that so many publications were duped for so long -- or simply accepted the money, no questions asked.