Magazine scammers prey on the sympathetic

Authorities say residents should be wary of door-to-door magazine peddlers, especially those who try to exploit their sympathies. - photo by Tyler Harris

By TYLER HARRIS
IowaWatch Staff Writer

Lisa Weaver answered the door to her Iowa City home to an unfamiliar 19-year-old black woman who said her name was Latoya.

It was a hot August day, and Latoya said she was selling magazines for a company called Second 2 None. She didn’t give her last name and said she was from inner city Chicago.

“At first I had my defenses up,” said Weaver, a lecturer at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.  “But I warmed up to her eventually.”

Youth selling magazines in suburban neighborhoods are a common sight in Iowa City and Johnson County. Although many are legitimate, some - like Weaver’s visitor - are not. And authorities say residents should be wary of door-to-door peddlers, especially if the seller tries to exploit their sympathies.

When Latoya said she was pregnant, Weaver invited her in.

“She went into her life story,” said Weaver.  “It amounted to a really tough childhood.”

Feeling sorry for her, Weaver decided to help Latoya out – she wrote a check to subscribe to Mother Jones magazine. The $15 for the subscription and $8 processing fee would go to Midwest Clearing Inc., a company based in Hazel Crest, Ill.

But if Weaver had waited, she may never have received her subscription.

While eating with friends later that evening and hearing of other tales of scam victims, she realized she was the victim this time. She then paid a $27 fee to cancel her original check.

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Racking up complaints, deflecting criticism

Other victims have not been so lucky.

In the last three years, 161 complaints have been filed with the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and northern Illinois against Midwest Clearing Inc – one of which was from eastern Iowa.  In past year, 124 had been reported, before the company’s accreditation was revoked in May.

The Better Business Bureau gave the company an F rating on a scale from F to A+.

This was due to complaints of customers never receiving their subscriptions or refunds, not being able to cancel subscriptions, and being told they couldn’t receive their magazine because the company no longer offers it, according to Tom Joyce, director of marketing and communications of the BBB of Chicago.

The BBB gave the same grade to Second 2 None and listed its address as Longview, Texas.

Maurice Gary, owner of Second 2 None, said Longview is his home address, and that the business is located in Hazel Crest, Ill., in the same building as Midwest Clearing. But he insisted the companies are different.  Gary said it’s hard for any magazine vendor to have a high BBB rating, and low ratings aren’t always the contractor’s fault.

“Sometimes it’s the clearing house,” he said.

Dave Anthony, a customer service representative in Midwest Clearing, said Midwest has a contract with Second 2 None.  But it was two other contractors, which he would not name, that were mostly responsible for the BBB’s low rating, he said.

Deceptive methods

In an email, Joyce said customers complained about the tactics used by salespeople - those that Weaver experienced firsthand.

The salespersons often claimed the money would to go to a charity or said they were needy, according to the BBB. And sometimes, they would be aggressive and refuse to the leave the property when the owner asked.

Al Perales, an investigator in the Consumer Protection Division of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, said some victims end up losing $40 to $60 falling for these tactics.

“They’ll use lies like, ‘My grandma lives down the street,’” Perales said.  “You have people out there that train these kids to lie.”

The vendors, often young people, go to places across the country – including college towns – sometimes acting like students wearing the school colors, just to relate to locals and get their foot in the door, he said, adding that contractors, hired by magazine suppliers like Midwest Clearing Inc, usually train the sellers to do this.

The contractors are responsible for driving the salespersons from town to town and providing them with places to stay, Perales said.

“Many times we find out they’re being taken advantage of by their employers,” he said.

Anthony, the Midwest Clearing customer service representative, said his company doesn’t know how the vendors are trained.

“Basically we’re a middle man,” Anthony said.  “There was a group in Iowa, but they might have moved to Kansas now.”

But Perales said some suppliers know exactly what’s going on, and tend to use contractors as their scapegoats when they receive complaints.

He also said that vendors are required to have a permit to sell in some communities, but fraudulent sellers, who want to move in and out of the area, rarely get them.

However, Sgt. Denise Brotherton of the Iowa City Police Department said no permit is required to solicit door-to-door in Iowa City. She said while these occurrences are rare in Iowa City, they do happen on occasion.

Although victims of magazine scams may have trouble getting a refund, they can still file a complaint at the Better Business Bureau’s website.

And though it is hard to track the sellers, they tend to travel the Midwest during the summer and move on in the fall, said Perales.

“Many of these organizations are fly-by-night,” he said.

He said that the prices of subscriptions are usually too high, and that sellers seldom advise customers about their right to cancel them within three days.

If customers want a subscription, Perales said, it is best to go directly to the magazine company, where they can get them for less than what door-to-door vendors offer.

Tugging at heart strings

The biggest sign of a scam is when vendors use any means necessary to get inside the home of a potential buyer, either by finding some way to relate to the buyer, or by making the buyer feel sorry for them.

“One of the fastest ways to get into consumers’ pockets is knocking on their door,” said Perales.

That sense of sympathy is what pulled Weaver in.

“I just ended up feeling kind of bad for [Latoya],” she said.

Latoya’s hardship-ridden story brought Weaver’s guard down, and gave the seller an entrance.  But what sealed the deal was Latoya’s claim that one of Weaver’s neighbors had made a racist comment.

“I didn’t believe it, and I didn’t believe somebody would lie about it,” Weaver said.

Feeling guilty, she ordered a subscription, hoping to brighten Latoya’s spirits.

“I didn’t want her entire afternoon to be shattered by this experience,” Weaver said.  “It’s sad that this is what they’re taught to do.”

Read about what the authorities have to say.

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