Just when I started to gloat that I’d managed to reduce the number of unsolicited catalogues in my mailbox, this happened: I started receiving magazines I’d never ordered.
Maybe you have, too.
In my case, it turns out the magazines were a “gift” from the online shoe retailer Shoebuy.com, which wanted to “reward” me for using its site. The magazines — Prevention and Fitness — had nothing to do with what I bought, which is probably why I had no idea that by checking out, I was also checking in to get periodicals I had no desire to read.
Online Shoppers Are Complaining
At least I was lucky in one way. These yearlong subscriptions didn’t cost me a penny. In recent years, however, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has received numerous complaints from other online shoppers who were inadvertently signed up for magazines. Many of them were charged for subscriptions but didn’t discover this until reviewing their credit card bills.
Even though I haven’t been paying for these magazines, I’ve been annoyed every time they arrive. I have enough trouble finding time to read all the magazines I do want to read (keeping up with my New Yorkers alone is almost a full-time job). And I don’t want to heap even more unnecessary paper into the recycling pile.
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Suspicious consumer reporter that I am, I had to wonder if my freebies were part of a giant numbers game enabling magazines to claim me as a subscriber, boast a higher circulation and boost the rates they charge advertisers.
Why Unwanted Magazines Arrive
So I decided to find out what was going on, why and how I (and you) can avoid getting unwanted magazines.
Of course, free or low-priced magazine trial offers aren’t new. As Meredith Wagner, executive vice president for MPA, The Association of Magazine Media notes: “It’s a well proven method for publishers to find new readers. And consumers get to sample new magazines and may find one that they enjoy reading that matches their interests well.”
But over past few years, as print magazine circulation has slid, promotions have become particularly aggressive — though perfectly legal, says Katherine Hutt, the BBB’s national spokesperson.
A Consumer Advocate's Mistake
“We’ve seen some fairly assertive sales tactics,” she notes, thanks in large part to the growth of third-party companies that team up with retailers and publications.
Hutt discovered this personally, she admits sheepishly, after signing up for two $2 subscriptions while shopping online. Says Hutt: “I was on a respectable website, just about to finish my order, when there was a pop-up ad, which said that as a ‘thank-you’ for my order, I could buy various magazines for $2 a year. I ordered a couple, not reading all the way through the fine print … which of course BBB always advises consumers to do.”
Had she read the fine print, Hutt would’ve discovered that her initial $2 annual rate would climb to the regular subscription rate — $39 — when renewal time came around and her credit card would be automatically charged.
“I was lucky I used a credit card, not a debit card,” Hutt says. “If it was debit, it would have been like paying with cash; the money would have been gone.”
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My Magazine Detective Work
After my first magazine arrived, I thought it was a sample that would be followed by an invoice, allowing me to cancel. But when the third issue arrived, I saw the magazine label said my subscription went through 2014.
When I called to cancel and to find out why I was receiving the magazines, the magazine sales rep said I’d signed up through an outfit called M2 Media Group as a result of my Shoebuy.com order. (M2 Media Group, according to its site, is “a leading subscription agency in the magazine publishing industry” that “drives subscriber acquisition for magazine publishers” through such things as marketing programs and online promotions.)
Later, when I started my reporting for this blog post, a Prevention official told me the only way I could drop my subscription was by contacting M2 Media.
I’ve since tried that by phone — where calls were only answered by a machine — and on M2 Media’s site, filling out a customer form. Neither has worked.
What Shoebuy Told Me
After more digging and help from Shoebuy, I was finally able to reach a couple of humans at M2 Media, including its general manager, Dave Rock. He said programs like the one that led to my subscriptions provide online retailers with “additional value to the consumer. The consumers receive a targeted magazine subscription at no additional cost [and] the publishers gain exposure to new, targeted customers.”
Rock said he was “unable to disclose the economic terms of the arrangement” between the retailers and the magazine companies. But Shoebuy could.
Kavita Baball, its senior vice president for customer experience and retention, said her company gets paid “a small fee for every subscription.” Baball added: “We do believe that this bonus offer for a free magazine subscription provides a benefit to our customer base. Most people receiving the magazines choose to keep the subscriptions."
And Baball explained how I wound up getting the magazines. Apparently, unless I specifically checked an opt-out box, saying I didn’t want the magazine, I’d automatically get it. I can’t recall ever seeing that box. Baball said Shoebuy was in the process of redesigning it “to make it easier for a customer to not end up with unwanted magazines.”
Rachael Battista, a spokesperson for the Alliance for Audited Media, (formerly known as The Audit Bureau of Circulations), says the voluntary industry standard requires that publications ask consumers to proactively sign up for digital subscriptions by opting in. That’s not the case for print publications, however, where consumers can be offered a choice of opting in or opting out.
Publishers must delineate between free and paid subscribers in their circulation numbers, Battista said.
5 Tips for Consumers
Here’s what experts say you should do to avoid getting unwanted magazine subscriptions and to cancel any that arrive:
1. Be a careful online shopper. Before completing a transaction, review it and the webpage itself to see if there are any “thank you” boxes or extra offers. If there are, read them carefully.
If you do want to sign up for a free or low-cost subscription, read the fine print so you’ll know how much you’ll really be charged now and upon renewal.
2. Keep an eye out for any unsolicited publications in your mailbox. Don’t assume they’re free. Call the magazine to see how you got on its mailing list and ask to be dropped.
Just finding the phone number for circulation may not be easy. You might have to scour the magazine, call its advertising number or do some Internet sleuthing in order to reach a customer-service line.
Ask if you need to alert other companies, such as an intermediary like M2 Media that may have been responsible for signing you up. If so, follow up (good luck with that!). And if the subscription came through an online purchase you made, contact the e-tailer too.
3. Always use a credit card to buy online. It offers more consumer protections than a debit card and you’ll also have an easier time contesting any charge if there’s a problem.
4. Review your credit-card statements to make sure there are no unwanted charges. If you find one for a magazine, call the phone number shown with the charge to see if it will credit your account. If that company won’t oblige, protest the fee to your card issuer.
5. And if you want to take this one step further, consider cleaning out your mailbox altogether. After reviewing all the unwanted mail you get — catalogues, coupons, credit-card offers and donation requests — sign up at Catalog Choice, search for the companies whose mail you want to stop receiving and click. Trust ID (which now owns Catalog Choice) will, as its website says, “take it from there.”
This last tip has worked for me — until I mistakenly didn’t opt out of a magazine offer when I shopped online. Lesson learned.