Bamboozled August 25, 2016: Even we make mistakes sometimes

We’ve said it time and time again. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how a company handles a mistake that’s most important.

Advance Central Services, the company that handles circulation for The Star-Ledger, made a mistake that upset many consumers, and it’s trying to make it right.

Earlier this week, Bamboozled received 10 complaints from subscribers to our newspapers. Editors fielded additional calls, and other readers called our call centers.

The complaint was about a new offering for subscribers who use ongoing auto-pay services.

They received letters and emails saying a 100-page investment and retirement guide would be delivered with the Sunday paper on Sept. 18. It would be the first of four supplements subscribers would receive over the course of the year.

The problem was the cost.

The letter said $2.99 would be applied to subscription accounts for the first supplement and for future supplements.

“This will not be an additional charge to your credit/debit card or checking account for these premium edition charges; however, since the charge is applied to your subscription account balance, it will shorten your paid-through date so that the next charge comes about sooner,” the notice said.

It directed readers to contact the customer service line if they had questions, but it didn’t specifically give instructions on whether someone could opt out.

Some subscribers weren’t happy.

“While the drafting of the notice is (apparently intentionally) obscure, it appears that this is actually an extra charge for a publication I don’t want,” said subscriber Erik Lindauer of Short Hills in an email.

Lindauer and other readers complained about the lack of opt out information, and they challenged Bamboozled to shine light on issue.

So we did.

Subscriber Sally Karpinski of Somerset questioned whether the action was legal.

“How is this allowed? We always thought unsolicited materials could not be charged without the recipient’s permission,” she wrote in an email.

We took the question to Tom Calcagni, a former head of the Division of Consumer Affairs and an attorney with Calcagni & Kanefsky in Newark.

He said the action could be a violation of the state’s Consumer Fraud Act, which makes “any unconscionable commercial practice” unlawful.

“That the newspaper is unilaterally obligating customers to purchase supplements that they never ordered, and shortening the subscription term to cover the added cost, without a readily available means for the consumer to decline or opt out of the new offer, is in line with practices that the State has previously found problematic,” Calcagni said.

The key here is the lack of an opt-out notice, he said.

Calcagni said the lack of a conspicuous opt-out in the notice would be a factor in determining whether the business practice is unconscionable or deceptive under the Consumer Fraud Act.

“If the notice said that consumers can opt out by calling — then that would likely cut against any claim of fraud,” he said.

MAKING IT RIGHT

We talked to Kevin Denny, a vice president and general manager for Advance Central Services, which provides circulation support for The Star-Ledger, The Times of Trenton and the company’s other brands.

Denny said it was a mistake.

“We should have been more clear about how to opt out,” Denny said. “We simply put in the letter for questions to call. We should have said, ‘To opt out of this and future premium editions’ to call.”

The call center phone number is (877) 481-7015.

In all, notifications were sent to subscribers of the company’s 22 newspapers. Three notices were updated to reflect how to opt out after consumer complaints started coming in, Denny said.

Denny said before the notices were sent, across all the newspapers, the company expected about 2.5 percent of subscribers, or 25,000 people, to opt out. About 15,000 people have called so far, he said. Figures specifically about New Jersey were not available.

In response to questions about the Consumer Fraud Act in New Jersey, Denny said the company does give readers the chance to opt out.

But that important item wasn’t in writing this time around. It will be in the future, Denny said.

new ad.jpg
The new ad appearing in newspapers, explaining how to opt out of the new supplements.

“The letter we initially sent failed to clearly define that,” he said. “For future editions, we will do things differently, in particular the communication piece with readers.”

The Sunday newspapers ran a clarification ad last week, and the ads will run again for the next three Sundays to clarify the opt out policy. No additional letters or emails are planned, he said.

We also asked if the supplements are tied to advertising deals, and Denny said they are not.

The first supplement was produced by Morningstar, but Advance Central Services paid for the content and Morningstar didn’t receive any advertising, Denny said. In fact, there are no ads at all in the supplement, he said.

The company will provide the content for future supplements, Denny said.

Subscriber Karpinski said she and her husband tried to get through to the call center several times in two days, but they failed. So we gave their number to Denny, who had someone reach out so they could opt out.

Lindauer said it took him four tries to get through to the call center, but he did get through.

He was quickly opted out, he said, but he’s still not pleased.

“Still seems to me to be a pretty shabby business practice — essentially sticking people with an extra charge which is very ambiguously described in the notice unless they make an effort to call and ask to avoid it,” he said. “Moreover, I now feel as though I will need to monitor my account over the next year to make sure that I actually don’t get charged despite what I heard from customer service.”

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller atBamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. FindBamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.