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Beware the magazine scam

February 29, 2008 |  1:16 pm

The young woman came to my door at around 7 p.m., a good time to catch working people at home on weeknights. She was from South Central, she said, the mother of a young son — she showed me his photo on her cell phone just to prove it — who was working her way toward college. By selling magazines, she said, she could get a scholarship to turn her life around. Her story was laid on so thick, with so many rehearsed appeals to the heartstrings, that before very long it started to sound like ... a scam.

It was.

Magazine crews have been around since the Depression, but with laws restricting telemarketing they've become more common than ever — so common, in fact, that I seem to get a new crew through my neighborhood two or three times a year. The magazines they peddle are legitimate, but offered at prices that are usually far higher than you'd pay by subscribing directly. What's more, buyers are lucky if they ever actually receive the magazines they purchase. One favorite technique of the crews is to tell people who turn down their magazines that they can win points toward a scholarship if the homeowner will simply give a contribution to their organization. This gives the impression that the salesperson is working for some kind of nonprofit: In fact, he or she is working for a sleazy, for-profit, fly-by-night operation that seldom keeps its promises to the naive young people it lures to sells its magazines.

Magazine crews were the subject of an in-depth report in the New York Times last year. So many salespeople have been abused while traveling around the country in crews that support organizations have been set up for recovering crew members and their parents; two such groups can be found here and here. The best way to discourage them: Politely say no and close the door.

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