By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/1/2009 2:14:25 PM ET 2009-07-01T18:14:25

It starts with a knock on the door. The nice young man or woman standing there wants you to buy magazines. You’ve never seen them before, but they have a convincing story about why they’re going door-to-door. They may have ID and seem on the up-and-up.

Just say no.

That may sound harsh, but it’s the smart thing to do. The fact is you can’t tell if that person on your doorstep is for real or a con artist. There’s a very good chance you’re being set up for a scam.

“They seemed like nice people. It sounded like a reputable company,” says Stacey Harley of Olympia, Wash. She paid for $70 worth of children’s magazines and never got a thing.

This summer, like every summer, deceptive door-to-door magazine sales crews are out in full force across the country. They are mostly high school and college-age kids who are taught to use a number of phony pitches. They say they’re raising money for a local hospital, school or charity. They’re earning points toward a school trip. Some even claim to be supporting the troops in Iraq.

In the last 12 months, the Better Business Bureau has received 1,100 complaints against more than 50 companiesthat sell magazines this way. Many of the victims were so moved by the fictitious pitch they paid hundreds of dollars for subscriptions.

BBB spokesman Steve Cox says some complaints are about high-pressure and misleading sales tactics. Other victims say they never got the magazines they paid for.

Prestige Sales
Last year, a young man knocked on Dina Varao’s door in Sacramento. He wanted her to buy magazines or children’s books that would be donated to local schools and hospitals. He said this would help him earn a high school trip to Europe.

“He was good,” Varao remembers. “He made a lot of references to living in the neighborhood and going to a local high school. That’s how he roped me in.”

She paid $49 and got a receipt. After the young man left she noticed the receipt said Prestige Sales of Arizona. That seemed strange, so Varao talked to her neighbors and nobody knew the young salesman.

Afraid she’d been scammed, she decided to cancel. There was no phone number on the receipt, just an e-mail and mailing address. After writing numerous times with no response, Varao threatened to go to the Better Business Bureau. That’s when she got a message that Prestige would destroy her check.

Varao was lucky. Her check was never cashed. Even so, she feels what they did was “really slimy.”

A Prestige crew hit Eileen Lyle’s neighborhood in Carlsbad, Calif. Same pitch; they were friends of someone in neighborhood.

“They would have a different story at each house,” Lyle tells me. “We’re this person’s cousin or that person’s brother or we’re staying with someone in the area.” When a neighbor challenged them, they took off running.

People from 12 states have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau about Prestige Sales, LLC, which has a PO Box in Phoenix. The unhappy customers say they never received their orders or had to wait up to six months for them to arrive.

The BBB in Phoenix gives the company an “F” rating.

The bureau there says it’s requested basic information from the company but has not received any response.'

I e-mailed Prestige Sales, but they did not respond.

Dealing with a seasoned criminal?
In New Jersey, Lt. John Schwartz of the Kinnelon Borough Police Department knows all about door-to-door magazine scams. He’s been going after these con artists for years.

“Many of them have criminal records,” he says.

Two weeks ago, Kinnelon police arrested a salesman with Prestige Sales. He told potential customers his name was Jamie Peters. A fingerprint check shows “Peters” was really a 29-year-old whose last known address was in Texas. It turns out he was wanted for parole violations connected to a burglary there. His arrest warrant said he had violent tendencies.

He was part of a crew of about 40 staying at a local hotel. Every day they would be dropped off in different neighborhoods to see how many magazines they could sell.

“Don’t invite them into your house,” cautions Lt. Schwartz. “Some of them look pretty clean cut. But these are not Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. They are not selling cookies.”

Many of them are after your valuables. Lt. Schwartz tells me that when they arrest members of these magazine sales crews they often find stolen checkbooks in their pockets.

The emotional appeal
Crystal Downes of Snohomish, Wash., doesn’t normally buy things from door-to-door salespeople. But the woman who showed up at her house selling magazines had a compelling story.

“She was a very nice, friendly, chipper young lady,” Downes recalls. “She said she was a single mom, she showed me a picture of her son, and that she was working with Fresh Start Opportunities.”

The prices were high, but Downes figured she could spare the money to help this mother get back on her feet and take care of her son. She ordered a two-year subscription to Prevention magazine for $54.

The check was cashed but the magazine never came. Downes called the company many times but never got anything but voicemail.

The Better Business Bureau of Western Washington has received dozens of complaints about Fresh Start Opportunities, which lists a mail box in Seattle as its business address. Because of all the complaints, the BBB gives the company an “F” rating.

The BBB’s Niki Horace says the Fresh Start Opportunities uses kids “who really know how to tug at your heartstrings.”

I called and e-mailed Fresh Start Opportunities, but did not receive a response.

The bottom line
Unless it’s a kid you know who lives down the street, door-to-door sales are always risky. ID badges can be faked and receipts can list a bogus address orphone number. If there is a problem, it may be impossible to contact the company to get a refund.

The fact that someone shows up at your house without an appointment is a high-pressure sales tactic. If you have a hard time saying no to someone face-to-face, just don’t open the door. They’ll go away.

And consider this: If you give your money to a crook, not only do you lose, but so does the charity you think you’re helping.

Finally, never let an unexpected salesperson in to your house – not to use the bathroom, get a glass of water or make a phone call. It’s just not safe.

More info:
FTC: Magazine subscription scams

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