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Didn't order it? You can keep it

You respond to an advertisement for a free trial pair of pantyhose and are surprised when you receive a package of four _ with a bill. A cookbook arrives in the mail. You never ordered it and write to tell the company so, but you start getting bills and then letters that threaten to ruin your credit if you don't pay.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, thousands of people are placed in similar positions every year. What many don't realize is that they do not have to pay for merchandise they never ordered; federal laws prohibit mailing unordered merchandise to consumers and then demanding payment.

Here are some answers to questions frequently asked about unordered merchandise:

Q. If I receive a book or item of clothing that I did not order, am I obligated to pay for the merchandise or return it?

A. No. You may consider it a gift.

Q. If I keep it, must I notify the seller?

A. You have no legal obligation to do so, but sending a letter stating your intention to keep the shipment as a free gift is a sensible precaution. Your letter may discourage the seller from sending you bills or may help to clear up an honest error.

Send your letter by certified mail and keep the return receipt and a copy of the letter. That will help you to establish later, if necessary, that you did not order the merchandise.

If you receive bills for unordered merchandise, use this same approach. Always keep copies of your letters and always send them certified mail.

Q. If unordered merchandise is apparently the result of an honest shipping error, what should I do?

A. Write the seller and offer to return it provided the seller pays for postage and handling. Give the seller a specific and reasonable amount of time (30 days) in which to pick it up or arrange to have it returned at no expense to you. Tell the seller that after the specified time period has passed, you reserve the right to keep the merchandise.

Q. Is there any way to protect myself from shippers of unordered merchandise?

A. When you order goods advertised as "free," be cautious. Read fine print to see if you are really joining a "club" that has purchase requirements.

When ordering by phone, make a note of the name of the clerk who took your order, the company name, street address, phone number, price, description, item number and total cost of the order plus the method of payment, date of order and anticipated delivery date.

Q. Where can I go for help in dealing with unordered merchandise problems?

A. Start by trying to resolve your dispute with the company. If that is not successful and if the merchandise arrived by mail, write to the local U.S. Postal Inspector, P.O. Box 22526, Tampa 33622-2526.