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Beware when considering sales pitches by phone

With the holidays drawing near, you'll be receiving calls from telemarketers to give gifts. One popular gift to give away is a magazine subscription. But you should beware of telephone sales pitches for "free," "prepaid" or "special" magazine subscription deals. An impulse purchase could leave you with years of monthly payments for magazines you may not want or could buy for less elsewhere.

Thousands of consumers buy magazine subscriptions from legitimate telemarketers every year. Yet, according to the Federal Trade Commission, some unscrupulous salespeople trick consumers into paying hundreds of dollars for multiyear subscriptions.

Sales techniques vary. The FTC says consumers should question approaches that feature:

Salespeople who encourage you to buy without giving you your total costs. For example, a salesperson may offer magazines for just a few dollars a week. That could sound like a bargain, until you do the math. You could end up paying hundreds of dollars over several years for subscriptions that sell elsewhere for less.

Salespeople who tell you magazines are "free" or "prepaid" for you and that you'll be charged only a "processing fee." The fee may be more than the retail price of the magazine subscription.

Salespeople who don't identify themselves as such or who may not give you the name of their company. They may lead you to believe they represent magazine publishers, or that they're calling for reasons other than selling subscriptions.

If you're called, be skeptical when someone tries to sell you a "bargain" or offers you a "free" subscription on the phone. Ask questions. If you don't get answers that they're willing to back up in writing, consider doing business elsewhere. Ask: How long does the subscription last? One year, two, or more? How will I be billed? Will you debit my checking account or a credit card? When, monthly or annually? How many magazines will I get and when, monthly, bimonthly, quarterly? What's the total yearly cost of each magazine?

What's the total package price? What are my cancellation rights? Get them in writing before you agree to buy. The salesperson may not be required to tell you about the company's cancellation policy unless you ask. Compare the costs they're quoting to regular magazine subscription rates.

Be careful what you say on the phone to the seller. In some states, your verbal agreement to buy obligates you to pay. Frequently, the salesperson tape records the conversation, perhaps claiming it's for your protection. Later, the company may use the tape to "prove" that you agreed to buy the magazines, selected a payment method and understood the terms of the agreement.

If you don't want a subscription, and you don't want to be called again, tell the caller to put you on the company's "do not call" list. If the company calls again, hang up. It's breaking the law. Report it to the Division of Consumer affairs at 800-435-7352.

The FTC's telemarketing sales rule requires telemarketers to make certain disclosures and prohibits them from lying. It gives you the power to stop telemarketing calls you don't want and gives state law enforcement officers the authority to prosecute fraudulent telemarketers who operate across state lines.

Tips to keep in mind: The caller must promptly identify the seller and purpose of the call. If the offer includes the promise of prizes or gifts, the sales pitch for the magazine must come first. If it doesn't, hang up. The caller is breaking the law.

Keep information about your bank accounts and credit cards to yourself unless you know whom you're dealing with. You may get a letter or postcard soliciting your business or telling you you've won a prize or contest. Often this is a front for a scam. Ask for a written copy of the contract before you agree to buy any subscription. Read it. Make sure you understand what you'll get, the cost of each magazine and each subscription and the cost of the entire package. You may be called to renew your subscription, but the caller may not represent the publisher. Before you agree to renew, check the expiration date to determine how close it is. It's usually on the mailing label. Or you may want to call the publisher to verify the expiration date and to confirm that the caller is authorized to renew your subscription.

Should you have problems and need to file a complaint, contact the Division of Consumer Services. It is the state's clearinghouse for all consumer complaints, and a staff of specialists is available to handle complaints, answer questions and provide information on a wide range of consumer topics. They can be reached at 800-435-7352 or online atwww.800helpfla.com.

_ Dottie Teuton is executive director of the Better Business Federation, 6460 W Gulf to Lake Highway, Crystal River. Call 795-3547 in Citrus County or 307-9222 in Marion County. The office may also be reached by e-mail at betterbusifedgowebco.com. Or call the Florida Division of Consumer Services at 1-800-435-7352.

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