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Fateful attraction to a magnetic mattress

A neighbor and I attended a dinner at a local restaurant on Jan. 20, 2003, to hear a promotion given by Chuck, the executive general sales manager of Magnetic Ideas. We signed a sales contract for a therapeutic magnetic queen sleep system for $948. We received a written guarantee that after a 180-day trial we could return it for a 100 percent refund if we were not satisfied with the product. On July 29, we received authorization to return the product and the next day we did so by Federal Express at our expense.

After not hearing from the company for more than two weeks, we called Chuck's office and were informed he no longer worked for the company. We tried for weeks to get information but got only recorded messages. Finally we got to talk to Teresa, who said the company was having financial problems but that it would send partial payments periodically starting the first week of October. This was repeated in a letter from the company dated Sept. 10. We have heard nothing further from Magnetic Ideas. Can you help? Joseph Bowen

Response: Alas, no. We did not get a response to either of the letters we sent to Magnetic Ideas in Sevierville, Tenn. In fact, the second, sent certified, was returned marked "refused." Attempts to reach the company by phone have also been unsuccessful.

However, we are very familiar with magnetic mattresses. In 2001 and 2002, Action received numerous complaints similar to yours, although different companies were involved: Natural Health Alternatives in Cocoa Beach and European Health Concepts in Palm Beach County. Readers had accepted invitations to a free meal in exchange for listening to a presentation on the benefits of magnetic therapy mattresses. Many, hoping to alleviate pain or at least get a good night's sleep, had left the restaurant with a sales contract for the nearly $1,000 mattress.

Some people swear by their magnetic mattresses, but others, having fulfilled their end of the bargain by using the mattresses during the prescribed trial period before returning them, were not receiving the promised refunds.

Enter Action. We initially had success getting refunds for our readers, but those soon stopped. Sales personnel from both companies ran afoul of the law in California, violating that state's requirement for medical devices to be approved by the state. Then a warning about mattress "scams" appeared in the AARP Bulletin. In late 2002, Action learned that both companies had closed their doors.

Around the same time, we heard from readers who were receiving postcard solicitations to attend a free dinner and health briefing. Those dinners turned out to be sales pitches for magnetic mattresses sold by Magnetic Ideas. Gene Abbott, president of the Tennessee-based company, was quoted in an Oct. 3, 2002, article in the St. Petersburg Times as saying that his mattresses were far superior to the competition's, and that he had "never stiffed a customer who wanted a money-back refund." Apparently, the company has now fallen on hard times.

Although we have been unable to help you, your neighbor, or fellow reader Thomas Muratore, we can steer you to another possible resource for help. We suggest that you and any other readers who may be waiting for refunds from Magnetic Ideas seek the help of Seniors vs. Crime, a special project of the Florida Attorney General's Office for seniors who have been victimized. The project operates three storefronts in Pinellas County. Call (727) 552-1807 in St. Petersburg, (727) 541-0892 in Pinellas Park, or (727) 934-4242 in Tarpon Springs; elsewhere call toll-free 1-800-203-3099.

In the meantime, beware of free dinners. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a company offering potential consumers a free meal to make a sales pitch, it can be tempting, after dining, to succumb to the sales pitch and invariable success stories and make an impulsive purchase. An offer that is "good today only" is generally a red flag.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, e-mail, or call your Action number, (727) 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

We will not be responsible for personal documents, so please send only photocopies. If your complaint concerns merchandise ordered by mail, we need copies of both sides of your canceled check.

We may require additional information or prefer to reply by mail; therefore, readers must provide a full mailing address, including ZIP code. Names of letter writers will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.