Police Warn of Door-to-Door Magazine Sales Scam

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 18, 2005

Authorities are warning area residents about young scam artists going door-to-door selling books and magazine subscriptions and falsely claiming they are raising money for school teams, sports clubs and other nonprofit organizations.

In the last year, police and consumer groups in Virginia and Maryland have received complaints from residents who say they have been subjected to high-pressure solicitations to buy items to benefit local kids' programs. Some salespeople claim they attend local high schools or are members of local teams.

Tom Herman, activities director at McLean High School, said he has received complaints that some door-to-door salespeople are claiming to be members of the school's baseball team. They aren't, he said.

"Our baseball team is not involved with any fundraiser of that type," Herman said. "I don't know who it is."

In recent months, the local Better Business Bureau, the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs and Montgomery County police have issued warnings about the scams.

The Fairfax County Division of Consumer Protection and Fairfax police said they also have recently received complaints from residents who said they had been asked to buy magazine subscriptions from salespeople who claimed the money would go to a nonprofit organization.

"People are questioning their legitimacy," Fairfax police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings said.

The Better Business Bureau of Metro Washington recently issued a warning about the practice.

Not only are buyers being victimized but so are the young people recruited to do the selling, BBB chief executive Edward Johnson said. Many youngsters are transported long distances to sell the products and make little or no money, he said. The National Consumers League has ranked the jobs among the worst for youths.

"That's not to say that everything that knocks on your door is a scam," Johnson said. "But many people probably don't realize the potentially vicious nature of this industry -- both from the standpoint of the purported products and the means by which the sales are accomplished."

Recent complaints have centered on two Georgia companies, United Family Circulation and Ultimate Power Sales Inc., a subsidiary. Last year, Montgomery County police said residents in Chevy Chase had been asked to buy books from salespeople who falsely claimed to be collecting for charity on behalf of a University of Maryland athletic team. Buyers said they were asked to make checks out to Ultimate Power Sales.

Problems with Ultimate Power Sales have also cropped up in Virginia and other states. The Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs has issued a warning about door-to-door solicitors representing Ultimate Power Sales.

Last year in California, two United Family Circulation salespeople received 150-day jail terms for defrauding a nearly blind, 85-year-old woman who bought 210 years' worth of magazine subscriptions from them. The solicitors told her they needed the money for college, police said.

Messages left at United Family Circulation's offices in Buford, Ga., were not returned as of Tuesday.

Most area school jurisdictions say that they discourage students from going door-to-door to sell items for team fundraisers, but some booster clubs allow the practice. If someone wants to contribute to certain schools or their teams, the person can simply send a check to the school with instructions on where it should go, school officials say.

All charitable organizations are required to be registered with the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs. Consumers who have questions about an organization or how much of their contribution will actually be used for charitable purposes can call 804-786-1343.

If salespeople claim they are representing a school or a team, residents should question them by, for example, asking them the principal's name or how well the team performed in the previous year, said Paul Jansen, director of student activities for Fairfax County schools.

"If the kid starts to waffle, you know real quick" he could be a fraud, Jansen said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company