Last year Dorothy Byrant of Arlington received a bill in the mail asking her to renew her membership in Operation Identification, a private home protection service she says she never joined.
Instead of paying, Bryant complained to consumer affairs officials about the company, Credit Card Service Bureau, a mulitmillion dollar mass marketing firm based in Alexandria.
Earlier Bryant had subscribed to a separate credit card security plan offered by the company and was given an unsolicited six-month free membership in Operation Identification as a bonus. Now she was being billed for renewal of the unwanted extra.
"I was very irritated by what was happening," Bryant said recently. "I am a member of CCSB and I thought I was being asked for more money for it. I never joined Operation Identification, so why should I renew it?"
Her complaint and more than 50 others like it have led officials of the U.S. Postal Service and the attorneys general of Virginia and Minnesota to launch separate investigations of the sales methods of the company's lucrative Operation Identification.
Besides claims that the company's billing technique is ambiguous, investigators are looking at an allegedly false or misleading endorsement sent out in a mass mailing (since discontinued) by the company. They also are interested in potentially misleading claims about the program's ties to police departments across the country, according to authorities.
The purpose of the credit card service, founded 11 years ago, is to notify companies and retail operations when a member's cards have been lost or stolen, or when a name or address needs to be changed.
Operation Identification, begun in 1978, provides a "nationwide registry" containing information about member's valuables and other property. It serves as a contact point between a theft victim and police departments that recover stolen goods, according to sales literature.
Rates for the latter service are $12 for one year, $27 for three years, and $45 for five years.
That company grosses an estimated $16 million a year, according to sources in the growing, $50 million-a-year credit card security industry.
John P. Ferry, president of the company, denied any wrongdoing in a recent interview and called any complaints inevitible in view of the millions of pieces of mail he sends out each year to solicit business.
The head of a thriving concern that he said employs 400 people and leases $1.5 million worth of computers. Ferry just moved his company into plush new offices located behind electronically controlled doors on the entire fifth floor of new Alexandria courthouse in Old Town.
"Every person who joins (the credit card service) gets a free six-month membership in Operation Identification." Ferry said. "The renewal notice just tells them their free membership is up. It's a judgement call whether 'renewal' is the accurate word or not, but it's not my fault if they don't remember what the offer was. It's not immoral, it's just one way of doing business.
"We are dealing with millions of people who pay for our services," he continued. "I can't hold their hands. I can't help it if people can't read."
U.S. mail fraud inspector Tom W. McClure specifically cited a mailing sent out recently (and since stopped) in which former New Orleans police sergeant William Nolan was quoted as praising "Operation Identification."
Nolan, now police chief in the Chicago suburb of Homewood, said last week he had been referring only to the New Orleans police department's free program, which has the same name, not to Ferry's for-profit operation. "I was furious. Ferry sent me a letter of apology," Nolans said.
That soliciation letter was signed "John D. Rogers, U.S. Marshal (Retired)." Rogers retired, however, only as chief deputy U.S. Marshal, a lower position, and the Marshal's headquarters in McLean is now investigating the use of the title.
Rogers, who said he received a $250 fee from the company for allowing the use of his name, said he was unaware his former title had been misstated.
McClure said he also is concerned about the company's use of the name "Operation Identification," which he called "piggybacking" on the goodwill of similar police programs that encourage the marking of valuable property as a hedge against theft.
Ferry rejected the criticism. "It's tough that McClure doesn't like my using the name," he said. "It's in the police domain and this is a valuable program for preventing crime."
According to the firm's brochures, police departments will recognize a special member marked on a member's property with a special hard-point stylus provided by the company and then call Operation Identification toll-free.
At the Alexandria police department, located only four blocks from Ferry's office, veteral detectives said they had never heard of the operation. fA civilian in charge of the department's property room, where recovered stolen items are stored, said she had heard of the program because she received literature about it last month.
Some Alexandria police officers also questioned the vale of the stylus. "Sure it'll mark something, but a professional crook will just scratch out the number," said one. Alexandria police use an electric engraving tool, as do many police departments around the country, officers said.
Ferry defended the quality of the stylus and said it is being replaced by a newer model with a harder point.
Ferry has been criticized before for what he calls his "aggressive marketing techniques." In 1973, the Federal Trade Commission ordered him to stop deceptive ads for his credit card company, which falsely claimed that someone whose cards were stolen was responsible for all debts charged to him.
In fact, the FTC said, a U.S. law two years earlier had limited individual liability to $50 per card.
Ferry today dismisses the FTC order, which is stil in effect, as "ancient history."
"Operation Identification is a service that can prevent crime," Ferry said. Very few people (have to) use it, but then it doesn't cost very much money."