The New York attorney general is investigating a McLean company's sales of bracelets advertised as supporting U.S. troops in the Middle East.
Attorney General Robert Abrams said his office has received "several dozen" complaints from consumers who said they were charged as much as $100 for a $9.95 bracelet or who were billed for long-distance calls from telephone solicitors for the company.
The company confirmed that it also has received inquiries from the Federal Trade Commission, although a spokeswoman for that agency said she could not say whether a formal investigation is underway.
"We don't know if these are bad apples or not," said Edward Barbini, a spokesman for Abrams's office. "If it's a worthwhile organization, then God bless them. But faced with the increasing number of complaints we're receiving, it would be foolish for us not to investigate.
"If it's a scam, it's pretty disheartening that someone would exploit international tensions this way."
Todd Wyatt, chief executive of Voices for Freedom in McLean, said the complaints were the result of "glitches" that have been corrected.
"A lot of it's just part of growing pains," he said. "This is a squeaky-clean operation. This is no scam."
The program began in October when Wyatt, a Navy reservist from Alexandria, and his parents, Barbara and Frederic Wyatt, of McLean, decided to sell the nickel-plated copper bracelets inscribed with "Operation Desert Shield -- A Call to Freedom."
The bracelets, reminiscent of those worn in memory of POWs and MIAs from the Vietnam War and later on behalf of U.S. hostages in Iran, caught on after First Lady Barbara Bush began wearing one. Nearly 20,000 have been sold.
Profits were to be used to set up a voice-mail center, where military personnel who had trouble calling home from the Middle East could leave three-minute messages that would be forwarded to family members or friends.
But in recent weeks, some people have complained about automated telephone solicitations they received for the bracelets. They said a recorded voice asked them to push a button to receive more information and then told them they had agreed to pay long-distance charges.
Eric Symons, 28, of Baldwin, N.Y., was one of those who received the solicitation and, after he pressed a button, was told he had agreed to pay for the call.
"I thought, 'God, they could be reversing the charges from anywhere -- Hawaii, California, wherever,' " he said. "That's a pretty tacky way to be making money."
Other customers have said that when they ordered a bracelet, which costs $9.95 plus $1.50 for shipping and handling, their credit card companies have been told to reserve up to $100 in credit on their accounts for a future charge.
So far, no one has received a phone or credit card bill showing improper charges, Barbini said. But consumers who have called their banks have learned that their credit card accounts have been scheduled for charges of up to $400 for four bracelets, he said.
Todd Wyatt blamed the problems on the marketing company his family hired, Phone Base Systems Inc., of Vienna.
After hearing complaints himself, Wyatt said he directed Phone Base to halt all telephone solicitations and to be sure they charged credit-card customers no more than $11.45.
The higher amounts on some charge cards may have been the result of inquiries to make sure that the purchaser had enough credit to cover the purchase, not an actual charge for $100, he said.
"Nobody as of yet has sent us anything saying they were billed $100," he said. He said anyone who did so would be reimbursed immediately.
Representatives of Phone Base could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Michael Opelka, producer at New York radio station WHTZ-FM, where the bracelets were mentioned on the air, said he has received 40 to 50 complaints in the last week.
"Those of us who value the sanctity of the airwaves, not to mention what's going on over there in the gulf, were a little ticked off," he said. "I've got a brother over there, so any kind of scam personally offends me, particularly when I tell my jocks to put it on the air."
Wyatt said he understood the frustration of some customers, but blamed it on mistakes made by a well-intentioned nonprofit organization.
"I'd be furious too, if it happened to me," he said.