Question: About two months ago I received three pairs of panty hose from a company in Philadelphia, and I enclose a copy of the letter that came with them as well as the advertisement. I did not order this merchandise. I have never heard of the company, nor have I ever done business with them. With the understanding that, legally, I am under no obligation to pay for or return unordered merchandise, I ignored the matter.
Several weeks later, I received a dunning letter (also enclosed), which I also ignored. A second letter came that threatened me by saying that it would be turned over to a collection agency.
And on Nov. 29 I received the enclosed letter from the collection agency.
I don't feel that I should expend the money, time and energy to send this merchandise back just because that company is using a shabby promotional practice. Furthermore, since I don't wear panty hose, I had given them to Goodwill Industries.
I feel harassed and am very upset. I feel like an innocent victim.
My credit rating is as high as anyone can achieve, and I am afraid that this will put a blight on it. Could that happen because of this matter? What can I do? What are my rights?--J.W.T.
Answer: The unordered-merchandise gambit is, literally, as old as the Postal Service itself. And, unfortunately, it's illegal only if the company sends the material c.o.d., according to postal inspector Mel Moore.
The teaser letter that you received held out the lure of being able to redeem the two $4 "gift certificates" attached "the instant you pay this invoice." And then slyly added the line: "If . . . you decide you do not want the hose, return them before the payment due date with no further obligation."
"Obligation"? To whom? Both the Federal Trade Commission and the Postal Service, Moore said, take the position that anything sent through the mail that has not been ordered "is a gift . . . you can keep it, throw it away or give it away, whether it has any value or not. They prey upon people, trying to scare them into paying for the stuff."
And the annoying part, of course, is the constant reference to your credit rating. Even in your first letter containing the phony "invoice," there is the statement: "Please pay promptly to protect your credit status with us." And with an even heavier hand, in the follow-up letter: "Perhaps you do not realize that we paid for your hosiery order before you received it. We trusted you and extended you credit. In truth, we considered you an honest person who pays bills out of a sense of self-respect."
And then, of course, the threatening letter from the collection agency: "You are hereby given 30 days to pay this outstanding debt and clear the record. Should we not receive a payment or an explanation for non-payment we will maintain a record of your unpaid account."
Hogwash. You don't owe either the hosiery outfit or the collection agency the time of day.
But, is there really a threat to your credit rating? Don't give it a thought. There isn't a prayer that any of the major credit-reporting companies would pay the slightest attention to this fly-by-night operation even if it did have the gall to turn your name in.
"We only deal with the major credit grantors," TRW Information Services' Geri Schanz said, "not with direct-mail businesses unless there's been a credit-card transaction involved, which has become delinquent and has been turned over to a legitimate collection agency."
Go back and reread those threats to your credit from the hosiery company ("pay promptly to protect your credit status with us ") and from the collection agency ( "we will maintain a record of your unpaid account"). A couple of pretty scary possibilities, all right.
Billed for Three Pairs
As an indication of just how good this hosiery was in the first place, consider that you were billed for three pairs at $1 apiece (plus $1.95 for postage and handling) and, the Postal Service's Moore pointed out, "the markup on this stuff is such that if they can scare 10% to 25% of the people into paying for it, they'll still make a profit."
That, in rough figures, would put the true value of the panty hose at about a nickel apiece.
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