OFFBEAT: Lifetime subscription she can do without

I'm hardly an impulse buyer. For me, the definition of a splurge is a $50 pair of running
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

I’m hardly an impulse buyer.

For me, the definition of a splurge is a $50 pair of running shoes only after my big toe pokes through the old ones.

But last June, I decided to take a chance and do something I swore I’d never do — I bought something from a TV infomercial.

Fifteen months later, I’m still paying for it.

It wasn’t an outrageously expensive product. It was the Sonic Blade — an electric knife so impressive, it cut through leather like butter. It even cut quadruple-decker sandwiches without squashing them in the slightest.

The deal was two for the price of one, so I figured I’d give one to my mom as a birthday present and keep the other at home.

I pictured myself hosting elegant dinner parties, serving up star-shaped sandwiches, or perhaps a Fourth of July blowout with all the trimmings.

The knife is still in the box — but at least I have a lifetime subscription for cooking magazines.

The magazines were advertised as part of the offer. I didn’t really want them, and I sensed there might be strings attached.

I cringed a little.

But the company representative told me I could cancel my subscriptions at any time.

No problem.

I’d just take the freebies, cancel immediately, and I’d be set.

More than a year later, I discovered the catch: It’s virtually impossible to break free from the bondage of a money-hungry magazine company.

I received my first round of magazines, which weren’t half bad. Then, they just stopped arriving. Months later, I assumed I’d either canceled the subscription already, or it had expired. In the meantime, I moved and changed banks.

It wasn’t until I finally closed my unused account last week that I realized I’d been billed almost $100 in the past month for three magazine subscriptions. The Magazine Service Center first billed my checking account, then the adjoining credit card when the overdraft protection kicked in. When I tried to cancel the subscriptions, I was directed to an automated menu with only a few options.  I opted to cancel, and a maddeningly chipper voice told me she was sorry to hear my decision — but for only $15 a month, I could get five other magazines instead. This infuriating game continued, with several more offers pitched and no live alternative, for at least 10 minutes before I hung up. Next, I tried calling each of the magazines separately, hoping to explain the situation and ask for a refund. Not surprisingly, each individual phone number sent me back to the same limbo.

“How did this happen?” I asked my banker, explaining that I consider myself well-versed in fine print. I’m one of the few people I know who actually reads employee handbooks and at least skims that 75-page packet explaining health insurance benefits.

The banker nodded and told me it happens more often than most people realize. It’s hard to say how common this is, but a consumer advocacy publication called “Rip-off Report” listed more than 2,400 postings from people citing a similar problem.

If someone never receives a product or a statement explaining the terms and conditions from an order (even if that order was from an infomercial), there’s a good chance their frustration is more than just a case of buyer’s remorse.

It’s called fraud — and the Chase Bank Fraud Department assured me these trapped consumers can eventually get their money back if they follow the right steps. If this happens to you, contact your bank’s fraud department. They’re looking into my claim now and have sent me regular updates on their progress.

You may also have to call the magazine’s accounting department, publisher or circulation director — just keep trying numbers on their Web site until you speak with someone in person. And if all else fails, at least you’ll have a really cutting-edge knife to fall back on.