Firm sending misleading bills to AJC readers

A company that has sent fake bills to newspaper customers across the nation has targeted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s readers by sending deceptive notices urging them to renew their subscriptions at inflated prices.

The AJC and its sister newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, began receiving a trickle of complaints about two weeks ago, but the total swelled to about 200 after the papers published warning notices about the scam this week online and in the papers.

Both papers are owned by Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, a privately held company.

“Consumers need to be aware that a bandit could be in the mailbox,” said John Sours, with the Georgia Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection. “We urge consumers to thoroughly review and verify the authenticity of solicitations they receive in the mail before opening up their wallet or checkbook. Readers should also report this type of parasitic activity to the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection.”

So far all but one of the AJC subscribers who called or emailed have recognized the notices “as looking fishy,” said Sherri Allen, Cox Media’s customer service director.

But it appears the scammers are casting a wide net to catch unsuspecting customers.

Several newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Raleigh News & Observer, have recently posted warnings about similar attempts by Oregon and Nevada companies to trick their subscribers.

In the AJC’s case, customers have received mailed “renewal/new order” notices from a White City, Ore., company called Readers Payment Service or Associated Publishers Network. The forms appear to bill the customers $579.95 for a full-year subscription — considerably higher than the AJC’s highest annual rate of $395.88 for seven days a week.

Allen said the AJC has not authorized those companies to bill our subscribers. Despite the scam, our investigation indicates that our subscriber data is secure and hasn’t been compromised.

“The notice itself doesn’t look like our notice, but it does look official,” said Allen. She said legitimate renewal notices include the AJC’s logo, the customer’s account number, and instructions to make the payment to the AJC — not another company. Customers can determine if their bill is fraudulent by calling AJC customer service at 1-800-933-9771.

Shawn Conroy, a spokesman for Georgia’s consumer agency, got one of the misleading mailings himself last week. He said the Oregon company operates under several names, sending unauthorized solicitations that appear at first glance to be bills, but are really disguised sales pitches by a third-party agency that keeps part of the money and sends part to the publications.