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A magazine subscription company rips off customers who can’t fight back

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 10/8/2020 By Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

In the same week, I received two separate letters from two Texas prisoners in different prisons complaining about the same matter.

They were not proclaiming their innocence and asking for a detailed investigation of their convictions, as is often the case.

These two inmates complained to The Watchdog that they didn’t get magazine subscriptions they paid for. The same company, they charged, was ripping off hundreds of other prisoners, too.

Nobody is doing anything about it.

Compared to lack of air conditioning, overcrowding and coronavirus sweeping prisons, this is not that big a deal. But it should be an easy fix. Plus, it gives The Watchdog a chance to remind you of a simple way to avoid these kinds of unnecessary problems, whether you’re in prison or out. The solution doesn’t only apply to prisoners, but to everyone.

How it works

Inmates and their families send money to Inmate Magazine Service, now called Inmate Magazines Plus, and never receive anything. When they complain, they mostly get ignored.

Outside, in the free world, when someone complains to The Watchdog about this kind of problem, I tell them to find the masthead of the magazine that lists the editors' names, plus the magazine address and phone number. Call the subscription department and set things right. That mostly works.

But when you’re a prisoner and someone rips you off, there’s not a whole lot you can do.

As I checked, I saw that the prisoners' stories are confirmed by postings with the Better Business Bureau, which lists 548 complaints in three years against the company. The company was based in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. With its new name, the company is now headquartered in Sheridan, Wyoming.

The inmates' stories are also backed up by Paul Wright, editor of Prison Inmate News, a monthly report serving prisoners and their families.

The editor told The Watchdog that the magazine company advertised with his publication for a decade, but after “several hundred” complaints came in, Prison Legal News rejected their ads.

“At some point, their customer service went off the cliff, and that was it,” Wright said.

“There are so many people who want to prey on prisoners,” he added. Some people say ‘they’re criminals, and they deserve it.’ But this is a very vulnerable population, and they are easy to defraud and take advantage of."

Good deals

The prices offered are good, almost too good. An inmate, family member or friend can buy one-year subscriptions for 10 magazines for only $50. Six magazines cost $35, and three cost $25.

In Watchdog Nation, the rule is clear: when deals sound too good to be true, they need vetting. If you search online for complaints about good deals before handing over the money, you get closer to the truth.

That’s what happened when I web searched Inmate Magazine Service and Inmate Magazines Plus along with the words “complaints” and “scam.”

I found a complaint on message board PrisonTalk.com: “Please be careful before sending out your money. I sent them a money order for $26 that they confirmed receiving but my husband never received even one magazine. Check with the Better Business Bureau if you don’t believe me.”

I followed that advice and learned that the BBB awarded the company an F grade.

In its defense, the company told the BBB last year that subscriptions are subject to a long lead time of 10 to 12 weeks from their publishers.

“Some magazines are not published monthly which increases the time the first issue is received,” the company posted.

A company phone number given in the BBB report no longer works. On the company’s website, I couldn’t find an easy way to contact them. Finally, I found an email address for them via the BBB site. (When a company makes it hard to contact them, that’s a red flag.)

Before I tell you what happened when I finally contacted Inmate Magazines Plus, here are reviews on the BBB website.

“I wasted over $70 that could have gone to my brother in his commissary [account].”

“It is not fair that we trust your advertising, and you deceive us.”

In responses, the company explained that it didn’t have records of many of the contested orders.

“We don’t show one coming in,” the company often responded, along with a promise that the annual subscription’s start date won’t begin until the first issue is received.

In March the company offered a fuller explanation of its troubles: “Our apologies for lack of a response. We had a crash and lost all of our emails and are now trying to catch back up to the ones we are receiving and the few we were able to recover.”

This sounds fishy and incredibly amateurish.

I sent the two inmates' letters to the company and heard back from Kim who did not give her last name. (The company declined to answer my question about ownership.)

“I have carefully researched each of the orders. Both were processed to their respective publisher in the normal time frame,” Kim wrote.

“There are hundreds of reasons that inmates have had problems with getting their magazines, most of which are out of our control,” she continued.

"We have been processing inmate orders for over 10 years now and with millions of magazines sent, there have been some problems. We do our best. …

"We are going to send the guys that had a delivery issue confirmation that we have reprocessed their order and called the publishers to make sure the orders went through.

“We are also going to send each inmate a $15 coupon they can use down the road for a nice discount. Or they can trade it for something.”

Trade it for something? Trade a discount coupon for a magazine that may never come? In a prison? No thank you.

Watchdog tip: Before sending money to an unknown company, do an Internet search on their honesty. This not only applies to prisoners, but to you, too.

Become a citizen of Watchdog Nation. Join Dave Lieber and learn to be a super-consumer.

Watch this free training video from Dave: https://youtu.be/uhUEUCNKGjc

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The Dallas Morning News Watchdog column is the 2019 winner of the top prize for column writing from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. The contest judge called his winning entries “models of suspenseful storytelling and public service.”

Read his winning columns:

* Helping the widow of Officer J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, get buried beside her late husband

* Helping a waitress who was harmed by an unscrupulous used car dealer

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