TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Wired Subscriber Gets a Jolt

Wired Subscriber Gets a Jolt

David Lazarus (
Mon, 11 Jul 2005 14:40:08 -0500

Wired magazine, the bible of the tech set, may have its finger on the
pulse of all that's cool. But the San Francisco publication has been
using decidedly uncool tactics when it comes to getting some people to
renew their subscriptions.

San Francisco resident Bob McMillan discovered this after choosing to
allow his longtime subscription to lapse late last year. "I like the
magazine, " he told me. "I just didn't have time to read it anymore."

First came the usual letters warning McMillan, 36, that his
subscription was up and that he wouldn't get any more copies of Wired
unless he ponied up some cash.

Then Wired's correspondence took a different turn.

In May, McMillan received a letter from North Shore Agency, a leading
debt-collection firm. The letter, headed "Please Respond," said he
owed $12 for his Wired subscription.

"Our objective is to clear your bill quickly and fairly," it said.
"Your payment will reinstate your subscription."

A more assertive letter from North Shore, headed "Request for
Payment," arrived last month. "You must realize that we want you to
resolve your account in the amount of $12," it said.

Then, the other day, a third North Shore letter arrived, headed
"Account Status: Delinquent."

"Your account appears as delinquent on our client's files," it warned.
This professional collection agency continues collection activity on
your debtor account."

The letter added, ominously: "Respond to this letter or continued
collection efforts may follow."

McMillan had ignored the first two letters. Now, however, he's worried
that Wired/North Shore will take some legal action that will decimate
his credit rating.

"I'm very angry," he said. "This isn't a real debt. It seems like
they're just trying to trick me into renewing my subscription."

Other subscribers

Turns out McMillan isn't alone in feeling strong-armed by Wired. A
Google search turns up others who say that they, too, allowed their
subscriptions to expire and then received scary letters from North

In each case, the erstwhile Wired readers were told that they had an
"open balance" of $12 and that "this is an attempt to collect a debt."

In each case as well, the recipients were told that paying the $12
would result in a renewed subscription.

"Since when is letting a magazine subscription expire a debt?" one
person asked online. "This guerrilla marketing technique is unethical
in my book."

Said another: "Talk about a low way to get subscribers. This is
bottom- feeding. Magazines used to offer you incentives. Now they
threaten to louse up your credit rating if you don't re-up, and NOW."

So what does have Wired have to say?

When I first contacted Joe Timko, the magazine's consumer marketing
director, he acknowledged having received complaints from readers
about being hassled by North Shore. "It's something we're
investigating," he said.

Timko insisted that it isn't Wired's policy to use a collection agency
to muscle people into renewing their subscriptions.

"We don't do that," he said. "Or at least that's not our intention."

I asked a North Shore spokeswoman to comment on the matter. She never
called back.

Longstanding relationship

In any case, Wired has been using North Shore for a number of years. I
found some online gripes about the North Shore letters dating back to
2002 (and you can see one of the firm's letters for yourself at ).

I spoke with Timko again on Thursday. This time, he offered an
explanation for what was happening: From time to time, Wired sends
direct-mail solicitations to people offering discounted subscriptions.

But if you read the fine print of these offers, they say Wired will
assume you want to remain as a subscriber until you tell the magazine
otherwise, and that you'll automatically be sent an invoice each year
for another $12.

This is common enough among newspapers. The Chronicle, for example,
will keep sending out papers (and bills) until a subscription is

But most magazines require readers to renew their subscriptions every
one or two years.

Timko said he checked his files and found that McMillan's subscription
had an automatic-renewal clause. He suspects that most of the people
who lodged online complaints were in a similar position.

For his part, McMillan said, he couldn't recall being told about an
automatic yearly renewal of his subscription. "I had no idea that was
the case, " he said.

Collection procedure

Wired's Timko said the magazine typically sends out a half-dozen or so
letters reminding people to send in their $12. Then North Shore is
brought in for an additional three letters.

The collection agency was intended solely to spook people into
responding. Timko said North Shore wasn't authorized to take legal
action against Wired readers.

"We're not going to do that to people," he said. "This was just
another effort to collect an unpaid subscription."

Now, Timko said, Wired will rethink the whole thing. He said the
magazine will reconsider the practice of automatic renewals and will
no longer pass along readers' names to North Shore.

In fact, he said Wired will likely end its relationship with North

It's probably something we shouldn't have done," Timko said of using
the collection agency to pressure readers. "It's not something we want
to continue. "

I arranged for McMillan and Timko to speak with one another. McMillan
told me afterward that Timko apologized for the North Shore letters.
McMillan said he was also offered a free subscription to Wired.

"I turned it down," he said. "I still don't have time to read it. But
in the back of my mind, I have to wonder what might happen the next
time it runs out."

David Lazarus' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He also
can be seen regularly on KTVU's "Mornings on 2." Send tips or feedback

Copyright 2005 San Francisco Chronicle

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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: You know, that sounds like a hot idea!
In real tiny print somewhere I should add a note saying "your continued
sending of spam to this address means you agree to pay me a hundred
dollars" then place it all with North Shore Agency. Maybe I could now
and then collect a little extra cash on the way. PAT]

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