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White City firm probed for alleged 'scam'

A “staggering” number of complaints against a White City company have triggered an “F” rating by the Better Business Bureau and an investigation by the Oregon Attorney General over an alleged scam in which consumers receive inflated bills for newspaper and magazine subscriptions.

The Oregon Attorney General’s office has received at least 595 complaints involving various White City companies, known by more than 40 different names including Publishers Payment Processing, Publishers Billing Association, Readers Payment Service or Liberty Publishers Service. Multiple addresses for the businesses are listed, mostly in White City or Medford, but they are post office boxes or mail services.

Liberty Publishers president is Linda Lovrien, a 37-year-old Eagle Point woman, according to the Oregon Secretary of State.

The Better Business Bureau, which represents Alaska, western Washington and Oregon, has received 863 complaints from across the nation over the last three years, with 266 in the last 12 months alone.

“The numbers are staggering,” said Sophie Dichter, public relations manager for the Better Business Bureau in Oregon. “They have received an ‘F’ rating from us.”

Some of the publications affected include the Dallas Morning News, San Antonio Express, Houston Chronicle, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and People magazine, Dichter said.

However no publications in Oregon appear to have been affected, she said.

The Better Business Bureau has received a pattern of complaints from consumers who allege they receive bills from one of the companies for subscriptions, implying it is time for renewal. However consumers claim the subscriptions haven’t expired, nor did they originally order the subscription through this company. Complaints refer to the invoices as a “scam” or a “fraud.”

Dichter said the companies operate in a legal gray area, which makes prosecution difficult. The companies send out notices asking for payment for a subscription, but in many cases tack a 20 percent or more processing fee onto the bill. Once the companies receive payment, they pay the subscription and pocket the fee.

Another problem is the sheer number of businesses involved, though they all appear to be run out of the White City area, Dichter said. Another problem is confirming all the complaints.

“We rarely see that many complaints for one company,” Dichter

The Better Business Bureau has attempted to contact the company but has received no response. The Mail Tribune didn’t receive a call back from Lovrien or her business after repeated attempts.

Kristina Edmunson, communications director with the Oregon Attorney General, said, “This is still a pending investigation, so I am not able to comment on much at this point.”

Most of the complaints filed with her office indicate consumers believe they have received false or misleading invoices, failed to give refunds or failed to provide the services.

Newspapers across the country have alerted their readers not to pay these invoices because they are in no way affiliated with the White City companies.

The Billings Gazette in Billings, Mont., featured an article on Oct. 31, titled “Scams hit newspapers, Gazette subscriber.”

Customers received a bill in the mail that looked almost identical to the Gazette bill. However, the Gazette didn’t provide a list of customers’ names to the Publishers Service Exchange and alerted its subscribers.

The Arizona Republic wrote an article on Oct. 10 about Readers Payment Service sending out annual subscription notices for $469.94, about 20 percent higher than the actual cost.

The paper received 60 complaints during one day earlier in October and informed its readers to cancel checks or dispute charges with banks or credit-card companies.

Eric Buskirk, publisher of The Valley Chronicle in Hemet, Calif., said he became aware of the scam when an elderly couple came into his office a few days ago. They said they’d paid the $19 subscription fee, so they wanted to know why they’re getting a bill for $90.

Buskirk forwarded the issue to the California Newspaper Publishers Association and to the California Attorney General’s office.

In the upcoming edition of the Chronicle weekly, Buskirk plans to run a house ad and an article alerting readers.

He said he was surprised to see the company that sent out the invoice to the elderly couple was located in White City and said it’s important to get the word out about this issue.

“Part of the scam these people are involved with, which is not just about skimming part of the bill, is that they’re trying to sell leads to other companies,” he said. “Once they determine that someone is gullible, they sell the lead to con artists.”

Ed Rose, operations director for the circulation department at the Mail Tribune, said he wondered if some newspapers that had been affected were using outside vendors to increase subscriptions, a practice he stopped about 10 years ago.

Rose said he was uncomfortable with the idea of outside groups accessing subscriber information.

“There are no reports of these shysters meddling with our customers,” Rose said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.