Scientific American Wants Money For No Reason

Reader Maxwell writes in after having been served with a collection notice from a magazine that he’s never subscribed to. Did he piss off a 8th grader, or what?

At first, I thought “Oh SH*T WTF did I do wrong?!” And then I looked at the amount: “$24.97 RE: Scientific American” and I thought “WTF, are they serious?!” I read further. “Dear Maxwell, We all make mistakes.” Ok, great way to piss me off right away.”

Maxwell has never subscribed to the magazine and when he contacted Scientific American they just sent him a canned response asking for his account information. Has this happened to you? It seems the “National Credit Audit Corporation” sends out hundreds of these bogus collection notices. This is most likely a scam. We recommend writing a polite letter to the company refuting the charges, for starters.

The rest of Maxwell’s delightful email, inside.

Maxwell writes:

    “I received an unmarked piece of mail a few days ago. Vaguely excited, I wondered if its plain white exterior held an invitation to a private party, or perhaps a job offer from apple computer, or even an apology from Paypal. My mind wandered and my imagination bubbled as I ascended to my apartment in the beloved, craptastic elevator that is a lot slower than walking but giv es you time to daydream about your unmarked mail.

    *Clunk.* The elevator reached my floor, and I quickly fumbled for my keys and in my eagerness to revel in the sublime warmth that is my 6th floor apartment tripped through my doorway. Coupon packets, credit card statements, oversized coat, and textbook-laden backpack scattered accordingly, leading me to ignore the rug burns and scramble fervently for that precious piece of as yet unopened mail. This had to be special. I removed most of my clothing and sat of the couch. White envelope in hand, I let out a deep, relaxed sigh and slunk deeper into the cushions. I was about to put on some smooth tunes and light a few scented candles but I just had to know what was inside!!! Calmness turned to rabid passion as I tore through the envelope with my teeth, exposing the soft, virgin flesh of the letter inside. Gingerly, I slid the carefully folded sheet out of its prison. With two fingers I gently lifted the top fold to reveal the secret content of this correspondence. In large, bold letters, the word “COLLECTION NOTICE” stared back at me.

    At first, I thought “Oh SH*T WTF did I do wrong?!” And then I looked at the amount: “$24.97 RE: Scientific American” and I thought “WTF, are they serious?!” I read further. “Dear Maxwell, We all make mistakes.” Ok, great way to piss me off right away.

    Not only have I never subscribed to scientific American, but I have never recieved a bill from them and have no record of any transaction related to them, ever. How they can send me a collection notice for a past due payment for something I never bought is beyond me, but now I have to deal with this crap and I’m not happy. I sent scientific American an email and told them about the collection notice and told them to give me some sort of meaningful course of action to pursue within three days or I would contact the better business bureau and post the notice to consumerist. In two days they sent me a canned response asking me for my account details (I don’t have an account with them, how can I have account details?) so I’m going ahead and submitting it.”

So You’ve Been Served By a Debt Collector


Edit Your Comment

  1. formergr says:

    Since 3 seconds of Googling shows that a year’s subscription to Scientific American is exactly $24.95, it seems that this letter must be one of those cheesy gimmicks to get the recipient to sign up for a subscription.

  2. He says:

    Looks like this is the collection company’s modus operandi.

  3. Triteon says:

    While I agree with formergr, I would also suggest calling NCAC and investigating, just to be sure. It’s very good that you contacted S.A. as well– let them know that what sounds like a “magazine clearinghouse” is using unscrupulous means to peddle an otherwise fine publication.

  4. bones says:

    You need to turn in a report to the BBB and a complaint to your State attorney general for fraud prosecution.

  5. Skeptic says:

    “This is most likely a scam. We recommend writing a polite letter to the company refuting the charges, for starters.”

    If this is a scam, there is no reason to think that writing to the scam artist will be a good idea.

    Although “National Credit Audit Corporation” is listed on the “American Collectors Association,” that doesn’t mean that this can’t be a slimey, fraud riddled company. They could just send out random threatening letters and sit back and collect the cash as scared or confused people send it in. But they seem to have been around a long time under the same name and appear to be at least partially a legitimate business.

    I’ve heard others say that you should never sign any letter to a collection agency. I’m not sure why. I don’t know if if it is to keep them from having something they can claim is a reaffirmation of debt or if it is to keep them from having a copy of your signature that they can copy…

    The National Credit Audit Corporation was apparently bought by Choicepoint in 1998 and seems to be related to Magazine Collection Bureau. A1989 article claims NCAC/MCB did a study that found that “Responses to collection letters peak at about 30 days.” Which seems to mean that you can expect letters from them every month.

  6. spanky says:

    I once had an account erroneously sent to a criminally shady collection agency, and among the things they tried was sending me what was supposed to appear to be an innocuous letter outlining my ‘rights,’ which they asked that I sign and return to them.

    There were strange blank spaces on the letter itself, the wording and stated intent of the letter were bizarre and nonsensical, and the whole thing just screamed hinky. I was already in contact with the state Bureau of Investigation, whom I’d been put in touch with by the AG office, IIRC. (The company was under active investigation, obviously.)

    Anyway, the agent I talked to was thrilled to finally see, as he put it, a “before” version. The credit agency was taking the signed letters and filling in all those blank spaces on the letter with some kind of wage garnishment agreement.

    That’s one of probably many reasons you shouldn’t sign anything you get from a shady collection agency.

  7. bmcgann says:

    It’s not a scam–NCAC is indeed affiliated with Choicepoint. Magazine publishers provide them with a list of their unpaid accounts, and these letters go out. There’s no legal authority behind them and if you don’t respond and don’t pay, nothing will happen. It’s just an additional effort to try and get you to pay up. Not to be a skeptic or anything, but the person who got this notice DID enter a subscription to the publication. There’s no other way he would have been on the list to get this notice, unless Scientific American is doing something extremely illegal, which seems highly unlikely. It’s possible he just doesn’t remember subscribing. But no magazine publisher starts a subscription for someone unless they get a request to do so.

  8. Seacub says:

    Wired magazine does this to me year after year. I don’t pay, but they keep sending the magazine. Nothing ever shows up on my credit report so I’m assuming it’s just a cheesy way for them to dupe me into legitimately signing up.

  9. brew400 says:

    my former roommate used to have all the girls gone wild videos…. he moved out months ago but the tapes keep coming, ive gotten bills from them saying you owe this much and so-on but we quit paying for them months ago but they keep coming….. [no complaints]

  10. Triteon says:

    Seacub– what they’re doing in the media world is called “artificially raising the rate-base”. It can actually be more profitable for a publication to send out 10,000 “unpaid/unsubscribed” issues per month than tell their advertisers that fewer people are subscribing. (Pubs lose money from the lower subscriber base, which also leads to a lower pass-through count.) They can keep this practice up until the Audit Bureau of Circulation starts checking the numbers; that’s when media-types start hearing of rate-base cuts.
    After leaving one ad agency, I took a trial subscription for one magazine that was to last 6 issues and was finally cut off at issue 18.

  11. Slack says:

    I received the exact same letter for a bogus MaximumPC subscription.

    I did recently subscribe to MaximumPC when a neighbor’s kid came around with the school fundraiser.

    So I printed out the returned check via online banking (I cut the routing and account numbers out with scissors), and asked the collector to provide some other proof of negligence…before I go and accuse the neighbor’s kid of something.

    Doubt I’ll hear anything.

    Meanwhile the MaximumPCs started rolling in.

  12. Mike_ says:
  13. nikoniko says:

    Sorta reminds me of a common scam going on in Japan. People receive intimidating letters or emails claiming that money is owed to an agency for a certain product or service (which had never been ordered). A surprising number of people pay the extorted fee in order to avoid being further harrassed by these “collections” agents, who often threaten to contact the person’s neighbors, employer and relatives if not paid promptly.

  14. zanzibuz says:

    This is a scam. I am a subscriber to SciAm and I’ve seen warnings in the magazine for at least a year describing just such a scam. The web version of these warnings is available at

  15. Citron says:

    I love this law. For those of you getting magazines you never subscribed to, here’s a link to what the USPS says about “Receipt of Unsolicited Merchandise.”

    If you do not wish to pay for unsolicited merchandise or make a donation to a charity sending such an item, you may do one of three things (in each case, by law, you have no obligation to the sender):

    * If you have not opened the package, you may mark it “Return to Sender,” and the Postal Service will return it with no additional postage charged to you.

    * If you open the package and don’t like what you find, you may throw it away.

    * If you open the package and like what you find, you may keep it for free. In this instance, “finders-keepers” applies unconditionally.

    Furthermore, it is illegal for a company that sends you unordered merchandise to follow the mailing with a bill or dunning communication.

    This happened to my family twice before. The first time, we were getting these encyclopedia yearbooks for no reason, and thee second time we kept getting sent these hokey painted quarters, both times our postmaster told us to consider them gifts.

    It’s weird how much stuff companies will send you when you’re not paying for them, too. I think we ended up getting all the quarters and four yearbooks or something ridiculous like that. We even sent letters to the encyclopedia company to stop, but they just kept coming.

  16. bmcgann says:

    zanzibuz–Thanks for the link, but again, this is not a scam. National Credit Audit Corporation is a division of Choicepoint. The notices they are sending out are “legit”, in that they send them only to individuals with an open balance on their account. Interesting to see that Scientific American is being scammed by some other organizations, but those organizations mentioned in the Sci Am link have nothing to do with NCAC.

  17. slh says:


    Rec’d an unmarked envelope in the mail today; tore it in half in preperation of throwing it away as it appeared to be “junk mail”. I happened to notice “collection”, so pieced it back together and read on. They claim to have contacted me 3 times in the past month for my “delinquent account for the publication Islands”. I do have a subscription to another travel mag that I’ve subscribed to for 5 + yrs., but this is not it! Appears to be a scam to me contrary to a few postings stating otherwise. I only get a couple of subscriptions a month, so would certainly know if I were getting “Islands”. At the very most, I MAY have signed up for a free copy (tho I don’t recall doing so) but certainly am not receiving the publication. It screams scam and I will be following the advice above and contacting the same to report this fradulent billing practice.