San Diego Union Tribune Tries To Trick Customers Into Renewing By Demanding Payment For "Unpaid Bill"

Dean writes:

I received a call yesterday from my newspaper (the San Diego Union Tribune). The nice young man on the phone told me that I had an unpaid bill, and if I liked, he could take care of that over the phone with me right then. I take a certain amount of pride in paying all my bills promptly, so my first impulse was to go ahead and get it taken care of asap. But after the first few seconds of surprise and confusion, I got suspicious.

Usually you pay for subscriptions like this up front, so I asked the young man if this was really a past due bill, and he had implied, or a subscription renewal. He sheepishly admitted that yes, he was trying to get me to renew my subscription. I immediately declined, and silently vowed to never subscribe to their paper again (we get most of our news on the internet anyway, so no big loss).

At first I thought it was just some kid free-styling with the script a little to try to bump his numbers, but then later that same day I get another call, this one from a young woman, using the exact same script. The newspaper folks must be getting desperate to sink to such tactics. It’s just sad to see such devious tactics from such a large and respected company.

Those poor newspapers, still struggling to cope with 18% profit margins. Thank heavens FCC Chairman Kevin Martin swept in on spectacled dragon of deregulation to allow papers to buy up other media outlets so they won’t have to rely on sneaky renewal practices.

Ask for an itemized bill if a company makes a questionable request for payment. Don’t forget to mention that sending baseless requests for money constitutes mail fraud, a federal crime.

(Photo: stickywikit)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Islandkiwi says:

    This is similar in tactics to those “time to renew!” letters you get from magazine subscription companies.

  2. Snarkysnake says:

    Well , um, yes, newspapers have sunk to this. It’s a dying industry. Not a whole lot in the paper that hasn’t been on the ‘ net for many hours already. Most papers have a website that has everything in there for free, so why would you take the printed copy anyway ? Just one more thing to throw away. A few local dailies have tried to charge for net “subscriptions” , but most have found that people won’t pay for something they can get for free. Our local paper tried to charge for net access and dropped it quick…

  3. bigdirty says:

    I’ve gotten the same from the Star Ledger in NJ. I subscribed a long time ago, and never got a regular delivery, so I canceled, and now 1 1/2 years later getting past due notices.

  4. serreca says:

    Same thing happened to me in Birmingham, AL, except the calls were coming from outsourced companies that seem to exist for the sole purpose of generating newspaper renewals (I Googled the numbers on my Caller ID and people all over the country were getting these calls courtesy of their locals newspapers).

    The ones that called me used similar tactics, telling me I have an “outstanding balance” even though I paid up-front for three months of delivery and then let it lapse because we never read it.

    I sent a nasty e-mail to my local paper about the calls (I had gotten about 10 showing up on my caller ID) saying that this was NOT the way to hang on to customers. They apologized and said they’d remove me from the lists that were sent to these companies.

    But I will never subscribe again!

  5. healthdog says:

    Oh yeah, the Union Tribune is infamous for this tactic. They sent me an “overdue bill” almost six years ago, and I vowed never to subscribe again.

    They also harass people on the campus of San Diego State, and call you a stupid, ignorant, rich college student if you decline to sign up.

  6. Tank says:

    This is the exact reason I don’t subscribe to my local paper, well, that and the fact it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.

  7. peacemongermom says:

    Our local paper sends people around to knock on doors and tell people that the paper is !FREE! for so many months, you just have to pay for the fourth month or something. I found it a wee bit on the annoying side that someone would hardsell me something free, and called the paper to complain.

    Yeah, another “not going to subscribe ever again” person here.

  8. I get most of my news from the ‘net, but there is something nice about grabbing a paper on sunday while munching on breakfast or brunch and sifting through it all.

  9. SaveMeJeebus says:

    Time magazine did this to me after one of those “free 8 issues” offers at the POS. I paid with cash but if I had paid with credit card, they would just get the info from the store and charge away. I got these overdue “bills” from Time’s collections department and knew there was no foul because I stopped receiving magazines after the 8th copy.

  10. stopNgoBeau says:

    @Islandkiwi: This is nothing like those “time to renew” letters you get. Those imply that your time is up, renew if you want. The call the poster got was that the bill was late. Big difference.

  11. sleze69 says:

    The only reason I get the Sunday paper is that the coupons are worth more than the cost of the subscription…or so my girlfriend tells me.

  12. dualityshift says:

    our local paper is ‘free,’ with an optional $6.00 delivery charge every six weeks. The kid that delivers the paper collects it, and since every dollar goes to the carrier, I pay it. How can you say no to a young kid?

    It’s like getting attacked by those girl guides and their cookies. Mmmmm. Cookies.

  13. DeltaPurser says:

    There’s something to be said for lounging in bed with the newspaper while sipping on a cup of joe… Somehow, dragging the computer into bed with me to read the news off the internet just isn’t the same.

  14. DeltaPurser says:

    @dualityshift: Keep paying, or they will unionize!

  15. DeltaPurser says:

    @sleze69: True… but really, how many Fabreeze do you need?!?!

  16. mgy says:

    So…it’s completely okay to call up, and in a threatening tone, demand people pay you for nonexistent bills? Looks like I’m going into a new line of work.

  17. grouse says:

    Report this to the police and Attorney General as wire fraud.

  18. KJones says:

    A few years ago one paper was telewhoring and the paper wasn’t even for sale in my city nor delivered there.

    The idiots still wanted to know if I would subscribe.

  19. missjulied says:

    @stopNgoBeau: Actually, we get “time to renew” letters all the time on subscriptions that are nowhere near renewal time. They usually don’t say anywhere on them when your actual renewal time is, either.

  20. I will say, I don’t think the LA Times has that much on the website, and probably has more local news in the paper, which is frustrating. However, they don’t have an Education section, so I’m not dying to get a hold of a copy either.

  21. I’ve had this happen, too, with every single paper I’ve subscribed to except the Chicago Trib and the NY Times.

    One paper gave me several months’ free subscription when I complained about it, but their reps had gotten EXTREMELY aggressive about it when I questioned them.

    I actually just got one of these a couple weeks ago for a subscription I let run out. I guess I should call and bitch at them.

  22. danseuse322 says:

    Yup. Normal practice now. This happened to me last year with two magazines that automatically “renewed” me when I did not renew, never asked for renewal, and, in fcat, had CANCELLED one prior to the initial sub. ending. So unless you plan to renew for life and never escape, you will want to avoid Kiplingers Monthly and Runner’s World.

    Unless you like mob practices, that is.

  23. elijah_dukes_mayonnaise says:

    @danseuse322: Runner’s World hired the “I
    want my two dollars!” paperboy from “Better Off Dead” to head up
    collections, I heard. Even the best runner might have a tough time
    getting away from that bastard on a bicycle. Unless he was wearing the
    very best in shoes, that is….

  24. tacomanator says:

    Interesting, I had not heard this one before. What makes it the most interesting to me is that for people to believe this line, they must be current subscribers. They must have very little respect for even their current customers to stoop to this level.

    The Monterey Herald in Monterey, CA has a similarly evil tactic, this time for gaining (or rather forcing) new customers. They would deliver newspapers to your house, unsolicited, and unrequested, and if you didn’t call them to cancel they would send you a bill. Even if you called to cancel they would try to bill you for any papers they had delivered. If you refused, they had no qualms in resorting to harassment, and I know several people who actually *paid* them out of fear.

    This was a few years ago now, so let’s hope they have changed their tactics (but it’s doubtful).

  25. says:

    I think the silliest attempt to get me to subscribe to the local paper was from a sales guy in the grocery store. I’m heading out, my six-month-old son is sitting in the cart. Salesman asks if I’m interested in a free newspaper. I smile, say “No, thanks anyway,” and keep walking. I’m about ten feet past when he says, “How about one for your little brother there?”

    It took me about thirty seconds to realize he was trying the “hey, you’re a hot young chick, that younger person with you must be a sibling” routine that some sales folk like. It’s a little ridiculous when you try to use it on a 30-year-old with an infant. (And when the infant clearly wouldn’t do much with a free newspaper besides barf on it and chew it up.) Wait until I’m 45 with a 15-year-old, then I might care about flattery… still probably won’t buy your stupid paper though.

  26. royceguy says:

    LA Times demonstrated it’s desperation to keep subscribers with a simliarly slimy tactic they tried on me last year. I had subscribed to the paper for about eight years. When the subscription was up, they’d normally send a new invoice and give you plenty of time to pay it. I received an invoice for a new year of service starting on 1/27 (or close) I set it aside to pay with the February bills. On 1/29 I got a phone call claiming to be with “LA Times Collections.” When I stated I had the invoice and intended to pay it that week, I was told that unless I paid her right there over the phone I would be sent to collections for an unpaid bill. (For $26…wow) I asked her to repeat herself since I could hardly believe it. After verifying it was actually the LA Times and not some scam, I told her to cancel the subscription and made the prorated payment for $1.47 or some ridiculously small amount. I said never to call again as I would never subscribe again.

    Of course as expected, I get a call within a week or two from LA Times “Retention” offering all kinds of great deals to resubscribe. The guy was nice so I didn’t let him have it, just explained what had happened and that I’d never subscribe again. To his credit, he asked if it would make a difference if he filed a complain on my behalf and gave me a few free months. I thanked him but said that I really didn’t have any inclination to open myself up to that sort of rudeness again. He apologized and went on his way. I received a letter a few days letter apologizing again for the poor service so I at least wish karmic goodness on that retention guy.

    With newspapers competing so hard against teh internets as a news source, you’d think they’d go out of their way to retain customers the right way by differentiating themselves positively. I guess they’re more desperate than I thought!

  27. ChuckECheese says:

    Last time I subscribed to a paper, a couple years ago, I canceled, and the newspaper stopped billing me, but the paper kept coming anyway. I called them to ask what the deal was, and they said it was complimentary. Some papers have resorted to giving them away to keep their subscriber numbers up.

  28. Buran says:

    I had a roving newspaper seller actually glare and growl at me when I told him I read the local paper online. And here I thought I was doing them a favor by lowering paper waste, ink use, supply use, and electricity needed to print that paper.

    I never will subscribe to that paper after that. If they don’t want people to read their news online, WHY do they post it there!?

  29. sleepydumbdude says:

    I only pay to subscribe for the sunday paper, mainly because I can clip coupons from it and it pays for itself. For some reason I get the rest of the week for free. Then I get calls asking if I want to pay to subscribe to the rest of the week and I say no. Yet I still get it. Happens about every 2-3 months. I’ve been getting it that way for well over a year.

  30. Kazari says:

    A few things:

    1. Newspapers should not be slimy in their retention tactics.

    2. They charge for advertising based on the number of PAID subscriptions. So they reason they charge for the fourth week and not the other three is so they can count.

    3. Yes, 18 percent margins are fat, but they get most of their profits from the print advertising. It is estimated that it take dozens online ads to make up for the vig made on a print ad.

    4. Newspapers and other news organizations MUST change, but do you really want them to go out of business? Where does most of the online news in your local community emanate from?

  31. vastrightwing says:

    Dear old school pubishing compinies, look the new business model is to sue your customers. That’s right, if they won’t pay for the news, they are obviously stealing it and the internet is only used for theft, just ask the RIAA, they know. Therefore, you should go through all your cancled subscriptions and file a lawsuit against all your previous subscribbers for damages, since they are obviously stealing from you. I would also sue all the websites that allow this to happen. To think we live where news is free! Paleeessse!

  32. chrisroberts says:

    Philadelphia Inquirer has been doing this for a few years. They tried pulling this on me twice now.

  33. Dustbunny says:

    I like having an old-fashioned hard copy of the paper, besides which, The Oregonian’s web site is awful. I shudder to think that if newspapers go under, the only source of local news left would be tv.

  34. elvisaintdead says:

    Print news is getting DESPARATE.

    My local daily, the Savannah Morning News, has taken to spamming the citizenry under the guise of “Breaking News” in the msg line.

    Most of the time, their emails are actually breaking news, but more and more often, they are simply enormous image files of nothing but a sale flyer from a local merchant -usually a car dealer.

    These tactics also demonstrate the depth of their despair. These yo-yos would rather sell what little journalistic integrity they have (and it ain’t much w/ this rag) than create a valuable product.

  35. DrGirlfriend says:

    @Dustbunny: So true, The Oregonian has the worst website ever. Even the name of the site is not intuitive — Oregon Live? That sounds like a Citysearch type thing, not a daily paper.

    Even so, I only get their Sunda edition. I agree that there’s something about spreading out a paper on a Sunday morning and lounging about that can’t be matched by reading it online.

  36. Keat says:

    Here’s another great use for one-time-use credit card numbers. I also wouldn’t give a phone number to a magazine/newspaper, so I’ll never get these kind of calls.

  37. @Kazari: “Where does most of the online news in your local community emanate from?”

    To be quite honest, the blogs.

    I adore newspapers, have worked in the industry, have always subscribed to at least one, usually two, sometimes three dailies. But with conglomerates buying up the small local dailies, they become lower and lower quality. I still subscribe to a major metro daily (Chicago Trib; I’m about 150 miles from Chicago) because there is no cheaper or wider-ranging education available than a high-quality major metro daily. (And, oh my God, for $5/week for the out of town subscription, they DROP IT ON YOUR DOORSTEP every morning. It’s better than amazon!)

    But my local daily has been suffering cut after cut at the hands of its conglomerate, and the reporting has gone from pretty good second-rate to underbudgeted third-rate. At the same time, we have an active and vocal blogging community that attends EVERY city, county, school board, park district, neighborhood association, etc., meeting and reports on them in far greater depth than the local paper allows their reporters to do. (In fact, a lot of the reporters have damned good blogs for what the paper won’t give them space to print — or feels is “against editorial policy.”)

  38. Apeweek says:

    Just like a few others here, I kept my obsolete newspaper (weekends only) for a while to get the weekend coupons.

    I just recently canceled it for the last time because of the increasingly bizarre upselling and renewal shanigans.

    Of course, I had to go through the ‘yes, I canceled’, ‘no we have no record of that’ game for a couple weeks.

    I had to point out that they sent me a ‘tell us why you canceled’ survey to prove I had, indeed, canceled.

  39. lihtox says:

    Local newspapers (and I mean local-local) should have a leg up on the big papers and the web, it seems to me. I’ve lived in big cities for the past decade (quite against my will), and have never cared to get the city paper because if anything happens in Chicago or Boston or Dallas of any significance, it will show up in the national news which is easily gotten from the web. If, on the other hand, I live in Podunkville, where am I going to go to hear about last night’s city council meeting? Where else will I find out about my 8th grade science teacher’s recent marriage? A local newspaper can report on that sort of neighborhood news which is hard to find on the web (unless you happen to have a prolific blogger living in your community).

    I’m not saying the small papers are doing this well (or if they can do it profitably), but they should try, because it’s their primary advantage.

  40. Kazari says:

    @lihtox: Believe me, they know this is their primary advantage. Different organizations, however, take the same knowledge and do different things with it.
    @Eyebrows McGee Yes, it’s true that homogenized papers are more focused on profits than their communities, but that’s the way it is. You are lucky to live in a community with that kind of citizenry. I have lived in other kinds of communities and felt damn lucky to have that newspaper with people who knew what the hell they were talking about. Also, I’ll be frank: I want someone ELSE to do the work of going to the meetings and have SOME confidence that they don’t have an ax to grind.

  41. lakecountrydave says:

    I subscribe to (“am a club member of”) Rider Magazine. Two weeks ago I received a letter asking me to extend my subcription. This made me realize that I had only received 1 issue of a 2 year subcription, and I should have recieved another issue by this time. The next time I was out I checked the newsstand and sure enough the new issue was out. The reasoning the letter gave for me to re up my subscription was that it cost the club too much money to send out a subcription notice when a subscription comes due. I sent them an e-mail asking where my current issue was, and asking why it cost more money to send a notice near the end of a subcription than every few weeks during a subcription.

    A week later I received an e-mailed response telling me that I can look in the upper left hand corner to see if the issue I saw (at a store) was copy from a subscription or a news stand copy.

    Obviously, in the week that it took to respond to my e-mail they forgot to read it. So I sent another e-mail stating the same things as the first, and asking them not to insult my intelligence with re-subscription request two years before my subscription ends.

    This weekend I received my missing issue:) Plus, a renewal notice with the same messed up reasoning:( I enjoy the magazine, but do not like having my intelligence questioned. They will definately have to work hard to get me to re-subscribe (in 2 years).

    Sorry for the rant;) They just irritated me!

  42. @Kazari: “I’ll be frank: I want someone ELSE to do the work of going to the meetings and have SOME confidence that they don’t have an ax to grind.”

    That’s why it’s good to have many bloggers, so nobody has to go to everything. :D Some of them DO have axes to grind, but they’re pretty up-front about it; as long as you know what bias “lens” to read the post through, I think it’s okay.

    But yes, we are well-served here by a whole concatenation of bloggers on ALL sides of every imaginable issue (so we always get to see a rebuttal to anyone’s advocacy post), as well as several, some with MSM experience, who pride themselves on straight-up reporting.

    And we all get together and drink every couple months!

  43. Islandkiwi says:

    As has been noted by other commenters, magazine subscription services in the past have sent “time to renew” letters out on a regular basis, regardless of whether it was in fact time to renew. The result was people having paid for subscriptions several years in advance and not realizing it. I actually received a letter doing this just this week…and actually had the check written, in my hand, before I realized the absurdity of the request.

    But I do apologize for not making my earlier post clearer.

  44. drjayphd says:

    Actually, I’ve found an artist’s rendition of the Union Tribune’s next strategy…


  45. Ciao_Bambina says:

    @Dustbunny and DrGirlfriend: I’ll third you on the Oregonian’s Web site. I had to evaluate a number of newspaper sites for a project last year, and out of the big city papers, the Oregonian was by far the worst. I was embarassed for them.

  46. Nighthawke says:

    The Caller-Times tried that stunt here in Corpus Christi, calling their custies to trick them or intimidate, there was hell to pay! The editors got par-broiled on the paper’s web site and someone got a hold of their personal phone #’s and went public. It took them 3 days to realize that they were not going to get away with it and posted a public apology on page 1 and the web site. Scripps, the owner of the paper got it in the kneecaps as well with a major drop in subscriptions for awhile too.

  47. Garbanzo says:

    The San Jose Mercury News changed my autopay interval from every 13 weeks to every 8 weeks while leaving the dollar amount about the same. I’m embarassed to admit that it took me about a year to notice this stealth 60% rate hike. At the same time they were removing features left and right, so I was paying more for less content. I cancelled my subscription, and for the first time in my life am now living without a daily paper.

    A few weeks later I called customer service to find out why my refund hadn’t shown up and discovered that they don’t assume you want a refund when you cancel. You instead have to explicitly request the money back for the unused portion of your subscription.

  48. DrJimmy says:

    Back in my newsroom days, the industry GPM (Gross Profit Margin) was north of 25%. The only newsprint folks I have any compassion for are the handful of friends I have who still work on daily deadlines for crap salaries.

  49. moviemoron says:

    You know, yo can get the news for free on the internet and in fact, up to date news, BUT I still subscribe to the local paper because they employee many people. Delivery boy to printer to truck driver to editor, etc.
    Imagine if no one subscribed. These people would be out of work. SO yes, I still subscribe. What you should have done was contact the paper directly and complain. I don’t think the paper knows the tactics they are using.

  50. silversun says:

    I read the fine print. The subscription keeps going, unless canceled. So, technically, they were right to call you.

  51. mmmmna says:

    Common tactic.

  52. Wynner3 says:

    @Islandkiwi: I hate those, especially when I get them three months after I paid the yearly subscription.

  53. theblackdog says:

    I dare the Washington Post to try this. If they do my DS will get a lot more playtime.

  54. Vanvi says:

    Has anyone else bought a newspaper subscription as a fund-raising product? I think the SJ Mercury News (and the SF Chronicle) allow people to go around selling subscriptions and they get to keep some of the profits. It’s low because it’s hard to say no to some guy who says he’s down on his luck or some teenager who’s raising money for school. I signed up with that hard luck guy, paid in cash, and specifically asked if I had to call and cancel or if the paper would stop coming after the 3-month subscription he was selling (he assured me there would be no continuation). Needless to say, the paper continues to come every day for 8 months, even after the SJMN calls to ask for money and we ask them not to send any more papers. They finally stop sending papers – and then send a collections notice. Bastards.

  55. Clumber says:

    We just moved into a new town (not that far off from where we lived, but a much smaller “in da’ boonies now” place) and we are getting the local paper for a couple reasons.
    I. This paper focuses on what they are good at – almost entirely local stories, almost zero of the AP stories that I can find online hours earlier. Even the front page of their sports section is entirely local HS and Jr. High sports. We can’t get most of that anywhere else.
    II. It is a way to get more familiar with the area and the local businesses.
    Oh and III – it is just $9 a month. Can’t beat that with a stick.

    Thanks, Consumerist, for posting these sorts of stories. I had not heard yet of this particular tactic… and now hopefully I am inoculated against it.

  56. Orv says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: The problem with relying on bloggers is bloggers don’t do original reporting. They rehash stories that have already been done by newspapers. It’s not clear to me where the blogosphere is going to get its fodder if all the papers go under.

  57. AMetamorphosis says:

    I recieved a notice from a company called NORTH SHORE AGENCY last night that indicated I had a past due bill for a subscription to Entertainment Weakly ( <– spelled this way on purpose. ) for 52.00.

    When I tried to call to contest this I was met with an automated system that does NOT allow you to speak with a human. PERIOD. The only thing I could do was input a bunch of #’s they provided me with and choose an option that stated I didn’t request the magazine.

    If they report this to the credit agencies I am going to find out what legal actions I may take to preserve my good credit standing. Any suggestions ?

    Additionally I wrote: NEVER ORDER, NEVER RECIEVED on the latter and put it back in the mail today.

  58. trujunglist says:


    That doesn’t make much sense. They’d be much better off looking for customers in the USD/La Jolla UTC area, where people actually are rich and snobby.

  59. trujunglist says:


    Well, I have to say that it probably is easier for them to mail customers a pack-in flyer with their magazine every time the mag goes out instead of sending individual notices. Seems to me like you’re saying they send you an individual letter every time, so that obviously doesn’t make sense.
    The only reasoning I can think of is that if a subscriber gets a subscription renewal notice at the END of the subscription, it will make him/her think “hey, I shouldn’t waste my money on that mag because the last one I got was like 3 weeks ago and it wasn’t really good anyway, too many articles on belly button lint” and then they just won’t renew. By sending out constant renewal notices, it would more or less remind the customer that they should still get the magazine, even if they got a fresh issue the same day. They’d be like “oh yeah, I just read the latest issue like 2 days ago and that article on belly button lint really blew my fucking mind! Renewal? Fuck yeah, I can’t wait for part 2 of the belly button lint article in the next issue, so I’d better renew now to make sure I get it!”
    Sending it out after the fact likely means loss of subscription, sending it out during means the mag is fresh in your mind.