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PREMIUM LEGAL RESOURCES LEGAL FORMS ASK A LAWYER

... A woman responds to a newspaper advertisement offering a free "trial" pair of pantyhose. She is surprised when she receives a package of four, with a bill.

... A man receives a pocket knife that he never ordered. Despite his objections, the company continues to send him dunning notices, threatening his credit rating.

Thousands of people are placed in similar situations every year. Fortunately, they do not have to pay for merchandise they did not order because federal laws prohibit mailing unordered merchandise to consumers and then demanding payment.

Here are answers to some questions you may have about unordered merchandise.

I RECEIVED AN ITEM OF CLOTHING THAT I NEVER ORDERED. AM I OBLIGATED TO PAY FOR THE MERCHANDISE OR RETURN IT?

No. If you are sent clothing, cookware, linens, office supplies, or any other merchandise that you did not order, you have a legal right to keep the shipment as a free gift.

IF I KEEP UNORDERED MERCHANDISE FOR FREE, MUST I NOTIFY THE SELLER?

While you have no legal obligation to do so, sending a letter stating your intention to keep the shipment as a free gift is an advisable precaution. Your letter may discourage the seller from sending you repeated bills or dunning notices, or it may help to clear up an honest error. You may want to send your letter by certified mail and keep the return receipt and a copy of the letter. This will help you to establish later, if necessary, that you did not order the merchandise.

If you ever receive bills or dunning notices for unordered merchandise, you can use the same approach. Write a letter to the company stating that you never ordered the item and, therefore, you have a legal right to keep the merchandise for free. Again, you may wish to send your letter by certified mail and keep the return receipt and a copy of the letter.

THE UNORDERED MERCHANDISE I RECEIVED WAS APPARENTLY THE RESULT OF AN HONEST SHIPPING ERROR. WHAT SHOULD I DO?

Write the seller and offer to return the merchandise provided the seller pays for postage and handling. Give the seller a specific and reasonable amount of time (i.e., 30 days) in which to pick up the merchandise or arrange to have it returned at no expense to you. Inform the seller that after the specified time period has passed, you reserve the right to keep the merchandise or to dispose of it as you wish.

IS THERE ANY MERCHANDISE THAT MAY BE SENT LEGALLY WITHOUT MY CONSENT?

Yes. Free samples that are clearly and plainly marked as such, and merchandise mailed by charitable organizations asking for contributions may be sent legally without an order from you. In either case, you may keep such shipments as free gifts.

IS THERE ANY WAY TO PROTECT MYSELF FROM SHIPPERS OF UNORDERED MERCHANDISE?

When participating in sweepstakes or ordering goods advertised as "free," "trial," or "unusually low priced," be especially cautious. Read all the fine print to determine if you are joining a "club," with regular purchasing or notification obligations.

Also, if you are considering a purchase from a mail order company, learn as much as possible about the company's reputation and return policies to avoid a substitution problem. When placing an order by phone, keep a record of the name of the clerk who takes your order; the company's name, street address, and phone number; the price, description, and item numbers of the merchandise you ordered; the total cost of the order; the method of payment you used (e.g., check, the credit card, C.O.D.); the method of shipment and anticipated delivery date; and the date you placed the order. When ordering by mail, make a copy of the order form, which should contain comparable information.

With either method of ordering, it also is useful to keep a copy of the advertisement or catalog that led you to place the order. This may make it easier to contact the company if a problem arises.

WHERE CAN I GO FOR HELP IN DEALING WITH UNORDERED MERCHANDISE PROBLEMS?

Always start by trying to resolve your dispute with the company itself. If this is unsuccessful, you can seek assistance from your local U.S. Postal Inspector, your state or local consumer protection office, the Better Business Bureau in your area, or the Direct Marketing Association, 6 East 43rd Street, New York, New York 10017.

Although the FTC cannot resolve your individual complaint, the agency can take action against the company if it finds evidence of a pattern of deception, unfair practices, or statutory violations. Send your letter to: Correspondence Branch, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580.

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modified from 11/92 Federal Trade Commission material

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