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Music Through the Mail: CD and Tape Clubs
The mother of a 14-year-old Ellicott City boy wrote to the Consumer Protection Division complaining that her son had joined a music club without her consent. She said her son received as little as two days notice before unsolicited compact disks were mailed to him, giving him too little time to respond that he did not want them. As a result, he frequently received unwanted CDs and returned them at the club's expense. Finally the club canceled his membership, citing the many returned CDs, but billed him for $15.75 to fulfill his purchase agreement.
A Potomac consumer fulfilled his membership requirement with a music club and then requested, in writing, that his membership be canceled. He returned two unopened, unwanted CDs. The club sent a letter asking the consumer why he had returned the CDs, but then billed him repeatedly for one of them.
Music clubs have been around for years and are popular with kids and adults who buy a lot of compact disks and cassette tapes. While introductory offers can make the overall cost of buying from clubs lower than stores, you should know what you are getting into before you join. For some consumers, the inconvenience is not worth the savings.
Many music clubs offer great-sounding deals to get you to join: Six CDs for the price of one, or 10 CDs free if you buy six more over the next four years. But when you read the fine print, you learn that you also must pay shipping costs. In most cases you also have to fill out cards each month or every other month saying you don't want to receive the offered selection, or you will receive that offering in the mail.
By far the biggest problem the Consumer Protection Division hears about is billing. Most consumer complaints dealt with billing errors, and most of the errors resulted from what the consumers considered to be unsolicited CDs. The reason, often, is this: Throughout the year most clubs send out catalogs of offerings, usually including current special deals. Some of the clubs also send a card to allow you to choose which selections you want to order. Also listed on the card is the current featured selection. If you do not return the card, you automatically receive the featured selection. If you do not want the selection, you can send it back, but if you do not return it promptly, the company will assume you've kept it and bill you. Often, this can take some time to sort out. During that time, the company might send your account to a collection company.
Many of the complaints the Consumer Protection Division received included copies of letters from companies assigned to collect overdue balances. The consumers involved worried that their credit rating would be damaged if the dispute was not quickly resolved.
According to Consumer Reports magazine, some clubs will let you change your status to one that allows you to receive CDs or tapes only if you have ordered them, but they might not agree to this until after you have fulfilled your membership obligation. The companies do not advertise this option.
The Consumer Protection Division received several complaints from the parents of minors who joined the clubs without their consent. A Columbia House representative said the club does allow minors to join. A BMG representative said the club requires minors to obtain a signature from a parent, but acknowledged that does not always occur.
Some people enjoy the convenience of receiving music at their home, and bargains are possible if you shop carefully and take advantage of sales. If you are thinking of joining a music club, here are some issues to consider before you join:
As with all consumer transactions, the best time to ask questions is before you agree to make a purchase or sign a contract. Only then do you still have absolute control of the situation.
Attorney General of Maryland 1 (888) 743-0023 toll-free / TDD: (410) 576-6372