As if daily newspapers don't face enough challenges these days. Now there's this.
Last week homes throughout the St. Louis area began receiving subscription-renewal notices for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The only problem? The invoices (asking subscribers to make two payments in two months totaling $489 to "lock in at one of our lowest" annual rates) were fake. By comparison, new subscriptions for the paper go for about $162 annually.
It's unclear how many people received the letters, but last Thursday a clerk at the newspaper's circulation department told Daily RFT that the paper was getting "a lot of calls" from subscribers about the invoices. By Friday the newspaper had a "delivery alert" on its Subscriber Services webpage warning readers that the Post-Dispatch has no relationship with the Nevada-based billing firms named on the fraudulent invoices, Associated Publishers Network and Readers Payment Services.
Tracy Rouch, a spokeswoman for the newspaper, tells Daily RFT that the invoices targeted both subscribers and non-subscribers alike. She says the paper has also notified the Nevada and Missouri Attorney General offices through its legal counsel.
John Hoffmann, an independent journalist and watchdog, was one of the first to learn of the ruse when one of the invoices arrived at his Town & Country home last week. Hoffmann notified the Town & Country police, who investigated and found that the two companies on the invoice go by some 60 different aliases and all share the same Nevada address. In an email alert sent out to Town & Country residents last Friday, the police report that the businesses on the invoices have an "F" rating with the Better Business Bureau, and have had 876 complaints filed against them in the past three years.
Hoffmann made a similar call to the Post-Dispatch and got an email response from vice-president of circulation, Tom Livingston, acknowledging the dubious invoices. Still, Hoffmann says he'd expect that the Post-Dispatch would do more to warn subscribers of the scam.
"To me the big story is that the Post-Dispatch doesn't have a story about this on its website," says Hoffmann. "And what further surprised me was that [Town & Country police] Captain Bob Arthur and his staff did a much better job of investigating the people involved and reporting it to the public than the Post-Dispatch did."
And for those of you wondering, yes, some people still pay for the print edition of the Post-Dispatch. Last year, the paper printed an average of 161,000 weekday editions (down from 240,000 in 2008) and 461,000 Sunday editions, according to company financial statements.
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