In the past I’ve written about my esteem for Cook’s Illustrated. They make it easy to be a great cook.

Tonight, however, Cook’s has lowered their reputation with me considerably, by trying to scam me out of my money.

I got a telemarketing call from them.  They wanted to reward me for being a valued subscriber by sending me their “Summer Grilling” special, and another book.  The young man on the phone said it was free, but upon close questioning allowed as how the other book was a “free trial,” and if I decided I didn’t like the book I would only have to pay for it.  Is it okay, he asked, for them to go ahead and send it?

My reply:  Sure, send it… but understand that I have not ordered anything and if Cook’s decides to send me anything in the mail without my having ordered it, I’m keeping it and I’m not paying a dime for it.

The call ended quickly thereafter.  You see, Cook’s Illustrated wanted to sucker me in by sending me the book, hoping I’d keep it so they could bill me for it later… even if I simply forgot to send it back.

Every month, my subscription copy of Cook’s comes wrapped in extra pages detailing the latest book they’ve published, offering it to me at a low rate. In the fine print, one discovers that ordering the advertised book actually signs you up for a book-of-the-month club, where you’ll start getting volumes in the mail as a “free trial” unless you return them or cancel.  I thought that was a shady way to do business; the fact is I would have ordered several cookbooks direct from Cook’s if it weren’t for that bit of legerdemain.

This phone call, however, was a straight-up con job.

The sales rep went to great lengths in how his words were phrased, and in the speed and manner that they were presented, to gloss over the fact that this was an attempt to get me to “order” a book-of-the-month-club subscription.  If I weren’t already aware of this type of scam, I might have said “yes, send me the free stuff!” and then, when the bill arrived later, be told that I was on a recording having “placed the order.”

Even if Cook’s didn’t intend to pull this, it still comes off as incredibly shady.  The offers every month around my magazine tell  me that it isn’t just an overzealous telemarketer—it’s something Cook’s has decided to do to make money.

I don’t begrudge Cook’s finding ways to stay afloat.  But this is dishonest, and beneath them.

And it has me seriously considering dropping my subscription at the end of my term.

Few people are aware of Title 39, United States Code, Section 3009.  That’s the part of the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 that covers unsolicited merchandise.

In the United States, if you receive merchandise in the mail and you did not order it, you have no obligation to return it or pay for it. You may keep it.  You can mark it “Return to Sender” and the Postal Service will send it back at no charge.  Or you can throw it out.

This law was passed to prevent shady organizations from sending items to people via mail, and then billing them for things they hadn’t ordered.

Under this law, sending that bill is now a Federal crime.


39 U.S.C. §3009(d):

(d) For the purposes of this section, “unordered merchandise” means merchandise mailed without the prior expressed request or consent of the recipient.

What Cook’s telemarketer was trying to secure was the “consent of the recipient” for the unordered merchandise (the cookbook).  That’s the out.

And it’s a damn shady end-run around the law.  I’d expect it from a fly-by-night encyclopedia company, not Cook’s Illustrated.

Shame on you, Christopher Kimball.

Cook’s Illustrated should immediately cease using this underhanded sales tactic. They should be up front about their “book of the month club,” and they should cease cold-calling subscribers to get them to sign up.

For that matter, if Cook’s is going to make sales calls, they should pay attention to the Do Not Call Registry. Although the law doesn’t prevent them from making calls where there’s an “existing business relationship,” a wise company will note that people who are listed on the Registry don’t like being interrupted by telephone sales pitches, and that calling them anyway will usually lead to a reputation hit.  Send mail instead—the Postal Service could use the cash.

Or perhaps give up the book-of-the-month stuff altogether, and just rely on a compelling product at a good price.

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2 Responses to Damaging Reputations with “Free” Trials

  1. Montholio says:

    They have been doing this stuff for years. I don’t understand how they are still in business, much less why PBS pays for their shows with our money.

  2. bette says:

    the government is not PBS. And the government does not pay for their shows. Subscribers of PBS stations pay for the shows. The goverment gives tax breaks and some overall funding to public broadcasting (tv and radio) but not to the production company that makes this show.

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