Skip to main content

Misleading tactics in the sale of magazine subscriptions is an illegal practice the FTC has challenged in numerous cases. But an action just filed by the FTC and the State of Florida focuses on a new audience allegedly targeted for deception: the families of people who are incarcerated and inmates themselves. The pending case also suggests compliance reminders that apply to companies in just about any industry.

Inmate Magazine Service and owner Roy Snowden sold subscriptions to popular news, sports, and hobby magazines to people serving prison sentences. In addition to advertising to inmates, the defendants targeted family members who wanted to send reading material to loved ones serving time. The company offered magazines in “bundles,” charging a set subscription fee plus a “handling charge” of up to $7.99. Consumers were required to pay the defendants the full amount upfront.

According to the FTC and State of Florida, in many cases, the defendants pocketed the payments, but the magazines never arrived or were delivered far later than promised, with no notification to the consumers and no chance for them to cancel their orders and get a refund as required by the FTC’s Mail, Internet, or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule.

Missing merchandise was only the first headache buyers faced. When consumers tried to complain, the lawsuit alleges they were met with a series of roadblocks and dead ends that made it nearly impossible to ask the defendants about the status of an order or to request a refund. For example, according to the complaint, the defendants’ “customer service” line offered customer service in name only. The line was rarely monitored and didn’t accept voicemail messages. And although the defendants’ website offered a form for customers to complete, it included a notice that people were allowed to submit only one inquiry every 30 days. (Of course, many inmates don’t have access to the Internet and therefore couldn’t complete an online request for assistance.)

When consumers finally complained to advocacy groups and law enforcement agencies, the FTC and State of Florida say the defendants claimed they had sent the subscription requests to the magazine publishers and couldn’t track them. But at least one person who contacted a magazine publisher directly was told that the publisher had no record of the company’s purported order – and indeed had no relationship with the company at all.

The complaint alleges violations of the FTC Act, the Mail Order Rule, and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.

The federal court has temporarily halted the operations of the company. Even at this early stage, the case suggests two reminders for other companies.

Consider a Mail Order Rule compliance check at your company. If you think you’ve observed an uptick in Mail Order Rule enforcement, you’re right. Online commerce, subscription services, and other forms of “socially distanced” retailing depend on consumers’ confidence that companies will ship merchandise in a timely fashion – or will contact them about delays and offer the option to cancel. For legitimate companies that want to do right by their customers, the Business Guide to the FTC's Mail, Internet, or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule walks them through the steps to take to honor their shipping promises and address unanticipated supply glitches.

Put the service back in “customer service.” Giving consumers the customer service run-around is a sure-fire way to turn a simmering concern into a full boil. Companies interested in repeat business understand the value of responding promptly to consumer inquiries and using the experience of unhappy customers to correct questionable procedures and practices.


It is your choice whether to submit a comment. If you do, you must create a user name, or we will not post your comment. The Federal Trade Commission Act authorizes this information collection for purposes of managing online comments. Comments and user names are part of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) public records system, and user names also are part of the FTC’s computer user records system. We may routinely use these records as described in the FTC’s Privacy Act system notices. For more information on how the FTC handles information that we collect, please read our privacy policy.

The purpose of this blog and its comments section is to inform readers about Federal Trade Commission activity, and share information to help them avoid, report, and recover from fraud, scams, and bad business practices. Your thoughts, ideas, and concerns are welcome, and we encourage comments. But keep in mind, this is a moderated blog. We review all comments before they are posted, and we won’t post comments that don’t comply with our commenting policy. We expect commenters to treat each other and the blog writers with respect.

  • We won’t post off-topic comments, repeated identical comments, or comments that include sales pitches or promotions.
  • We won’t post comments that include vulgar messages, personal attacks by name, or offensive terms that target specific people or groups.
  • We won’t post threats, defamatory statements, or suggestions or encouragement of illegal activity.
  • We won’t post comments that include personal information, like Social Security numbers, account numbers, home addresses, and email addresses. To file a detailed report about a scam, go to

We don't edit comments to remove objectionable content, so please ensure that your comment contains none of the above. The comments posted on this blog become part of the public domain. To protect your privacy and the privacy of other people, please do not include personal information. Opinions in comments that appear in this blog belong to the individuals who expressed them. They do not belong to or represent views of the Federal Trade Commission.

No comments available.

More from the Business Blog

Get Business Blog updates