What to Do with Unordered Merchandise

June 22, 2008

          It’s happened twice now. A magazine my husband subscribes to sends him a DVD about car repair and then later demands payment and threatens severe action if he doesn’t make good. Both times he has returned the DVD with a stern letter not to send it again.

            So what are his -- and your -- rights when merchandise or items never ordered or requested land in your mailbox or front step?

            Federal laws prohibit mailing unordered merchandise to consumers and then demanding payment. And, according to the Federal Trade Commission, you don’t have to pay for it.

            That’s right. If you receive merchandise that you didn’t order, you have a legal right to keep it as a free gift. Nor do you have a legal obligation to notify the seller. However, it is a good idea to write a letter to the company stating that you didn’t order the item and, therefore, you have a legal right to keep it for free. This may discourage the seller from sending you bills or it may help clear up an honest error. Send your letter by certified mail. Keep the return receipt and a copy of the letter for your records. You may need it later.

            Free samples and merchandise from charitable organizations asking for contributions -- this includes all those address labels received throughout the year -- can be kept as free gifts.

            To minimize the chance that you’ll receive unordered merchandise, your BBB recommends being cautious if  you participate in sweepstakes or order goods advertised as "free," "trial" or "unusually low priced."

            Also, read all the fine print to determine if you are joining a "club" with regular purchasing or notification obligations. Keep a copy of the advertisement or catalog that led you to place the order, too. This may make it easier to contact the company if a problem arises.

            If you incur problems, try resolving the dispute with the company. If this doesn’t work, contact your state or local consumer protection office, local U.S. Postal Inspector, or your BBB. The Direct Marketing Association, 6 East 43rd Street, New York, New York 10017, also may be able to help you.