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In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, Swanson alleges the Oregon-based companies contacted magazine and newspaper subscribers to solicit inflated renewal payments. Believing the companies were acting on behalf of the publishers, many subscribers complied, paying two or three times the actual cost of their subscription, the lawsuit says.
"They are unauthorized agents," Swanson said. "They have not been hired by the newspapers, by the magazines to be selling subscriptions in their name."
Most subscribers still got their publications, because the companies were subscribing on their behalf - at the lower, legitimate, rate - and then pocketing the difference. Subscribers realized something was amiss when they subsequently received another renewal notice from the publication itself, Swanson said.
The companies named in the suit are Orbital Publishing Group, Liberty Publishers Service, Associated Publishers Network and Express Publishers Service. None of the companies could be reached for comment.
Attorneys general in four other states have filed similar lawsuits against these companies alleging consumer fraud and deceptive trade practices. The other states are New York, Texas, Missouri and Oregon. In November, the Wisconsin attorney general's office filed a consumer protection action against Orbital alleging similar deceptive practices.
Swanson's office has received hundreds complaints about the companies from Minnesotans, spokesman Ben Wogsland said.
"We do believe they're targeting senior citizens in particular with these scams," Swanson said. "I don't think a day goes by that we don't hear from someone who's been targeted."
Joan Eggert, an 83-year-old Woodbury retiree, is a longtime subscriber to The Word Among Us, a religious periodical. She received a renewal notice in October 2014 offering an annual subscription rate of $69.95. The magazine's actual annual subscription rate is $23.70, according to its website.
"It looked very legitimate," Eggert said of the renewal notice. "I felt foolish - that I'd been taken advantage of."
Eggert and others have received refunds after contacting Swanson's office.
The attorney general's office does not know how the Oregon companies got the subscriber information.
Swanson's lawsuit says subscribers of the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, the New York Times and other publications have reported being targeted by these companies. Swanson's office has not received complaints from Pioneer Press subscribers, but Wogsland said that doesn't mean none have been contacted.
Pioneer Press subscribers who believe they have been contacted by an unauthorized third party should contact the newspaper's customer service department at 651-717-7377, and the attorney general's office at 651-296-3353.