Monday, June 30, 2003 | 11:15 a.m.
BELLEVUE, Wash. -- My 9-year-old son Nathan Hemphill is one popular kid. He's been invited to go to graduate school, has received a signed 8x10 photograph of President Bush and has been offered four different credit cards.
Nathan is a smart guy, but as a third grader he's certainly not ready to earn his MBA. He'd rather hang a photo of Lizzie McGuire or Mark McGwire in his room instead of the president's glossy mug. And he certainly doesn't make enough money -- a dollar a week in allowance -- to afford credit cards.
But that doesn't seem to matter -- all because we as parents subscribed under his name to some business and sports magazines.
Every week Nathan gets more mail. It has been happening since July 2001, when he received a notice from the Alaska Airlines frequent flyer program offering him magazines in exchange for miles. My husband and I believed Nathan would lose those miles, so we decided to order some magazines with his mileage credit. We chose several business magazines, a weekly news magazine, and a couple of sports magazines -- all pretty mundane publications for suburban parents.
Almost immediately, the mail box started filling up with offers for Nathan. In the past 24 months, he has received 73 different offers -- a lot at first but just a trickle now.
He was invited to attend an investment forum, to transfer his brokerage account to three other investment houses, to purchase mutual funds, to set up a 529 college savings account for his children and to subscribe to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
In addition, he received an offer to buy his employees Christian holiday gifts and was asked to donate to four different charities. He also received a plastic membership card to make him a card-carrying member of the Republican National Committee.
Nathan was surprised to see the 4-inch stack of solicitations that had accumulated on his behalf. "That's a huge amount," he marveled.
Yet these marketers clearly are targeting the wrong audience. At first Nathan was excited to learn he had been invited to attend MBA school. "Is MBA 'Men's Basketball Association?' " he asked. When I explained what it really meant, he wasn't so thrilled.
He also said he'd like to get a credit card "to look more like an adult," explaining he could pay off his debts with the $300 he has in the bank.
We all know that magazines sell customer lists. Who hasn't had their mailbox filled with junk mail? But isn't there a way to keep these marketers from selling the names of minors?
"There's not very much that says you can't target minors, at least not in the U.S.," said Jason Catlett, president and founder of Junkbusters Corp., a Green Brook, N.J., organization devoted to teaching consumers how to enforce their "right to be let alone."
There are federal laws to protect minors from receiving pornographic mail, but nothing that covers other mail, Catlett said. Parents who want to stop their children from receiving pornographic mail can fill out U.S. Postal Service form 1,500, available at the Post Office or online at usps.com. It's best to be proactive. For example, when accepting a solicitation, consumers should choose an option on the solicitation form indicating that they don't want their name to be sold, Catlett said.
Sometimes that's not available, as in Nathan's case.
Another option is to go directly to the source and ask them not to sell the name. That advice comes from Patricia Faley, vice president of ethics/consumer affairs with The Direct Marketing Association, the trade organization that represents direct marketers.
"There are special protections for minors according to DMA guidelines and online marketing," said Faley. "Our guidelines would say that marketers, if contacted by a parent, would certainly remove the child's name from the list."
DMA's guidelines carry no legal weight. They're only for marketers who are part of DMA. Those that don't comply with the guidelines are kicked out of the organization and DMA sometimes posts their names on its website.
I also found that tracking down the marketing source, as Faley suggested, is not as easy as it sounds.
In Nathan's case, the original solicitation came from Alaska Airlines. When I contacted Alaska spokesman Jack Walsh, he was surprised to learn that his frequent flyer program even offered magazine subscriptions. After doing some research, he explained that "from time to time we have a magazine offer, for those people who have very low miles and it doesn't look like they're going to be accumulating enough to redeem them for flights."
Aren't children the ones who likely would have few miles, compared to adults who might accumulate additional miles while traveling for business?
Walsh said Alaska Airlines doesn't sell frequent flyer lists. He blamed the magazines. He referred me to The Mallett Group, a New Milford, Conn., company that he said handled the magazine promotion offer for Alaska.
Joe Mammano, president of The Mallett Group, said his client, Synapse, handles the Alaska Airlines account. He said he would have Synapse call me. No one from Synapse ever did. And I couldn't find them using the Web. So much for finding the source of these magazine offers.
Consumers who want to avoid getting junk mail can also register with the DMA to opt out of national mailing lists. There is a $5 fee, payable by credit card, to register online at dmaconsumers.org. Before mailing to someone, marketers must screen their list against the DMA list and eliminate the names of consumers listed there, Faley said. However, if someone is already a customer, the marketer would not be required to remove the name from the list. They would be prohibited, however, from selling that name to someone else.
Names also eventually drop off lists if the person who is being solicited does not respond. That seems to be happening with Nathan. While he received more than one solicitation a week in the months immediately following his initial subscription, he's now receiving solicitations only about once a month.
It also is not in the marketer's interest to send something to a child that's meant for an adult, Faley said. "The child isn't interested and it irritates the parents, as we've done in this situation. Unless you have something meant for a child's audience, you don't want to send it to a child."
And as with anything else, let the buyer beware. Chris Jarvis, spokesman for the Washington attorney general's office, said he still gets mail for his dog Abby, who he signed up for a radio offer. "Be aware that signing up for virtually everything -- from the raffle at the local hardware store to any other contest, magazine subscription, to video rental card -- puts your name out there," he said. "People need to be careful on the information they give. Once it gets sold, it gets sold again."
That hardly seems fair to a 9-year-old.
"If they were selling my name, don't you think that I should get the money instead of them?" Nathan asked. "They're using my name. It's my name, not theirs to sell."