Editor’s Note: The original version of this story failed to note that after its investigation, the Federal Communications Commission in 2011 ordered that the $84,500 fine would not be imposed on Progressive Business Publications. The story has been updated.

The salesman kept calling Carol Murphy at her office until, finally, she relented.

During a call in November, she agreed to receive a monthly printed newsletter about nonprofits from Progressive Business Publications, a Malvern-based publisher. She said the telemarketer told her the newsletter was free, so she accepted the offer “to get the guy off the phone.”

“I said ‘it’s free? Fine. Just send it to me,’” Murphy said this month. “I never thought about it again.”

Then the invoices arrived months later, even though the newsletters never came, said Murphy, an executive at the Ohio nonprofit Canton Symphony Orchestra. The first bill, sent in January, demanded $288 for the annual subscription. Another in April warned that unpaid bills are referred to collections.

“I am now receiving threatening letters that they will report my [nonprofit] organization to collections,” she wrote in an April complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission. “The company is targeting nonprofit executives who love to get free information.”

Progressive Business Publications ultimately canceled Murphy’s order without charging her after receiving a written complaint, a company spokesperson said.

But Murphy’s story fits a pattern found in hundreds of complaints filed by the publisher’s customers. In the last three years, more than 300 people have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau, many claiming that the company billed them for newsletters they never ordered, or in some cases, didn’t receive. In 2013, the bureau’s St. Louis office warned the public about the company, saying 2,400 complaints were filed nationwide over three years.

“This company’s business performance record demonstrates a pattern of customer complaints alleging billing for unordered merchandise,” the bureau currently says on its website. “Some consumers have claimed that they canceled subscriptions but their cancellations were not honored.”

In an email, a company spokesman disputed Murphy’s account, accused the bureau of being biased, and said the hundreds of complaints over three years make up fewer than 1 percent of the roughly 425,000 telephone orders placed. He said the company’s records showed Murphy received an emailed receipt explicitly telling her she must cancel the subscription within 60 days to avoid being charged, and that she received five printed newsletters in the mail.

“It is unrealistic to expect all customers to be honest and for companies to have no complaints,” said Colin Drummond, a director at Progressive Business Publications. “We fully accept responsibility to be honest, fair and ethical with the facts and our practices, and certainly this is the case with our engagement with Ms. Murphy. We bear no ill will toward Ms. Murphy and have no reason to believe she is motivated by malicious intent; what we do know without question is that the facts do not support her allegations.”

No ‘free’ subscriptions

Complaints about Progressive Business Publications have come from a variety of sources: small businesses, nonprofits, school districts, police, and fire departments. Their stories, though, are largely the same.

They report receiving a call from a telemarketer offering a free trial to a newsletter subscription. The salesperson, they say, asked them for their birth dates. Then the invoices came to their employer, charging a few hundred dollars for the newsletters, some of which weren’t delivered, complainants claim. Some say they received calls directly from debt collectors demanding payment. Others claim they never ordered the publications.

“We have never signed up for anything from Progressive Business Publications,” one complainant wrote to the local bureau in 2017. “They have said [that] since they have a birth month and day that it was approved. We do not handle business using birth month and day to approve purchases through a public school entity. They leave no phone number to contact, only a demand to send payment.”

In a sign that customers are often confused about being billed, the company has prominently placed links to a “Received an Invoice?” web page at the top and bottom of its website. The company tells customers that “you may recall a recent phone call from us and agreeing to a no-risk subscription” and that “during the call, you provided us with your name, title, company, address, email, and birth date.”

The publisher collects birth dates so it “can disprove claims of unordered merchandise,” according to court filings.

Murphy, the symphony executive, said a telemarketer told her the newsletters were free, but the publisher sent bills directly to her nonprofit’s accounts payable department. But Drummond said the scripts that telemarketers must read never tell customers that materials are free. Several other complainants, though, have told the bureau that telemarketers said the newsletters would be free.

Pennsylvania’s unfair trade practices law generally prohibits “deceptive conduct which creates a likelihood of confusion or of misunderstanding.” But businesses that believe they’ve been scammed by Progressive Business Publications can’t sue the publisher under that statute, said Jeremy Spiegel, a consumer protection lawyer in Philadelphia.

“The [unfair trade practices law] authorizes private enforcement only regarding purchases for ‘personal, family or household purposes,’” Spiegel said. “A person or company disputing a business purchase is unable to bring suit under that powerful statute, which provides for the recovery of attorney fees and treble damages.”

At any rate, Progressive Business Publications said its billing complaints are hardly different from those against other publications. For example, Drummond noted that the Wall Street Journal and New York Times received 232 and 182 complaints, respectively, during the same three-year period, according to the bureau. Those major newspapers have millions of subscribers and fewer complaints than the Progressive Business Publications, which received 326 complaints and is “relied on by 150,000 organizations,” according to the company’s website.

The Journal and Times also received grades of “A-minus” and “A-plus,” respectively, from the bureau. Progressive Business Publications, on the other hand, received a "C" and had a failing grade six years ago.

Battles with the bureau

Progressive Business Publications was founded in the late 1980s by Ed Satell, according to its website. The company currently employs 500 people in eight offices in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio.

The firm has come under federal scrutiny in recent years. In April, the Department of Labor announced that the company must pay $1.9 million after an investigation found the firm docked pay for thousands of employees for restroom breaks, trips to the water fountain, or snacks.

In 2008, the Federal Communications Commission ordered the company to pay $84,500 for sending consumers unsolicited fax messages. However, after investigation the commission in 2011 ordered that the fine would not be imposed.

The company has repeatedly battled with the Better Business Bureau, alleging that the group’s reports have harmed the company’s reputation and profits. In 2001, the company sued the bureau for defamation for publishing a report on the firm’s sales practices. After the bureau won a defense verdict at trial, Progressive Business Publications lost its appeals in Pennsylvania Superior Court and state Supreme Court.

The bureau’s St. Louis office warned the public about the company in 2012 and 2013 after receiving roughly 2,400 complaints over three years, including 1,000 in one year, mostly about the company’s billing and sales practices.

Drummond, the Progressive Business Publications director, claimed the bureau is biased against the company because it is not a paying member. He pointed to news reports that were critical of how the bureau grades companies, noting that it awarded top marks to businesses that were found to be scams, but were paying members.

“Since we are not a BBB member and are a smaller publisher, we get a lower rating,” Drummond said. “This in turn fuels more, in many cases, unwarranted complaints such as Ms. Murphy’s."

Andrew Goode, a bureau spokesman, said all companies are measured on the same ratings scale, regardless of whether they’re accredited members. He said Progressive Business Publications is trying to shoot the messenger.

“This company has at least a two-decade history of treating customers in the manner reflected in our Business Profile on it,” Goode said. “The company may have a bias against us, but our profile of this firm has been reviewed by a jury and numerous judges. We believe it is an accurate reflection of this business’s practices.”