The Common Law

Unsolicited items in the mail – are they really for free?

If a company sends me something that I never asked for, is it really "free" or could I end up having to pay for it?

You open your mailbox to find a free item from a company that appears to want your business. The item is not super expensive, but you know it's probably worth at least a few bucks. You like free stuff as much as anybody else, but you can't help asking what's the catch. Is this item really free?

Some companies will mail unsolicited goods to consumers with the intent of generating more business. Federal law prohibits mailing unsolicited goods, except "free samples" or goods sent by a charity soliciting donations. Accordingly, if you receive unsolicited merchandise, you may treat it as a gift, and the company sending the item cannot bill you, regardless of its value.

The Federal Trade Commission does recommend, however, that you mail the sender a letter (via certified mail, keeping a copy for your records) stating that you did not order the goods in order to clear any potential error. Also, be sure that if you sign up for a "free trial" with a particular company that you haven't actually signed up for a "club" that will periodically send you merchandise and bill you without your prior approval. In short, be sure to read the fine print of any document you may have signed or obtained from the company. For more information from the FTC, visit www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/products/unorderd.htm.

If you cannot resolve a problem directly with the sender, contact the local consumer protection office (463-2185 or 800/621-0508), the local U.S. Postal Inspector (342-1570), or the Better Business Bureau of Central and South Central Texas (445-2911). If you want to file a claim directly with the FTC, you can call the toll-free hotline: 877/FTC-HELP.

Read next week's column to find out what happens when a company intends to mail something of value to someone else but it comes to you by mistake.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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