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MARKETING SERVICE BLAMED FOR MIX-UP AT ERIE COUNTY FAIR

If you attended the Erie County Fair Aug. 6-17 and signed up for a chance at a new car from a veterans group, don't be surprised if you get a bill for voice-mail service.

"We know there were problems and are refunding money paid to us inadvertently," said Joseph Caffey, general counsel for the Veterans of America Association, a profit-making entity incorporated in Pennsylvania in January.

Unlike organizations such as the American Legion, VAA membership is open to "any veteran, anyone who supports veterans or any member of their families over 18," Caffey said.

To launch the enterprise, which he likened to the American Association of Retired Persons, "because we negotiate discounts for members," the VAA hired Florida-based Loag Marketing, which rented booths at fairs across the country.

The marketing service caused VAA such grief at previous fairs -- where it signed up underage teen-agers -- it was terminated by VAA in September.

But that wasn't soon enough for Western New Yorkers.

"My 15-year-old son thought he was signing up for a chance in a free car drawing," said Colleen Bogdan of Amherst, "but when we got this voice-mail bill for $9.70, plus taxes, we couldn't believe it."

The Bogdans called Hold Billing Services at 800-717-9484, and Veterans of America agreed to cancel the charges.

"I don't think there is a problem with the veterans group," said assistant fair manager David Schlabach, "but their representatives were booted out four days before the fair ended."

Two cars are supposed to be awarded Dec. 31.

There were supposed to be two forms at the booths -- one for the car sweepstakes and another for VAA membership.

When it was became apparent -- despite warnings -- that only membership forms were offered, Schlabach shut the booth, refunded the booth-rental money "and told them to go on down the road," he said.

"The car sweepstakes was Loag's," Caffey said. "There were to be two entry blanks, a yellow one for the sweepstakes alone," to create a mailing list that can be sold to telemarketers, "and a blue and white one to join our organization."

"That form explained that you would be billed an activation charge for voice mail, plus 11 monthly installments of $4.85, because voice mail is one benefit for members, and it is easy to bill that way," he said.

"To be a member you have to be 18," he added. "When we started getting complaints from parents of teen-agers from another fair, we suspended Loag from acting on our behalf on Aug. 3. We allowed them to fill any prebooked commitments, such as the one in Buffalo, but terminated our contract with them on Sept. 9."

Caffey said he did not have the Erie County membership totals yet but would try to get an approximation.

Schlabach said he seized and destroyed a number of the blue and white forms when he expelled the VAA booth operator.

What does a "veteran or a supporter of veterans" get for $59.95, paid in 11 monthly installments on a phone bill?

A magazine; a discount card good for 20 percent off food and drink at 7,500 restaurants; a 10 percent discount for buying or selling real estate through Remax Realty; a medical benefits and drug discount card; and voice mail.

Voice-mail messages are billed on a per-minute basis by the phone company, entailing an extra charge.

"If anyone feels they signed up by mistake, we will refund their money," Caffey added, "but it takes two billing cycles for the refund to show up on the phone bill. Some people get angry when they don't see it the very next month."

"When I see the refund I'll believe it," Mrs. Bogdan said, adding: "I know some people who signed up grandma for a chance on the car. I wonder how many people signed the wrong forms."

Caffey said that people who discover the mistake within 10 months will get their entire refund back.

"We won't go the fair route anymore," he added. "We're using telemarketers now and explaining all the benefits and all the costs when we sign up new members."

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