By Karin Haugrud, Land of the Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging

What are your rights and obligations when you receive merchandise through the mail that you did not order?

 Just recently, a friend of mine responded to a newspaper ad offering a free pair of pantyhose. She was surprised when she received a package containing four pairs, and a bill!

Thousands of people are placed in similar situations every year.  Fortunately, they do not have to pay for merchandise they did not order because federal laws prohibit mailing unordered merchandise to consumers and then demanding payment.

If you are sent merchandise you did not order you have the right to keep the item, whether it be a free “trial” pair of pantyhose, a pocketknife or any other merchandise you did not order, as a free gift.

If you keep the unordered merchandise do you have to notify the seller? You are not obligated to send a letter to the seller but it is an advisable precaution. Your letter may discourage the seller from billing you in the future and may help to clear up an honest mistake. If you do not notify the seller you run the risk of being turned in to collections and possibly having it recorded on your credit record.

What if they bill you? If you receive billing notices, write to the business. State that you never ordered the item and, therefore, you have a legal right to keep the merchandise as a free gift. Request that they do not send you any more billings. It is a good idea to send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested. Be sure to keep copies of the receipt and letter for your records.

If you think the unordered merchandise you received was the result of an honest shipping error, you may want to offer to return the merchandise at the seller’s expense. Write to the seller and express that you will return the merchandise within a specific time (30 days is appropriate) if they send some form of prepaid postage for you to use. Inform the seller that after the specified time period has passed, you reserve the right to keep the merchandise or dispose of it as you wish.

Where can you go for helping dealing with unordered merchandise problems? Always start by trying to resolve your dispute with the company itself. If this is unsuccessful, you can seek assistance from your local U.S. Postal Inspector, your state or local consumer protection office, the Better Business Bureau, or the Direct Marketing Association, 6 East 43rd Street, New York, New York 10017.

Although the FTC cannot resolve your individual complaint, the agency can take action against the company if it finds evidence of a pattern of deception, unfair practices, or statutory violations. Send your letter to: Correspondence Branch, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580.

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This article is made possible with Older Americans Act dollars from the Land of the Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging.  Call the Senior LinkAgeÒ at 800-333-2433 to speak with an information specialist, or check out our website at