THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Draft dodging: When the Progress grabs...

"As an EZ Pay subscriber," the August 23 letter from Daily Progress publisher Lawrence McConnell began, "you are one of our most valued customers." This came as a surprise to the letter's recipients, Rosamond and John Casey, since they'd canceled their subscription to the Progress 15 months earlier.

They got an even bigger surprise in the next sentence, which stated, "You are presently paying for your subscription with a scheduled bank draft from your bank account." The purpose of the letter, McConnell went on to explain, was "to verify that our records are accurate."

After promising to "consistently provide an outstanding source of news and entertainment with excellent customer service," the letter closed with an "EZ Pay Authorization" form, which John was to fill out, sign, and return to the paper with either a voided check or debit or credit card information.

John claims that he never authorized the paper to deduct money from his checking account, saying that he "wouldn't know how" to set up such an arrangement. Yet when he did some research, he learned that the Progress had made two such deductions, one for $77.74 in October 2003 and the other for $80.60 in February 2004, for a total of $158.34.

Rosamond called the circulation department at the Progress to protest and ask that their money be refunded, but she claims she was told that that wouldn't be possible. The only remedy offered, she says, was a free year's subscription. Since they didn't want the paper in the first place, that didn't seem like much of a remedy.

I called McConnell's office and spoke with someone named Carla (she refused to give me her last name). Before I had a chance to ask any questions, however, Carla declared, "I'm not going to respond to that." (It's always intriguing when a newspaper refuses to speak to a reporter.)

"Are you the paper's spokesperson?" I asked. No, she replied, she was the human resources manager and publisher McConnell's assistant. I urged her not to slam the door on any chance that the paper might respond, and she said she'd give McConnell my message.

I never did hear from McConnell, but the next day I got a call from circulation manager Alan West, who took a conciliatory approach.

"I will take care of that," he vowed, and he did. When I called back he announced, "The customer has been made whole." He said he would be sending the Caseys a check for $158.34 but refused to comment further on the situation.

That means we'll never have answers to several questions that arise from this situation. For instance, if the Progress was already drafting John's account with impunity, why did they suddenly decide to ask for permission? I've been paying for my Progress subscription by quarterly bank draft for a couple of years now, very contentedly– but in my case, they asked for permission before they started taking money from my checking account.

Question Two would be how they got access to the account if, as he claims, John hadn't authorized it. The Caseys, I suspect, could push that issue if they cared to, but the paper has made it clear that they're not going to explain the inner workings of their billing department to me.

And finally, Question Three: Why would the Progress refuse to refund money they'd collected for papers they hadn't delivered? The answer, alas, will have to remain as shrouded in mystery as the answers to Questions One and Two.

So here's the lesson for this week: If you subscribe to the Daily Progress, make sure you know how you're paying for it. And if you don't subscribe, that goes double.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.