ONE DAY EARLIER THIS YEAR, MY MAILBOX offered up the following bit of junk mail: "FINALLY! An Incredible Breakthrough for Sufferers of Arthritis. IT CAN BE STOPPED & REVERSED!"
Now, I happen to like junk mail quite a lot. I would even say I love it. But my amusement was tempered this time because I had, as a matter of fact, recently filled a prescription for a new drug that is used to treat arthritis. This seemed like more than a coincidence. Faintly alarmed, as well as curious, I resolved to find out how this glossy 16-page brochure hyping a product called Arthro-7 had ended up addressed to me.
The company mentioned on the mailer was Gero Vita Laboratories -- "specialists in ailment-targeted natural formulas" -- with a mailing address in Toronto. I called the (800) number and asked the guy on the line how they had gotten my name. "I don't have that," he said. Well, could he find out? "That's not our responsibility." Could he transfer me to the company's executive offices? No, he couldn't. "Look, we get these calls every day," he said. "Do you want me to take you off the list or not?"
I next called the home office of my local drugstore (Bartell's of Seattle) and demanded to know if it had been selling off my prescription records. "We don't share that information with anyone," said Bartell's marketing chief Mike McMurray. Dan Connelly, the company's pharmacy supervisor, allowed, "You can make money supplying that data [to drug companies]" -- and some East Coast drugstore chains have done so -- but, he added, "We don't ever get involved in that." My doctor, too, insisted she had never shared my name. Ditto my insurance.
I then phoned the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations, asking for any and all public documents about Gero Vita. There was only a two-page registration statement, which listed the company's business as "Data Processing and Direct Mail" (not ailment-targeted natural formulas!) and one Susan E. Vogt as the corporation's "signing officer." I found her listed as an attorney in Toronto.
"Where did you get my name?" she demanded. Ah, precisely the question! Unlike Gero Vita, I immediately answered her, but my forthrightness was not rewarded. She said she could not give me any information about "a soon-to-be-former client."
Next to feel my wrath was the United States Postal Service. The Gero Vita piece had been mailed via Bulk Rate postage Permit Number 45 from Seymour, Indiana. (Seymour, I soon learned, is home to the biggest commercial printer in the country, R.R. Donnelly.) I wanted to know who owned Permit 45. But the Seymour postmaster refused to come clean. So I hit him by fax with a Freedom of Information Act request. Weeks later I got my answer: The permit belonged to a company called G.B. Data Systems in Marina del Rey. Around the same time, I received word from the Ontario consumer ministry that it had unearthed from its files a Gero Vita phone number for disgruntled consumers. That number too was in Marina del Rey. All the pieces were beginning to come together. ã
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I rang up the number and spoke to a very genial man named Ron Tepper. "Gee, you sound kind of young," he said. "We're in the senior market primarily." He assured me that the company's mailing lists were not derived from any medical databases, but rather from rented lists, generally of men 55 and over who had ordered through the mail before. He asked me to read him the special code number printed next to my address and said he'd get back to me. I never heard from him again.
Did I have a legal case? No; both the Direct Marketing Association and the Federal Trade Commission informed me there was no law requiring a company to disclose where it had gotten my name. I phoned G.B. Data again and asked to speak to the president. I was forwarded to a voice-mail greeting from one Glenn Braswell. Searching around for that name on the Internet brought me to a site called Quackwatch.com, a renowned, and astonishingly comprehensive, survey of all things mountebankish. Braswell's name was very familiar to Quackwatch, which stated that in the early '80s, Braswell was peddling various remedies for baldness. At that time, he "probably set a record as the person against whom the Postal Service filed the largest number of health-related false-representation complaints," Quackwatch said. Eventually, the site went on, Braswell pleaded guilty to mail fraud and served time for federal income-tax evasion and perjury. The Federal Trade Commission also had a court order against him, Quackwatch added.
The man who runs Quackwatch, a retired psychiatrist named Stephen Barrett, told me that while U.S. mail-fraud laws have been tightened in the intervening years, Canadian laws are still fairly weak: "I'm positive that's why Braswell is working out of Canada," Barrett said. The good doctor also gave me the name of a former Braswell associate: Ted Ponich, who was chief operating officer of G.B. Data from 1997 through '98. Ponich told me that Gero Vita is likely the biggest direct marketer of health products in the country, with about $170 million in sales in 1998, and that the company blankets the country with 20 million mailers every month.
One thing's for sure: Gero Vita is watching its ass. The company recently added a "Disclaimer" to its marketing materials, cautioning that Arthro-7 and its dozens of other products "are not intended to treat, cure or prevent any disease." Which is a damn shame, since while I do not have arthritis, I am very much in the market for a hair-loss remedy. Glenn: You know where to find me!