Ripoffs Unlimited A Critical Examination Of Response Unlimited - A Christian Direct Mail Company
ver the years, Christian Media has had occasion to do investigative journalism on a variety of media sectors engaged in a multitude of Christian ministry activities. Some of our more recent readers are unaware of the fact that before our organization became so intensely involved in Bible Prophecy, we spent many years in commercial media work specializing in the Christian media - hence the actual name of our ministry.
After having worked in secular media for many years as well, and then seeking to become professionally involved in Christian work, I naively thought that "Christian" companies would be honest in their dealings. I foolishly assumed that significant organizations in Christian music, film, video, broadcasting, and print would attempt to behave in a Christ-like fashion. I could not have been more wrong.
Indeed, it was the very fact that because I found so many dishonest business practices in Christian media organizations that I began to research what had actually gone wrong in the Christian experience in America that had brought about such a dreadful state of affairs. That inquiry ultimately led me to the great "falling away" spoken of in II Thessalonians - and my present passion for prophetic truth.
Many are unfamiliar with just how large the "Christian" direct mail industry actually is. Mailing lists are commercially available covering just about any conceivable area of endeavor. If, for instance, you sell products targeted at young Christian ladies, you can get a list of all the young ladies between the ages of 18-35 that attended an Amy Grant concert during one of her recent tours. Or if you're working for a political fund-raising operation, you can get a list of all the Christians that are associated with Protestant denominations, that are registered Republicans, that have contributed a minimum figure to a variety of causes. There are endless permutations in terms of demographics.
Lists presently available include Christian computer software buyers, Christian health and nutrition buyers, Christians that signed up for committees to restore prayer in schools, and many many more. There are literally tens of thousands of "Christian" mailing lists that are available. To put it bluntly, this mail order thing is big, and one of the key marketing organizations for the religious direct mail marketplace is a Virginia company called Response Unlimited.
The Downside Of Direct Mail
One of the problems in religious direct mail fundraising is the inability of those that have gotten on a mailing list to actually get their name removed from the original mailing list that is being continuously rented out (ministries don't actually buy a list, they rent it). For example, Response Unlimited has a mailing list of people that placed mail orders to purchase the Left Behind rapture video based on the Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins books.
This list, one of their most popular among prophecy-oriented ministries such as Christian Media, is being rented to other ministries rather frequently by Response Unlimited. Let's say you get a solicitation to donate to some "Christian" ministry that you have a particular dislike for. You don't want to receive such solicitations, so you send them back a note saying 'please remove my name from your mailing list.'
That ministry can't remove your name from the original list they got it from because they only rented your name on a mailing list they obtained (such as the Left Behind list) from Response Unlimited. In the solicitation you received from the ministry you dislike, there is no information whatsoever telling you where they got your name - and they have no obligation at all to track it back and inform you where they got your name.
Not only do you have no way of knowing they "rented" your name from the Left Behind people, you have no way of knowing who the Left Behind people contracted with (Response Unlimited) to market that list. Meanwhile, Response Unlimited (a company you don't even know) is busy looking for other parties to market your name to. This is just the way it is in the mailing list rental industry in America today.
As a publisher of books and periodicals (as well as a consumer/purchaser of mail order materials), I've seen both sides of the equation; thus I'm not altogether unsympathetic to those ministries that are renting mailing lists as a way of finding the people that may very well be quite interested in what they have to say.
For example, one part of Christian Media distributes a particularly difficult to find herbal remedy that removes unwanted growths (including some cancers), and we have had many, many letters from people that are incredibly appreciative of having found this product through the direct mail piece they received from us. This is because the use of this particular herbal remedy (it's called Black Salve) has spared many people cancer surgery, and in some cases, has actually saved their lives.
Many would have never heard of such an item had it not been for direct mail, so there is much good that can come from the vehicle of direct mail. There are however, even list owners that have had disturbing problems. As I mentioned before, as the leader of a ministry that uses direct mail, I've had good and bad experiences on several sides of the equation.
The List Response Unlimited Represented For Us
After many years of working with Christian musicians and creatives in video, radio, and print, the Lord moved my emphasis away from media, and into Bible prophecy. As the publisher of the leading trade directory of all organizations professionally involved in Christian media (the Christian Media Directory), over the years, I had accumulated a significant mailing list of Christian singers, songwriters, record producers, video creatives, and others professionally engaged in media.
I ran into a rep for Response Unlimited who told me they could market that list and it would help to finance our prophecy materials with a minimal effort. The salesperson was persuasive, as he told me if I signed up with Response Unlimited, a list like mine (which had about 10,000 names) was sure to make Christian Media a minimum of a dollar per name per year - or about $10,000 per year just for letting other ministries "rent" the list.
Viewing that income as a sort of professional 'tentmaking' like the Apostle Paul labored in (see Acts 18:3), I reasoned it was a way to keep from having to ask our prophecy readers for donations, so I agreed and signed up with Response Unlimited (RU) for representation of that mailing list.
As I was still being very cautious about this, I told the RU rep that because I have a good deal of computer expertise in house, I would not release the database electronically as Response Unlimited wanted, but would provide any rental customers with the peel off pressure sensitive labels of the mailing list. In retrospect, this turned out to be the LORD watching out for our best interests. Producing pressure sensitive labels of a mailing list actually requires some rather sophisticated (and expensive) software because such programs process addresses for deliverability, add bar codes, and sort the lists according to bulk mail delivery regulations in order to have the mailing qualify for bulk mail cost discounts. However, because we do a significant amount of direct mail, Christian Media has that capability.
After about four months, I had not had one rental of the list, and I began to realize that to generate a dollar per name per year as had been represented, the list would have to be rented out around once a month. This was because mailing lists rental fees average about $100 per one thousand names on a one-time basis. This meant a full rental of 10,000 names was worth about $1,000 -- or a dime per name. After four months, I began to have some doubts about Response Unlimited's (RU) claims.
Finally, the rep called and said he had a rental customer for my list. The only problem was, the client needed the list in a hurry. He asked if I would electronically send him the database, and I reminded him that I do all my own data processing and we had agreed that I would only release the mailing list with the actual labels.
The RU rep called late in the day and I was very busy at the time, but I wanted to make a good impression and demonstrate to the RU people that they could count on me if they brought me a list rental customer. I agreed to drop everything and process the data, run the labels, and Fedex the entire package overnight. It took me half a day to do the computer work, and about 4 hours round trip to drive to the nearest Federal Express depot, but I got the package out.
The next day, the RU man called and said the customer received the labels, but decided he didn't want them after all! Naturally I objected, but the Response Unlimited rep said he couldn't do anything about it.
At that point, I had run 10,000 laser computer labels (which now retail for around $55 per box of 5,000). The Fedex overnight charge was around $25, and with my time and the gas, when I totaled it all up, I lost over a day's work and ended up with an out of pocket expenditure of about $135!
Disgusted, I decided to just forget about mailing list rental. About a month later, Response Unlimited called and said "Good News! We have someone that wants to rent your list, the only thing is, they're in a big hurry�.." I don't recall my exact response, but I hope the Lord wasn't listening that day.
When I told the RU rep I wasn't going to play this game anymore, he said 'we have a contract, you have to rent the list.' Things went quickly downhill from there.
A couple of years went by with no contact with Response Unlimited, and I found myself looking for a mailing list to rent. After asking around, it seemed like the only place to look was Response Unlimited.
The List I Wanted To Rent RU Refused To Rent To Me
After thinking about it for awhile, I thought that perhaps things would work out better if I was to rent a list, rather than the other way around. I looked over the lists that RU had, and decided on a list of prophecy buyers from another prophecy ministry. Like other list owners, this particular list owner had a condition that he had to approve who could rent his list. At that point I had no idea how difficult things were going to get.
Because I teach a post-tribulational perspective on prophecy, and practically every significant prophecy ministry in America is sold on the pre-tribulation rapture doctrine, I found that many prophecy ministries wouldn't rent their list to me. Apparently, they didn't want me telling Christians the doctrine they teach is unscriptural as these rapture oriented groups might then be unable to sell anything to that list once the people on their list learned the truth about the doctrine.
I finally found a small list of subscribers to a defunct prophecy newsletter and because Response Unlimited told me they themselves owned the list (I have no idea where they actually got it), they rented it to me. The results weren't bad, so I came back again, and kept running into the same problem of rapturists that kept a tight control over all the large mailing lists of Christians interested in prophecy.
I found another list of Bible prophecy book buyers that looked interesting, so I ordered it; however, I noticed that the list had numerous names and addresses on it that were obviously undeliverable. Over the years, I've probably sent out over a million pieces of mail, so I can usually tell when an address is not going to be deliverable. Furthermore, we utilize the best high-end bulk mailing software on the market. This type of software issues a database CD of all zip codes, delivery routes, and postal address changes every 90 days, so all the postal data is very current.
I should mention that Response Unlimited commonly brags about their lists being processed through the National Change Of Address Registry - or NCOA. This is a central database derived from the postal system when people fill out a change of address. RU will frequently say 'this list was run through NCOA last year, so it's very current.' What they don't tell you is if some of the names on the list moved as recently as 2 years ago, there would not be an NCOA filed because the change of address would have expired. Thus, an address on the mailing list might be current, but the person at that address on the list is not the same person presently living at that address.
What they also don't tell you is if you send mail out at the bulk rate discount, if the names on the list have moved and they don't live at the address on the list, you have no way of knowing they aren't there and never received your mailer. This means a list can be filled with undeliverable names and you would never know it unless you pay first class mailing rates.
So, whenever I rented a prophecy list from Response Unlimited, I was very cautious before mailing to the list as I was suspicious of their tactics. In one case, I just looked at the list that they had represented as being very current and saw addresses like "John Smith, Holiday Hotel, Chicago Illinois."
Common sense should tell virtually anyone that such an address is completely undeliverable, but this particular RU list was loaded with such dubious names. After removing those one at a time, I looked closer at the remainder and still had some doubts. I took 200 of the names as a test and mailed them a post card at first class rates. About 190 of them came back as undeliverable! This meant that Response Unlimited was charging me for a list of addresses that was worse than worthless!
Thus, not only was the cost of the list a complete rip-off, but the wasted printing, postage, and the labor involved made the matter all the more injurious. I contacted the Response Unlimited representative and told them the representations that were being made for the list were completely false and demanded either a refund or another list that could be verified as legitimate.
The significance of this matter should not be taken lightly. In essence, had I not been suspicious and spent some extra money to check the list, I would have sent out thousands of pieces of bulk mail, and never known that the overwhelming majority of the mailer never even reached anyone with an interest in prophecy - the very thing I was paying for by renting the list in the first place. In such cases, the client can only conclude that the mail campaign was unsuccessful - and even though they were ripped off by Ripoffs Unlimited, they might never become aware of the truth of the matter.
After documenting the fact that the mail test was undeliverable, the RU rep was compelled to agree that the list was completely deficient. He explained that his clients, the list owners, "sometimes" misrepresent their mailing list and that Response Unlimited, as the broker, could not be expected to verify the caliber of the product. Unfortunately, the most scandalous aspect of the matter is what happened next.
Because I had been experiencing difficulty getting viable mailing lists and was plainly being blacklisted by the dominant prophecy list owners that are almost without exception members of the rapture cult, I suggested to the RU man that perhaps we could assist in 'cleaning up' old lists such as the one I had tested and found to be deficient.
The rep put me in touch with the list owner who turned out to be the principle of another firm that does much of the data-processing on behalf of Response Unlimited. I suggested that since they had some lists that are apparently so outdated as to make them virtually worthless, that perhaps we could do a list cleaning project in exchange for usage of some mailing lists.
The procedure is simple, but it's expensive. In order to "clean" a mailing list (make sure the names are accurate), the process amounts to mailing only first class material (a post-card will do it) and deleting all the names on the mailer that comes back as undeliverable. In this fashion, a mailing list is sharply diminished in size, but may then be considered superior in terms of deliverability via bulk mail.
The list owner with the very old list that I had found to be so deficient was a firm called Cross Computer, but unfortunately, they declined my offer to help clean their list. The implications should be obvious, but I'll spell it out. By refusing to clean an existing commercial list that had at that point been proven to be downright worthless, both organizations apparently set out to intentionally defraud future customers by placing that list back on the market with no cleaning whatsoever.
Worse yet, this happened several years ago, but as of this writing (March 2005), that list is still being offered. In fact, upon checking the Response Unlimited database where they actually provide a list of organizations that have rented that list, all but one are said to have "tested" the list - and then decided not to rent the entire mailing list. This means that almost every firm that has tried to market to that particular list has had results that were so poor they decided not to proceed with a full rental of the total list. However, it's likely none of these organizations actually know the list is loaded with names and addresses that are undeliverable.
A direct mail test is frequently 5,000 pieces, and this particular 'dead end' list rents for about $80 per thousand. Revealingly, with 9 different organizations "testing" a list that has no chance of generating any significant sales, the RU & Cross Computer team could have generated thousands of dollars in revenue on a list they both know is so completely illegitimate that it can only be described as a complete rip-off of their customers.
Furthermore, when updating my research notes for this story I noticed that at least one of the organizations that had test mailed to this particular list has now gone broke! It was after this particular episode that I decided that Christian Media's funds would be put to better use by avoiding any commercial relations with Ripoff's Unlimited.
Ordinarily, that would be the end of the story, but there is yet another chapter to this tawdry tale.
A national periodical we do some data-processing work for decided to rent a list through Response Unlimited of what are called "expires" from a periodical known as The Midnight Call. Expires are mailing lists of periodical subscribers that have lapsed their subscriptions. The idea is, for whatever reason, people grow tired of a particular periodical and fail to renew. Because they clearly did have a subscription, such mailing lists are attractive to other periodicals that hope their publication will appeal to the people on the list.
This publisher decided to rent a list of lapsed subscribers to The Midnight Call, a prophecy periodical, from Response Unlimited. After spending a considerable amount of money on the list, and sending out a significant bulk mailing, my client publisher found that there were over 5,000 names on the Midnight Call list that were duplicates. Such things are not supposed to happen in list rentals, but it meant that the periodical had wasted 5,000 copies of their publication, paid to rent those 5,000 names twice, and wasted postage to mail those 5,000 names the paper a second time. In retrospect, I should have caught the duplicates as well, but this is supposed to be done by the list owner and their data-processing house -- in this case, the list was forwarded directly by The Midnight Call.
After confronting Response Unlimited, they refunded the portion of the list rental fee on the duplicates; however, this did not recompense the mailer for the lost printing or postage, so he was still out the money for about 5,000 copies of his mailer that could have gone elsewhere. He also spent the postage to send the same mailer to 5,000 people twice -- a real waste of money. Of course, Response Unlimited didn't want to address that portion of the deal. But the worst was yet to come.
As I did the database processing on behalf of this particular publisher, and knowing the dubious integrity of what I've come to call Ripoffs Unlimited due to my prior experiences with the firm, I became suspicious of the balance of the names on the "expired" list of The Midnight Call. Furthermore, knowing the Midnight Call people are dedicated Rapturists, and having a good deal of knowledge concerning the dishonesty that is common to adherents of the cult they belong to (see my book The Rapture Cult: Dishonesty In Dispensationalism or Dave MacPherson's Three R's: Rapture, Revisionism, Robbery for some case histories), I suspected even more nefarious goings on.
My periodical client had rented 32,800 names from one particular year of expirations from The Midnight Call - a figure that seemed excessive to me in terms of its sheer size. After all, if you lost that many subscribers, it would indicate that you must have had substantially more subscribers in the first place; and very few ministries have those kinds of numbers in terms of subscribers. Something just didn't add up.
It turned out that about 70% of the supposed lapsed subscribers on that list were actually from a different list of people that had purchased a particular video - in this case, Left Behind. There is a big difference between people that bought a video, and people that subscribed to a periodical!
Indeed, this was not only a gross misrepresentation of the list, it may very well violate some form of federal law.
One fact should be re-emphasized. In a situation such as the one diagrammed above, there are multiple parties involved. First, the list-owner. It's possible for a list-owner (such as Midnight Call) to misrepresent the integrity of a list to their own marketing representative - in this case, Response Unlimited. Secondly, that marketing rep, or broker, may not want to know about any deficiencies in the product they're selling (renting) as it would tend to directly affect their revenue. Thirdly, a data-processing outfit like Cross Computer that does work for Response Unlimited may also have an agenda.
It's highly likely the size of the rental is commensurate with the revenue they are paid to process the list, thus even the data firm has an incentive to allow duplicates to remain in the list as it swells the size of the transaction. Obviously, in such a scenario, each party can point the finger at the other as the culpable party when things go wrong. And the client is the one left to sort out the mess.
Incidentally, after discovering the incredibly brazen fraud concerning the video sales list masquerading as lapsed subscribers of the Midnight Call, I was asked to provide the documentation to Ripoffs Unlimited as part of a demand by my publisher client for some form of recompense. I forwarded the data research pointing to the misrepresentation to the company rep in late March. As of this writing, there has been no response from Response Unlimited.
- James Lloyd
Copyright©2005 Christian Media Ministries