Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Oct 06 2006, 08:59PM

Have you ever opened your mailbox and found merchandise that you didn't order

Have you ever opened your mailbox and found merchandise that you didn't order? Next time, consider it an unexpected birthday present –even if it's nowhere near your birthday! Federal law makes it illegal for companies to send you something you didn't order and then bill you for it.

Winnie H. answered her door and found a deliveryman there with a big box for her –a box she hadn't ordered. Inside were books and a bill for eighty bucks. Winnie mostly reads magazines, so there's no way she would have ordered four big leather-bound volumes. She was wise enough not to pay for the books, but she did spend her time and her energy lugging the heavy box down three flights of stairs and to the post office. And, of course, she paid for postage to send the books back. She didn't have to do all that. She could have kept the books, given them to a friend or donated them (and taken a tax deduction!)
You have no legal obligation to let the seller know that you plan to keep the merchandise as a free gift, but you probably should. I know, I know, even having to write a letter is an imposition. The thing is, alerting the company that you know the law should put a stop to any collection notices headed your way. You may even want to send your letter certified mail to create a paper trail. Sigh…

1. If you order goods that are supposed to be "free" or "trial" offers, scrutinize the fine print to make sure you're not signing up for future shipments that you'll have to pay for.
2. If you learn that unordered merchandise was shipped to you through an honest error, write a letter giving the seller a reasonable amount of time to send a courier to pick up the items. Alert the seller that if this hasn't happened in the designated time frame you reserve the right to keep the merchandise or get rid of it.

If a company sends you unordered merchandise and won't back off about billing you, contact your local postal inspector's office for help.