By Jim Donovan

By Jim Donovan

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — They look legitimate and often catch consumers off guard.  How closely do you look at the bills you receive in the mail?  As 3 On Your Side Consumer Reporter Jim Donovan points out, some bills could have you paying money that you don’t really owe.

Wes Van Winkle starts every day reading the New York Times.  He says, “It’s part of my morning ritual.”  But recently that ritual seemed to get a lot more expensive.  According to Van Winkle, “I got this notice from circulation billing services.”  It was a “notice of renewal”  for a one-year subscription.  The cost, almost $1,100!    Van Winkle says, “Initially I thought ‘oh, God, the New York Times subscription has really gone up!”

Consumer advocate Joe Ridout says unauthorized third party vendors have been sending official-looking notices like this to consumers for years, hoping they’ll pay the inflated prices.  Ridout says, “No one should take these bills seriously.”

Ridout says the company’s usually pass some of the money along to the actual publication and keep the rest.  He says, “The main purpose of this company’s business model is to deceive customers into overpaying.”  In fact a recent lawsuit claims at least sixty companies do this kind of thing.

By law, solicitations that look like bills must clearly state “this is not a bill and you are under no obligation to pay.”  The bill Van Winkle received did.  But it was on the back of the bill in really small print.

“This is a rip-off,” says Van Winkle, who has automatic billing for his New York Times subscription.   So instead he tossed his billing notice in the trash.  After all, he’s got better things to read.