Coin ads in Southeast Ohio newspapers draw challenges from the Better Business Bureau

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Recent advertisements in some southeast Ohio newspapers urged readers to buy rolls of half-dollar coins, claiming they were in limited supply, selling fast and potentially worth a lot of money.

The ads were accurate but potentially misleading, according to the Better Business Bureau. The BBB over the years has challenged what it considers problematic language in many ads run by two companies that are based in Ohio.

The advertisements were part of a dispute at three newspapers that resulted in the editor of one newspaper being fired and four other newsroom employees resigning in frustration, including the editors of the other two newspapers.

The dispute began in December when the editor of The Courier, which serves Jackson and Vinton counties, initially refused to run advertisements for coins sold by Federated Mint. The editor was concerned by complaints filed against the company with the BBB, which has given it an F rating.

Similar advertisements ran in the Athens News and the Athens Messenger and weeks later each newspaper received a call from a reader who said they paid for the advertised coins but had not received them.

(Read the full ad that ran in the Athens News here and here.)

This is a common complaint against both Federated Mint and National Mint and Treasury, which began running coin ads in these and other newspapers owned by APG of Ohio in November. Both companies have the same owner, with an address in Canton.

After the Athens News editor published a post on the newspaper’s Facebook page mentioning the readers’ complaints and apologizing for the advertisements, she was fired for violating company policy.

Almost all of the complaints filed with the BBB against National Mint and Treasury are from customers who said they paid for coins and never received them. These complaints often detail multiple attempts by the customers, in many cases over a period of several months, to get an answer from the company on when the coins would be shipped. Customers often complained that their calls and emails to the company went unanswered, or if they did connect with someone they were assured the order would ship soon.

In each case, after the customer finally resorted to filing a complaint with the BBB, the company responded quickly with a letter, which in most cases said the coins had just been shipped or a refund had just been issued.

Federated Mint has received many similar complaints and its responses to these complaints have been the same.

There are too many calls to handle

Helen Mac Murray, an attorney who represents both companies, acknowledged that the companies are experiencing longer shipping times. It’s now running about 90 days, she said.

“We think complaints increased because consumers didn’t recall or forgot about the shipping delay or how long it would be,” Mac Murray wrote in an email to WOUB in response to questions about the ads.

The full response from Helen Mac Murray to WOUB
[Click the image to read Helen Mac Murray’s full response to WOUB]
State law requires sellers to deliver a product within eight weeks of payment. If it’s going to take longer, the seller must notify the customer of the new shipping date and give them a refund if they ask for one.

The companies’ current 90-day average shipping time is well beyond eight weeks, and Mac Murray wrote that the companies makes customers aware of this delivery window when they place their orders.

Many customers who filed complaints with the BBB against both companies said they did not receive the product within whatever delivery window they were promised when they placed their orders. And many said the company did not contact them with a new delivery time, but instead they had to reach out to the company and sometimes found it difficult to reach someone and get an answer.

Mac Murray acknowledged that because of an uptick in call volume, the companies had trouble keeping up with all the calls. They hired a third-party call center to assist but there were issues with the transition, she said.

“These products cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars so consumers get very nervous when a product of this value hasn’t arrived,” Mac Murray wrote. “They reached out to my clients and many of them had a hard time getting through due to the above-described issues. That certainly caused many of the complaints.”

To process calls faster, Mac Murray wrote, the companies empowered someone at the call center to make decisions that before had to be made by internal company representatives, which took more time. Most of the call volume issues have been resolved, and customers can expect better communication from the companies, she said.

Mac Murray acknowledged that customers who filed complaints with the BBB suddenly got prompt service. “Frankly, when the BBB sends my client a consumer complaint, it expects them to immediately address the issue or risk their BBB grade or other negative actions,” she wrote. “These consumers then skip to the front of the line.”

The BBB works to bring them up to code

Amanda Tietze, vice president of operations for the BBB office in Canton, said that given the volume of business the companies do nationwide, the number of complaints against them isn’t excessive.

Where the BBB does have ongoing concerns is with the advertisements themselves. Federated Mint earned its F rating in part because of its advertising.

Kim Taylor is director of ad review and investigations for the BBB’s Canton office. When she comes across advertisements that fall short of the BBB’s code of advertising, she works with the businesses to try and bring them into compliance.

 It’s a voluntary process. The BBB has no authority to force companies to change their advertisements. And it can involve a lot of back and forth negotiations over language that can take weeks or months.

Taylor has challenged multiple advertisements by both Federated Mint and National Mint and Treasury. She said that every new advertising campaign by the companies usually includes some language she finds problematic.

Most recently Taylor has been working with National Mint and Treasury on an advertisement that ran in the Athens News and other newspapers owned by APG of Ohio.

The advertisement, like many of the coin ads, is designed to look like a news story. In this case it was two stories over two pages, with headlines, text arranged in columns, a photograph and other graphics, and stories written in the journalistic style, including quotes from sources presented as officials or experts.

Advertisements like these are called advertorials, because they mimic editorial content and capitalize on the credibility that comes with news stories.

In some cases the resemblance is so close it may be difficult for a casual reader to distinguish these advertisements from the news, at least in terms of their presentation. One way to tell is at the top of advertorials is usually some language indicating it’s an advertisement, although it may be in very small type.

Alex Hulvalchick, who said she resigned as editor of the Athens Messenger in protest over the coin ads, said she was disturbed by how much these ads looked like news stories. She said she sent her mother a picture of the advertisement with the two stories.

“She looked at that and she asked me where I found the information for the top story, and I said, ‘Mom, I didn’t write that top story, the whole thing is an ad. And she couldn’t believe that.”

“There’s already so much distrust of news nowadays from a variety of different sources,” Hulvalchick said. “I don’t want to be part of making that any worse, and I don’t want to give readers any reason not to trust their local news.”

In a column he wrote defending the advertisements and the decision to continue running them, Mark Cohen, president of APG of Ohio, wrote that Federated Mint and National Mint and Treasury “clearly mark ‘Paid Advertisement’ on all print ads.”

This is not the case. The ads that WOUB reviewed instead have the words “special advertising feature” in a small but all caps font over the top. This language does put the reader on notice, but it is arguably not as clear or explicit as “paid advertisement.”

The BBB is parsing the language of the ads

When the BBB’s Taylor reviews advertisements, she’s often looking for language that may be factual but is misleading, especially when it’s intended to make the reader think the product is more scarce or valuable than it may actually be.

She found plenty to challenge in the recent National Mint and Treasury advertisement, which is for half-dollar coins minted from 1916 to 1947 that feature Lady Liberty walking with the sun just over the horizon in the background. The coins are known as Walking Liberties.

The headline on the first story says “OH residents scramble to get last Walking Liberty Rolls,” and the headline on the second says “Last State Restricted Silver Walking Bank Rolls go to Ohio residents.”

The stories under the headlines also repeatedly use words like “last” or “state restricted,” giving the impression that these are in short supply. And in the world of collectibles, this often makes something more valuable.

The language in the ads is accurate, but it can be misleading, Taylor said. The wording may give readers the impression that it’s the coins themselves that are being referred to, she said. But a close reading makes clear the company is often referring to the rolls themselves and not the coins.

The company gathers coins and rolls them up using its own paper bank rolls. The paper itself is printed with the words “restricted” and “for Ohio residents only.” So, when the company refers to its rolls of coins as state restricted, that is technically accurate because that is what it says on the company’s paper.

But the coins themselves are not restricted by the state of Ohio and the company is not limited by any outside authority to selling them only to Ohio residents.

One of the stories says these “Ohio State Restricted Bank Rolls are the only ones known to exist.” Again, this is technically accurate because this company is the only one rolling up the coins using this paper with this particular wording.

And if the company has made only a certain number of these rolls, it can accurately say these are the last. But that does not mean it could not roll up some more if it chooses.

“If you read some of the sentences it is basically true, but it implies something different,” Taylor said.

There have been multiple challenges to the recent ad

Taylor has raised several objections to language in this advertisement, which first ran in November in newspapers owned by APG of Ohio, and has been working with the company since then on changes.

In the meantime, the company has continued running the ad with the challenged language, which it is free to do.

In this advertisement, Taylor has asked the company to stop referring to the rolls as state restricted.

She also objected to a quote that begins one of the stories, attributed to a company official: “It’s a miracle these State Restricted Bank Rolls even exist.”

It’s not a miracle, Taylor said. The company simply decided to make them.

Taylor challenged the phrase “last remaining,” which is used several times in the ad, in one case in reference to the coins themselves.

It’s true that the coins are no longer being minted and in this respect these are among the last remaining. But there are still a lot of them in circulation, Taylor said, so she found the phrase misleading because it gives the impression of scarcity.

Another phrase Taylor challenged is “rarely seen,” which is sprinkled throughout the advertisement and was used in direct reference to the coins.

Some dates of the Walking Liberties are rare and that respect are rarely seen, she said. But others remain in wide circulation.

The advertisements also promote the bank rolls as being unsearched. For example: “The rolls are unsearched so there’s no telling how much they could be worth in collector value.”

Taylor objected to the sentence. The implication is that because no one has checked, tucked inside one of these bank rolls could be one or more rare and high-value coins.

It’s true that the coins have not been searched since the company rolled them up. But the company does check the coins beforehand, Taylor said. This is made clear elsewhere in the advertisement, she said, where it says that each coin is “verified to meet a minimum collector grade of very good or above.”

“They do search them,” Taylor said.

The advertisement does say that the dates and mint marks of the coins – which help determine their market value – were not searched. But the placement of this language in the sentence suggests that what is being said is that no search for dates and mint marks was done after the coins were rolled up by the company.

So it is not clear, at least in this ad, whether the company first searched for any potentially high-value coins before loading them into rolls.

Advertising issues can affect BBB ratings

Mac Murray, the lawyer representing the companies, said they “try to create interesting and exciting ads that catch consumers’ eyes much like any retailer.”

Mac Murray said she reviews every ad created by Federated Mint and National Mint and Treasury, and said she was retained by the companies because of her background as the former chief of the consumer protection section of the Ohio attorney general’s office. She said her reviews typically result in significant revisions.

The companies also work with the BBB to try to resolve any issues it has with the ads, Mac Murray said. But she also noted the companies are under no obligation to comply with its recommendations.

“Just because the BBB Code may require something doesn’t mean they must honor those requirements or the BBB’s interpretation of these guidelines,” she said.

If a company refuses to make changes to its advertising, it can affect its BBB rating. This is what happened with Federated Mint. The company’s listing on the BBB website details the advertising issues that contributed to its F rating:

  • In April 2020, the company used the phrase “before they’re all gone” in an advertisement for silver bars in Mississippi even though it had told the BBB in response to previous challenges it would modify or no longer use this language.
  • In April 2021, the company sent out a mailer with an advertisement for unsearched vault bags of coins that did not include any of the changes it had agreed to make when it ran the ad previously.
  • In May 2021, the BBB challenged the word “unsearched” in advertisements for vault bags that ran in Tennessee and Washington state, and it was not able to come to a satisfactory resolution with the company.

Taylor said that Federated Mint and National Mint and Treasury do not advertise in the Canton area, where her office is located, so the only way she comes across their ads is if the companies present them to her for review, which they sometimes do, or if someone else brings them to her attention.

In preparation for an interview for this story, WOUB provided Taylor with copies of the ads by National Mint and Treasury that ran in late February in the Athens News and the Athens Messenger.

She had not yet seen the ad from the Messenger, for rolls of Kennedy half-dollars, and after a quick scan she saw language that was problematic. This included phrases such as “state restricted” and “rarely seen” that she had already spent weeks working with the company to modify or remove from the Walking Liberties ad.

Taylor said she will be reaching out to the company to once again begin the process of making challenges and negotiating changes.