Magazine Sales Jobs Called Slavery -- Teens Report Toiling 60 Hours A Week For $7 A Day In Pay

"Travel. Make lots of money."

Those words in a newspaper help-wanted ad caught the eye of 19-year-old Maxine Preston of Luzerne County, Pa.

Things sounded so good when Preston went for an interview at a local hotel that she agreed to leave that same night on what she thought was the perfect job. What followed was the worst three months of her life.

The job turned out to be selling magazines door-to-door throughout New England for the American Marketing Network.

Preston says she was taught to lie to customers to make sales. She found herself knocking on doors six days a week from 9 a.m. to as late as 2 in the morning.

"If there was a light on, we were told to knock," she says. "We were to tell the people we were in a contest for a $10,000 savings bond and that this was the last night for it."

The "lots of money" the ad promised turned out to be $7 a day - less on days Preston didn't meet her quota.

She says she was arrested twice for soliciting without a permit, was discouraged from contacting her parents, and was threatened when she told her crew chief she wanted to go home.

"They told me if I tried to leave, they'd drop me off somewhere and wouldn't give me any money," she said.

Preston left the crew by sneaking out of a motel room in the middle of the night and going to the local police.

Preston's three-month nightmare isn't the anomaly it might seem. Many other young men and women who have worked on other traveling "mag crews," as they're called, have similar stories:

-- They tell of working 60 to 80 hours a week and getting paid $7 to $10 a day for their efforts.

-- They tell of staying four to a room in hotels and living off fast food, if they can afford even that.

-- They tell of practically being "brainwashed" into doing whatever it takes to peddle subscriptions - including lying.

-- They tell of crew chiefs who berate them and sometimes even beat them for not selling enough.

-- And they tell of arrests, of drug use, and of difficulty leaving crews when they realize the job isn't what it was cracked up to be.

While consumers pay excessive prices for magazines they often never get, the kids doing the selling are the real victims, according to Earlene Williams, who founded the New York-based group Parent Watch after her son's experience on a crew 10 years ago.

"On any given day, conservatively, I'd say there are 30,000 kids and over 200 companies involved," Williams said. "This is a billion-dollar-plus industry."

Even though the alleged abuses have been going on for at least 20 years and were the focus of a 1987 U.S. Senate investigation, little has been done to stop them.

Henry Hales, operations manager for the National Field Selling Association, a trade group that represents 70 percent of the companies in the industry, doesn't deny there have been abuses. But he says most of the problems stem from a few individuals.

He says the association has done much since its founding in 1987 to clean up the abuses, such as educate crew management on proper conduct and pay for trips home for kids who are stranded.

Some companies, like American Marketing, go out of business, only to spawn new names and new crews with the same people at the helm.

Hales said although nine of 10 kids leave crews within the first year, most find it good experience.

"Many use it as a stepping stone into other jobs," he said. "They learn sales, they learn how to handle rejection, and they learn things like . . . persistence and decision-making."

He said traveling door-to-door sales is an alternative for youth who otherwise are unable to find work.

NFSA's Hales said 50- to 60-hour weeks are common, but kids are told that in advance.

He said those making $7 or $8 a day are the less successful agents. "If that's all they're making, they should bail out," he said.

As for crews holding kids against their will, Hales says he has a hard time believing that. "We monitor complaints like that, and the story almost always turns out to be phony."

Maxine Preston, the Pennsylvania 19-year-old, says her crew chief supplied sales agents with fake IDs so they could cash magazine-order checks at convenience stores.

"We were taking money from people," she said. "Half of them don't get magazines. If you didn't buy at least $70 worth of magazines, you wouldn't get them. We'd just cash the checks.

"The people, they thought they were helping kids."