So okay, I got this in the mail. Mailings like this are like little puzzles: You know there’s a catch – but can you figure out what it is?

The artistry (I am tempted to say the con artistry, but in this case that would be too strong) always begins with the outer envelope. This one was very good.

A standard number 10 business envelope, it sported a first class stamp with one of the New York Public Library lions on it. On really close inspection it was a ‘pre-sorted standard’ stamp, which is the new ‘bulk rate’ (did you know that?), but it had the look and feel of first class – and first impressions are everything.

In a blink, the envelope looked like one of those many of us have gotten where, if you owned such and such stock between such and such dates, you may be entitled to participate in a class action settlement.

That’s not what this was, but it had that look and feel.

In the upper left corner:

Claims Administration
c/o PRP Dividend Checks
1217 St. Paul St.
Baltimore, MD 21202

Then, just above the clear window with my name and address showing through:

IMPORTANT PAPERS ENCLOSED
To receive your monthly dividend checks, adhere to submission deadline

So now I knew I had been presented with a puzzle. (Trust me: there is no such thing as a monthly dividend check you have to ‘claim’ by a certain deadline.) Delighted, I opened it up to see if I could figure it out.

Centered at the top of the cover page:

CLAIMS FORM
To be eligible for the June 8, 2007 check, add your name to the PRP check-distribution list.

Who would want to miss getting his June 8 check? (Already, I was thinking of it as mine.)

If I had read further, I’d have seen I was being offered a $49.50 monthly True Wealth newsletter subscription (regularly $99), but I skipped straight to the thick enclosure, which had bar codes in the top and bottom right corners.

I assume those bar codes were gibberish, to add to the official look and feel, but I wonder what they might translate to say? Some harmless mockery? An inside joke? Perhaps they simply spelled out ‘Pinchot Retirement Plan’ in bar code.

Front and center was this bold headline:

NOTICE OF YOUR RIGHT TO SHARE
IN ‘PINCHOT RETIREMENT PLAN (PRP)’
MONTHLY CHECKS

By taking advantage of the plan, it said, ‘you should receive 24 checks – about one every other week. Approximate check-delivery schedule for the next 12 months is as follows’ . . . whereupon the rest of the page was taken up with a list of the 24 dates, in a vertical column.

The first three check dates were crossed through – you’re too late! – and the next one, June 8, was highlighted in red. If I acted quickly, I could get that check.

Indeed, a Wisconsin paper mill worker had used the Pinchon Retirement Plan ‘to collect $18,500 in One Day.’

Or so said a special red and black copy block that more or less dominated the page.

At the bottom of the column of dividend dates was a big bold number: $77,360.00.

Okay? Got your attention? I’m guessing that by now you may be curious to know what this plan is. I know I was.

Turning the page, I learned nothing of the secret. Just like some of those legal documents you may have seen, there was nothing at all on the second page except, in the middle, in parentheses, small:

(This page has been left blank intentionally)

Again, the look and feel. It just feels important. It feels like a legal document. These guys are artists!

The third page – designated page ‘1-a’ to enhance the official quality – repeats:

WISCONSIN PAPER MILL WORKER
USES ‘PINCHON RETIREMENT PLAN’ (PRP)
TO COLLECT $18,500 IN ONE DAY.’

‘For most people,’ it goes on to explain, ‘August 7, 2006, was a day just like any other. But for 55-year-old Ron Hanson, it was a morning he’ll never forget. While most of us were preparing our morning coffee, Hanson . . . was cashing a check worth $18,850, according to U.S. Gov’t records.’

Oh, good. Reference to ‘U.S. Gov’t records’ makes it feel all the more official.

‘Incredibly . . . Hanson was not the only one pocketing an enormous payment that day – nor did he collect the largest check.’

On and on it goes, nice big type, easy to read, who can resist?

It gives the example of another guy, Paul Lyons, whose ‘original $500 stake is now worth more than $500,000.’

Are you, by now, just DYING to get in on this? To send in your $49.50 for the secret?

Hang on . . . you haven’t even met Pinchot yet.

Finally, on the sixth page of this document (which is to say, page ‘2-b’), it comes clear – or at least partially clear – that the Pinchot Retirement Plan consists of investing in six timber companies. (Turns out, Gifford Pinchot was the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, 1905-1910, a pioneer in managing forestry assets.)

The first of the six timber companies is revealed. It is: Plum Creek Timber Company, which was first suggested here four years ago, at $26.50. (Today it is $40, plus the dividends you would have had along the way – please send me $49.50.)

Stripped of all the pizzazz, the Pinchot Retirement Plan is apparently no more than this: to buy stock in PCL and five other timber stocks, each paying about a 5% annual dividend (but quarterly, so that’s four checks from each of six companies, or – just as promised! – 24 dividend checks a year).

So let’s say you were a Wisconsin mill worker – or even a cleaning lady! – and you bought $100,000 worth of each of these six stocks with $600,000 you had set aside. At roughly 5% on all six, you would be receiving $30,000 a year in dividends! That’s $2,500 a month!

The letter never mentions ‘5%’ annual dividends. (It mentions ‘30% in dividends‘ Plum Creek would have paid you over the last four years; not the 4.2% a year that, at today’s $40 share price, it currently yields.)

And the letter certainly never mentions the sizeable amount of cash you’d have to invest to get dividend checks this big. That could be off-putting to someone who had $49.50 to buy the newsletter but not $600,000 to buy the stocks.

Instead of cash, it’s expressed in terms of shares (without saying what they cost).

‘If you owned 2,000 shares of each investment,’ the letter explains, ‘you would have collected $77,360 in payments’ – over two years.

Don’t we all usually think of the biannual return on our investments? Or our biannual salary? ‘What do you make over there?’ you ask your college buddy who’s just gone to work at Google. ‘I make $120,000 a two-years,’ she replies.

These guys are artists, I tell you!

(Meanwhile, just how Paul Lyons started with $500 and grew it to $500,000 with this plan is not disclosed.)

So is it worth $49.50 to find out the names of the other five timber companies? And for the rest of this outfit’s advice? (They claim to know of ‘a regular government bond that is now paying 11.6% interest a year.’ Astounding! I want some! Until you notice they never mention which government. Perhaps not ours? Oh.)

The bottom line to me is that, first, these guys sure know how to sell.

Second – assuming you only take whatever of their True Wealth newsletter advice is good – all you stand to lose is $49.50 (plus a further $79 for each subsequent year unless you cancel) – and even that $49.50 is fully refundable, they say, within the first six months.

This is more marketing artistry than con artistry, because – although their pitch is deceptive – it’s not as though they’re plotting to steal your house.

As to whether Plum Creek and the other five will continue to perform well – I hope so. I still own most of my Plum Creek. The long-term case for timber, I think, remains strong. But prices have come way up of late, and experts I know are selling; so this may actually not be the greatest time to start. Let alone with anything vaguely approaching 100% of your retirement assets, which is what this direct mail piece seems to be suggesting you do. (To me, 10% would be a more reasonable allocation.)

The mailer is filled with testimonials from people who have been thrilled with the success of True Wealth recommendations. If there are folks who’ve not done so well, I’m not sure, given the look and feel of this direct mail piece, they’d be included. But call 866-262-8199 if you want to sign up.

 

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