Diluted Thinking

in Australian healthcare

AVSN: Living Wisdom Scam

Introduction

This article highlights the failure of the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) / Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network Inc (AVSN) to publish magazines that have been prepaid by subscribers and promised to its members, and I attempt to calculate how much money the AVSN has received in failing to supply sold goods. As of December 2012, this amount is over $400,000.

The publication is called Living Wisdom and the publisher is the Australian Vaccination Network Inc. (now Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network Inc) Living Wisdom is sold on a subscription basis and is also supplied as part of membership. The AVSN advertises that a subscriber or AVSN member will receive six (6) issues per year, published bi-monthly. The editor of Living Wisdom is Meryl Dorey.

For the period January 2006 to 31 December 2012 the AVSN has accepted payment for fifteen (15) issues of its magazine that it has subsequently failed to supply. The Registry of Co-operatives and Associations, part of NSW Fair Trading, advised me on 3 August 2012:

I can confirm your concerns were considered by Fair Trading to determine whether the issues you have raised fall within the ambit of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL). It has been determined that, as the Association is registered under the Associations Incorporation Act 2009 as a not for profit entity, its activities are not caught by that legislation which essentially applies to trade and commerce activities.

If you are a subscriber or advertiser you may wish to take your own legal action pursuant to the contract/s you have with the Association.

Easy Money

The following table is a rough calculation of how much money the AVSN has received in failing to supply sold goods.

Key for table:

YearMembers#D#PCost.DCost.PLiabilityTotal
2006 - 1 missing issue
Individual22601$11$24,860
Basic Prof2403$11$7,920
Total 2006$32,780
2008 - 1 missing issue
Individual22351$11$24,585
Basic Prof2563$11$8,448
Other Prof910$11$990
Total 2008$34,023
2010 - 4 missing issues
Individual23231$8.33$77,402
Professional17711$8.33$12.50$14,747
Total 2010$92,149
2011 - 5 missing issues
Individual23161$8.33$96,461
Professional18411$8.33$12.50$19,163
Total 2011$115,624
2012 - 4 missing issues
Individual23121$8.33$77,035
Professional18811$8.33$12.50$15,664
Total 2012$92,699
Extra copies - professional members given 3 issues per quarter for display in their practices
2010 - 177 professional members, 2 missing issues (6 copies total)$13,275
2011 - 184 professional members, 3 missing issues (9 copies total)$20,700
2012 - 188 professional members, 2 missing issues (6 copies total)$14,100
Total extra copies$48,075
Total$415,350

Notes on the above table:

For 2012, I have assumed that the AVSN will not publish a magazine between now (29 Nov) and the end of the year.
Update: the AVSN failed to produce another magazine for 2012 and announced in January 2013 that Living Wisdom had ceased publication

I have assumed a static total membership of 2,500 per year. The AVSN do not as a matter of course publicise their membership or subscription figures, so I have used a figure from an AVSN newsletter in 2010 that stated the total subscription base of its magazine was "over 2,500". A media article Eye of the Needle (18 July 2009) states the AVSN had "more than 3,500 members".

The number of professional members for 2006 & 2008 was taken from past AVSN professional member lists published on the AVSN website, and for 2010-2012 from Living Wisdom magazine for the relevant years.

I have not included the extra digital issues professional members were entitled to from 2010 onwards as it is possible they were supplied.

The "Extra copies" were advertised in the professional member section in all issues of Living Wisdom published in 2010 to 2012. It stated that professional members would receive 3 issues per quarter for display in their practices. I think it reasonable to assume that a professional member would expect to receive a different issue each quarter.
I am unable to confirm whether or not professional members have ever received any of these extra copies.

The table does not include the cost to professional members of the AVSN failing to supply advertising that was owed to its professional members.

It is unknown whether or not the AVSN accepted advertising in issues that were never published.

NOTE: INCOME FROM MEMBERS-ONLY for magazines not supplied
Based on the lowest (best-guess) membership figures I can derive for the above years, the total for members-only may be around $120,000.
This 120K figure does not include magazines to subscribers, which for 2006 and 2008 is inaccurate, as not all members subscribed to the magazine. The table above uses 'total subscription base' of 2,500 that the AVN often stated. It also assumes that all individual members from 2010 onwards only received a digital copy. The "real" total is most likely to be higher than 120K.

Membership and Magazines (by year)

2006

Magazine: Informed Voice, four issues per year, published quarterly.
Published: Volume 4, issues #1, #2 and #3.

The AVSN failed to publish one issue in 2006.

Individual membership: $22
Magazine subscription: $44 (one hardcopy per issue)
Professional members: three hardcopies per issue

2007

The AVSN fulfilled its obligation of supplying four magazines in 2007, publishing Volume 4, issue #4 and Volume 5, issues #1, #2 and #3 of Informed Voice.

2008

Magazine: Informed Voice (later Living Wisdom), four issues per year, published quarterly.
Published: Informed Voice: Volume 5, issue #4 & Volume 6, issue #1; Living Wisdom: issue #1

The AVSN failed to publish one issue in 2008.

Individual membership: $22
Magazine subscription: $44 (one hardcopy per issue)
Membership + subscription: $66 (one hardcopy per issue)
Basic Professional members: three hardcopies per issue
Other Professional members: ten hardcopies per issue

2009

The AVSN fulfilled its obligation of supplying four magazines in 2009, publishing issues #2 through to #5 of Living Wisdom.

2010

Magazine: Living Wisdom, six issues per year, published bimonthly.
Published: issues #6 and #7.

The AVSN failed to publish four magazines in 2010.

Individual members: $50 (one digital copy per issue)
Individual members: $75 (one hardcopy per issue)
Individual subscribers: prices as above per digital or hardcopy versions.
Professional members (all categories): one digital copy per issue; one hardcopy per issue; ten digital copies to give-away.

2011

Magazine: Living Wisdom, six issues per year, published bimonthly.
Published: issue #8.

The AVSN failed to publish five magazines in 2011.

Membership as per 2010.

2012

Magazine: Living Wisdom, six issues per year, published bimonthly.
Published: issues #9 and #10.

The AVSN failed to publish four magazines in 2012.

Membership as per 2010.

Stockists

As of November 2012, subscription to Living Wisdom is only available from two Australian outlets; the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network and Zinio (online magazine store).

Australian online stockists that have stopped selling subscriptions to Living Wisdom include:

There are still online directory and price comparison sites listing Living Wisdom for sale, but the links to purchase the magazine go to sites where it is no longer available.

It is important to note that the AVSN has not been impeded in selling published magazines. It is subscriptions to yet to be published magazines that is a major cause of concern to consumers. The sites listed above are being legally and ethically responsible in not selling magazines that are never published.

AVSN Misleading Consumers

The AVSN has continuously advertised subscriptions to Living Wisdom, at six copies per year, since January 2010. Not one of these advertisements has ever mentioned the AVN's failure to supply the magazine, or that there were outstanding issues to be published. The AVSN's rare acknowledgement of missing issues has been generally described in terms of "an issue being late" with no mention of the previous issues that had not been published.

Living Wisdom issue 8

Issue 8 was published in August 2011; the only magazine the AVN published that year. The previous magazine published was issue 7 in June 2010.

From AVSN e-newsletter dated 12 October 2010:

"As you are probably aware, we are very late in bringing out issue 8. We hope to have this magazine to the printer in the next 3-4 weeks and we do apologise for the delay. Nobody will miss out on their magazines - if you were entitled to 6 copies , you will still get 6 copies - they will just be a bit later than we had hoped they'd be."
From AVSN e-newsletter dated 20 October 2010:
"Last week, I notified everyone that our next issue of Living Wisdom would be going to the printer in 3 weeks' time. Unfortunately, this will be a bit longer. Our graphic designer's computer failed and after trying for a week to get it working, the bullet has been bitten and a new computer ordered. This has caused a further delay in publication which we apologise for but the new computer has been received and work is moving forward now.

If your membership is about to expire or has recently expired, please do renew your membership now to get Living Wisdom either as a digital publication ($50 AUD a year no matter where you live) or in hard copy ($75.00 within Australia - discounts available for 2 year and 3 year memberships - other options available - click here for the full range of membership choices)."

Incredibly, the above message was repeated verbatim 4 weeks later in another e-newsletter on 15 November 2012.

Living Wisdom issue 8 was eventually published - in August 2011, TEN MONTHS after the AVSN initially advised consumers that it was only a matter of weeks away and to renew or take out a membership to receive six copies a year.

By August 2011 the AVSN should have published issue 15.

AVSN members & subscribers

We have seen a few consumers make public requests of the AVSN for information about their missing magazines, enquiring when the next issue would be published, and we note the AVSN's failure to respond to their requests.

In February 2011, a consumer made this public request to the AVSN's Facebook page:

"Hi, I have been emailing you with no responses back at this time. I need to know when my subscription is due and when the next Living Wisdom is coming out. Can someone please get back to me! Thanks!"

On 8 March 2011, a prospective subscriber asked Meryl Dorey the following question in the comments section on a website featuring an article about the AVSN:

"How do we get the magazine and when does it come out?"
On 9 March 2011, Meryl Dorey responded:
"The magazine comes out bi-monthly and the next issue which is very late should be back from the printer within 3 weeks' time."

By "very late" she means 9 months since the last magazine was published, which this prospective subscriber had a right to know. Dorey also failed to mention the number of issues the AVSN had failed to publish, giving this prospective subscriber the impression that only one issue was late, instead of informing her that FIVE (5) issues were now long overdue. The magazine that was in the process of being printed and would be ready in weeks according to Dorey, was not actually published until August 2011, five months later.

In November 2011, a subscriber posted this message to the AVSN Facebook page (excerpt):

"I subscribed in August and am yet to receive my magazine despite numerous phone calls, voice messages and about 8 emails following up - none of which have had a reply ...

... however, am very disappointed in the complete lack of response and the fact that I have paid for a magazine subscription and never received it."

Just 2 months later, AVN e-newsletter dated 9 January 2012 states:
"To date, we have not had one AVN member or subscriber complain about the delays in the magazine production. Indeed, there has been a steady stream of subscribers who have contacted me over the past few months, telling me that they really could not care less about whether or not they get their magazine. They have even suggested changing the AVN membership to an annual fee and if they get magazines, fine. If not, also fine."
Once again, the AVSN acknowledge "delays" without providing the details necessary for a consumer to make an informed choice about purchasing a subscription to their magazine. In January 2012, the AVN should have been getting issue 18 ready for publication. Living Wisdom issue 8 was still the last magazine published at this point in time. The AVN's not so subtle message that consumers should care less about whether they receive goods they've paid for is, in my opinion, contemptuous.

Making Excuses

From AVSN e-newsletter dated 9 January 2012:
"But back to the magazines. What SAVN doesn't realise is that our membership and subscriptions are tied to a specific number of magazines. So if someone renews their membership or subscribes for 6 issues, their membership of subscription doesn't expire until they have received 6 issues. This means in effect that any loss is borne by the AVN as members have not been expected to renew until all designated magazines have been delivered."
However, the AVSN Yahoo! group file membership message, dated 8 January 2012 states the following:
Membership / Subscription entitles you to:
* 6 editions of Living Wisdom magazine each year. (for both members and subscribers)
All other AVSN advertising for Living Wisdom at this time stated that members and subscribers will receive 6 issues per year, and the AVSN had been consistent throughout this whole period in asking people to renew their memberships and subscriptions.

It is worth noting the following:

Shifting the Blame

In an article written by Prof Brian Martin, published 3 December 2012, it is claimed that the AVSN refused to take on new advertisers for Living Wisdom issue 8 (published August 2011) to protect advertisers from harassment. I am unaware of any advertiser acknowledging that they have been harassed for advertising with the AVSN. It is interesting to note that in January 2012, the following excuses were offered for the delay in Living Wisdom with not a single mention of advertisers being harassed.

From AVSN e-newsletter dated 9 January 2012:

You would know - and I have been quite open about this - that Living Wisdom magazine is very delayed in its publication. And there is good reason for this. Here are just some of the jobs that are necessary, day-to-day for the AVN to continue operating:
  • answering all phone calls;
  • entering all orders;
  • keeping the accounting programme up to date and reconciling all accounts;
  • sending out all orders;
  • writing the blog;
  • maintaining the Facebook and Twitter sites;
  • producing this e-newsletter;
  • moderating and contributing to the email discussion group;
  • organising regular seminars (arranging venues, accommodation, transport, slides, advertising, etc);
  • preparing webinars; and
  • assisting an ever-increasing number of people who are in legal strife because of their vaccination decisions (more about this later on)
Previously, we had 5 people in our office to perform these jobs - a graphic designer, a bookkeeper/office manager, her assistant, an advertising salesperson plus me. Now, there is just one person to keep it all under control - me. When it comes to the day-to-day work of the AVN, there is nobody else besides me to do the job...

I also note that in contradiction to Meryl Dorey's statement that she has been "quite open about this", she has never acknowledged the number of magazines that the AVSN has failed to publish and, once again, she fails to do so here. We must remember that not all magazine subscribers receive AVSN enewsletters and it is highly unlikely that new or prospective magazine subscribers would be aware of any delay with publication.

The claim by Meryl Dorey that she sought to protect advertisers from harassment is disingenuous and a transparent attempt to shift the blame of the AVSN's failings onto others. First of all, there is no verified account of any advertisers being harassed in the past. And most importantly, I'd like to meet the salesperson who could successfully sell advertising in a bi-monthly magazine that had not been published in over a year. I think the most likely scenario is advertisers protecting themselves from a possible scam than the AVSN pretending to protect advertisers.

What we can see here is Meryl Dorey openly admitting that the AVSN is unable to fulfil its obligation to supply Living Wisdom yet the AVSN continue, to this day, to advertise and sell memberships and subscriptions of six magazines per year without any mention of delays or the number of past issues still awaiting publication.

What Can Be Done?

Apparently nothing. NSW Fair Trading has confirmed that the AVSN does not fall under Australian Consumer Law, therefore disgruntled consumers are left with the only option of taking civil action against the AVSN.

On a hypothetical note, if you are thinking about setting up a scam to rip-off consumers, do consider registering a not-for-profit incorporated association in New South Wales.

Update: 13 January 2013

On 12 January 2013 the AVSN announced that Living Wisdom magazine was being discontinued. Please refer to my post Living Wisdom Ceases Publication