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PSST! Wanna Buy Your Name?

Don't Let Them Take Your Name in Vain!

A variety of companies sell mass-produced items for thousands of surnames. Among these are one-page "surname histories," products showing a coat of arms, and books that feature addresses of individuals who share the same last name. These items are offered by direct mail, sold in airports and shopping malls, and advertised in magazines.

Millions of people buy these products, hoping they will learn something about their own family histories. However, people with the same last name do not necessarily belong to the same family or share ancestors. Those who suggest that a mass-produced item is part of a customer's individual family background are misrepresenting genealogy and family history. The National Genealogical Society and the Federation of Genealogical Societies believe that there are four things you can--and should--do when you encounter any of these products.

  1. Be Alert!

    Read the offer carefully. Then--think twice.

    • Was the letter you received also sent to thousands of other people with the same last name?
    • Do you know many people who can afford to print and mail thousands of letters to sell a book on their family history?
    • Does the letter offer a family history, or....
    • Does it merely offer a list of addresses of people who have your surname, suggesting that you write to them to learn about your ancestry?
    • Does the advertisement offer a coat of arms for your last name? Coats of arms were first granted to individuals--not to surnames. Then, as now, the right to use these arms was inherited from one's father.
    • How could a company that has not researched your family tree know whether you have inherited the right to display a particular coat of arms?

  2. Return It!

    If you bought a surname product that you realize has nothing to do with you or your family, you have the right to return it for a refund. Here's how to do that:

    1. If you ordered it by mail, you can return it for a refund.
    2. Be sure to enclose your name and address, as well as a statement that you request a refund.
    3. At the Post Office, you should buy a "return receipt for merchandise."
    4. If you paid for the product by credit card, ask your card company for help getting a credit.
    5. If you have not received a refund within six weeks, call The National Consumers League at (800) 876-7060 (10:00 A.M.. to 5:00 P.M. EST) for advice. Or, you can write to them at:
      National Consumers League
      81515th Street, NW
      Washington, DC 20005
  3. Complain!

    It is illegal to conduct schemes or devices to obtain money through the U.S. mails by means of false representation. The legal citation is 39 U.S.C.93005. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service will investigate any companies that use the U.S. mails to misrepresent mass-produced surname books or coats of arms. But the Service needs to hear from you before it can take action! If you receive a solicitation that you believe misrepresents the product being offered, you should write to the Consumer Protection Division, describing the ways in which you believe the company that contacted you has engaged in false advertising. If you don't have time to write, simply replace the contents in the envelope, reseal it, and cross out your name and address. Then, forward it to:

    U.S. Postal Inspection Service
    Consumer Protection Division
    475 L'Enfant Plaza, SW
    Washington, DC 20260-1100
  4. Tell Others!

    It is important to let others know what genealogy is....and what it is not! Here are some ideas for your society to use:

    • Keep a file on products that misrepresent genealogy and heraldry
    • Contact the consumer news columnist of your newspaper, suggesting that he or she feature an article on this topic.
    • Sponsor a program on surname solicitations. Ask your members who have purchased surname products to give a short talk on their experiences.
    • Offer to speak to local service clubs about products masquerading as genealogy. You will not have to worry about libel if you stick to the facts and avoid specific name calling.
    • Encourage your community college to offer courses on genealogical research methods.



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