James Handy got the call Tuesday.

“I’m Mrs. Brannon from the learning center. Your son signed up for SAT study materials. They cost $199.

“What’s your credit card number?”

Handy, a Lewiston School Committee member, was wary. But the caller used his son’s name and the name of his school. She gave her own name, the Web site address for her learning center and a phone number. And she sounded like she was from Lewiston High School, or at least connected to it.

Besides, this was for his son’s education. For his future.

So Handy gave her his credit card number.

Turns out maybe he shouldn’t have.

The Finance Authority of Maine has alerted high school guidance counselors of similar calls targeting parents. It says the phone calls are suspicious.

Lewiston’s school system is going a step further, deeming the phone calls a scam.

“We’re trying to get the word out that parents should be very careful before they give out any information,” said Steve Clark, student services director at Lewiston High School. “We certainly are not signing kids up for anything that costs money or giving out names and addresses.”

The school system has posted scam warnings on its Web pages. It also plans to send a notice home to parents later this week.

But an owner of The SAT and ACT Test Prep Center, the Texas company making the calls, said his business is legitimate and the calls are coming from his education counselors in an effort to tell parents about a useful test-prep product. He said his representatives don’t mislead and are simply making a sales pitch.

“We have an entire quality-control department that listens to every single call,” said company co-owner John Miller. “I’m not going to say we haven’t had representatives that misrepresent, but I guarantee that it’s never been done to any standard. The second we catch them, we let them go. It’s just not worth doing business that way.”

However, over the past six months the Dallas Better Business Bureau has logged 24 complaints from parents in several states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Ohio. The company responded to and resolved only three of those complaints.

Consumer complaints are forwarded to the Better Business Bureau branch in the same region as the company in question, regardless of the customer’s location. One parent complained that she’d purchased the company’s test-prep material only to find a similar program available for less than $10 at Best Buy. Another parent said she’d given the company her credit card number to purchase a test-prep kit, and later found the company had used her card to charge $49.95 a month as an ongoing fee.

Several other parents lodged complaints similar to Handy’s – saying callers used the name of their child and the child’s school and led them to believe the child had signed up for test-prep materials or the school thought such materials were necessary.

Many times, the ploy worked.

“They had all that information, so it really struck me that, OK, this must be someone either connected with the school or from the school itself,” Handy said.

He later learned that his son never signed up for SAT prep, or even the SAT. He called the company Wednesday morning to cancel the order and was told the computer system was down and someone would call him back. When he called again that afternoon, he was told to leave a message. Handy plans to cancel payment through his credit card company if necessary.

Miller said his test prep company would be happy to refund customers’ money, as long as the purchase was made in the past 30 days and the test-prep kit was returned unopened.

He said his company gets students’ names and phone numbers when they sign up for test-prep information online or at a college fair. He said it also gets information from kids when they click on banner ads.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, has heard of similar test-prep phone sales over the years. It advises parents to consider free or low-cost test prep if they feel their children need it. Materials are available at The College Board’s Web site, through local high schools and at area libraries.

Spokeswoman Alana Klein said the best SAT preparation comes not from a kit but from paying attention in school.

“There are no tricks to the test,” she said. “It’s really about being a good student.”


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