If you get a letter telling you that your child is modeling material, think twice. Here's why.

OWEN DAVENPORT WAS barely five months old when he was discovered by the modeling industry.

In the summer of 2004, Owen's mom, Danielle Davenport of Blackwood, N.J., received a letter informing her that Owen had been brought to the attention of Kids.com, a talent-management company.

When she called for more information, she was invited to an interview at Kids.com's office in Cherry Hill, N.J. Davenport says a company representative sold her on the idea that little Owen's all-American looks would easily land him jobs as a model for baby products. "It was a very, very good pitch," the 25-year-old mother recalls. "They told us (children of) his age (were) in demand." The saleswoman showed her a thick folder of laminated magazine covers and ads featuring kids who had found work through the company.

Oh, and the $595 enrollment fee for a five-year contract? That was money that would be recouped quickly through modeling jobs, thought Davenport.

When she didn't hear from the company for six months after signing up, Davenport started to think something was amiss. She hit the web and found a site called Ripoffreport.com, which listed dozens of complaints regarding Kids.com from disgruntled parents. "Everyone had the same story," she says.

Davenport complained to the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau and the Consumer Affairs office in Camden County, N.J. She repeatedly called Kids.com to demand a refund. Finally, she got her money back with the help of the Consumer Affairs office. "I guess (Kids.com) didn't like the pressure they were put under, so I got my refund," she says. "But it took a lot to get it."

Was it a scam? Not exactly. Kids.com -- and other companies like it -- land some jobs for their clients. But in the past few months, consumer agencies in several states have issued consumer warnings against child-modeling outfits -- specifically those that demand upfront payment for services like Kids.com.

If you think you wouldn't fall for this ploy, don't be so sure. Proud parents are quick to believe their child has the talent and looks to become a star, and gladly pay hefty upfront sums in anticipation of greater paydays and glory. Thousands of parents have done so already.

Model Behavior?
Kids.com sends parents letters saying that their child has "recently come to our attention." The wording seems to imply that the child has been scouted. But those letters are typically sent with the children sight unseen. The company buys marketing lists from information brokers that contain names and addresses of families with newborns. Those lists are put together from contact information submitted to hospitals and department stores or through promotions, like sweepstakes. Letters invite parents to bring their child to an interview at the nearest Kids.com office.

"They play on new parents, and they're making a ton of money," says Daniela M., a 34-year-old New York mother who asked us not to disclose her last name. She took her five-month-old daughter to Kids.com this May, about a month after she received the letter. When she heard the price, she declined. "The minute they ask for even ten cents is when we pick up and we leave. One of my sister's daughters did some modeling, and the mother didn't pay anything."

The Better Business Bureau warns against modeling agencies or managers that:

1. Ask for upfront money, which may be called registration, consultation or administrative fees.

2. Pressure you to leave a check or cash deposit or sign a contract immediately.

3. Display pictures of famous models or celebrities on the walls to make you believe they are represented by that agency, although they're not.

4. Use names that sound similar to well-known agencies.

5. Place phony ads in the help-wanted section of newspapers that say something like "new faces wanted for commercials, movies or modeling," or claim that no experience is necessary.

Problems or complaints about an agent or an agency may be referred to the BBB, your state's Department of Licensing and Regulation or the consumer protection agency in the city or county where the company is located.

Jon Sorensen, a spokesman for the New York State Consumer Protection Board (CBA), which last month launched a campaign to educate parents on modeling and talent search rip-offs, agrees that upfront payment solicitation is a warning sign. "Legitimate agencies make money only when they find a job for the person," he says. "By linking their fee to a job, they have an incentive to actually find you a job." Companies that take your money upfront, he says, don't have any financial interest in doing so. Instead, their interest lies in signing on as many modeling hopefuls as possible.

Several weeks ago, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper barred one such company, Face National Models, from doing business in the state and ordered it to pay $135,000 in refunds to consumers. According to the attorney general's office, children made up a significant portion of its roster.

Face National Models' tactic: Invite modeling hopefuls to attend a screening where almost everyone makes the cut, and then sign up the hopefuls for a photo shoot at $600 a pop. Next, ask them to purchase at least $388 worth of photographs, known in the industry as "comp" cards. According to a statement issued by the attorney general, consumers were lead to believe that once they had the comp cards the company would land them modeling jobs making $150 an hour. But of the 8,000 customers who signed up, fewer than 800 received jobs -- generally promotional work handing out product samples at events for $15 an hour.

In a similar scenario, the New York State Consumer Protection Board issued a warning in April against a Pittsburgh-based company, Aquarian Associates, that held an open call to select participants for its "Great American Model Search" -- an event ostensibly attended by casting agents and talent scouts. The CPB alleges that, despite the company's assurance that only the most promising models and actors would be selected to participate, virtually everyone who showed up at the open call made the cut -- and was told that actual participation in the event would cost $525.

"Aquarian has had people who have found work through this process," Sorensen says. "But the vast majority of people don't."

But because at least some kids find work though agencies like this, you can't say these agencies are completely illegitimate. Linda Nally, a 35-year-old third-grade teacher in Jersey City, N.J., has had a great experience with Kids.com. Her three-year-old son Kevin was only 10 months old when he shot a commercial for Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) that still airs on primetime network television. Beside the initial pay, Kevin receives residual checks each time the commercial airs. "He has probably made $25,000 since the commercial was shot," Nally says. "He already has a college fund." And Nally's daughter, 15-month-old Dylan, has already shot two print commercials for Gap (GPS) and earned about $3,000. What Price Beauty?
Agencies that charge parents upfront for services rake in a lot of cash. Kids.com, for example, charges a $595 upfront fee for listing a child in its database for five years. (Once a child is listed, siblings can enroll for $99.) Since children change so quickly, Kids.com also requires that parents go in for new photographs every six months, at $20 for each sitting.

For that fee, Kids.com includes the child's snapshot in a searchable online database, which modeling agencies use when looking for talent. (Note the difference: Talent-management companies like Kids.com do not work directly with the end clients, like advertisers and movie producers. They feed talent to modeling agencies, which then communicate with the client.)

As a management company, Kids.com handles the paperwork associated with the modeling jobs a child may get. For that, it takes an additional 15% commission off the child's pay.

Kids.com's fees and business model have sparked controversy among consumer advocates since its inception. The company opened doors in 1999, when it bought the assets of National Talent Associates (NTA), a Fairfield, N.J.-based seller of child-modeling services. NTA had been shut down by the FTC several weeks earlier, accused of misrepresenting its ability to place children as models and entertainers, according to FTC documents. (The FTC issued its first complaints against NTA in 1974, followed by an order prohibiting misleading practices in 1975.)

Kids.com continued in the same line of business as NTA, acquired its customer list and kept using the same web site. According to its president Albert Bagwell, however, the company "changed its practices to the point where the FTC approved them." Now, the contracts that parents sign with Kids.com contain a capital-lettered clause that no guarantees are made for actual work.

According to Bagwell, there are close to 10,000 children signed up with the company, and last year alone, Kids.com contacted 9,500 parents about assignments. "Some got contacted more than once, some -- none," he says. "It depends on what the client wants." Last year, a lawsuit filed against Kids.com in Minnesota was dismissed for lack of evidence, when the judge found that out of 50 random contacts, 57% had been sent on auditions. Then again, that's no guarantee a child sent for an audition will land the job. Kids.com does not release a success rate.

How does Kids.com find jobs for its models? The company works with well-known talent agencies, Bagwell says, that scour its databases when looking for children to suit their clients' requirements. Among their most frequent clients: Ingrid French Management in New York, Big Mouth Talent in Chicago, Caryn Model & Talent Agency in Minneapolis, and one big New York City agency that asked us not to mention its name for competitive reasons. The two New York agencies are Kids.com's biggest clients. "We send them kids every day," Bagwell says.

Jane Blum, owner of FunnyFace Today, one of the oldest modeling agencies in New York, says about 25% of the kids they use are recruited through management companies, while the remainder are in-house talent (kids who have signed with the modeling agency itself, rather than a management firm). "It broadens our selection," she says. "When we work with the managers, we get more variety."

Blum says this is a situation of buyer beware. "Parents should be aware that they do not have to go through a manager, they do not have to sign contracts, they do not have to have professional pictures taken on the onset," she says. "If the parents feel like they're being scammed, then they should get out."

Still think your child can be a star? Here are some industry tips to help you tell a legitimate agency from a rip-off.

1. The manager or agency dilemma
There are two doors into the modeling world: a management company and a modeling agency. The benefit of working with a management company is that your child will get exposure to a number of different agencies. Presumably, they'll have a greater chance of getting jobs. The downside: You'll pay double commissions, one to the management company (typically 15% to 20%) and another to the agency (10% or 20%, depending on the type of work).

Unlike the management firms mentioned in this article, there are many talent managers who don't charge upfront fees. But since they make money only when the child gets money, they are much more selective about who they sign. "I interview 100 people and I take five. We're very selective," says Dona Mollo, owner of Long Island, N.Y.-based Mollo Management, whose former clients include Lindsay Lohan, David Gallagher and, currently, Maria Lark, who stars on NBC's new show "Medium."

Mollo says her company never solicits children -- via direct mail or any other medium. "There are so many children that come in all of our doors that there's no way that any legitimate agency will write you a letter," she says. "People contact me, I don't have to write a letter saying, 'Oh, I heard you're fabulous, come and see us.'"

2. Professional photographs not required
Professional photographs are expensive: In California, a photo shoot for a headshot costs about $275 for two forms of film, according to Jennifer Jorgl, owner of Generations Model and Talent Agency in San Francisco. Do that every six to eight months (kids change fast, so updates are recommended), and you might find yourself spending more on headshots than you're putting in your child's college savings fund.

Having professional photographs, however, is "certainly not a requirement to be considered by an agency," Jorgl says. "We're happy receiving snapshots." If your child starts getting a lot of work, then professional photographs may become necessary. Until then, cute snapshots with your digital camera should do just fine.

3. Pressure tactics
When parents walk into a Kids.com office, they're given a choice: Sign a contract now, or don't sign at all. According to Bagwell, potential customers aren't allowed to take the contract home to review before signing because that has lead to several companies, including New Jersey-based Ellen's Kids, to copy his business model.

The Better Business Bureau warns against companies that "pressure you to leave a check or cash deposit or sign a contract immediately. The agent may insist that you take acting lessons at a particular school or from a particular teacher; or may try to get you to buy expensive photographs, audition tapes, or other services or materials sold by someone he or she suggests. An agent's time should be spent finding work for his or her client, not selling products and services." (For more on this, click here.)