Be your own boss. Work just a few hours a week. Fill your pockets with cash as profits roll in.

It's an enticing pitch, and one that has kept a California company in business for more than two decades, selling vending-machine ventures to would-be entrepreneurs.

But Planet Antares, which will host a three-day conference in Charleston today through Sunday, also has drawn complaints from dissatisfied customers who claim the company misrepresents the profit potential and the ease of placing vending machines in money-making locations.

In 1996, Antares and a sister company paid $1 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges of misrepresenting the earning potential of prospective distributors and using "shills" as references. The companies admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.

The Better Business Bureau has urged consumers to use caution before making investments through the Culver City, Calif., company. Still, the BBB upgraded Planet Antares' status last week from an unsatisfactory "D" rating to a "C-," which is considered "acceptable."

The bureau has received 40 complaints against the company over the past three years, most of which have been resolved, according to the BBB's Web site.

In a submission to the FTC last year, Planet Antares billed itself as the nation's largest seller of opportunities to invest in the business of promoting, placing and operating vending machines.

The company has done business under a host of names over the years, including Antares Corp., Orion Products Corp., Natural Choice-USA and Financial Freedom. The conference, at the Charleston Marriott on Lockwood Drive, is being promoted by Wealth Builders, another Antares brand.

Planet Antares' literature describes how the company has helped families across America discover the path to "fast and easy cash" through home-based vending machine business opportunities.

"Less than 1 percent of the distributors whom Planet Antares has ever put into business ever write to the company or to outside agencies requesting a refund of their money for any reason," Lisa Printz, Planet Antares' director of presentations, said in an e-mail to The Post and Courier.

Planet Antares would not provide Watchdog with any references for successful distributors who could talk about their experience with the company. Printz said the company wanted to protect the privacy and safety of those involved in this all-cash business.

Leslee Mays of West Ashley remains skeptical. She contacted Watchdog after receiving a glossy invitation to the Charleston presentation, complete with a picture of hundred-dollar bills and testimonials about the "amazing money-making opportunity" vending machines represent.

"Leslee, you CAN have it all ... The time, the freedom and the lifestyle you have always dreamed of!" the invitation stated, adding that "collecting your cash is just about all you do!"

Mays said she was suspicious from the start, and grew more so after reading up on Antares' past problems. Brian Allen, senior director of government affairs for the Chicago-based National Automatic Merchandising Association, said "get-rich-quick schemes" involving vending machines have been around for decades.

While vending can be a lucrative enterprise for large, established companies, it is a highly competitive industry that can be tough to break into for newcomers, he said. Total operating profits generally run around 4 percent, before taxes are figured in, he said.

"People are led to believe that they can make a lot of money quickly without doing much work, and that's just not the case in the vending industry," Allen said. "It's not an easy industry to find a profitable place in."

In the 1996 cases, the FTC accused Antares Corp. and Venice, Calif.-based Orion Products of misrepresenting the potential profitability of their vending machine distributorships and success of their program to help vendors find locations for the machines.

The companies, which had the same president, were operating as Natural Choice USA, the FTC said.

Some distributors paid over $60,000 for the companies' vending machine opportunities, relying on claims that they would gross as much as $2,800 a year per snack machine, and $5,000 a year per beverage machine, the FTC said.

The FTC said the companies also told prospective distributors that they would find locations for their vending machines quickly and easily, sometimes in less than two months.

Under the settlement agreement with the FTC, the companies were barred from making false statements about the machines' earning potential. The FTC also required that people giving testimonials to prospective buyers be actual distributors.

Printz said Planet Antares openly discusses the settlement at each of its business presentations. She said the company has operated successfully for the past 12 years without further complaints from the FTC. The federal agency confirmed that.

Printz said the company makes no claims to consumers about potential revenues or profits. "An individual's earnings is based largely on their short-term goals and the amount of time they have to invest in the business," she stated.

Still, the company's literature and Web sites suggest there is "ample" cash to be made through "these amazing money machines."

"Literally thousands of people just like you are already making money as fast as they can count it through this $40 billion-dollar industry," a company Web site states.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com.