This aired 02/23/2012
I started this inquiary
WESTERVILLE, Ohio -- The following is an exact transcript of NBC4's report as it aired on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. You may be a victim and not even know it. If you shop online, youve probably seen the pop-up boxes that appear, offering rebates or discounts on your purchase. Just sign up for a free trial offer for one thing or another and the savings is yours. But Washington lawmakers and consumer attorneys say the companies behind those pop-ups are luring millions of customers into paying for membership programs that they didnt realize theyd enrolled in.
NBC4 has been investigating and reporter Ted Hart is digging deeper into Central Ohios connection to this business of deception. It can start with something as simple as booking a hotel room online, ordering flowers, renting a car, buying movie tickets or buying one of those TV products. When you do call now for the Slice-O-Matic, you end up navigating a complicated telephone obstacle course to order the device and then you get this: "Just for calling today, we'd like to thank you with $10 cash back on your Slice-O-Matic order just for trying our Everyday Savings Program for 30 days for $1."
Hart: So, for $1, I can get $10 back. Sounds good. I said yes. A lot of people do. But only then do they tell you that you're actually signing up for a recurring monthly charge of $14.99 for membership in this Everyday Savings Program. The series of questions on the call seem deliberately confusing. In fact, we somehow ended up with not just one or two, but three Slice-O-Matics. And what is Everyday Savings? It's one of more than a dozen different membership programs operated by a company called Affinion.
The memberships or clubs with names like Great Fun and Traveler's Advantage offer discounts to various products and services. The company has a large call center in Westerville where hundreds of representatives field literally thousands of phone calls every week. Rick Stevens, former employee: "If anybody was ever to listen to a majority of the calls that come through here, they would be horrified."
Former employee Rick Stevens says the vast majority of callers he spoke with say they did not knowingly sign up and for some, the charges caused significant hardship. Stevens: "I've had people call in and say, 'I can't pay my rent or my rent check bounced because you took $24.99 out of bank for the last six months." Drew Palmiter says he noticed charges for Great Fun on his Chase bank account and had no idea what it was or how he signed up.
He says he complained to both the bank and Affinion but the charges continued for 10 months. We encouraged him to call and demand answers. We were there when he made the call.
Call Center: "You signed up with us through a company called Priceline."
Call Center: "Yes, sir."
Palmiter: "Really? That was back in 2009. I made a hotel reservation or something and got signed up with you?"
Call Center: "Uh huh."
Priceline and dozens of other online retailers have allowed Affinion to insert a popup box into their checkout transaction offering cash back by signing up for one of the programs or clubs. A 2009 U.S. Senate investigation into the practice concluded, "the goal of these clubs was not to provide services, but to charge consumers' credit cards for as many months as possible before consumers discovered their memberships and canceled them."
The Senate report also described company, "policies intended to minimize the amount of money they would have to return to consumer who had inadvertently enrolled in the clubs." Jeff Leon is an attorney leading one of a number of class action lawsuits against Affinion.
Leon: "They'll make you jump through a lot of steps and take a lot of time, knowing that most consumers won't take the time to jump through all the steps and therefore they will have made money." Drew Palmiter kept jumping the hoops and Great Fun has now promised a refund, but he's still angry.
Palmiter: "Having these big collusion agreements with other big things like Priceline and Great Fun to take $11.99 out of someone's account monthly, who works for a living, and don't even realize they signed up for something. It's not right."
The company claims to have 180 million consumers enrolled in different programs. A spokesman talked to us by phone from company headquarters in Connecticut.
Hart: "The U.S. Senate report and a number of class action lawsuits out there nor clearly painting the picture that what your company is doing is deceptive, overly aggressive marketing and deceptive. What do you say to that?" Mike Bush, Affinion spokesman: "Ultimately, we were telling consumers six, seven, and eight times that we were going to bill them before we billed them. I don't know how you could lable that as misleading."
But Rick Stevens says the calls from consumers say otherwise. Stevens: "I think that they literally are stealing from people." And consumer attorney Jeff Leon agrees. Leon: "This isn't even a close call. This isn't a productive business activity. It's a business activity that is just trying to see how far the envelope can be pushed before somebody steps in and calls a stop to it."
This story came to us form a whistleblower who felt compelled to speak out about this issue. If you see signs of waste, fraud or abuse at your job, blow the whistle. Give us a call or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. There are things you can do to protect yourself. Check your credit card bills and bank statement monthly. Watch for unauthorized charges and dispute them right away. Be wary of any free trial offers. Watch your mail and email for notices that you will be billed unless you cancel.