A class action lawsuit charges that the Banfield Pet Hospital finds ways to upsell unnecessary services, wiping out the discounts it offers under its "Optimum Wellness Plan," which covers more than 1 million pets nationwide.
Banfield outlets are located in PetSmart stores although Banfield is owned mostly by candy giant Mars, which makes Pedigree and Whiskas pet food as well as M&Ms, Skittles and other candies, according to the suit.
"Banfield aggressively markets, advertises and sells the plans that purport to offer deep savings and discounts for preventative pet care services and related pet care products," lead plaintiff Gregory Pero says in the lawsuit, Courthouse News Service reported.
But Banfield "does not provide the promised savings and discounts under its plan, and Banfield upsells unnecessary pet care to its clients," Pero alleges.
Banfield charges a one-time membership fee of $49.95 in addition to monthly payments that, for an adult dog, come to nearly $32 for the cheapest plan. These costs supposedly entitle pet owners to savings with each visit or monthly, but hide what Pero calls "the warped service assumptions and inflated pricing scheme on which the purported savings and discounts are based."
Some pet owners pay even more than that and say they still run up huge bills when they take their pet to Banfield, as Suellen of Everett, Mass., told ConsumerAffairs yesterday.
"First of all, they are taking some serious money out of my account. Even when I don't even take the dog to the vet they are still taking $100 out of my account every month! A rip off!" she said. "And when I take him to the vet they will still charge me for their 'extras' that should be included in the plan!"
Not easy to quit
Like many others we've heard from, Suellen wants to get out of the plan but says she faces a big penalty payment if she does.
"I don't recommend people to join this plan of theirs. And now that I want to cancel this plan of theirs, they want to charge me like $800.00!" she said.
Nick of Seneca, S.C., said his dog Lucky had to be euthanized in September. He tried to call Banfield to cancel the wellness plan but couldn't get through. He then filled out an online form but couldn't submit because "apparently they did not like my answers," he told ConsumerAffairs.
"I finally got into queue and waited for over 30 minutes when my phone went dead. I called again, waited and got to talk to a person. I was very disappointed as to what I heard and it essentially amounted to that the plan cannot be cancelled unless it's paid off in full for the remaining 10 months or so," Nick reported.
"When I dug up their enrollment documents from 2006, in the "Additional Terms & Conditions" it reads, in a convoluted way, that the plan renews automatically (no notification) and that it is virtually impossible to cancel.
Since I may have to pay their fees for the next 10 months and in case I forget, for even a longer period because of the automatic renewal," he said.
"I find it despicable for Banfield to use such self-serving language," Nick said.
Normally, we'd advise Nick and others in his situation to send in his cancellation immediately and to be sure to send it via certified mail or whatever method is specified in the contract. But Katie of Lewisville, Texas, says she encountered a Catch-22 when trying to cancel her plan early.
Katie said she made it clear she didn't want her one-year plan to renew because she planned to move at the end of the first year.
"Months later, I see that I'm still being charged by Banfield and call to see if [my cat] is still enrolled. Which she was. After making a one-hour call to the corporate headquarters, they finally cancelled her plan and refunded me one month's payment. ... They claimed I requested that the plan not auto-renew EARLY, a technicality."
Ready to do battle
Many consumers have had even worse experiences. Cynthia of Colorado Springs, whose sergeant major husband is currently deployed on his ninth combat mission, is ready to go to war with Banfield.
"We purchased the 'Wellness Plan' because we love our schnauzer just as if he were human. ... When my father had a heart attack and my husband was on his eighth combat tour, I had no choice but to travel by car to see [my father] as I could not kennel my "child."
Because she was in Texas visiting her father, she missed an appointment for Padre, the schnauzer, to get a booster shot under the wellness plan.
"When I contacted Banfield to notify that location that I would not be available for Padre's booster shot, I was NEVER told that if I missed that appointment I would have to PAY to start over on that vaccination. Why would I when I am in their Wellness Plan and pay EVERY month?"
Cynthia said that when she returned to Colorado Springs, a Banfield employee told her: "We do not care if your father was in ICU and almost died, that is not our problem! You HAVE to pay for the entire shot process over again because YOU failed to comply with our Optimum plan."
I was stunned and told her that I would not pay again as I have been nothing but a loyal and respectful customer and then I said this: "If you ever say anything so stupid to me or another client again, not only will I attempt to have you removed from your job but I will go on the news and tell them how Banfield treats their military families."
Cynthia said her attempts to resign from the wellness plan and get a refund for the $300 she has paid so far have been unsuccessful.
Colorado Springs may be turning into a hotbed of anti-Banfield sentiment.
"I took my female dog to Banfield to get an exam and see if the vet could palpate her abdomen to determine if she is pregnant," another Colorado Springs pet owner, also named Cynthia, said. "The girl on the front desk told me they won't be able to do that since only experienced vets have that knowledge and they don't have any!"
Suit echoes complaints
Pero's suit echoes many of the complaints pet lovers have submitted to ConsumerAffairs.
"Banfield promises that plan customers always get the services they pay for, and Banfield advertises deep savings at every visit and during each month the client owns a plan. In reality, the savings begin to evaporate when the client does not need or cannot use one or more of the bundled products or services under the plan. Moreover, the advertised savings cannot be achieved each visit or each month as Banfield effectively represents," the suit alleges. "Rather, the client first would need to use an uncertain number and variety of Banfield pet care products and services over the course of an entire plan year. Meanwhile, Banfield overstates its regular fees and tacks on miscellaneous fees and markups, which misrepresents the ultimate savings and discounts earned by clients."
Pero seeks class certification and damages unfair business practices, consumer law violations, fraud and intentional misrepresentation. He also wants Banfield barred from promoting its wellness plans, restitution, and declaratory judgment that customers may cancel their plans without penalty.
He is represented by Lee Gordon with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, in Pasadena.