If you're one of those unfortunate souls who've found unauthorized charges on your credit card from programs like AutoAdvantage - a "trial offer" that ends up being billed to your account repeatedly without your consent - then you may already be at least familiar with Trilegiant.
The Norwalk, Connecticut-based direct marketing firm has found itself the target of a lawsuit brought by the California Attorney General's office. The suit alleges that Trilegiant, along with Chase Bank, deceived hundreds of California consumers through fraudulent billing practices designed to confuse them into signing up for unwanted services.
Besides its "services," Trilegiant is heavily involved in the loyalty program industry, through its Trilegiant Loyalty Solutions division, based in Richmond, Virginia. The company's Web site boasts of selling its "Loyalty" as a product, with "25 billion [gift card] points redeemed since 2004 alone."
Trilegiant is an offshoot, subsidiary or affiliate (it's hard to tell which) of the Cendant corporation, a major player in the travel and real estate markets, and also involved in national security via the failed "CAPPS II" airline passenger identification system.
Travel offers, loyalty cards, airline fares - Trilegiant seems to be everywhere. And as is often the case, there is far too little in the way of public disclosure of what this company is actually doing with the information it collects.
What's In A Name?
Trilegiant, to the casual observer, is a straightforward enterprise with clearly obtainable business information, not to mention a very slick Web site. However, the company does or has done business under literally dozens of different names or promotions. Even tracing the links between Trilegiant and Cendant can bog the curious down in a mass of corporate doublespeak.
Trilegiant's direct marketing businesses include the aforementioned AutoAdvantage, GreatFun, IdentitySecure, and PrivacyGuard. (For a more complete list of Trilegiant's many aliases, visit ConsumerAffairs.com's Trilegiant complaint page.
The PrivacyGuard product is a suite of tools that consumers can ostensibly use to protect their credit, for a "low" monthly debit of $11.99. PrivacyGuard markets its solutions to numerous banks, institutions, and universities, while collecting subscribers' information to share among its many "preferred partners", many of which are also subsidiaries of Cendant.
In a properly ironic twist, Trilegiant hired con-man-turned-FBI consultant Frank Abagnale as its spokesman for PrivacyGuard.
Trilegiant is billed by Cendant's public relations department as a "successor" to its membership and marketing services, but it is still listed as a subsidiary or "branch" business on the main Cendant Web site. Press reports that discuss the Trilegiant/Cendant relationship variously characterize the companies as corporate parent and spinoff, independent business partners, or full-blown subsidiaries.
Cendant itself owns or has holdings in so many companies that it creates a dizzyingly vast web of partnerships to share information with. You can book a flight on Cheaptickets.com, rent your car from Budget, and stay at the Ramada Inn -- all Cendant brands or businesses, and all of which can leave customers open to targeted offers from the Cendant Marketing Group, which includes Progeny Marketing Solutions as well as Trilegiant.
In a 2004 press release from Progeny, Cendant reaffirmed its relationship with Trilegiant through "Cendant Marketing Group, a new entity to coordinate the activities of its two direct marketing units."
And what does Trilegiant do with your information once it's provided? That's where its "loyalty enhancement" programs come in.
Trilegiant takes great pride in its multiple methods of collecting consumer information for marketing and business purposes. Trilegiant's "Loyalty Marketing" division offers third-party solutions for businesses and retailers to build customer loyalty, including their "Discount Shopping" and "Buyer Reward" programs.
The company deliberately crafts marketing solutions for differing socioeconomic groups, ranging from the "sub-prime" (low-income) market to the most valuable "super-prime" (wealthy) customers. Interestingly, the company's marketing materials for their product line are exactly the same, making one wonder how it differentiates between customer groups when soliciting for new memberships.
Trilegiant's many partners include the major players in the credit and finance industry, such as J.P. Morgan Chase. Chase Bank prominently advertises several Trilegiant companies as "preferred services", including AutoAdvantage, ShoppersAdvantage and TravelersAdvantage.
In much smaller type at the bottom of each page, Chase states that "Chase Manhattan Bank USA, N.A. is not affiliated with or responsible for Shoppers Advantage or Trilegiant Corporation."
Each of these membership clubs offers a two-month $1 trial of its services, after which the user will be billed at an annual rate of $89.99 unless they call in and cancel the service during the trial period. However, direct mail solicitations from Chase did not explicitly state these terms.
Instead, Chase customers received checks as "rewards" for their loyalty in the mail, along with solicitations for Trilegiant's discount services. Cashing the checks would automatically sign them up for a regular membership with these companies unless they called to cancel the membership within 30 days - none of which was very prominently explained in the direct mail solicitation.
This same principle was applied to Trilegiant's partnership with the Experian credit reporting agency. Formed in 2002, Experian and its subsidiary company, ConsumerInfo.com agreed to share their credit reports, for use with Trilegiant's PrivacyGuard product, as well as "maintenance and hosting of all credit-related Web sites for Trilegiant."
ConsumerInfo.com's sites, such as FreeCreditReport.com, are notorious for advertising "free" trials of services, only to bill buyers at a regular rate each month unless they call and cancel.
Trilegiant's most audacious gambit involved combining an airplane security solution with gathering market information.
In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) came under intense scrutiny for its proposed "Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System", or CAPPS II.
The system was criticized for collecting an exhaustive amount of information on potential airline passengers via computerized reservation systems (CRS), which could then be stored or sold without any restriction. The CRS system designed as the backbone of CAPPS II came from a company called Galileo International, a subsidiary company of - you guessed it - Cendant, and partner to Trilegiant.
As privacy advocate Bill Scannell put it, "Galileo can sell or trade your dossier to whomever they wish," with the leading candidates being Cendant's many travel-related enterprises. After a massive public outcry, DHS scrapped the CAPPS II program, but has since pushed to implement a similar initiative called "Secured Flight."
As for Galileo, it recently renewed a partnership contract with World Travel Service to provide, as the press release puts it, "development of technology solutions and vendor relationships essential to our success."
Where, it must be asked, does the consumer fit into this tangled web of "vendor relationships?"
Trouble In Paradise ... and Connecticut
On July 12th, California's Attorney General, Bill Lockyer, filed suit against Chase Bank and Trilegiant for their "deceptive billing practices" relating to the bundled offers to Chase customers. Lockyer accused the companies of preying on the elderly and customers with limited grasp of English, in order to continue their "unsavory schemes."
About the same time, after 500 complaints to their office and a reputed two-year investigation (plus nearly 2000 complaints to the Connecticut Better Business Bureau), Connecticut's own Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, announced his office was launching its own lawsuit against the corporation in conjunction with the state's Department of Consumer Protection.
"Trilegiant uses 'Advantage' to name its clubs but the only real advantage goes to Trilegiant," Blumenthal said. "My office has intervened on behalf of hundreds of consumers, but Trilegiant persisted in its predatory enrollment practices over and over again. We're investigating involvement of other companies credit card issuers and national banks that may be knowingly aiding this scheme."
Trilegiant had already paid $400,000 to the state of Florida in March of 2005 to settle similar claims out of court, but its legal woes may be just beginning. Several law firms say they are compiling evidence to be used in class action lawsuits.
In a perhaps-not-unrelated development, Cendant has indicated that it plans to sell its marketing division (which handles Trilegiant and its "sibling", Progeny) "in order to focus on travel and real estate." Skeptics say this sounds similar to the many government and corporate executives who find themselves in dicey situations, then promptly resign to "spend more time with their families."
Whatever the true state of affairs, it would appear that Trilegiant's "loyalty solutions" do not extend to maintaining its troubled relationship with its corporate parent.
If the complex house of cards begins to wobble, there'll be few tears shed by consumers. As one ConsumerAffairs.com complainant put it: "[This is] a huge annoyance and [possible]credit card fraud. I want this corporation stopped. How many more people like me are out there and don't know that they are being scammed?"