Though it tries to fly below the radar, fast-growing Vertrue is building a name for itself, and not an entirely complimentary one at that.
In a recent column, Washington Post consumer reporter Don Oldenberg writes that an increasing number of his readers report getting burned by the so-called "buying clubs" operated by Vertrue, based in Stamford, Connecticut. He writes of consumers' realization that they are being charged each month for "services" they never heard of and clearly don't want.
The initial confusion quickly gives way to something else.
"And, then, anger wells into consumer outrage when you discover that you hadn't noticed the same stinkin' $9.95 charge from the same suspect company on your statement the month before, and the month before that, and . . . well, you get the idea," Oldenberg wrote.
Being Washingtonians, Washington Post readers pride themselves on their savvy and intelligence, and several told the columnist they can't believe they were asleep at the switch. One reader discovered small monthly charges going back two years on his credit card, totaling $406.
Oldenberg says his calls to Vertrue for an explanation went unreturned, but in the past the company has always maintained that a) people signed up for whatever they were charged for and b) if they want to cancel, they can.
But consumers say reaching the right person to terminate the "agreement" is often difficult and that getting a refund for the months of unnoticed charges is nearly impossible.
What is it, exactly, they're being charged for? The company's products consist mainly of discount membership clubs, entitling the member to discounts on clothing, travel, home improvement items, etc. Think of those merchant discount books that many non-profit groups peddle door to door to raise money and you get the idea.
How do consumers become ensnared in these buying clubs? Almost always through "negative option" marketing techniques, in which a retail merchant, telemarketer or pop-up Internet ad offers some free item.
Unless the consumer carefully reads all disclaimers, they might not learn that their acceptance has enrolled them in an ongoing "member benefits" program which will automatically be charged to their credit card. You see, these "negative option" offers almost always follow a transaction in which the consumer has used their credit card.
Vertrue's history and evolution have been recounted by ConsumerAffairs.com, which has logged more than 250 complaints about the company and many more about Vertrue schemes proferred under different names, like Victoria's Secret Escapes.
Various state attorneys general have taken action against the company. Each time the company has settled charges with a state attorney general, it says it has cleaned up its act and that its previous behavior is not relevant to the present.