As you complete an online transaction, you sometimes see a pop-up window that asks "Want to save $10 on this order?" Well, who wouldn't? So you click "Yes."
Somewhere there's some fine print that says, in exchange for that "discount," you have agreed to pay a whole lot more than $10, and the charge begins showing up on your next credit card bill. Nothing makes consumers angrier, and now the State of New York is investigating 22 popular sites that it says deceptively links unsuspecting consumers to fee-based membership programs that charge unauthorized fees.
At the same time, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said his office has also reached an agreement with online movie ticket retailer Fandango to end similar practices.
Cuomo's investigation has found that when consumers click on the discount or incentive banner, they are unknowingly directed to a membership program seller's Web page that is separate from the online retailer's site. The consumer is then instructed through large, colorful print and voice prompts to accept the discount or incentive.
Information about joining the membership program and its ramifications, including the fact that the consumer is agreeing to transfer his or her credit or debit card account information, is buried in fine print and cluttered text. Small and recurring charges then begin to appear on consumers' credit or debit card bills from unfamiliar companies. Because of the low dollar amount, the charges may go unnoticed for some time.
"This online scheme has impacted the finances and tried the patience of tens of millions of consumers nationwide," Cuomo said. "Well-known companies are tricking customers into accepting offers from third party vendors, which then siphon money from consumers' accounts. I commend Fandango for doing the right thing by ending the practice of sharing consumers' financial information with these discount club sellers. I expect the other businesses to follow Fandango's lead and adopt these reforms to protect consumers who shop online.
Cuomo has sent subpoenas to 22 well-known merchants that have deals with the three major companies that offer these discount programs, including Webloyalty, Affinion/Trilegiant and Vertrue.
The subpoenas seek information about retailers' practices of sharing consumers' account information with membership program companies; their knowledge of any deceptive solicitations; and compensation from the membership companies.
The merchants being investigated include Barnes & Noble, Orbitz.com, Buy.com, Ticketmaster.com, MovieTickets.com, FTD.com, Shutterfly.com, 1-800Flowers.com, Avon.com, Budget, Staples.com, Priceline.com, GMAC Mortgage, Classmates.com, Travelocity, Vistaprint, Intelius, Hotwire.com, Expedia/Hotels.com, Columbia House, Pizza Hut and Gamestop/EB Games.
Membership program companies enter into highly lucrative deals with the retailers and banks, which bring in millions of dollars in revenue when their customers click on deceptive incentives or become unknowingly enrolled. The three program sellers being investigated bring in revenues of more than $1 billion per year, much of which is amassed through fraud, Cuomo said. The scheme also takes place via postal mail: membership program sellers mail checks to consumers accompanied by solicitations branded with the name of the business or bank with which the consumer has transacted.
The consumers frequently do not realize that by cashing these checks, they are enrolling in a membership program with a monthly fee because the solicitations often create the false impression that consumers are being provided with the check as a rebate or reward for their past business. The fact that consumers are enrolling in a fee-based program for which they will incur monthly charges is only inconspicuously disclosed above the endorsement line on the check.
Consumers contacting ConsumerAffairs.com about these schemes often express anger, but also bewilderment.
"I don't really know," Estaban, of Milpitas, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com "I think I wanted to get my credit score on one of the free sites and all of a sudden I am receiving statement and am paying for it also. I have tried numerous times to close the account but have not been able to. I spoke to customer service and they said that my account was closed but I am still being billed."
Recently, Cuomo's Office intervened in a class-action lawsuit against Webloyalty to ensure that a settlement included full refunds to eligible customers who were scammed. Prior to the Attorney General's intervention, the settlement limited refunds to only two months.
As part of an agreement with Cuomo's Office, online movie ticket retailer Fandango has agreed to permanently end the practice of sharing customers' credit and debit card information to discount program sellers. It will also implement reforms to protect online shoppers from being deceived by discount and cash-back advertisements that appear on the company's Web site. Fandango will suspend contracts with any discount program sellers while it implements these changes, and the company will pay $400,000 into a consumer redress fund.