The world is a big place, and it has gotten big enough that many unscrupulous companies have realized that they can do business in an unethical way, pay out significant settlements to regulators, and still make massive profits.
This is not a new thing: in 1999, GM was ordered to pay $4.9 billion to six people severely burned when the fuel tank of their 1979 Chevrolet Malibu exploded after a rear-end collision. A Los Angeles judge later reduced the punitive damages to $1.2 billion, but let stand the $107 million awarded two women and four children for the pain and disfigurement they suffered in the rear-end collision.
The gas tank on the 1979 Malibu was only 11 inches from the rear bumper; in some earlier models it had been more than 20 inches away. He said the trial testimony showed that it would have cost General Motors $8.59 per vehicle for a safer design but that the company had decided it would be cheaper to settle any lawsuits that arose. Internal communication showed that a Oldsmobile engineer estimated that fuel-tank fires were costing G.M. only $2.40 per vehicle.
My wife recently booked a trip on JetBlue through CheapoAir, and included with her emailed itinerary was this little gem:
If you’re not looking closely, you won’t read the fine print, which clearly says it’s an advertisement, not an offer from CheapoAir or JetBlue.
Being the skeptic and armchair consumer advocate that I am, my alarm bells immediately went off and I started to do a little digging. Where I ended up was in the tunnel that leads straight to Hell.
My first stop was to look up Great Fun, to see what was being offered there. It’s a discount aggregator service, for which you pay a monthly fee of $19.95 per month, as specified on their sign-up page (emphasis theirs):
Simple and Secure Enrollment with Easy Billing and Continuous Savings.
I can try Great Fun from Trilegiant Corporation with the first month for only $1. With my authorization, the trial fee and, unless I call to cancel during my trial, the $19.99 monthly membership fee thereafter will be billed to the credit or debit card I provide. If I wish to cancel, I can call toll free 1-877-488-9480 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or click the cancel link on the Customer Care page at http://www.greatfunsite.com. I can cancel my benefits at any time and I will not be billed for any additional months. I will be notified of any price increase and may cancel my membership if I do not want to continue to be billed at the new price. Periodic communication may be sent to me via email and US Mail regarding my benefits. By entering my information and clicking “Yes, sign me up!”, I acknowledge that I have read and agree to these offer details and Terms & Conditions which I accessed by clicking below.
Note that the “Continuous billing” part is clearly spelled out. Don’t forget to read those Terms and Conditions that you are agreeing to. If you do, you’ll learn that Great Fun is a subsidiary of Trilegiant Corporation. More about them in a minute.
If you go to the Great Fun page, this is what you get if you have the WOT (Web of Trust) extension on your browser – I can’t recommend it highly enough:
The latest review, posted on 12-30-2014 by user pixwix states:
“Many online retailers direct people to this site with a promise of discount coupons. But in fact the site is only after credit card details leading to an expensive subscription. In my view, pure scam. The otherwise respectable commercial websites like MyMemory and others should be ashamed to place their customers at risk. “
I feel the same way about CheapoAir; they shouldn’t allow scummy marketers like this to sully their website. If things don’t look squirrely enough for you yet, let’s dig down to the next level.
Trilegiant Corporation is itself a subsidiary of the Affinion Group. Just head down to the complaints section of that article for an overview of the scumminess going back to at least 2005. The executive summary: very deceptive marketing practices, unholy alliances with banks and other companies like Budget to obtain customer credit card data, and deliberately poor customer service to avoid having to give refunds for unauthorized credit card charges.
Two of the pillars of this unethical way of doing business are
- Negative option billing, in which a customer agrees to have goods or services to be provided automatically, and the customer must either pay for the service or specifically decline it in advance of billing, and
- Preacquired Account Marketing, in which “Many of the nation’s largest financial institutions sell to direct marketers the right to charge their customers’ financial accounts. Major retailers, including well-known internet merchants, engage in the same practice by allowing direct marketers to charge the credit card or other accounts used by consumers to purchase goods or services from the retailers…The central thesis of the Article is that preacquired account marketing exists solely because it allows these sellers to sort out vulnerable consumers who pay for a service without their knowledge.” (From an abstract of an article by Prentiss Cox, University of Minnesota Law School, “The Invisible Hand of Preacquired Account Marketing.” The entire article is available at the link for download.)
A four-part series by Mr. Credit Card lays out in great detail how this scam works, and how Trilegiant (i.e. Affinion) used these tactics to generate millions if not billions of dollars from unwilling victims.
- Part 1 – Budget Rent A Car Gives Out Your Credit Card Number To Scammers
- Part 2 – More On Negative Option Billing and Preaquired Account Marketing
- Part 3 – Budget Has No Clue Which Credit Card They Are Giving Out To Scammers
- Part 4 – The Sad Truth About The Budget Trilegiant Scam
I highly recommend reading all of these articles if you want an in-depth view of how these bottom-feeders operate.
Back in 2007 or so, it was common for the clinic I assisted in managing to receive unsolicited checks from companies that had (in very faint, gray text above the endorsement line) wording like this:
“SIMPLY ENDORSE AND CASH OR DEPOSIT THIS CHECK AT ANY BANK TO AUTOMATICALLY ENROLL IN XXXXXX starting with thirty days free. Unless you call to cancel during this trial, XXXXXX will notify XXXXXXX, the issuer of your XXXXXX credit card, to bill the $9.99 monthly membership fee, or then-current fee, to your credit card each month, without your having to do anything further. You can cancel at any time after the trial period for a full refund of your current month’s paid membership fee. The $2.50 check is yours to keep.”
The above text is from the Georgia Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection; you can read another article about this deceptive practice at NBC’s Consumer Man. Deceptiveness like this is still legal, barely; if someone gives you a check for partial payment of the debt and writes on the back, “Endorsing this check constitutes payment in full and nullifies future claims against this debt,” you may be giving up your right to pursue further collection action. This is called restrictive endorsement, so be careful.
In October of 2013, Affinion settled with 47 states over their misleading practices, and agreed to a $19 million payout to provide refunds to consumers who were duped. But for a company this large, doing business under so many different names, that’s chump change – and written off as a cost of doing business.
A list of names associated with Affinion and Trilegiant:
Note: Affinion Group is an affinity marketing company in Stamford, Connecticut, and is currently composed of subsidiaries known as Trilegiant Corporation (TLG), Progeny Marketing Innovations, Affinion International, Affinion Loyalty Group, and Affinion Security Center. The company conducted business before 2005 under the names Benefit Consultants Inc., Cendant, CUC International, and Comp-U-Card. Affinion was formed in July 2005 and is a privately held company controlled by private equity concern, Apollo Management LP. The business’s assets were acquired from the Cendant Corporation (which changed its name to Avis Budget Group in August 2006). (From the Wikipedia article). It’s interesting to note that Affinion basically purchased and owns Avis Budget, which gives some insight in to how the Budget scam mentioned above was so easily perpetrated.
- AOL AutoVantage
- AOL Credit Alert
- AOL Netmarket
- AOL Travelers Advantage
- Buyers Advantage
- Clever Clubhouse
- Credentials Services
- Dental Plus Group Plan
- Digital ProtectionPlus
- Dinner On Us Club
- Family FunSaver Club
- Great Fun
- Great Options
- Health Saver
- Homeowners Savings Network
- Identity Secure
- Just For Me
- Macy’s Hot-Line
- National Card Registry
- Pet Privileges
- Sears Discount Travel Club
- Shoppers Advantage
- Small Business Central
- Today’s Homeowner Values
- Travel ER
- Travelers Advantage
If you have dealings with any of these companies, be very, very careful about how you are being billed.
But despite that settlement, Affinion/Trilegiant/Great Fun (and probably most of the others) are still at it.
As I investigated the “rebate” on the CheapoAir email, I clicked on the link in the email, and got this page:
including an audible message that said: “Call now to claim your $50.00 rebate. Billing terms and conditions apply!”
Calling the number got me an accented representative somewhere in the world who offered to double the rebate to $100.00: $50 for this reservation and $50 on a future reservation, just for trying Great Fun. She continued with a sales pitch for the cash-back rewards and discount program, which I could try for 30 days for only $1.00, and unless I call to cancel I would continue to be billed only $16.99 per month which i could cancel at any time, and all I had to do was give up my credit card number.
Given that there are currently 734 complaints about Trilegiant over at Consumer Affairs, I think I’ll pass on this most tempting offer; the most recent complaint from taresa in Arizona reads:
I wish there were consequences for these types of Piggy back companies. Allegiant Airlines you should be ashamed of yourself for offering unethical products like this associated with your website. When purchasing Allegiant Airline tickets to attend a funeral back in August, a $50 rebate was offered in return for a free one-month trial of traveler’s advantage. It was simple. Try it for thirty days and cancel if you want and still get the rebate. I got $100 rebate and then added to my calendar the cancelation date of 30 days. I cancelled and went the entire next month without being charged. Then a mysterious $16.99 charge showed up from a company called Shoppers Advantage on my credit card bill. I called and was told that I signed up when I signed up with Allegiant Airlines Travelers advantage. NO I DID NOT. When I asked for a refund I was denied. I guess they are getting their rebate money back from unknowing customers. Oh and by the way the representative I talked to was in the Philippines.
And the list goes on.
Be very careful out there.
The Old Wolf has spoken.