I know it. I’m a bit of a leech when it comes to the blog entry; I riff shamelessly off of other blogs. That said, I think I’ve got something to add to the story of Ben Stein’s descent from New York Times windbag to douchebag to scumbag.
As Felix Salmon discusses in his blog, Stein is shilling for a new website, freescore.com (also freescore.tv), that is running a “predatory bait-and-switch.” Freescore provides a “free” credit report, and then charges $29.95 per monthly for not doing so much else. I wonder what the FTC has to say about charging for a credit report when the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the credit rating agencies to hand it out once a year via annualcreditreport.com.
To use some horrible business-speak, here goes my “value add” to the story:
Not shockingly, the company that owns freescore.com, Vertrue Inc., has a history of deceptive business practices. For years it has been figuring out creative ways to gain access to credit cards to charge monthly fees with the hopes that victims won’t notice. If a victim does notice, Vertrue makes them jump through hoops to get the monthly fees removed.
FREESCORE’S CONNECTION TO VERTRUE, INC.
Freescore.com’s registration with the US Patent and Trademark Office lists the owner as Adaptive Marketing LLC. Freescore.com is also listed as an Adaptive Marketing product on its website. Adaptive Marketing is listed as Vertrue company on its website. Adaptive Marketing was the registered owner of the website freescore.com from at least April 2008 until sometime in late June 2009, when the registrant changed to Corporation Service Company of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. I’m not sure why that would be.
QUICK HISTORY OF VERTRUE
Vertrue started out life as CardMember Publishing Corporation in the late ’80s. In 1996 it changed its name to MemberWorks Incorporated and then again in 2006 to Vertrue Incorporated. It went public in 1996 and then was taken private again in 2007.
THE SALACIOUS AND DECEPTIVE STUFF
So just to start with, take a look the Better Business Bureau report on Vertrue. BBB is a fairly conservative organization, and it gives Vertrue an “F”! BBB received more 2,595 complaints against the company.
Complaints reported to the Bureau primarily involve claims of unauthorized charges by the Company’s affiliates. In such cases, customers reported no recollection of having agreed to the programs that were billed to their credit card, debit card or bank account. In some of the cases, consumers reported being charged for two or three years.
In 2000, when Vertrue was still called MemberWorks, it settled a case brought by the New York Attorney General. MemberWorks offered a free 30-day trial membership in discount programs. It then charged the victims a $144 annual fee without their knowledge.
At about the same time, according to the FTC,
. . . Minnesota, New York . . . , Nebraska, and California—have obtained either an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance (“AVC”) or a court settlement with MemberWorks. Nebraska obtained an AVC in February 2001 that applies nationwide. The AVC requires MemberWorks to provide refunds to consumers alleging unauthorized charges and includes detailed conduct provisions applicable to MemberWorks’ marketing of membership programs.
MODERN-DAY SALACIOUS AND DECEPTIVE STUFF
Vertrue received a request in May from the Senate Commerce Committee regarding its billing practices. It’s the same old Vertrue story—monthly charges on a credit card unless the dubious subscription is canceled.
In January of this year, a civil case was filed in Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas against Adaptive Marketing and Vertrue. The case made its way into federal court as a civil fraud case, Smith et al. v. Vertrue Inc. et al., in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, and is now listed as Vertrue Inc. Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation case number 09-vm-75000-PAG. It remains to be seen what will happen with this case, but the complaint tells the usual story of no permission and monthly fees etc.
For the obsessed there are also these cases here, here and here.
LAST PITHY NOTE
So the co-founder, CEO and president at Vertrue lists on his LinkedIn profile that he has a Harvard MBA. He probably should have taken Harvard’s new MBA oath.
And Ben . . . WTF? Did you really need the money that badly? I hope the NY Times drops you over this.
Goodbye Mr. Stein.