A member of Northeast CONTACT wrote to us recently with a complaint similar to those voiced by thousands of consumers across the country.
She had cashed a check, thinking it was part of a rewards program, only to find out later that by doing so she had agreed to monthly payments for a club in which she had no interest.
Her story has been repeated tens of thousands of times to the financial detriment of many. The offers sent to credit card users include what appear to be free gifts; the costly reality may not be apparent until a financial statement arrives a month or more later.
In the past, the offers worked something like this: A check or gift card arrived in the mail along with an offer to join a travel club or similar venture. Assuming that the check or gift card came with no strings attached, the recipient cashed the check or used the gift card. A letter might come later, telling the consumer that by doing so, he had accepted membership in a travel or buyer’s club. Monthly payments might vary, but they almost always followed.
The solicitations often came with statements from Chase Bank, even though the buying clubs were run by Trilegiant, a major player in travel clubs and other buying plans. Trilegiant was sued by Maine and 15 other states for misleading practices, mainly because it was not made clear how recipients could cancel their membership during the “free-trial period.”
Trilegiant and Chase settled in December 2006, paying $8.325 million in restitution to people who had received such offers. The companies also paid more than $6 million in court costs and fees to the suing states.
A nationwide class action suit against Trilegiant was settled this summer, costing Trilegiant another $25 million. Terms of the settlement included changes in business practices and resolving disputes over alleged refusals to cancel memberships at consumers’ requests.
The suit in which Maine took part covered activities of a number of Trilegiant-run companies, including AutoVantage Gold Service, AutoVantage Service, Buyers Advantage Service, CompleteHome Service, Just for Me, Pet Privileges Service, Shoppers Advantage Service and Travelers Advantage Service. The Web site ConsumerAffairs.com lists several dozen other companies operated over the years by Trilegiant.
While it might seem that the hefty dollar settlements would end all such practices, that’s probably too much to hope for. Companies may simply bury the opt-out clauses in a larger volume of words in their mailings, while dangling “free money” in front of us.
In fairness, some buyers enjoy taking part in buying or travel clubs. They are likely people who read everything carefully and ask questions before signing anything.
Some tips to avoid being taken:
? Be wary of any “free trial” offer.
? Be suspicious of any check or gift card.
? If you do sign up, read carefully any follow-up mailings.
? Examine bank, credit card and mortgage statements carefully. If you find suspicious or unauthorized charges, call and write the credit card or mortgage company and challenge the charge.
You should also inform the Maine Attorney General Office’s Consumer Protection Division and the State Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. For information about the lawsuits involving Trilegiant, see www.ConsumerAffairs.com.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.