Same Old Scam, Every Month

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2006

Your first clue something's wrong is when you notice a random charge on your monthly credit card statement, maybe as little as $9.95, paid to a company whose name draws a blank.

That's followed by confusion because you have no recollection of buying anything from any such company. 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.

"I was asleep at the switch, so I've got to shoulder some of the blame . . . but I think this might be a scam," says Ben Beach, an editor at the District-based Wilderness Society, who last September noticed just such a $9.95 charge on his Visa statement from AP9 Connections. The charge began seven months earlier. He has no idea how the company got his credit card number.

Beach called the company's toll-free number on the statement, and a customer-service rep told him his wife "had signed up for this discount travel service while on [the travel Web site] Orbitz," he says, insisting that his wife never clicks "yes" on those annoying pop-up ads.

"She has no recollection of this whatsoever," he says.

F. Barbante of Fairfax says he found a similar charge on his Visa Platinum card last February and was stunned to find out it had been going on for two years and totaled $406.

"My wife thought the charges were mine, and I thought they were hers," he says of the charges -- $14.95 for each of seven months to MWI Homeworks Plus and $18.95 a month to AP9 Homeworks Plus thereafter. Both are buying clubs owned by Vertrue Inc., a Connecticut member-services marketing company.

Barbante searched online and found an overwhelming number of complaints against AP9 companies, most with problems like his. He called its customer-service number and was told he had agreed over the phone to receive a $50 savings bond and a trial membership in the buyers club, which markets home, yard and family products. He recalls the telemarketing call but distinctly remembers declining the offer. The customer-service rep said he could not get a refund.

The sales technique is called a "negative-option plan," one of those shady but legal deals in which consumers are automatically charged for services or products until they take action to say they don't want them. The most common consumer complaint -- aside from alleged unauthorized automatic billing -- is the way, critics say, that the marketing companies play loose with the truth to enroll unsuspecting consumers.

Companies that use negative-option sales typically defend their business practices by claiming that consumers simply don't recall signing up or saying that someone in the household must have clicked "yes" to accept an Internet pop-up ad's offer. Oh, and the companies say they have tried their best to prevent their confirmation e-mails from ending up lost in customers' spam filters.

It's "a bizarre possible scam," says Rita Zeidner, an Arlington writer who in January noticed a $10 charge from WLI Reservation Rewards that had begun the month before.

When she called the customer-service rep, she got a recording asking her to enter a credit card or membership number. "I don't feel comfortable giving these folks my credit card info to cancel my membership, but then again, they already have it," says Zeidner, who doesn't recall receiving any membership information.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company