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Hidden Subscriptions
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Shopping Online: Hidden Subscription Scams

Vertrue, "Shopping Essentials" and others
Click here to claim $15.00 Cash Back on this purchase!'

Have you ever looked at your credit card statement to see a recurring charge that you didn't expect and didn't order? VISA credit card company reports that nearly three in ten Americans have been stung by a subscription trap. A hidden subscription scam occurs when a consumer is purchasing online and is tricked into buying additon productys or services, which he or she wouldn't, had they know the details.

CFR classifies post-transaction marketing as a scam because it is business model which built on deception. Sharing credit card information between companies is, unfortunately, still perfectly legal. That may change as the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation investigates the practice.

How the hidden subscription scam works

You go to a website like Avon, Barnes & Noble, Budget, Buy.com, Classmates.com, GMAC Mortgage, MovieTickets.com, Priceline, Shutterfly, Staples, and Ticketmaster.You buy movie tickets, flowers or electronics, for example. You complete the transaction, and a page appears offering you cash back or free shipping. When you click the button a screen appears asking for your email address, which you provide and complete your transaction. 

In return for their cut, these companies pass consumers' credit card information to the post-transaction marketing firm.

Several months later, you see a charge for $10, $20, $30, or more your credit card statement from some company you've never heard of.

Who are the post-transaction marketing companies behind this scam?

The U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, headed by Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), began an investigation in 2009 of the industry (the investigation is still ongoing). According to the committee,  the three biggest players in this business, having earned at least $1.4 billion in revenue over the past 10 years are:

Each is based in Norwalk, Connecticut.

 How do you get your money back?

If you paid with a credit card, and it is within 60 days of the purchase, dispute charge as soon as you see it. Ask your credit card company to withhold payment while it investigates. Note that you do not have the same protections if you paid with a debit card.

If the 60-day dispute window has elapsed, getting a full refund usually requires writing a letter to the company on statement (send it certified) and waiting months to receive a chargeback to your credit card.

  1. Call the company associated with the charge on your credit card statement.
  2. Be polite, but ask to cancel your membership and demand your money back.
  3. If the representative refuses to refund your money or claims to be unable to, ask to talk with a manager.
  4. Note the date and time of your call and the names of  any service representatives with whom you speak.
  5. they will probably ask your to send the request in writing, via the mail (postal service, not email).

What is the government doing to stop these companies?

In January, 2010, Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty agreed to alter their online offer pages. The companies now require consumers to enter their 16-digit credit card information a second time to signup for a membership.

New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo issued subpoenas to 22 e-commerce retailers to demand information about their use of the three post transaction companies:

  • Avon.com,
  • Barnes & Noble,
  • Budget, Buy.com,
  • Classmates.com,
  • Columbia House,
  • Expedia.com/Hotels.com,
  • FTD.com,
  • Gamestop/EB Games,
  • GMAC Mortgage,
  • Hotwire.com,
  • Intelius,
  • MovieTickets.com,
  • 1-800Flowers.com,
  • Orbitz.com,
  • Pizza Hut,
  • Priceline.com,
  • Shutterfly.com,
  • Staples.com,
  • Ticketmaster.com,
  • Travelocity, and
  • Vistaprint

Who are some of the other companies and websites using post transaction marketing companies?

In addition to those noted in the subpoena above, as of the writing of this article, March 2010, these companies were also reported to be customers of one of the three post-transaction marketers:

  • Fandango
  • US Airways

How to Avoid Getting Scammed in the Future

The ways in which they trick you into signing up are not necessarily obvious, so take care by:

  • Watch out for words like "free," "cash back," and "rebate" on any Web site, even big, popular websites.
  • If the terms and conditions are complicated, confusing, or hard to read; there's probably a trick in it - better to buy somewhere else!
  • Look for pre-checked boxes during the checkout process. Uncheck any that are clearly what you want!
  •  Don't use a bank debit card when shopping online. Debit cards do not provide the same level of protection and right to cancel or appeal that major credit cards like American Express, MasterCard, and Visa do.  The federal Fair Credit Billing Act only applies to credit cards, not debit cards.

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Names used by scammers in the examples on this page and others often belong to real people and businesses who often have no knowledge of nor connection to the scammer's use of their name and information.  Sample scam emails and other documents are copies of the scam to help potential victims recognize and avoid it.  You should presume that any names used and presented here in a scam are either fictitious or used without their legitimate owner's permission.
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