NBC Attacks Online Dealmakers

     If you don’t feel like reading the fine print on a contract and regret having signed it, you can always count on a network morning show to back you up.


     That’s what NBC’s “Today” show did August 26 in a segment attacking online dealmakers. Co-host Meredith Vieira warned shoppers could find “mysterious and unwanted charges on their credit cards.”


     “Kathy Danzer wanted to reconnect with old classmates, so she bought a subscription on a popular high school reunion Web site,” correspondent Natalie Morales reported. “But when she got her credit card bill there was another unexpected charge: an additional $12.99 for something called ‘GREATFN.’”


     “Great Fun,” as it turned out, was a membership rewards club that offered online shopping discounts for a monthly fee, according to Morales. Danzer had signed up for the program via www.Classmates.com to get $10 off her subscription fee.


     “When we went to the same reunion Web site that Kathy did and signed up, we got this special offer: $10 back on our subscription,” Morales reported. “All we had to do was fill out a consumer survey below.”


     “This offer may look great, but it’s actually a marketing tool,” she continued. “And here’s the catch: by just filling out this survey, you’re actually signing yourself up for a rewards program that you may neither want nor need, but you’ll be paying for it every month on your credit card.”


     But the “catch” was clearly outlined and visible on the offer Morales showed. “Click on the answer you want and complete your information to claim your $10.00 Cash Back just for trying Shopping Essentialz+, FREE for 7 days,” the offer stated.


     There was also a disclaimer – the same type size as the rest of the survey – warning customers that, “By typing your email address below, it will constitute your electronic …” The rest of the disclaimer was cropped out by the “Today” show video and Morales made no mention of other “fine print” available to consumers.


     Morales featured Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has been involved with lawsuits against online dealers like Trilegiant, the company behind the Classmates.com offer.


     “These online techniques are very troubling,” Blumenthal said. “We want to take action that will show this company that it can’t regard these fines or penalties as the cost of doing business. They have to change the way they do business.”


     The story also featured Paulette Hotton of the Better Business Bureau attacking the companies that make such offers. The organization has received more than 2,000 complaints for customers who mistakenly signed up for similar offers, Morales said.


     Morales acknowledged a statement from Trilegiant noting that the company last year received “less than one complaint for every one million offers made.” The company also said it “adheres to the highest standards of legal and ethical behavior,” including an enrollment process that involved “multiple steps to ensure that consumers understand they are signing up for a service that will charge them.”


     Morales later acknowledged that problems like Danzer’s could be avoided by “reading the fine print.” And she suggested consumers check their credit card bills every month to make sure they didn’t mistakenly sign up for something they didn’t want.


     But with all the complaining – not to mention the foreboding soundtrack the segment featured – a viewer might think Danzer and others like her had trouble getting refunds for the money they mistakenly spent. But that wasn’t the case, as Triligiant refunds money to unsatisfied customers, Morales admitted.


     “Kathy Danzer, the person you saw in that piece, was able to get her money completely back,” Morales said. “It took a couple of weeks and a lot of persistence on her part.” Perhaps a couple weeks of persistence taught Danzer a lesson in reading the “fine print.”