Rockefeller Introduces Bill to Ban Misleading Internet Sales Practices Uncovered By E-Commerce Investigation

New Report Details Companies’ Tactics to Keep Money for Services They Did Not Provide

May 19, 2010

Feature Image: Oversight&InvestigationsWASHINGTON, DC — Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today introduced legislation, the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act, to end the deceptive online sales tactics which have been the subject of a year-long Commerce Committee investigation.

Chairman Rockefeller’s bill comes on the heels of a new Commerce Committee staff report — the second of two reports — which shows how Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty — the companies that used aggressive sales tactics to enroll online consumers in services without their consent — developed policies designed to prevent online consumers from getting their money back when they called to question the mystery charges on their credit and debit cards.

“Tricking consumers into buying goods and services they do not want is completely unacceptable. It’s not ethical, it’s not right, and it is not the way business should be done in America. Our investigation uncovered these misleading practices and, as a result, these companies have been forced to change their ways. That’s good for the millions of Americans who shop online, and it’s the kind of work I will continue to do as Chairman of the Commerce Committee. The bill I’m introducing today will ban these deceptive online sales practices once and for all,” Chairman Rockefeller said.

The first staff report, released in November 2009, revealed how Affinion, Vertue, and Webloyalty used a set of online sales tactics to charge millions of consumers for membership clubs and services the consumers did not want and were unaware they had purchased. The report found that these companies bilked millions of Americans out of more than one billion dollars by partnering with hundreds of legitimate websites that were willing to share their customers’ billing information, including credit and debit card numbers, for financial gain. More information can be found here.

The new Commerce Committee staff report shows what happened when consumers called Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty to get their money back for the services they were unknowingly charged for. Findings of the new report include: 

  • Refund Mitigation: In a practice known as “refund mitigation,” the three companies created scripts and policies intended to minimize the amount of money they would have to return to consumers who had inadvertently enrolled in the clubs. For consumers who insisted on refunds, the companies employed a variety of tactics to keep the refund amounts as small as possible, including requiring customers to obtain refunds by completing written affidavits.
  • Magic Words: Each company instructed their call center representatives not to issue refunds to consumers, unless the consumers mentioned certain key words like “attorney general,” “Better Business Bureau,” or “bank representative.” These policies were designed to satisfy those consumers who were most likely to create additional “customer noise” problems and reputational damage for the companies. Consumers who did not mention the “magic words” did not receive full refunds.
  • Multiple Memberships: Because they could encounter the aggressive sales tactics of Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty while shopping on hundreds of different websites, online shoppers were frequently enrolled inadvertently in multiple membership clubs offered by the same company. Consequently, many customers who called Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty to cancel one membership and request a refund were actually enrolled in more than one of the companies’ clubs. Webloyalty and Vertrue trained their agents not to inform consumers about these additional memberships.
  • Failure to Follow Credit Card Rules: Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty violated MasterCard and Visa’s rules for credit card and debit card transactions and American Express placed the companies in monitoring programs for merchants with high rates of disputed charges from cardholders (known as “chargebacks”). Between 2006 and 2008, the three largest credit card companies processed 1.4 million chargeback requests and over 10 million refunds, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, from cardholders disputing charges from Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty. Despite these rule violations and the high volume of consumer complaints, the three companies enjoyed uninterrupted access to the payment systems operated by Visa, MasterCard, and American Express until late 2009. Once Chairman Rockefeller notified the credit card companies of the aggressive online sales tactics in December 2009, the companies quickly took action to ensure that Affinion, Vertrue, Webloyalty, and their e-commerce partners were in compliance with their rules for merchants and that their cardholders were no longer subject to the misleading “data pass” process. 

Chairman Rockefeller’s bill will help put an end to the deceptive online sales tactics uncovered by the Commerce Committee’s landmark E-commerce investigation. The bill is sponsored by Senators Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and George LeMieux (R-Fla.). Chairman Rockefeller’s bill will protect online shoppers by:

  • Prohibiting companies like Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty from using misleading post-transaction advertisements by requiring them to clearly disclose the terms of the offers to consumers, and to obtain consumers’ billing information, including full credit or debit card numbers, directly from the consumers.
  • Prohibiting Internet retailers and other commercial websites (“initial merchants”) from transferring a consumer’s billing information, including credit and debit card numbers, to post-transaction third party sellers, like Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty. 

  • Requiring companies that use “negative options” on the Internet to meet certain minimum disclosure and enrollment requirements, so consumers will not end up paying recurring fees for goods and services they did not intend to purchase.