From Illinois Business Journal news services
ST. LOUIS – Better Business Bureau is advising consumers to be cautious about responding to “urgent notice” postcards offering $100 in savings at Walmart, Target and other major retailers.
The mailings, many of which are virtually identical, appear to be marketing efforts to get consumers to enroll in a variety of discount savings clubs. Some of those who enrolled in the clubs told BBB the companies continued to take money from their credit card accounts after they tried to cancel their memberships.
BBB has received numerous inquiries about the cards from consumers across the St. Louis region, including St. Louis, Jefferson and St. Charles counties and the City of St. Louis. Several consumers said they worried the mailings were part of a scheme to take their money or steal personal information.
“It’s all scary anymore,” said a St. Louis woman who received one of the cards last month. The woman said that soon after she phoned the toll-free number on the card, a company representative began asking for information on her credit card. The woman said she quickly disconnected the call. “I felt uncomfortable about giving out anything,” she said.
In most cases, sales representatives offered a free trial membership in a savings club for a one-time shipping and processing fee of between $2 and $6. It appears that unless the membership is canceled by a specific deadline, the consumer is enrolled in the regular savings club at monthly fees often ranging from $15 to $30.
Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO, said similar cards have been mailed to consumers across the nation. She said most of the postcards include no information about the company making the solicitation, and the toll-free numbers are not traceable to any specific business.
“Ethical businesses do not try to hide who they are,” Corey said. “If you are solicited by a company that hesitates to give you information about itself, it is probably best just to throw away the mailing or disconnect the call.”
A BBB investigation of the postcards indicates they may have been mailed by a variety of businesses in attempts to generate leads from consumers. Those lead businesses, in turn, take phone calls from consumers and then turn enrollment information over to other businesses that operate shopping clubs and other discount merchandise groups.
Sales representatives who responded to BBB and consumers have identified their businesses by a variety of names including C2C Marketing, Flatland or Flatlands Marketing, Smart Shopper Savings Club, Shoppers Advantage and Great Fun. BBB has been unable to find any detailed information on C2C or Flatland Marketing.
A woman who said she represented C2C said that company was based in the Philippines. A woman who identified herself as customer service director of Flatland or Flatlands said that company was based in Florida.
The chairman and CEO of a Nevada company called C2C Marketing, Inc. said his company has no connection or involvement with the postcards.
Smart Shopper Savings has an “F” rating, the lowest possible, with BBB of Central Florida. The BBB report for Smart Shopper Savings says that consumers have reported receiving unauthorized credit card charges after giving their card numbers to salespeople.
Shoppers Advantage and Great Fun are names used by the Stamford, Ct.-based Affinion Group. Affinion Group has more than 1,000 BBB complaints and is the subject of a 2013 court settlement with 47 states and the District of Columbia over allegations of selling misleading discount club memberships. The settlement called for Affinion and its subsidiaries, Trilegiant Corporation and Webloyalty.com Inc., to establish a $19 million fund to provide refunds to some consumers.
Among the complainants was a St. Louis woman who said she authorized a $2 processing fee for a free 30-day membership trial. She said that while she was supposed to be in the trial period, Trilegiant charged her credit card $17.
“I would not do business with them again,” she said.
Affinion has not responded to requests for information from BBB St. Louis regarding the recent postcard mailings in this area.
Despite the specific mention of Walmart and Target in the mailings, several news reports note that neither of those companies have any involvement in the solicitations.
BBB offers the following advice for consumers who receive unsolicited mailing offers:
– Beware of offers that do not include the names or addresses of the businesses behind them.
– Be cautious of any mailings that that appear to be offering free or reduced-price merchandise. Check out the offers thoroughly before pursuing them.
– Be wary of giving any credit card information or any personal information to businesses or people you do not know.
– Understand that many “free trial” offers require that you cancel your enrollment within a specific time period or face the prospect of being charged monthly for continuing in the program.
– Pay by credit card whenever possible in case you need to challenge the charge.
– Research the company by searching the Internet and contacting BBB. Find a BBB Business Review by checking BBB’s website at bbb.org or calling (314) 645-3300.