Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ben Stein's 'Unblemished' Employer

The Times calls this a conflict of interest for a finance columnist. The nerve!

(updated with class action suit)

I have no idea if Ben Stein is correct when he claims that the New York Times wasn't really upset with his acting as principal spokesman for something called FreeScore.com. He says a column on Obama is what really teed 'em off.

That's possible. Maybe they decided they didn't like his haircut either. I can't read the minds of any of the persons concerned. But I do know that Stein's description of FreeScore--he calls it "an Internet aggregating company" with an "unblemished record with consumer protection agencies"--is.... well, let's just say "incomplete."

FreeScore has got the word "free" in its name, and its website emphasizes that word. Free! Free! That word must be used a dozen times. Nowhere on the first page of its website do you see that you have got to pay $29.95 a month for the privilege of getting your credit scores.

Mouseprint.org has a great analysis of how FreeScore snares unwary consumers in its website and TV commercials.

It seems quite obvious that the newspaper puked its corporate guts when it saw that its high visibility columnist was shilling for a sleazy outfit like this. If this isn't a conflict of interest, I don't know what is.

While Stein may be right that this company has a spotless record with regulatory agencies, that only indicates to me that regulatory agencies, particularly the Federal Trade Commission, have got some work to do. As Mouseprint points out, FreeScore only recently commenced its advertising campaign. That probably helps explain its "unblemished" record.

FreeScore.com is just one of numerous businesses run by an outfit called Vertrue, Inc., which according to its website is " owned by Velo Holdings, a private investor group consisting of One Equity Partners, Rho Ventures and Brencourt Advisors, together with certain members of Vertrue's management."

A list of Vertrue's businesses can be found at its listing at the Better Business Bureau website, where it receives a BBB rarity--an "F" grade for customer service.

Anyone who has ever dealt with the BBB can attest that it is anything but a rabid pro-consumer organization. Its main job is to protect its membership by giving consumers an ineffective venue for complaints. "F" grades are only given to the absolute dregs.

Vertrue's questionable business practices have been plastered over the media, and resulted in this letter (pdf) to Vertrue's CEO by the Senate Commerce committee. And then we have a class action suit against Vertrue and Adaptive Marketing LLC, the unit that owns FreeScore.com, which makes some serious allegations:

The Complaint alleges that Defendants’ business models are based on gaining access to confidential credit card and bank account information in order to charge consumers fees for worthless “memberships” and “services” that plaintiffs and other Class members never desired or authorized. By doing so, the Complaint states, Defendants have established one of the largest unauthorized consumer billing operations in the United States through the placement of internet advertising on various legitimate (and illegitimate) websites. As the Complaint alleges, VistaPrint’s advertisements purport to sell graphic design and customized printed products, while Vertrue and Adaptive Marketing purport to sell membership programs that provide discounts on various consumer goods and services. And, as the Complaint states, because there is no legitimate demand for Adaptive Marketing’s membership programs, VistaPrint’s internet websites and advertisements serve as a pretext for gaining access to consumers’ confidential financial information in order to charge unauthorized fees.

In fact, the Complaint further alleges, consumers almost never legitimately join any of Vertrue and Adaptive Marketing’s various membership programs, nor do they authorize Defendants Vertrue and Adaptive Marketing to charge their credit cards or debit from their bank accounts any monies. The Complaint asserts that when consumers contact any of the Defendants to request that they remove and refund the unauthorized fees charged to their credit cards, they are given the “runaround”, and are unable to obtain refunds of the unauthorized charges.

Here's the Epinions writeup on another Adaptive Marketing venture: "Here is a company that sells your credit card or bank information, without you knowing, to anyone willing to pay for it. " Real sweethearts.

I assume that Stein has Internet access, which was all he would have needed to obtain these little nuggets of information about the people who have hired him. He knew, or should have known, the track record of this company, and that being the public face of an Adaptive Marketing LLC unit carried with it definite risks.

Stein says the following at the end of his American Spectator piece:

In my life, I have done plenty wrong. I am not the master. I am the servant and a poor one at that.
Yeah, I know. He is in hot water because he is servant of an outfit that takes advantage of poor, befuddled, desperate consumers. But if he's "poor" after letting his punum be plastered over its website, he should get himself another agent.

© 2009 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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