Thursday, November 18, 2010

California Sues Overstock.com on Pricing Scam

In my Street.com column a couple of weeks ago I described one of the ways companies conceal bad news -- by burying it in the "risk factors" section of their SEC disclosures. I cited as an example my favorite corporate crime petri dish, Overstock.com. For the past two years, Overstock has buried news that its pricing practices were under investigation by California criminal authorities.

Yesterday, the district attorneys of now seven California counties sued Overstock for $15 million, claiming fraudulent pricing practices. The counties had offered to settle with Overstock for as little as $7.5 million, but Overstock refused. No wonder: if the company had coughed up such a substantial amount of cash, it probably would have been driven into bankruptcy.

The allegations in California allege one of the oldest consumer scams in the books:
"Beginning no later than January 1, 2006, Overstock routinely and systematically made untrue and misleading comparative advertising claims about the prices of its products," the civil complaint states. "Overstock used various misleading measures to inflate the comparative prices, and thus artificially increase the discounts it claimed to be offering consumers."


Here is the lawsuit:

California AGs vs. Overstock

The company's general counsel "denied the allegations in the complaint and said the district attorneys failed to understand how Overstock advertised its prices." No, actually it seems to me that the DAs understood how Overstock advertised its prices.

Seems that an outraged consumer's complaint led to the charges against Overstock:

In 2007, Mark Ecenbarger bought a patio set for $449 on Overstock. The website claimed the list price other companies were charging for the set was $999.99.

But when the furniture was delivered, there was a Walmart sticker on the side of the box showing the set was really worth $247.


The reaction of the market to this news, which emerged after the markets closed last night, is intriguing. The stock is actually up substantially. The reason for that is simple: fraud is already incorporated into the share price. This company is under SEC investigation for systematically cooking its books. Why should consumers be treated any differently than shareholders?

Overstock is pretty shameless in its fraudulent pricing. As noted in the lawsuit, BusinessWeek surveyed its pricing practices back in 2004 and found that it systematically overstated "list" prices. For example,"of the 92 Toshiba and Panasonic products available Mar. 2, 40 had list prices higher than the manufacturers' list."

Just for the heck of it I checked out Overstock's price for the paperback edition of Andrew Sorkin's Too Big to Fail. The price at Overstock is $11.06 and the search page for the book fraudulently says "compare at $20.55" and "you save 46%."



Baloney. The biggest online retailer, Amazon, lists the book at $9.90 and gives the list price as $18.00, not "$20.55." Barnes & Noble also prices the book at $9.90, and gives the correct list price.

So where did Overstock conjure up that "compare at" price? The Future Felons of America outlet shop in Salt Lake City? Misstating an easily determined (you look at the book cover or website) publisher's list price takes a degree of unmitigated gall, and contempt for the law, found only at Overstock.com.

Seems that Overstock has as much contempt for its customers as it does for its long-suffering shareholders.

UPDATE: Predictably, the two statewide Utah newspapers, the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, always happy to run trivia like this, published not a word on the lawsuits.

But numerous other media outlets have picked up on the story including an ABC affiliate in California. Hey, you can't buy publicity like that, especially at the beginning of the holiday season.

© 2010 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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