You may have encountered Affinion under a previous name, Trilegiant. Maybe you've been to one of their 25 Web sites, including www.buyersadvantage.com, www.cleverclubhouse.com,www.nationalcardregistry.com (which is now 1800HotLine.com, but I include it by name to make a point later), www.privacyguard.com, and www.creditreportplace.com.
Or maybe via one of the $1.3 billion company's other business identities, such as Everyday Values, Elite Excursions, Travelers Advantage, Wells Fargo hotline and more than 70 others.
Start doing a little digging and you'll find Affinion, through these different identities, ranking up there with Webloyalty and Vertrue in complaints from consumers about credit card charges they say they don't remember authorizing, difficulty canceling memberships, and questionable value of the "products" charged for. In general, the companies counter that their subscription sign-up methods are transparent and open to consumers.
Really? in 2005, Trilegiant settled with the attorney general of Florida after a four-year investigation into deceptive practices by 40 of its subsidiaries. In 2006 the attorneys general of 16 states brought Trilegiant and Chase Bank to the settlement table for a $14.5 million payout to resolve allegations the companies deceived consumers into paying for programs via "free" trial
memberships. And in 2008, Trilegiant settled a nationwide class action for $25 million over the same kinds of complaints.
I think I'd probably want to change my name, too. You will still find the Trilegiant name on the company's sites.
James T. Hart, Affinion's VP of Communications and Brand, said in an e-mail interview that Affinion employs the highest marketing standards in the industry, though it's difficult to tell what industry that is and whether that's damning with faint praise. For years, he said, "our online creatives have already required the entry of personally-identifiable information and/or the creation of a user account and password to complete an enrollment. We believe this has significantly distinguished our offers from those relying on surveys or email addresses for enrollment."
Maybe so, but if that's the case, why is the company under investigation, a question I didn't ask, and what does it plan to change in light of the Senate investigation, a question I have asked all three companies? "As part of our continuous effort to improve the customer's satisfaction with our offers, we will consider anything that enhances the consumer's experience," said Hart. Fair enough. We'll come back to that invitation in a minute.
Let's consider three issues here of importance to consumers:
- After-transaction marketing can be helpful if it's a matter of a suggestion after a transaction -- If you like the movie Fitzcarraldo, you might like the movie Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and here's where you can buy it. But does anyone find the services of loyalty discount clubs particularly helpful? Can't you just use a site like www.retailmenot.com to find coupons and whatnot? Let's hear from readers who think a site like www.buyersadvantage.com is worth a monthly subscription fee.
- Does it concern anybody that, given the Senate investigation and the documented behavior of these companies, that two out of three of them offer credit and ID theft protection services?Should we really be trusting Vertrue and Affinion's personal credit and security products with our personal credit information, when significant parts of their business models seems to be finding ways to bill monthly subscription fees to our credit cards in the first place? Isn't this a conflict of interest?
- Does anyone really still believe in "free" trial offers online? If these companies claim, and some of their evidence shows, that there are clear disclosures in place, then don't we as consumers bear some responsibility for not clicking on them? Nobody's going to give you something for nothing online. Get used to that idea. When you're booking movie tickets on Fandango, don't click on the tempting rebate offer at the end. Just don't.
Let's remind ourselves that over the course of these three articles, all three companies have said they're willing to consider suggestions from consumers how to do what they do better. So tell the Senate Commerce Committee what you think. Here's the contact info from their Web site (read the FAQ first). Propose something innovative. Stay away from the after-transaction rebates, surveys, coupons and other temptations while you're at it.
(Update November 12, 2009: Last week the Senate committee sent letters to 16 companies, including Classmates.com, FTD, Orbitz and Pizza Hut, asking for details on their relationships with Affinion, Vertrue and Webloyalty. Read more here.)