It's time the Federal Trade Commission takes action other than holding workshops and issuing guidelines on automatic renewal, or "auto-renew," a wallet-gouging tactic that fits under the name of "negative-option marketing." Automatic renewal has long brought home bacon for magazine publishers, but these days a diverse range of companies, including eHarmony, Classmates.com and even security honchos Symantec and McAfee have had their hands caught in your wallet doing it. The FTC slapped diet pill marketers for it, but that was more than a year ago.

Auto-renew comes in shades. National Geographic seems to show up in my mail in perpetuity -- but I love the magazine, they're a nonprofit and have to watch costs, plus if they were to keep mailing me about it I would be annoyed. But HealthGrades Inc., of Golden, Colo., managed to charge me $9.95 every month for close to a year without a reasonable way to stop it. How it happened is kind of mundane: Some time ago, I shelled out $12.95 on the HealthGrades site to look for information on a doctor I'd been referred to. The grading was, in my opinion, mediocre -- more "N/A"s than anything else, a range of data fields not filled in.

According to this advertorial that isn't labeled "advertorial," HealthGrades "helps consumers make informed health care decisions by supplying independent quality ratings and cost information for the nation's 5,000 hospitals, quality ratings on 16,000 nursing homes, and in-depth profiles including disciplinary actions of the nation's 750,000 physicians." What it doesn't say is that the data is largely from public sources. (The real good stuff, by the way, is inside the federal government's National Practitioner Data Bank, which Congress created because it was concerned "the increasing occurrence of medical malpractice litigation and the need to improve the quality of medical care had become nationwide problems," and so, of course, made it impossible for you to look at it, though hospitals, other doctors, and lawyers suing for malpractice can.)

Anyway, the doctor ratings business is starting to become more competitive, so I went elsewhere. After a while, though, I noticed $9.95 charges from HealthGrades, what the company calls a "watchdog" subscription, charged to my American Express card. There was no phone number to call on the bill listing. I went to the site, but could not find a way to stop the subscription. I tried e-mailing customer service (there's no phone number on the contact us page, always a bad sign) and got this automated reply:
'...At HealthGrades, we are committed to providing quality information for your health care decision-making needs. Communication with our users is important to us. Therefore, we take time and care in responding to each email. We will make every effort to respond to your email within 2 business days. Your patience is appreciated. ..."
No response after that, though. After digging deeper into my credit card records I found a phone number for HealthGrades on my paper statement. Four telephone auto-menus later (after a recorded greeting created to sound as if the offices were closed for the day, though it was late morning), I got recorded directions for canceling my subscription that were inaccurate. So I called back again until I finally got a human being on the line, who said she would find someone to cancel my subscription, but managed to hang up on me. Since then, I paid off my Amex card and canceled it. Adios, HealthGrades. But should anyone have to do that?

Since then, HealthGrades put this bit of helpful information on its site, in answer to the question, why is my credit card being billed?:
"Your 14-day trial subscription is free with each paid physician report you purchase. After the trial period, the cost is $9.95 a month."
So you get a subscription to something that doesn't generate anything material, like a magazine? How did I know I had it? What did it do for me? That's negative-option marketing at its finest. Gimme a break! Even the FreeCreditReport.com people have turned over a new leaf, banishing the French-Canadian pirate rocker and changing their ads to point people to FreeCreditScore.com.

I'm not the only one to complain about HealthGrades, by the way. What makes them different? They've racked up a number of big-media endorsements, from Forbes to Women's Day. They're publicly traded on the NASDAQ. Dealing with a company like this makes me wonder how many other companies pad out sales forecasts with money they expect to rake in from people who just don't notice they're being fleeced. I called HealthGrades' media department to ask them if I was missing something here, and am still waiting for the call-back.

In the meantime, I wound up trusting my own judgment about the doctor in question. I didn't like him much, so I found someone else. And I didn't need to spend hundreds of dollars to make that decision.

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