By Harry McCracken | Friday, November 27, 2009 at 9:20 am
On Tuesday, I mentioned that I’d recently purchased a background check from Intelius and found that I’d unwittingly become a member of something called SavingsAce, a shopping club that costs $24.95 a month. I said that the Intelius customer service rep I’d spoken with had denied that the company had given my credit-card info to SavingsAce.
After I wrote that piece, I contacted a public-relations person at Intelius. She said that the service rep had given me faulty information: Intelius had indeed given my information to SavingsAce. But only after I’d granted permission, she said.
She also gave me what she said is a screen shot of the offer that I’d willingly accepted during my purchase of a background check report from Intelius. Here it is.
And here’s a close-up of the section that snared me (Intelius circled two areas in the image it sent me).
I’m willing to accept the fact that I did accidentally agree to sign up for SavingsAce. Doing so puts me in the good company of large numbers of other Americans who are subjected to post-transaction marketing techniques and then discover they’re being charged for services they don’t want.
Here’s why I managed to sign up for SavingsAce despite having no interest in the service (or even in the “$10 cash back” offer used as a lure).
1) The ad appears in the middle of a transaction with Intelius. The label at the top says “Your order has been successfully completed,” but that’s highly debatable. At this point, Intelius has processed the order but hasn’t shown me the report I’ve just paid for. Showing me an offer for an utterly unrelated third-party service triggered cognitive dissonance on my part: Why would I expect fine print about a shopping service when I was trying to view the freaking report I’d just paid for?
2) The emphasis on the page is all wonky. The box with the sign-up form has a fancy yellow border; nothing else does. If you’re just trying to view the freaking report you’ve just paid for, your eye will gravitate to the box, and it may not be immediately apparent that it relates to the “advertisement” that lives outside it. (And “advertisement” may not be the right word: Normal ads don’t have embedded sales transactions that involve payments of $300 a year.)
3) The title on the form is insufficiently informative. It asks you to type in your e-mail address (which serves as an electronic signature authorizing SavingsAce to start charging you $24.95 a month) without mentioning SavingsAce, or the fact that the signature has nothing to do with getting your report from Intelius.
4) The button that signs you up for SavingsAce is insufficiently informative. It’s big and green so as to scream “Click me,” and mentions the frickin’ report you’ve just paid for–but not SavingsAce and its $24.5 per month fee.
5) Even the fine print in form is insufficiently informative. The first block of text talks about charging your credit card, but doesn’t explain that it’s to sign up for SavingsAce at $300 a year, not for the report you just ordered. The second block of text does mention SavingsAce, but still doesn’t say that clicking the green button signs you up at $300 a year.
6) The button that shows your report without signing you up for SavingsAce is insufficiently prominent. It’s smaller and less splashy than the SavingsAce one, located below the SavingsAce one (where you might not even see it unless you scroll), and has a negative-sounding “No” in it without making clear what the “No” refers to.
7) The $24.95 a month fee is mentioned only part way down the fine print. Not in BIG RED TYPE like the $10 cash back offer.
The bottom line here is simple: It isn’t reasonable for a company to demand that a consumer read fine print to avoid being charged for an unrelated sales pitch that he or she never asked for. Or does anyone out there want to dispute that?
Adaptive Marketing, the company behind SavingsAce, publishes a list of supposed “best practices” for its marketing on its site. As confusing as I found the offer I encountered, it sort of complies with this list, although it sort of depends on your definition of the word “clearly.” But in the wake of the U.S. Senate’s investigation into post-transaction marketing, the company (and its parent, Vertrue) is now “calling” for the industry to do the following:
In every post-transaction membership program offer that includes pre-acquired account information and a free-to-pay conversion feature, Adaptive will obtain from the consumer the last four digits (at a minimum) of their payment account as further acknowledgement of the offer.
That’s a small step in the right direction. But it’s not really enough: If post-transaction marketing is going to continue, it can’t involve any separation between the “acknowledgement” of the unrelated offer and its terms. Here’s my rough draft of what the buttons in the Intelius/SavingsAce offer need to look like.
I mean, if Adaptive Marketing truly believes that “protecting the consumer on both the front- and back-end of every sales transaction is vital” shouldn’t it jump at the chance to label its offer so clearly that it’s nearly impossible to agree to it by accident? And if it isn’t smart enough to make the decision on its own, wouldn’t it be reasonable for the feds to step in and help it choose to do the right thing?