How I Accidentally Agreed to Pay $300 a Year to a Company I’d Never Heard of, for a Service I Didn’t Want

By  |  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?


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28 Comments For This Post

  1. ChrisJP Says:

    Seems like the wording and design of the original is pretty standard for what I’ve always found on the Internet. It seems to me the key wording – that a discerning customer should notice – is “Yes AND show me my report (emphasis added)” versus “No, show my report”. Seems obvious enough to me that if I click the first one, I’m going to get something extra. Seems to me an obvious case of Caveat Emptor – and that if you don’t want to go stuck with extra, pay little more attention. I wouldn’t have needed to read the small print – “No, show my report” is pretty obviously how to go ahead without getting extra junk.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    I’d like to think that I’m discerning enough not to fall for these sorts of tactics. In this case, I wasn’t. And to reiterate, I think the issue with the Intelius/SavingsAce “offer” is not only its presentation but its timing–after Intelius has “completed” your offer but before it’s delivered what you’re paying for.

    In any event, the offer did accomplish one thing: It left me concluding that Intelius and Adaptive Marketing/Vertrue think it’s OK to treat consumers like patsies, and deciding that I never want to do business with either.


  3. Andrew D Says:

    I interviewed with Intelius and did a little digging into the company. There are a lot of ugly rumors about this sort of borderline unethical practices that are apparently keeping the company afloat. I was going to back out if I got an offer but then they told me my PHP skills weren’t up to par with what they wanted so it made it easy.

  4. ediedi Says:

    The interface is conceived to do exactly what it did for you: to make you unwillingly sign up for the extra package. It’s plain fraud.
    Think about this: they could have charged you no matter how much, since you failed to see the fine print. In a normal country, you could sue them for that.

  5. interestedReader Says:

    My opinion is that if you see that the very top of the page says your order has been complete, should tell you that you’re order has been complete which would make this a SECOND offer. That alone says to me to pay attention to what I’m agreeing yes to.

    I don’t think it’s so much people singing up for another product, it’s singing up for something that they don’t find useful. The offer is really no different then an online retailer offering me gift wrapping after the purchase… a lot of people may want that, so it’s acceptable to offer (even to people who don’t).

    Bottom line, the internet is chock full of scams (yes, this being one…), and everyone should be aware of what they are doing.

  6. Backlin Says:

    Yeah, at least they didn’t instantly sign you up to SavingsAce after buying your report.

    And I always read EVERYTHING, including fine print (nearly every word) before signing up for or purchasing something online.

  7. Backlin Says:

    …And by after I mean, only being able to click through one displayed button.

  8. Rignerd Says:

    The take away lesson is to read the fine print and when you see or find out about this kind of transaction warn the public from the highest rooftop that Intelius or what ever company embeds this type of fraud into their transactions should be avoided at all possible costs. Once they show their corporate character with this type of shyster tricks I would never trust them or allow any one else to do business with them, just like I would shout thief if I saw a purse snatcher running down the street.

  9. Chris Tuttle Says:

    ChrisJP, Backlin & Rignerd … I agree you have to be careful and read everything… but not everyone will and I don’t think we can expect every person on earth to realize and recognize exactly what they should do–especially the less internet savvy, elders, younger newbies or simply those unaware.

    This is a scam. This is like a virus company putting out a virus that their software can fix to trick customers and boost sales. It’s like a credit card company putting in the 4 pages of fine print that they can sale your contact info to others simply because you applied for a credit card. These tactics are deceptive and I do think there’s something that can be done about it.

    As the internet grows in use and importance, laws have been created to protect the innocent, and I think this is another area this could happen. I’d suggest that there should be a law that any financial terms and agreement actions must be clearly stated on the same page, in the same font, color and font size. A lawyer could more clearly write this.

  10. JDoors Says:

    “The button that shows your report without signing you up for SavingsAce is insufficiently prominent.”

    I too like to think I wouldn’t fall for any of the EVIL tricks in your List Of Excuses, and haven’t so far, but the one quoted above is MOST ANNOYING to me.

    I can read their fine print, I can decipher their EVIL trickery, but wasting my time trying to find the damned “just give me what I want” link REALLY ticks me off.

  11. csclou Says:

    Great reminder that Wolves wear sheep’s clothing when hunting for lamb chops. Read everthing, small print and all when concluding on-line purchases.
    Thanks for the reminder, Harry, of just how greedy some so-called on-line retailers are.

  12. Damien McKenna Says:

    Many mainstream companies have been doing this for years, inc Paypal that throws a similar ad at me every single time I log in, with the “no, I don’t want this offer” tucked away at the bottom.

  13. MStraver Says:

    I don’t really care what label they want to give this kind of marketing, whether it is “Adaptive Marketing” or any other label that has been used in the past. If people are given a choice to sign up for something extra besides what they order (which I personally find extremely annoying, but it seems to be commonplace, even if you are just calling a helpdesk for some general information, grrr), the choice should be an -unbiased- choice.
    The way this page is laid out is anything but that, and is so misleading that it falls in the category “visual coercion”…

    Your proposal for the buttons is OK, but from a marketing perspective not desirable, as you don’t want to mention hard amounts on buttons like that. But what should have been done to make it a fair offer, despite the timing, without unfairly pushing a customer towards the added purchase is, IMHO:
    – Make the two choices equally laid out, providing an equal choice.
    – Not separating the agreement and the signup like it was done.

    This is obviously done on purpose, and fully intentional. I wonder if something like this would stand up in court…

  14. Christopher E. Says:

    I do tech support for friends and family and one thing that drives me nuts is when one of my loved ones blames the computer when things don’t go right. They’ll say, “My computer just deleted my e-mail!”, when in actuality, they hit the back button. They see no connection between the actions they takes and the results they get.

    But what’s worse is when they go around clicking “OK” to just about anything that popped up on their computer. Why? Because clicking “OK” made the box go away. Never mind that now they’re signed up for every “Internet Accelerator” and their computers are completely bogged down with garbage. But hey! The “OK” box went away.

    Same thing here. Would you go around clicking “OK” on any and every box that pops up on your computer? No?!? Why not? Because you realize that clicking “OK” MEANS something to the computer and it will go right ahead and DO whatever you Okayed.

    So, why would you think it different when the box doesn’t just ask you to click “OK”, but asks you to enter in additional personal information? Requiring you to add information should let you know that you should be PAYING ATTENTION to what the box says, not just blithely going around clicking things that you have no idea what they’ll do.

    This is the precise reason we have the phrase “Caveat Emptor.”

  15. Bill Says:

    It’s not so much “me” that I’m worried about. It is easy for me to protect myself. It is my parents, my wife, my kids, etc. with their online purchases.

  16. Patrick Says:

    I’m always amused by the following type of response:

    1. I’m really careful. This doesn’t happen to me.
    2. Ooops…damn, spoke too soon. Oh well. Should be more careful next time.

    These people have to make these comments so they can maintain their sense of superiority. If they admit to having been conned, then they’ve no ability in the future to protect themselves and so lose any sense of superiority of mere mortals. So it is far better to admit it was their mistake that brought this on them, rather than the cleverness of those who con them. That way they can make the point that they’re still clever, but merely made an error.

    However, it is clear to anyone reading this, who has an open mind and an ego that is not in control of their fingers, that the site is deliberately set up to get people to click on something that would likely not. Especially if the issue were to be clearly stated and enunciated in something like a “and would you also like to do this” stage, thus providing the person with an opportunity simply and effectively identify what they’re being signed up to.

  17. Tyler A. Says:

    @ Christopher E. – Amen! I was hoping someone would point this out.

    In this case, I have no sympathy for anyone who signed up for SavingsAce and here’s why:

    The VERY FIRST sentence before you enter your email address states, “Typing your e-mail address below will constitute your electronic signature and is your written authorization to charge/debit your account according to the Offer Details to the right.”

    I zoomed in on your image above to read the “Offer Details to the right,” and it took me less than 5 seconds to learn that this is a service that will charge $25 per month.

    If the author (or the countless other people who just click the ‘OK’ button to make it go away) would reallocate a minuscule fraction of the time it took to write this blog post to actually reading what they are presented on their screen, we wouldn’t have people screaming for new laws all of the time. When are people going to stop expecting the government to protect them from their own stupidity?

    Just because you don’t read doesn’t mean that you were defrauded.


  18. Gene Says:

    I usually catch this type of scam. I almost purchased software I didn’t want when I was buying something else. I didn’t notice the already checked box saying I wanted to spend more money to buy this software. That screen was so cluttered with stuff that I missed the area for my credit card verification number. Otherwise I would have unintentionally spent more money. I wound up not buying anything. I won’t do business with people like that.

    If you have a good product you don’t have to stoop to sneaky, unethical marketing practices.

    BEWARE: When you install IE 8. Microsoft does something similar. You might get a trial version of Office that expires in 30 days, unless you give them money. When YOU uninstall it, you lose the prior version of Office that you now must reinstall.

  19. Jo Mahma Says:

    One solution to this might be to use a credit card that provides “Virtual Account Number” services. Two banks that I believe provide this service are Citibank and Bank Of America – not sure who else. My experience with CitiVAN (Citibanks Virtual Account Number service) is as follows: You create a separate cc # for each transaction. You can provide a credit limit for just over the amount you are spending as well as set an expiration date for 1-12 months (1 month is default.) After the card has been used by a given merchant (Amazon, Apple, eBay, etc) the account CANNOT be used by any other merchant. (Attempts to utilize the card at another merchant are denied.) Worth a shot anyway. Screw those “companion marketing” schemers – limit your transactions! What burns me is that not ALL of my bank card merchants offer VAN services. (Grr.)

  20. Mark Says:

    That’s a 21st century hazzard. I think we’ve all been taken some time or other. We need a 30 day change your mind law for on-line sales and some kind mandatory “you’ve just opted to pay 24.95 a month fr this wonderfully wothless service pleas click to confirm” Write your congressman today!!!

  21. Craig Says:

    This is a problem that’s getting alot of attention lately.

    There’s an article about it at CNET here:

    I renewed my membership at today knowing I’d get directed to this page, so I knew what to expect.

    Still, it’s incredibly unethical and hopefully soon it’ll be illegal.

  22. Markus Says: did the same thing to me. Once I saw how it worked, it was easy enough to decline but it uses the same technique. If we tech wonks can get snookered, I can’t imagine how many normal folks get nailed.

  23. Elgog Partynipple Says:

    You might want to look at this aritcle from PRWEB.COM. Apparently SavingsAce is a leader in this type of marketing and is a hero in the Adaptive Marketing community. So there is an entire industry group out there applauding these deceptive marketing practices. It makes me sick. Apparently the Innovative marekting practices of SavingsAce (read that as amount of money ripped off consumers) surpass others in the industry.

  24. Nate Says:

    I’m truly disturbed at the number of comments saying something like “you should have read the fine print! Caveat emptor.” Do you really believe that the author of this post deserved what happened to him? What about people for whom English is a second language – do you think the page is laid out in a way to make it easy (or even possible) for them to understand what they’re signing up for? Do you applaud these companies for creating such a “creative” way to snare new customers? I don’t get it…
    Oh, and as for the suggestion of a one-time-use credit card – that won’t help you in this situation; SavingsAce would waste no time in unleashing a collections agency on you, and it would end up costing you a lot more, one way or another. One-time-use cards (which I think EVERY credit card ought to offer) are only good for a merchant that you suspect might “lose” or otherwise inappropriately use your CC info.

  25. Jack Kern Says:

    Caveat emptor be damned in this intentional scenario since it is specifically designed to mislead the consumer.

    Recent Facts:

    1) Jain, the CEO/Founder of Intellius has a long track record of deceptive practices, look for yourself.
    2) Intelius is being sued by a class-action suit in California
    3) Intelius is being sued by a class-action suit in its home state of Washington
    4) Intelius has been chastised by and is being investigated by the State Attorney General’s Office in Washington.
    5) Intelius has been called before a Congressional Committee in Washington DC to explain its deceptive practices.
    6) Intelius has made announcements that it is scaling back or ending its relationship with Adaptive Marketing, the company it pushes many of its unaware consumers to.

    Believe me, Harry is FAR from alone in his assessment.

  26. flared0ne Says:

    An interesting suggestion?? Someone should generate a list of the domain names associated with Intellius, Adaptive Marketing, SavingsAce, and all the companies mentioned in that CNet article about the Federal probe into this exact same activity — and then make it available as a simple “Add me to your HOSTS file” text file.

    Reading that CNET article was almost destructively informative — the list included companies I occasionally deal with and never would have suspected of “buying in” to windfall profits from “sheeple sheering”. And the worst part was finding out that the majority of the companies involved essentially responded “but it’s legal”, and basically indicated they didn’t feel any changes were really necessary. It was almost like hearing “we’re doing you a service if our cheating you serves to ‘inoculate’ you against the REAL evil predators lurking online.”

    Unfortunately, simply blocking access to the primary menaces behind the practice just doesn’t have that “satisfying” feel of providing up-front feedback to the “affiliate” companies directly — letting a company know that I’ve put them on “ignore” due to heinous practices should be a part of the bounced “reality check” these companies get back as a result of their loose-moraled interpretation of “THEIR own best interests” when it’s at my expense.

  27. PJ Garfield Says:

    Fight these charges. Savings ace does business in Nebraska, flood the Attorney Generals Office w ith complaints. John Bruning, Nebraska Attorney General…2115 State Capitol…Lincoln, NE 65809. Savinsace lists this as their address:

    9500 West Dodge Road
    Suite 100
    Omaha, NE 68114-3331

  28. Gil Morales Says:

    Savings Ace illegally takes your money. They are crooks. They need to be sued and stopped immediately from taking peoples money. They take money from your account and no one seems to be able to stop them. They have been illegally taking money from people for years. They stole over $300 from my account. I had to cancel my credit card to stop them. I am checking my account transactions daily.