As part of its probe into whether online "discount clubs" trick consumers into subscribing, the Senate Commerce Committee has asked Affinion to provide detailed information about how it enrolls new members.
"According to the Better Business Bureau, a number of media reports, and other online sources, consumers regularly complain that your company charges their credit card or debit card on a monthly basis for services that they are not aware they have purchased," committee chair John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said in a letter to Affinion president Nathaniel Lipman.
In May, the committee asked two other companies in the post-transaction space, WebLoyalty and Vertrue, for similar information. These and other post-transaction companies typically send pop-up ads to consumers who have just made an e-commerce purchase. In Affinion's case, the pop-ups are sent to people after they've visited sites like Staples.com, Priceline.com and Classmates.com, according to Rockefeller's letter. The ads typically promise discounts and people who click through land on a site where they can enroll in coupon programs. Once people enroll, the e-commerce sites share credit/debit card information with the post-transaction companies, which then begin charging consumers monthly fees in exchange for sending them coupons and discounts.
The enrollment pages state that customers' credit cards will be charged, but some people allege they don't see that information in advance. The Better Business Bureau reported last year that it had received more than 1,800 complaints about Affinion subsidiary Trilegiant. "Most complainants state that they were shocked when they discovered unwanted charges on their credit card for membership services such as 'Shoppers Advantage,' 'Privacy Guard' or 'Great Fun.' Charges ranged from $12 to as much as $59.99 every month," the Better Business Bureau stated.
Affinion spokesperson James Hart said the company requires consumers to create a user name and a password for their accounts and that the sign-up form is accompanied by multiple placements of terms and conditions. The company also stated that it believes "any examination will recognize that the products, services and benefits we offer to consumers provide clear terms and exceptional value."
WebLoyalty requires consumers to enter their e-mail addresses twice and then hit a "yes" button to enroll. Among other information, Rockefeller has requested that Affinion provided information including lists of all online business partners, the number of consumers who have subscribed and records of complaints. Hart said Affinion is reviewing the request and expects to cooperate.