(DES MOINES, Iowa) Attorney General Tom Miller Tuesday filed a lawsuit against a Texas membership club, alleging the company used unfair and deceptive sales tactics to charge Iowans monthly fees for unwanted and unused memberships.
The lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court against Stonebridge Benefit Services, Inc., a Delaware Corporation headquartered in Plano, Texas, alleges the company violated Iowa’s Consumer Fraud Act and Buying Club Memberships law. The Buying Club Memberships law requires that membership sales transactions include specified notices, disclosures, and contracts.
“We allege that Iowans have paid for buying club memberships that they didn’t know they had and probably never used,” said Miller.
According to Miller’s lawsuit, Stonebridge has sold more than 50,000 memberships to Iowans, generating net revenues of about $4 million. Iowans who have contacted the Consumer Protection Division have claimed that they were enrolled in memberships without their knowledge or permission, and consumers later discovered that they had been billed for months or even years of unused memberships.
The memberships purport to offer savings on consumer goods, health and wellness products, and entertainment expenses. Stonebridge has marketed several membership clubs, including: BackPorch Home and Garden, Everyday Bargains, Experts-on-Call, Fun Family Rewards/Select, Home & Auto Protection Plan, LeisurePlus/Select, MotorPlus, Perfect Home Rewards/Select, Pet Club, PlanPlus/Select, Savings Solution, and Savings2Go.
In many cases, according to Miller’s lawsuit, Stonebridge attracted consumers with free gift card or “cash back” offers to Iowans who placed online orders through other companies, such as JCPenney, or through telephone orders generated from television “infomercials.” Consumers were then enrolled in a membership program and billed monthly, often without their knowledge and consent. According to the lawsuit, many of these consumers are older Iowans.
In a separate buying club membership case in March a Polk County Judge ordered Connecticut-based Vertrue, Inc. to pay more than $28 million in restitution, penalties and costs after ruling the corporation violated Iowa’s buying club law and used deceptive and unfair practices to market so-called buying club memberships to nearly a half-million Iowans over the last twenty years. Vertrue has appealed the judgment.
“Free Trial Offer” Tips
- Be wary of “free trial offers". Get the details: Will you be billed automatically if you don’t cancel? By when must you cancel? How do you cancel? Will you receive a mail notice? Remember, they already may have your bank or credit card number to charge you.
- Examine your credit card bills every month, and also your checking account, other financial accounts, and phone bills. Watch for unauthorized charges, and dispute them at once, in writing.
- Watch your mail and e-mail for notices that you will be billed unless you cancel. These mailings may look like “junk mail.”
- Beware of cashing a check that comes in the mail with a “free trial offer.” The fine print may obligate you to future payments.
For more information or to file a complaint, contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division through the Attorney General’s website at www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.gov or e-mail directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consumers can also call the Consumer Protection Division at 515-281-5926, or outside the Des Moines area, toll free, at 1-888-777-4590.