Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hearing Ain't Believing

Earlier today, while listening to my local classical music affiliate at work, I heard a very odd advertisement. It started out with the digitally altered voice of who I presume was a voice actor (but I could be wrong), a man, describing how he was a sex offender who had been convicted and imprisoned in 1995 but who had just been released from prison and was moving into a neighborhood near the listener soon. Now generally people disguise their voices when they don't want to be recognized by someone, but I think this particular bit of theater might have had more to do with what was coming next, that being the narrator describing and recommending a new program called "" which purports to provide detailed information on the whereabouts of sex offenders in a subscriber's community. Of course, it doesn't require all that much scrutiny to realize that this service isn't actually free. What you get for "free" (after you sign up for a trial membership) is something called a "sex offender report" which I assume provides you with a list of names and addresses and other identifying information for sex offenders in your neighborhood. But this site appears to be merely a front for another website detailing something called a "family safety report", which is the service you are actually subscribing to. From what I gather, this service tracks sex offenders moving in and out of neighborhoods at addresses the subscriber provides; it's essentially an automated sex offender tracking service, as they do the work for you and contact you with the requested information.

Now all of that sounds very innocuous (if an odd thing to hear advertised on a classical music station between cheery Christmas-themed commercials) but I get a little suspicious when I begin to see very generically designed website with multiple urls that lead you to what is essentially all the same site (even if they have the TRUSTe seal.) In my online experience, that's never a sign of someone who has the highest of motivations. A little bit more digging around reveals that "family safety report" is actually a program marketed by a company called Adaptive Marketing LLC. A quick Google search of Adapative Marketing reveals that this company has been accused of some very shady business practices and in fact, is now facing a class action lawsuit for unauthorized billing of subscribers for services they did not sign up for. From the website of the firm that filed the suit:

Defendants have established one of the largest unauthorized consumer billing operations in the United States through the placement of internet advertising on various legitimate (and illegitimate) websites. VistaPrint’s advertisements purport to sell graphic design and customized printed products, while Vertrue and Adaptive Marketing purport to sell membership programs that provide discounts on various consumer goods and services. Because there is limited demand for VistaPrint’s products and no legitimate demand for Adaptive Marketing’s membership programs, Defendants’ internet websites and advertisements serve as a pretext for gaining access to consumers’ confidential financial information in order to charge unauthorized fees.

In fact, consumers rarely order products from VistaPrint and almost never legitimately join any of Adaptive Marketing’s various membership programs, nor do they authorize Defendants to charge their credit cards or debit from their bank accounts any moneys. When consumers contact Defendants to request that they remove and refund the unauthorized fees charged to their credit cards, they are given the runaround, and are unable to obtain refunds of the unauthorized charges. Put differently, the success of all four of Defendants’ business models depends on "cramming" consumers with membership charges, which all Defendants are able to do when consumers innocently visit and order printing products from

Adapative Marketing then is a subsidiary of a company called Vertrue, a third-party affiliate of an otherwise legitimate British online printing company called VistaPrint Limited and its U.S. subsidiary VistaPrint USA, Inc. Allgedly VistaPrint, in the process of selling cards and other printed products to its customers, collects the customers information which it then sells (I assume) to Vertrue, which then posts charges for other programs it offers that the customer never subscribed to (and that nobody in their right mind would subscribe to, for that matter.)

Just browsing around I did not find any reports of the opposite taking place; that is, I didn't find reports that Adaptive Marketing charges purchasers of the Family Safety Report without permission for any of their other programs, but I'm going to speculate that that's because the report is a relatively new product (as evidenced by what little I could find about it online.) Or at least, an old product with a new name, which wouldn't surprise me. 

Anyway, we don't really run a version of "investigative reports" around here or anything. But the ad was so odd, and what turned up in an initial search so insubstantial, that it was impossible to resist the temptation to dig a little deeper and post what I found. Caveat emptor and all that, but I wouldn't do business with these people. In Texas at least, if you are genuinely concerned about the presence of sex offenders in your neighborhood, the Texas Dept. of Public Safety provides a service online (for free) that allows you to look up sex offenders in your neighborhood. Or visit Family Watchdog, a legitimate service that (for free) provides information on where sex offenders are living all over the country.

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