Even the wary subject to scams

Most consumers are aware of the tenant that you do not have to pay for items you receive in the mail that you did not order. But what if the company sending you the unwanted merchandise already has your credit card or bank account information and won’t stop sending the items and billing you?

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That’s the situation many in the U.S. are finding themselves in lately, as consumers around the country – including local consumers – become unwitting victims of scams involving the popular acai berry and other health and weight-loss products. The scams have gotten so prevalent that the Better Business Bureau issued a warning to consumers on Jan. 5, on a national scale.

“BBB has received thousands of complaints from consumers nationwide who thought they were signing up for a free-trial offer of acai berry weight-loss products that were supposedly endorsed by Oprah, Rachel Ray and other celebrities; in the end, the free trial cost them, month after month,” the organization warned last week.

“BBB can’t speak to the restorative or weight loss properties of acai-based products, but we are taking companies to task for their misleading sales and marketing practices,” said Steve Cox, BBB spokesperson. “Many businesses across the country are using the same selling model for their acai products: they lure customers in with celebrity endorsements and free trial offers, and then lock them in by making it extremely difficult to cancel the automatic delivery of more acai products every month.”

Reports of consumers being ripped off by these scams are becoming increasingly prevalent on the Internet, as the consumers try to warn others off the scams and get some satisfaction after what has, in some cases, been fruitless hours of trying to get these unethical companies to stop billing them.

One of the companies involved is FX Supplements.com, a Web site selling products such as Acai Berry Maxx and Maxx Slim Hoodia. The company offers a “risk-free trial” of their products for the cost of shipping and handling. However, if consumers do not cancel within the trial period, they are sent additional bottles every month and are billed $85.90 for each. Complaints show that the trial period fluctuates between 10 and 14 days from when the consumer requested the free trial — not from when they received the product.

Many said they had difficulty canceling the subscription. Some made numerous calls to the phone number listed and found the number out of service, continually busy or were sent to voicemail. Some had a difficult time canceling their subscription via the e-mail provided. In some cases, the e-mail address did not work or the consumer continued to be billed even after multiple e-mails. Several customers reported that they were forced to close down bank accounts and cancel credit cards to stop recurring charges.

More than 1,400 complaints have been made about a company called Central Coast Nutraceuticals, which operates several Web sites selling acai, hoodia and male enhancement products. The company uses Oprah-endorsements of the acai berry in ads touting its weight-loss benefits and offers a free trial of acai-related products including supplements and tea. Due to the company’s operating model, if, after the free-trial, the consumer no longer wishes to receive a monthly supply they must cancel their subscription or they will be billed $40 monthly.

The complaints against this company all tell a similar tale of how difficult it was to contact the company and cancel the subscription — including enduring 75 minutes on hold. Additionally, consumers have complained of unauthorized charges on their credit card or bank accounts for products they did not order. Central Cost Nutraceuticals has earned an F grade from BBB for a large volume of unanswered and unresolved complaints.

Keep in mind that these are not the only two companies out there operating in this manner right now. Others selling the acai berry supplements are doing the same sorts of things, as are companies selling a variety of other supplements and weight-loss teas.

Even savvy consumers are finding themselves a victim of this kind of scam. And I’m afraid I have to count myself among the potential victims. (I’ll explain later why I say “potential”…)

I received a package last week that contained a small bottle of Acai Pure – apparently some acai berry pills. Now, I didn’t order these, since I have historically been a skeptic about the miraculous health benefits touted for any number of things and usually do some extensive research before I even consider eating/drinking/taking them.

I also don’t order things from Web sites that aren’t rather well established, with a good reputation for solid customer service. So, if I were going to order acai pills, I’d have ordered them from Amazon.com or something.

But – somehow – someone got my name and address and decided to send me a bottle of pills I didn’t order, with a note included that informed me it was a trial supply and that I needed to call to cancel my subscription to their product if I didn’t want to be billed further.

Well, you can be sure the first thing I did when I read that was call the number on the slip of paper (not a real receipt, even though I had supposedly been charged $3.95 for shipping and handling). The first thing I heard was a message saying that, due to tremendous response, the company had extended its operator hours. I waited for an automatic hang-up to indicate that I was calling outside those hours (even though I wasn’t), but I was soon speaking to a woman with an Indonesian accent. (And, oh, yes, but that spurred tremendous confidence in me about this company being in reach of U.S. authorities, despite the Florida address on the package…)

I reluctantly gave over my telephone number at her request but refused to confirm my name or address until the operator read it to me. Sure enough, she had all of my information right and connected to my phone number.

After informing her that I hadn’t ordered the pills – in a trial subscription or anything – I insisted that they send no further shipments and not charge me anything. She told me that the products had been ordered through their Web site but that no one there had any control over the Web site. She said she could cancel my subscription – which I pointedly reminded her was not “mine,” since I hadn’t ordered anything from them. Maybe someone else had placed an order on my behalf, she suggested, the ready answer implying that she’d had this conversation with others in the past.

She then confirmed that she had canceled the subscription, but she said she could not refund the $3.95 for shipping and handling of the trial bottle that she insisted had already been charged to my account. Well, I’d already checked my bank account online, and there was no charge for $3.95. I told her that she would need to refund any charges, because if she didn’t, I’d refute them with the bank and have them reversed, as well as making a complaint to the BBB and Attorney-General’s office. She simply said they’d already charged the $3.95 and could not refund it, since the pills had been shipped.

I packaged the bottle back up and wrote “Refused” and “Did Not Order” on the package, ready for the post office to send them back to where they allegedly came from, at the sender’s expense.

And, the very next morning, I went to my bank and filed a report on the apparent fraudulent charge of $3.95 (or more) that may or may not have been headed my way. I also canceled my debit card, just to be safe.

There’s no charge for $3.95 on my account, according to the bank’s records. The teller said they’ve had cases in the past when unscrupulous companies have charged for such unwanted products (who knows where they got the account information) and quickly reversed the charges when the consumer complained about the purported “subscription” – before they were even seen by a bank employee or the consumer themselves, in some cases.

Either way, I’m playing it safe. If they got my name, address and phone number from somewhere, it’s possible they also got my debit card information. And, meanwhile, I’m monitoring my account at least daily, to ensure there are no unauthorized charges that come through.

In the research I’ve done on this scam, I’ve found out that I’m hardly alone in having not even ordered these products but still having received them and been told I had been charged for the shipping and handling, though it seems most did order them and were actually charged.

Some consumers who said they didn’t order anything but still received the supposed “trial” have reported that they asked the operator for the credit card number that had supposedly been charged for the shipping and handling and were given digits that did not match any card of theirs.

That leaves them – and me – wondering if someone else’s credit card information is being used, and perhaps charged, or if the whole “trial” scam is really a ploy to try to get you to reveal your credit card number to thieves as you try to get to the bottom of the mysterious unrequested shipment. I was careful not to give them any further information when I called, and so far, there appears to be no real impact on my wallet from this particular scam. I’m not sure I can even legitimately call myself a “victim” of this scam, since they didn’t actually access any of my money.

But that they had my name, address and phone number leads me to believe my information was obtained from someone I had done business with in the past. Maybe that company’s records were compromised, or were sold to these scam artists when the company closed up shop. It doesn’t really matter, since the damage is done and I’ll have to live without my debit card for a couple weeks to ensure my money is really safe.

That I had to do so is, unfortunately, not only a warning about this current wave of scams but also a warning that even those who are savvy consumers and deal only with reputable companies can find themselves the target of a scam like this.

The real lesson is not only to be careful which companies you patronize – particularly if they’re trying to sell you miraculous health supplements – but to always keep a wary eye on what information you make available and to monitor your bank and credit card accounts regularly, even if you’re always a careful consumer, to catch potential fraud before significant damage is done.

And if you get unwanted items in the mail, don’t just keep them, as you may be legally permitted to do, but check to see if you might really be paying for them in ways that will come back to haunt you later.

Meanwhile, I’m going to be relying on PayPal and single-use credit card numbers for my future Internet purchases.

And note that if you’re still considering purchasing acai products or other similar products, the BBB recommends checking out the seller first. BBB maintains a free online database with more than 4 million reports on businesses at www.bbb.org. Additionally, consumers shopping online should look for the BBB seal on Web sites and click on the seal to confirm its legitimacy. And of course, consumers can always contact BBB directly with questions, concerns and complaints. I’ve got one headed their way right now.