A Florida-based internet retailer has agreed to refund more than $252,000 in “membership fees” it improperly charged 5,233 Oregonians over the last five years as part of a settlement with the Oregon Department of Justice.
Best Brand Values and a host of related companies sold heavily discounted books, movies and other goods on the Web. During the course of these transactions, often when customers clicked on a blinking “free shipping” icon, they were automatically enrolled in a shopping club. Afterward, the company electronically billed the consumers’ credit, debit card or bank account $10-$20 a month.
This was a classic “negative option” case, in which a consumer is hit with small, easy-to-overlook, automatically recurring charges for a service or membership they often didn’t request.
The monthly fees were small, but they added up. Some of the Oregon customers paid more than $1,000 over time.
DOJ investigators found that most of the local customers weren’t aware they were being regularly billed for the membership, a fact that negative option perpetrators count on.
“This case illustrates one of the perils of the internet economy,” said Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. “Consumers can make themselves vulnerable with the click of a mouse. Constant vigilance is the best defense. Oregonians need to closely track their monthly credit card and bank records to ensure they’re not being taken advantage of.”
A claims administrator is mailing claim forms to eligible victims of this operation. They will have 60 days to sign and return the form in order to get a refund. If a consumer receives a form in the mail, that means the company has previously charged the consumer a membership fee, even if the consumer was unaware of it.
Best Brand Values and several affiliate companies do business in Oregon through the following websites: BestBrandValues.com, SmartSavingsCenter.com, Nuvalife.com, DiscountBookSale.com, Discount MovieSale.com, DiscountPosterSale.com, TopMusicZone.com, HotBookSale.com, HotMovieSale.com and SmartGameShopper.com.
DOJ investigators traced the websites to Boca Raton, Fla.-based entrepreneur Robert Oesterlund and his manager Frederick Middleton.
In addition to refunding Oregon customers, Best Brand Values also agreed to pay $300,000 to the Department of Justice Protection and Education Account. The company also agreed to alter their websites to more clearly warn consumers about membership fees and to make it easier for consumers to reject membership.