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The Boston Globe

Business

CONSUMER ALERT

Some online deals make customers pay and pay

Hundreds of thousands of consumers have recurring credit card charges from a tangle of shady self-help websites that bill them monthly and typically shut down when complaints start pouring in, according to a credit card monitoring company.

These sites - more than 350 of them - count on consumers to pay credit card bills without carefully examining their statements, allowing charges to recur, said Yaron Samid, chief executive of BillGuard.com. BillGuard is a free service that examines credit and debit card charges of registered users and flags those that look suspicious or have generated complaints on social networks and websites. Samid said consumers are usually surprised when recurring charges are flagged, unaware that they had signed up for such programs.

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It typically works this way: Someone goes to a site and orders a “free trial’’ of a diet product, anti-aging cream, or self-help program. What they don’t realize is that they are signing up for a so-called negative option - a tactic that puts the onus on the consumer to cancel an order. If consumers don’t, they start ringing up monthly charges ranging from about $49 to $99.

Consumer Alert called several of the sites. Calls either went unanswered or the line was disconnected. The site owners also paid a fee to obscure domain registration information, which normally includes a name, phone number, and address.

Once analysts at BillGuard started looking into these charges they noticed similarities. The sites share templates and tactics. Their computer servers are overseas. Even when a consumer tries to cancel, Samid said, it is rare that they actually reach someone.

Billing that appears on credit card statements shows up under different names - sometimes a website, sometimes a credit card processing company, sometimes other handles. And when consumers begin to catch on, the sites close and new ones take their places. “It’s a very organized scam,’’ Samid said.

If you find one of these questionable charges on your bill, dispute it immediately and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission or the FBI’s online complaint site, IC3.gov.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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