Customers are not Kings, but Prey
Consumers are supposed to be what drives the economy, and to make sure that they are not taken advantage of we have advertising standards and consumer protection laws. In reality, however, they are free game for unscrupulous traders wanting to maximise profits. Because our twisted monetary system ensures that there is not enough spending power to buy the goods we produce, consumers have to be enticed into parting with their cash or, more likely, the money they don't even have. The trader will not only sell you the goods but also the finance, both at inflated prices. Store cards with exorbitant interest rates and "interest-free" offers which revert to usurious retrospective loans if not repaid on the dot abound on the high street.
As the high street is finding it increasingly difficult to survive in the face of online competition, advertising and marketing strategists also turn their attention to online customers. Here too, the free offer with strings attached is a convenient ploy to rob shoppers of the cash they don't have and can't afford spending. When consumers are conned into signing up to a deal too good to be true it is often blamed on the rogue elements in the industry, insinuating that respectable companies would not behave like that. Yet it is the allegedly respectable companies who keep the cowboys in business with the latter serving as a bait for the former.
Here is an example: A Chicago based company "I-Deal Direct, Inc." is pulling in unsuspecting customers for British High Street businesses. Under the UK domain name "ConsumerSavingCentre.co.uk" they do not offer savings but entice the public to gamble away their money by chasing an illusive "free offer". The scam starts with a popup asking you to vote whether you support Tony Blair or not, and given the strength of feeling about his incompetence and dishonesty, I am sure plenty of people will voice their opinion. You are then directed to a "free laptop" offer and assured that you will get a high-spec laptop for nothing provided you meet all the conditions, which means to "complete" a number of sponsored offers. The sponsors, it is said, cover the cost for the laptop, but don't fret, I doubt whether the actual laptop has cost them a penny yet since it is highly unlikely that any have ever been dispatched.
Completing an offer means signing up for a payable service or free trial offer, the latter only being free, of course, if you remember to cancel your subscription on time. As with the interest-free finance by high street stores mentioned above, the hope is that people forget and then pay through their nostrils. On the cleverly designed ConsumerSavingsCentre website you are asked to complete first 2 "Silver offers", then 2 "Gold offers" and finally 1 "Platinum" offer – that is a total of 5 potential purchasing contracts. It is said that the sign-up information from sponsors will be recorded and within some 4 weeks you would be notified of your "approved" status by way of a certificate. This you must print out and post to Chicago within 60 days, and 6-8 weeks you should have your laptop. You wish!
If you make it to the final page of offers, you will find that unlike the previous ones which had a "Next" button, this one only has a "Previous" one, plus a link to "Other Bonus Offers" for those stupid enough to carry on wasting their time and money. Should you wish to send the company an email, you can do so via an online form, but the email will bounce back as undeliverable. They hope that you are trusting and won't find out, however, by waiting and forgetting, as their terms and conditions state: "We will not respond to inquiries regarding offer status until 30 days after you have attempted to complete an offer."
Whilst this kind of operation has the same sort of impropriety attached to it as the scam emails you might find in your inbox (telling you that you have won the lottery but must first pay some money to release your funds, or the endless variations of the "Sir, I am the widow of the late leader of the Banana Republic of Gotcha and have more money than I would ever want to have, so why don't you send me all your bank details plus authorisation, and I will share my wealth with you"), there is a major difference. This unsavoury scheme is supported by sponsors who all claim to be respectable businesses abiding by a proper code of conduct. Here is the hall of shame for the fraudster scheme described earlier:
Screen Select DVD rentals, Vodafone, Blockbuster Movies, Lloyds TSB Insurance, uSwitch.com (a service offering a helping hand in switching to a different household energy provider), Zurich insurance, TalkTalk, Ebay, JackPotJoy, The Phone Spot, Bingos.co.uk, Betfair.com, AOL Broadband Silver, One Stop Phone Shop, GameAccount.com, The Biggest Looser Club (no, this is not a hint about where you end up if you hunt for free offers, this one is about losing weight!), Totesport.com, Audible.com, Hotels.com UK, Weightwatchers, and Screentrade.co.uk.
A complaint to Trading Standards, the UK watchdog or regulatory body resulted in the polite reply that the matter would be further investigated but that there was no obligation on their part, to report back on the issue. Legally, if you have fallen for the prank, you have not parted with any money or bought any goods from ConsumerSavingCentre, therefore you cannot be afforded any protection since your consumer rights cannot seriously have been infringed. That Trading Standards would take any action on their own accord is highly unlikely since their funding is tiny compared to that of the heavy-weight businesses trying to land a catch through illegitimate practices. When it comes to greed and money there is no such thing as high morals. Mainstream businesses might prefer for some front company to do the dirty work for them, and they will pay them handsomely provided they produce profitable results, by hook or by crook.