Florida AG investigating Smart Savings Center and Best Brand Values; customers say 'deceiving'

Buyers say Boca Raton based company 'deceiving'

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Many people head to the internet, instead of stores, to find a good deal. Shopping online can be quick and easy, but hundreds of people are saying it was anything but easy.

They couldn't get answers, so the Contact 5 investigators got answers for them.

When Deborah Chapman went online to buy a book for her daughter, she clicked on more than she bargained for. "I felt deceived," she said.

And she's not alone. More than a hundred complaints have been filed with the Palm Beach County Consumer Affairs office from people across the country; from as far away as Kansas City, KS and Indianapolis, IN.

They "outta be brought down," Chapman said. "It shouldn't be allowed to continue. The really frustrating thing is, they're right here in Boca, I mean their address is Yamato Road."

Two states have even stepped in to get money back for customers: Florida and Iowa.

Despite all of this, the complaints are still coming in and a lot of the complaints are about the same thing. A membership fee.

When Deborah Chapman bought her book from DiscountBookSale.com, it showed up a few days later. The book was called "Do Hard Things." She didn't realize how hard it would be when she looked at her credit card bill four months later.

The actual cost of the book was $6.61 when she first purchased it from the website. Months later she ended up spending $144. 53 for that one book. Why? She didn't just buy a  book. She signed up for a "buying club membership" that charged her credit card every month.

"There was no way when you purchased the book (that) you were aware of this," she said. "Except in very little print at the very end of the transaction."

The company operates more than six different websites, including HotMovieSale.com and HotBookSale.com.
 
On these websites, when you agree to buy something at the lower price, you're also agreeing to a "Best Brand Values" or a "Smart Savings Center" membership, which can cost you up to $20 a month in membership fees.

After weeks of calling the company, the Contact 5 Investigators showed up at the company's headquarters and eventually sat down with an attorney associated with the websites.

"Short of coming through the computer and waving at someone, it's very difficult to make people read," Jennifer Miller, an attorney associated with the websites said.

Florida's Attorney General stepped in back in 2010 and reached a settlement with the sites to pay back more than $7,000 to consumers.

Click here to read the settlement from the Florida Attorney General.

"It's just a slap on the hand," Chapman said. "I bet that didn't hurt them financially, cause they're continuing to do it."

As part of the Florida agreement, the company also agreed to make changes to its websites. It enlarged the size of the membership wording, now requires customers to check extra boxes before checking out and there's a "trial" membership offered that can be canceled within seven days, free of charge.

"The fine print is almost the same size as the rest of the words on the page," Miller said.

The changes weren't enough for the Iowa Attorney General. This summer Iowa also reached a settlement with the company, getting consumers back more than $130,000.

Click here to read the settlement with the Iowa Attorney General.

In an interview with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, the Contact 5 Investigators asked how he feels about the way the company conducts its online business.

"It's to trick people and fool people and cheat people," Miller said.

During the course of our Contact 5 Investigation, we learned that the Florida Attorney General is currently investigating the company.

"We are currently investigating the matter to determine whether a violation of the settlement agreement has occurred," a spokesperson for the Florida Attorney General told us in an e-mail.

When asked if the company has violated its agreement with the State of Florida, Miller said, "absolutely not."

She said there are still complaints from customers because "people still don't read. That's the bottom line."

The company says it does have many members who use the site to buy items in bulk to get a good discount. It also says its willing to talk to customers about refunds, including the customers we spoke with in our story.

Investigative Producer Lynn Walsh contributed to this story.
 

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