Confessions of a Vertrue call-center operator

By Felix Salmon
June 9, 2011
Ben Stein's sleazy paymasters, as a Customer Care Assistant.

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I had a fascinating conversation this afternoon with someone I’ll call Casey, who spent most of the past two years working for Adaptive Marketing, a/k/a Vertrue, a/k/a Ben Stein’s sleazy paymasters, as a Customer Care Assistant. Casey’s job was, essentially, to spend 40 hours a week, at $9 an hour, being abused by people who found out that they were being charged $29.95 a month on their credit card for a service they’d never heard of and had no idea they’d ever signed up for.

Needless to say, this is not a great job. But Adaptive Marketing didn’t make it any better: they ran the call center in a highly authoritarian and draconian fashion, monitoring every call and disciplining anybody who cancelled a contract without the requisite authority to do so. “It’s a fearful and autocratic environment,” said Casey. “Every day I would go to work thinking it would be my last day.”

Casey did reveal to me the magic words you need to say to a call center operator if you want a refund of the charges made to your credit card. Once you’re through to a call-center operator, canceling your account is easy — they’ll do that no questions asked, and won’t even try to keep or upsell you. But getting a refund is harder.

Here’s how it works: if you see a charge on your credit card and you want your money back, the trick is to threaten legal action. If you say that you’re going to sue, or that you’re going to your local attorney general, or anything along those lines, then presto your refund is on its way. Look at the transcript of a typical conversation which took place between Delci Lev and a call center supervisor named Teresa:

Supervisor: Your account is cancelled and you will no longer be charged.

Ms Lev: And credited.

Supervisor: The terms and conditions to which you agreed stated that you are not entitled to receive…

Ms Lev: No I didn’t sign anything…

Supervisor: …any refunds at the point of cancellation.

Ms Lev: Okay. Here we go, Attorney General, Department of Consumer Affairs. You got it Teresa. What’s your number?

Supervisor: As a confirmation of this call?

Ms Lev: No what is your…

Supervisor: My name is Teresa. My ID number is 153051. You will receive your two credits within two business days and you will no longer be charged.

Teresa steadfastly refused to budge on the refund (this passage comes on page three of the transcript) until the magic words were uttered — “Attorney General”. The minute that happened, bingo, “You will receive your two credits within two business days.” (Incidentally, Teresa subsequently quit the company, fed up with how horrible her job was.)

Threatening legal escalation isn’t the only way to get a refund — you can also say that you’re bankrupt, in other dire financial straits, or that there’s been a death in the family. But it’s the easiest.

The problems arise when you want a refund of more than six months’ worth of charges — at that point you’re likely to be told that you need to write a letter to Adaptive Marketing’s administrative offices in Omaha. And those calls come in quite frequently: Casey told me that Vertrue made a point of targeting elderly people in general, and seniors in assisted-living facilities in particular, because they tend to get confused or forget what they’ve signed up for. Often the calls would come in only after they died, from people going through their accounts, discovering thousands of dollars in monthly charges going back five years or longer.

In any event, there’s always two hurdles to clear: you need to threaten legal action and you need to ask for a refund. One or the other, on its own, will never suffice. And if you want a refund for multiple months, you need to ask for that, too: give Vertrue half a chance, and they’ll refund only the most recent charge. Casey was frank: “Most people we got were very dumb.” Vertrue makes money by ripping off people who aren’t particularly smart, and don’t have the imagination to ask for multiple refunds rather than one. And Casey’s job was to get them off the line before they realized that they were still out hundreds of dollars, even after one month’s refund — or no refund at all, just a cancellation.

Meanwhile, Vertrue’s freescore.com site — the one shilled by Ben Stein — is still up and running and still breaking the law, a full year after the law went into effect. Why it isn’t being prosecuted for this I have no idea. But Vertrue’s business is clearly on the decline, as it gets attacked by class-action suits and state attorneys general from around the country. When Casey joined there were 150 people in the call center; today, that’s down to about a dozen, and employees are being sent home for lack of anything to do. Those half-hour wait times, it seems, are a thing of the past — as is Vertrue’s business model.

Vertrue is owned by a group of private equity investors led by One Equity Partners, the private equity arm of JP Morgan. I hope they managed to dividend out of it much less money than the $800 million they bought it for. Because at this point it’s undoubtedly worth only a tiny fraction of that sum — if it’s worth anything at all. They don’t even have Ben Stein on the freescore.com homepage any more.

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