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 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 homepage any more.


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Another refund option is to go through your credit card company.

Posted by GlibFighter | Report as abusive

“Why it isn’t being prosecuted for this I have no idea.”
It doesn’t help that we have a president who is a deer frozen by the headlights.

Posted by walt9316 | Report as abusive

I love people who happily take their paycheck, and then bemoan how oppressive it was to earn their money. Can you imagine – “Every day I would go to work thinking it would be my last day.” That’s kind of the way it is in the private sector, Casey. Unless you’re a tenured government employee, you can always be fired – and it sounds like you were

Posted by annies | Report as abusive

” a full year after the law went into effect. Why it isn’t being prosecuted for this I have no idea.”

Funny…we have supposedly all these consumer protection laws, state attoney generals, BBB, ad infinitum. But if you ever actually try and use them, they pretty much all practice what the banks with regard to refinancing your mortgage practice. Gee, we lost your paperwork. Send it in again, – Gee, we lost your paperwork.
Complain about losing paperwork. You must send in a written complaint. Gee, we lost your paperwork….about losing your paperwork…
Who can fire somebody or make something really happen – nobody – BECAUSE NOTHING IS DESIGNED TO HAPPEN!

Posted by fresnodan | Report as abusive

I can’t help but wonder if we wouldn’t be better off ELIMINATING consumer protections? They have almost no teeth anyways, so the comfort they offer is illusory.

If you eliminate protections, people might be forced to assume that all advertised claims are lies — which isn’t quite accurate, but closer to reality than assuming that they are all true.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

well, maybe, just maybe, we can return to the age of personal responsibility where individuals are responsible for their own decisions. Why we need all of these bloated government agencies to protect people from themselves is beyond me. Personal responsibility for your own decisions — that seems to be gone — particularly under this nanny state administration

Posted by annies | Report as abusive

I believe in personal responsibility too, however it is a shame that holding the buffoons responsible for running schemes by giving them time in prison and taking any proceeds is difficult. It takes years to gather evidence, organize evidence for a coherent case, indict the offenders, try the individuals in court, and finally allow these offenders to run through their appeals and complete their sentence.

I suppose the alternative, taking these individuals into an alley and ensuring they do not leave said alley might seem faster and more just, however, I doubt that society would be even be livable, much less better, if justice were dispensed in this manner.

Removing apparently ineffective consumer protections might seem like a good idea when incidents like this appear. I can assure you that without government enforcing at least some order there is only one way to go, down, way way down.

Posted by gabelr | Report as abusive

The suggestion to remove consumer protections was largely tongue-and-cheek, though I am concerned that the regulators are frequently in bed with the industries they supposedly regulate.

We do need to be more cautious (paranoid?) consumers, though. Teach your kids from a young age that advertising is all lies — and point out the many ways in which ads do so (while staying within those very loose “consumer protections).

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

I also worked at VerTrue (back when it was called Memberworks,a name they used before one of their bankruptcies). I understand they have filed bankruptcy again recently. I can assure you that everything stated by Theresa is correct; however, they are so good at what they do, many potential ‘members’ unwittingly became members. I cancelled memberships for my cousin who is an attorney, doctors….even my own highly educated daughter (who had been specifically warned). I gave my supervisor a 2 weeks’ notice, which we agreed would be ‘kept under our hat’. During those 2 weeks, she and I cancelled and fully refunded memberships for everyone we knew PLUS we cancelled and refunded every citizen of a small town that had been flattened by a tornado. After I left, I would periodically call to get other people cancelled that I had originally forgotten. Think of it as a Schindlers List type of operation. (They eventually caught on that it was me.) The long-wait times were designed, I believe, to discourage people from calling. Also, the company phone number that appeared on the ‘member’s’ credit card bill did not look like a phone number. They were/are a despicable company.

Posted by honestart | Report as abusive

Another note: It does no good to go thru your credit card company to get a refund……since they are in compliance with what is being done. They simply referred you to us. I was on a team of membership reps working specifically with the customers of a well-known credit card comnpany.

Posted by honestart | Report as abusive

My wife recently discovered that she was a victim of Vertrue’s scams. Over several years they were deducting between $18- $35 each month, amounts and names changing on credit card statements, one such was MVQ Shopessentials. After reaching their call center in Neb. they agreed to refund a minute fraction of the total amount stollen of $1360.
I continued to pursuit and seeing that I was getting nowhere with Vertrue Inc. and realizing they were under law suit by AG’s of numerous states, BBB rating of “F” and virtually an $800 million company of sewer rats, I decided to give up! NO not really. I then approached Barclays Bank (issuer of the credit card) and after many letters and phone calls and emails, they reimbursed us half the stollen amount. But I was not going to be happy with just half that was stollen.
So more calls to Barclay’s Security Dept., letters to their CEO, agreement to meat with NBC News regarding the situation, Barclays then refunded the full $1360 that Vertrue stole from my wife.

I am absolutely amazed that this company (with several subsidiaries, apparently just as fraudulent) with all its lawsuits and bankrupts, it is still able to steal from unsuspecting consumers. Wow what a country. If you can steal enough to hire enough lawyers, you can go on for years and years. Company started in the 80′s by Gary A. Johnson founder and CEO. Harvard MBA. Evidently he skipped the classes on business ethics.

Posted by Persistent | Report as abusive