Just say 'no' to telephone solicitors

Clinic owners describe latest scheme involving Discover, Legal Club of America

August 23, 2010 (published)
By Edie Lau

For veterinary clinic staff geared toward customer service, this advice is contrary to training in courteous phone manners but critical for evading telemarketing scam artists:

Never say “yes.”

Practice owners have for years reported becoming ensnared by telemarketing schemes in which solicitors trick unwitting receptionists or other staff who are trying to be agreeable into buying a product or service. Then charges come buried in the clinic’s telephone bill or credit card or merchant services account statement, sometimes month after month, and pursuing a refund can be a big headache.

Although the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has prosecuted some outfits that use deceptive sales tactics, new players continually crop up. The latest such scheme, according to members of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), involve Discover and Legal Club of America.

In a discussion begun earlier this year, members of the online professional community VIN reported that their clinics have been receiving calls from solicitors who cite an affiliation with the business’s Discover merchant services account in order to sell memberships in Legal Club of America.

Dr. Alice Groner, owner of Woodland Animal Hospital in Jefferson City, Mo., described the gambit this way:

“Legal Club of America likes to make cold calls to merchants to ‘verify’ basic information about the business, i.e., address, phone numbers, etc. If they get a couple of ‘yes’ answers they then dub (those answers) into their sales script to ‘prove’ that my business  authorized these services.”

Another practice owner, Dr. John Carey of Westgate Pet Clinic in Madison, Wisc., related this exchange with a telemarketer:

“The guy said that there was some $29.95 per month fraud protection service that he ‘wanted to send some information about,’ then he wanted to record my responses, and then he said, ‘Don’t worry about what I say in the last part because you aren’t committing to anything today even though it might sound like it.’ Well, it didn’t just ‘sound like it,’ he said, ‘You are signing up for this service.’ So I didn’t say yes. I asked him why he was asking me to commit to a service instead of just sending me info. He went through the same spiel, saying, ‘You must not have understood my explanation’ and then ran through the same exact script.”

Carey told the caller he was being dishonest. “He then repeated that I had misunderstood and that I should say yes to the script,” Carey recalled. Carey told the caller, “No thank you,” and hung up.

Legal Club of America attorney Robby Birnbaum returned a telephone call from the VIN News Service Thursday and asked that questions be submitted by e-mail. He did not respond to two messages as of Monday morning.

Laura Gingiss, a spokeswoman for Discover, confirmed by e-mail that Legal Club of America “does market certain programs to Discover merchants. However,” she said, “the telemarketers are required to provide our merchants with clear disclosure of the terms and conditions of the programs they offer. Additionally, merchants who agree to enroll in the program are provided follow-up written disclosures about the terms of the programs with their welcome kit. If, at any time, merchants question the calls they receive from telemarketers calling on behalf of Discover, we invite them to call us directly for confirmation.”

Gingiss declined to answer questions on the nature of Discover’s relationship with Legal Club of America, including whether Discover receives a commission from Legal Club sales to its merchant account holders.

She also declined to comment on whether it was appropriate for Legal Club to obtain authorization for purchases from anyone other than an account holder.

Carey, the practice owner in Wisconsin, was satisfied by Discover’s response when he called its customer service department to discuss the telemarketing call. “The person I talked to ... handled it very well,” Carey said in an interview by e-mail. “She also seemed quite familiar with the Legal Club. She said that some customers are quite happy with the service but she would be sure that it would not appear on my bill and it did not.”

Others have been less pleased with Discover.

Groner, the veterinarian in Missouri, said she did not discover the Legal Club monthly fee of $39.95 on her Discover merchant services account statement until six months after the charges began.

“When I called Discover I was initially told by the service rep that they could do nothing about this as they were only a third-party biller,” she wrote in a VIN post.

Groner contacted Legal Club of America, which she said tried to demonstrate it had received authorization for the charge by playing back a recorded telephone call that went something like this:

Salesperson: Are you an authorized agent for Animal Hospital?
Receptionist: Yes
Salesperson: Do you agree to membership in the Legal Club of America?
Receptionist: Yes

“I told them this was fraud and they knew it,” Groner wrote. “This is my merchant account and no one has authorization over this account but me. They finally agreed to reimburse me half the total but this was the best they could do. I told them this was not good enough, called Discover Card Services again and told them I would no longer be taking Discover card if the total amount was not reimbursed due to their blatant, unethical and fraudulent business practices. Hmmm — they quickly said they would credit the total amount back to my account.”

Groner accepts some responsibility for the episode because she’s familiar with such telemarketer tactics and failed to warn her receptionist, a new employee at the time. “However, when you have a new receptionist in training, it’s not the first thing you think of,” Groner told the VIN News Service. “You want them to be customer-friendly and to give out information.”

She acknowledged that she should have watched her statements more vigilantly, as well. At the same time, she and others pointed out, statements from companies that process customer credit-card payments for merchants typically show a long mishmash of entries printed in small type, making it easy to overlook a fee.

VIN members are not alone in their negative experiences with Legal Club of America and Discover. A search of the Internet turns up sites with similar complaints posted.

For Dr. Wes Borgman, owner of Seminole Animal Hospital in Sanford, Fla., descriptions of Legal Club’s telemarketing technique are distressingly familiar. A couple of years ago, his clinic was “bombarded” by callers who claimed to be verifying information for business directories, he said.

“Of course you want people to know where you are and who you are,” Borgman said. “...We’d get these calls and not knowing what they were, we’d go ahead and verify.”

Then one day, Borgman’s wife, a certified public accountant who holds an MBA, discovered a $59 charge on the clinic telephone bill purportedly for technical support. Borgman called the telephone company to inquire, and was referred to the company that placed the charge on the phone bill. That company said his business ordered the service. It provided him a telephone number with an access code to hear a recording of the transaction being authorized.

“There was an actual recording of one of our front desk persons talking to another person on the phone,” Borgman said. “They edited it down to her saying she was an employee of this business, and he said, ‘You’re agreeing to—’ and then it cuts to a recorded description of the service. It’s a different voice and everything. It sounds like a radio announcer telling you the small details. So they give that and the recording cut off and that was it. She (actually) said right after, ‘No! No! I didn’t agree to that.’ That part was cut off.”

Ultimately, because the employee was not authorized to order services on behalf of the clinic, Borgman said, the charges were reversed. But it took negotiating several layers of bureaucracy to accomplish that.

Clinic owners wise to telemarketing schemes say one never should answer “yes” to an unknown caller. If someone asks, “Is this XYZ Animal Hospital?” the response should be, “This is XYZ Animal Hospital.”

Another veteran of a telemarketing scam, Dr. Melinda Burgwardt, owner of Broadway Veterinary Clinic in Lancaster, N.Y., took her complaint to the New York State Attorney General’s Office and federal authorities.

Burgwardt’s experience involved charges placed on her Verizon telephone bill by Mercury Internet. Burgwardt had so meticulously documented her experience with the company that she was prepared to testify in court in a case pursued by the FTC.

The case wound up being settled out of court. The defendants pleaded guilty last fall to wire fraud, mail fraud and filing false tax returns. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 4.

Lois Greisman, associate director in the FTC’s Division of Marketing Practices, said the agency is well aware of telemarketers using crafty techniques. “We have sued a lot of them ... but the practice still continues,” she said. “There’s no immediate way (to shut it down). It’s hard. We’ve filed lots of cases and we’re very much in a position to monitor what’s going on.”

Greisman urged consumers and business owners to read all bills carefully and consistently. “They’re counting on you not reading it,” she said. “Sometimes the charge can be as little as $1.99, which is very little, but multiply that by a million people.”

If unauthorized charges appear on a statement, Greisman said, do not hesitate to file a dispute with the biller. She advised people to lodge complaints as well with the FTC.

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