Signing this check may be same as signing a contract
West Tisbury treasurer Kathy Logue called The Times last week to report a suspicious advertisement that arrived in the mail to the town hall. The ad was from Simple.Net, an internet service provider, and contained a check for $3.25 made out to "West Tisbury Town of."
Simple.Net, "Nationwide Internet Access for Business & Travel," says it will provide "flexible and portable" internet access to its subscribers with a toll-free telephone connection anywhere they travel in the United States.
The advertisement reveals that cashing the check not only activates the service, but also authorizes Simple.Net to collect $19.95 per month from one's telephone bill or in a number of other ways, including withdrawing the monthly fee from the account into which the check is deposited. Whoever cashes the check has 90 days to cancel the service, but Simple.Net gives itself 80 days to mail a confirmation, and will start the service four days later, leaving, perhaps, only a very few days for the consumer to become unhappy with the service and cancel.
A quick check of the internet reveals that similar schemes have been around for some time. In 2001 the Federal Trade commission (FTC) reached a settlement with an ISP offering "rebate checks," and required that company to make a "clear and conspicuous disclosure that by depositing the check a customer is agreeing to sign up for the service." Although Simple.Net was not on trial, the FTC identified it and its parent company as companies engaged in similar marketing schemes.
David Radin, a consultant and host of a nationally syndicated radio show, wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the summer of 2004 that he had received Simple.Net's offer. Although he found the disclosure clear enough to warn him off, he went on to say, "But in many companies, small and large, the people who receive the checks don't always verify that they come from a real customer before depositing them."
Ms. Logue had a similar notion, and forwarded the Simple.Net ad to the Massachusetts attorney general, noting: "An unwitting consumer could be badly burned by depositing this tiny check."
As recently as this week, the E-Commerce Times listed ISP fraud as one of the "Top Ten Dot.cons," along with internet auction fraud, net porn credit card fraud, travel scams, and get-rich-quick schemes. It is the "No. 2 scam," as measured by complaints in the Consumer Sentinel, a data base of more than 285,000 complaints maintained by the FTC. According to the FTC, the E-Commerce Times reports, ISP scammers mailed "rebate" checks and then when they were cashed, "started charging the consumers between $19.95 and $29.95 a month and 'made it nearly impossible to cancel future monthly charges and receive refunds.'"
Although the Better Business Bureau has no record it, Simple.Net appears to be a real company that buys and sells internet access. It has a web site, and people answer its phones in Mesa, Arizona. Interviewed by telephone, Craig Whisenhunt, operations manager, told The Times that the checks his company sends out are similar to the promotions used by credit card companies. As to the complaints reported by the FTC, he responded that Simple.Net usually sends out confirmations within a week, and customers can and do get refunds. Mr. Whisenhunt was aware of the FTC's warnings, but he said that while Simple.Net would like to get off the FTC's listing, "We have no control over what the FTC does. We have very little communication with them."