Free until we charge you

The Membership Agreement from Hell

The World Wide Web has a tradition of being free. There are all sorts of things to be had for free. Free information, free sports picks, free scores, free betting lines, free weather and injury reports for your favorite team, free chat rooms, free posting forums, free software, and of course this magazine are all gratis, no charge, no obligation, free for the taking.

When we walk into a local book store, before we walk out with a book we must pay at the counter with cash, check or a credit card. Above the counter there may be a sign saying that there is a 30 day return policy. If we return the book quickly enough, we may get it back to the store in time for the owner to rip up our charge slip or our check. While we are in the store we may be allowed to look through the book and read portions of it before buying. At Barnes and Noble they provide tables and coffee for our comfort while we sit and read through book after book to decide which we want to buy. In a gentler and kinder time, before blister packing, record stores had booths where we could preview a record by playing it before we bought it. If we didn’t like the record, back to the shelf it went and no one charged us for it. Despite all that, there is a clear difference between the books in the book store and the free handouts in the local newspaper bin in the same store.

When we pick up one or more of those free handouts and walk off with them, nobody tries to stop us. Despite all the 30 day return policies and ability to review the books before we buy, if we try to walk out the door without giving cash or our credit card to the clerk someone will stop us and have us arrested. No one suggests that Barnes and Noble is a free lending library, nor that the ability to take the book home, read it, and return it within 14 to 30 days at most stores means that we have gotten the book for free. If this magazine asked for your credit card before you could read this article, and they charged you for reading it, it would certainly not be free, even though the magazine might give you a few days to decide that it’s not what you thought it might be and get your money back. This magazine is free because you can come here and read it and you will never-ever, at any time, be charged for your use of it right now. My comp phone and the picks on it are free because no one will ever ask you to pay for them, even if you later sign up. I recently sent out a mailer offering a free week. The week was free because no one had to cancel in order not to be charged, nor were they or will they ever be charged for the time they received. I hoped those coming on for their free week would like what they saw enough to sign up as members of the Crowne Club, but no one was charged for the free week. Whether or not they signed up, they never paid for the free week. That’s what made it free.

The other day my eye was caught by the word FREE in big red letters at a gambling oriented site called Vegas Insider. The big red letters offered a free seven days, or so they said. “Click here for the free trial” said the button. So I did. The first thing I was confronted with was a lengthy form asking me for all manner of personal information and my credit card number. No one could get the “free” 7 days they were offering without first giving a credit card. That sort of thing has become all too prevalent because we, as consumers, tolerate it. If we stop tolerating it, we’ll soon go back to the old days when a free sample was just that. Nevertheless, I decided to fill out the form and give them my credit card. No sooner had I completed the form than I was confronted by a click button asking me to “Agree” to a “Member Agreement” before I could get my supposedly “free” 7 days.

No one told me before I spent 15 minutes filling out all that personal information that to get my “free” week I’d be required to “agree” to approximately 5 pages of lawyer-speak and fine print in what is euphemistically called an “Agreement”. I say “euphemistically”, because an “agreement” implies a meeting of the minds and a determination to agree, not a blind consent to a dictatorial and one-sided piece of paper locking in the customer to everything and the merchant to nothing while detailing how the sucker customer will be charged for the privilege.

I wasn’t born yesterday. I know many merchants and businesses engage in this sort of abuse of their customers. The merchant gets away with it because the customer usually doesn’t read these “agreements”. Once upon a time, unscrupulous merchants would hide these “agreements” on the back of order forms, or print them in a type face so small that no normally sighted person could read it. That’s how the term “fine print” got into our vocabulary. Just in case the sucker happened to be carrying a magnifying glass, the merchant would have teams of lawyers draw these “agreements” in completely unintelligible legalize. Soon. however, the governments of most states stepped in to protect the public. Salesmen had to show contracts to the customer. The contract had to be written in a certain size type, and the customer had to initial the contract itself and sign a statement that he had read it. Naturally, many people still did not read, but the lawmaker’s aim was to stop salesmen from being able to hide the agreements. No law can protect someone who insists on being a moron from his own stupidity, but at least the person who acts responsibly can be less easily fooled.

Unfortunately the law has not yet caught up with the internet. At some internet sites, run by those who wish to fool the public, we are presented with agreements only after we have spent considerable time filling out forms and questionnaires. Only after we are tired, bleary eyed from staring at the computer screen, and anxious to get on with it are we told that we must agree to 5 pages from the lawyers. Then, just like the old days, the supposed “agreement” isn’t there. We are presented with a click button saying “I agree” right there on a page with no agreement. It’s the electronic equivalent of the old signing of a statement on the front of the order form saying “I agree to the terms of sale”, while putting the “terms of sale” on the back, and having the salesman put the form flat on the desk with his big meaty hand lying on top pointing to the signature line. In the electronic age we have once again gotten away from initialing the “agreement” itself as proof that it was shown to the customer. It would be an easy matter to put the Member Agreement right on the same page and put the “I Agree” button at the end of the “agreement”. Unscrupulous folks, however, make you go find the agreement on another page. I clicked the link, and sure enough up came a sign telling me that “the server could not connect”. What a surprise(Not)! I was, however, determined. I finally got to the Member Agreement another way, and when I did, I realized why Vegas Insider would want to hide it and hope you never read it. Here’s what I found — THE MEMBER AGREEMENT FROM HELL!Part 1: Nothing is Free

Despite the big red letters and the much ballyhooed “Free” seven days, the Member Agreement says under the section “Price and Payment” that unless I call their customer service to cancel before the expiration of seven days (Note: I must cancel something I’ve apparently already signed up to get without knowing it) my credit card will be charged for the full non-refundable membership fees, and here’s the kicker, “commencing on the date that Member first signed up for the applicable Membership Plan.”

Translation For The Suckers: You have paid for the product from the start, and you pay for those “free” seven days. You are not getting seven days free at all. You have purchased a product and you have 7 days to return it to the store or forever hold your peace. Your credit card will be charged for that week Vegas Insider falsely made you believe, through clever wording, that you were getting for free. It’s like those ads the authorities just stopped Ed McMahon from sending. The ones that say, “You have Won $1,000,000” and then in small print “if you return the winning entry” (which, of course your entry is not). In this case you don’t get 7 free days, unless you cancel you are charged from day one of your sign upPart 2: They Promise Nothing

Not content with a free offer worthy of Jeff Allen and other purveyors of phony freebies and fraudulent advertising, those folks at Vegas Insider promise absolutely nothing, not even that the price you thought you paid is the price that you’ll pay. During that seven day period that you were able to return the product to the store, Vegas Insider gives themselves the right to decide that you will have to pay more for it. After giving themselves the right to constantly keep re-billing your credit card without asking your permission first, those nice people at Vegas Insider state, “All fees will be charged at the standard fees for that Membership Plan period at the time that the fee becomes payable.” (Emphasis was added by me.)

Translation For The Suckers: Despite what you thought you were going to pay, we can raise the price any time before we charge your card, and if you haven’t canceled before we send through the charge you pay the new price, no matter how outrageous it may be.

Perhaps you are now thinking that well, okay, when they charge some amount that I didn’t realize I had agreed to pay, I’ll just call them and cancel. Think again sucker! We told you this was the Member Agreement From Hell. Under the section entitled “Member Account Responsibility and Fees” it says in paragraph 1 subdivision (ii): “all fees and charges (including subscription fees) are non-refundable.”

Translation For The Suckers: That’s right! If you don’t cancel before they charge your card, and after you receive the bill you find out that they charged your card for $199.95, up from the originally advertised price of $19.95, there is nothing you can do about it. You’ve agreed to pay whatever they charge. You think your credit card company will help if you call to say you never authorized a charge of $199.95? The charge will come off your bill while the credit card company investigates, but that’s why Vegas Insider has this Agreement. You did agree and authorize a charge of $199.95, or any amount that Vegas Insider might feel like charging in the future(up to the balance available on your card). Your credit card company is a charter member of that unscrupulous business club, and they’ll support the merchant against you every time in such a case. Your only remedy is to pay the $200 and cancel early before the next billing period.

What’s more, after you pay, Vegas Insider can decide to change everything and you can’t get a refund. This is the old “bait ‘n switch” made legal because you agreed to it (assuming you could ever get to, read and understand the Member Agreement). Here’s what the “Agreement” at Vegas Insider says:

Vegas Insider reserves the right, at any time, to (i) change the terms of this Agreement or any Operating Rules, (ii) change the Service, including eliminating or discontinuing any content or feature . . . restricting the hours of availability or limiting the amount of use permitted by the Member . . . .

( Emphasis added)

The Agreement goes on to make all these types of changes “effective immediately upon notice.” Vegas Insider further says, “Any use of the Service under a Member’s Account after such notice shall be deemed to constitute acceptance by the Member of such changes.”

Translation For the Suckers: What you thought you bought and paid for is not necessarily what you bought and paid for at all. AT ANY TIME those “good hands” people over at Vegas Insider can decide to eliminate everything they showed to you to induce you to pay them. They can decide that, even though you thought you were paying for a month or a year of unlimited entry into their site, after you pay they can limit you to only one visit per month, or 12 per year, or only between the hours of 4 A.M. and 4:15 A.M. They can say that if you want what you thought you were buying, you’ll be required to pay more (a trick often used by Vegas Insider‘s fraternity brothers in the bait and switch world, the many dishonest boiler room operations in the industry ). Vegas Insider can decide not to give you anything and still keep your money if they feel like it. “So what,” you say? You think you still have the right to refuse consent by not using the Service after they make the change? Think again sucker! Picture this. You paid for a year yesterday. Today they tell you that the Member’s Picks are no longer free to Members, there won’t be any more chat forum, all articles will now be free to everyone, and the Kyl Bill stopped them from giving odds even on a delay. In other words, everything you paid to get no longer exists or is free for everyone. You refuse to enter the web site and use your one year subscription anymore. Under no circumstances will you consent to this outrage! Now what? Catch 22 — Remember the paragraph that says no refunds under any circumstances? You have the right not to agree to only getting half the stuff you originally paid to get. You do that by refusing to use your membership thereby getting nothing at all for your money. Under no circumstances do you get your money back. This is the equivalent of paying for a steak dinner before you order, getting a cutlet made from crushed broccoli instead, and having the restaurant tell you that you have the right to eat the broccoli or eat nothing at all, but you are not getting the steak you paid for and you are not getting a refund either. When we say an agreement is from Hell, we mean it! Incredibly those Vegas Insider guys are not done yet.Part 3: We have the Right to Sell Information About You

Having already fooled you into paying for what you thought was free, and giving themselves the right to steal your money with nothing in return if they choose, you would think even the most greedy merchant would be content. Not Vegas Insider. To them, the customer is a pig to slaughter, and there is no part of you that goes to waste. In the “Use of Member Information” section they state: “Vegas Insider shall have the right to use for any purpose any information provided by the Member or regarding the Member’s access to or use of the Service.”

Translation For The Suckers: We can sell your name, address, phone number, credit and credit card information, gambling habit and interest information or anything else we can get about you to anyone we choose for any purpose, including mailings, annoying and harassing phone solicitations, lists, statistical compilations, books or articles with you as an example, or even blackmail if they can find a way to do it without being arrested and prosecuted. If you give them notice that you don’t want them to reveal anything about you, tough, it won’t stop them. They will honor notice, but you must put it in writing, and if they have already sold your information before they get this written notice, too bad. The question is, of course, how do you ever know whether they ignored your written notice? They can always claim they sold your information before the notice got to them. Do you really want to trust guys who refuse to sell their product to you unless you agree to the type of stuff that we’ve been talking about here? And like the carnival barker says, “We ain’t done yet folks. Step right up there’s more on the inside.”

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