MyLife.com Makes You Pay To Find Friends, Then Makes Your Life Hell
We lead so much of our lives on the Internet today that it’s easy to get sucked in by online scams: MyLife.com is potentially one of them, according to a lawsuit against the social networking site. Alleged in the class-action suit filed in California: MyLife.com is a bait-and-switch marketing rip-off that hacks into your e-mail address book, grabs contacts of your friends and family, overbills your credit card and can make your life hell.
MyLife.com television ads are everywhere—especially late at night and during major sporting events. I was watching the Superbowl when I first saw MyLife.com advertise that mysterious “people” out there were looking for me, that MyLife.com would somehow help me connect with old friends. I was curious, nostalgic, and in the era of Facebook and instant communication, too trusting. I logged on to the website (www.mylife.com) and MyLife.com prompted me to look for “friends” who were looking for me—but I had to hand over payment first.
I was about to type in my credit card information and did a gut check—realizing that I could find these people for free on plenty of other social networking websites. I thought better of it and logged off. Too bad so many others didn’t—and now some of them are suing MyLife.com for invasion of privacy and hundreds of dollars a year they were allegedly overbilled.
MyLife.com bills itself as “America’s #1 People Search,” but is now facing accusations in which subscribers allege the site continuously spams them and their friends, scams them for money and hacks the address books of millions of users.
The site claims more than 50 million registered profiles. Yet MyLife.com and its parent company Vertrue have also has been a source of increasing complaints from consumers.
In part, you can blame this man: Gary A. Johnson, the head of Vertrue, (http://www.flickr.com/photos/vertrue/415811106/), which owned and operated MyLife.com and other marketing subsidiaries. Johnson, according to public election records, lives in a swank house at 1051 Cedar Road, Southport, Connecticut, if you care to complain in writing or in person. MyLife.com’s corporate parent Vertrue is headquartered in Norwalk, Connecticut, but its main phone number now goes straight to voicemail.
Vertrue in April 2012 declared bankruptcy and quietly filed under Chapter 11 to reorganize and sell off assets. Vertrue’s bankruptcy filing and a list of its creditors can be found here: http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/files/vertrue-ch-11-filing.pdf.
Interestingly, one of Vertrue’s largest debts outstanding is for a settlement reached with Iowa regulators, who fiercely went after the company for deceptive marketing practices—and won big last year. In March 2011, a judge in Polk County, Iowa, ordered the company to pay $32.6 million dollars in restitution, penalties and costs for violating Iowa’s buying club law and “used deceptive and unfair practices” to market memberships to nearly half a million Iowans over 20 years.
Another creditor is the New York Attorney General’s office, which in February 2012 won a $2 million refund for customers of another subsidiary of Vertrue. Read the AG’s press release here for familiar bait-and-switch tactics: (http://www.ag.ny.gov/press-release/ag-schneiderman-secures-2-million-settlement-companies-tricked-consumers-signing). The New York office of the Attorney General Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau sued on behalf of “New Yorkers who were duped while shopping online.”
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Still, MyLife.com remains operational. And I checked its current User Agreement: in case of a sale or “reorganization” (which is happening right now…see above), they can “transfer your Personally Identifiable Information to a third party.” Or, sell your info to the highest bidder.
How does the MyLife.com scam work?
We first wrote about MyLife.com last year, but the same tactics could continue to this day. According to the class action lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, MyLife.com lures unsuspecting consumers into responding to spam emails from “friends” who are looking for them, then fools you into signing up for a low-cost membership for one month, then overcharges your credit cards by charging them for an entire year. Then MyLife.com allegedly plunders your e-mail address books to spam all of your contacts.
“MyLife.com is a scam that begins with a false solicitation telling potential victims that ‘someone’ is searching for them, and they can find out who by paying a small fee,” the suit reads (a full copy of the suit can be read via this link (http://www.courthousenews.com/2011/02/08/MyLife.pdf ). “If this ruse succeeds in convincing the victim to provide credit card or other payment information for a ‘free trial period’ or a low-price membership (eg. $7.95 per month), MyLife then overbills the victim’s credit card for a much larger amount, often more than $100.”
The suit also says MyLife provides access to a list of “fake names of people supposedly ‘searching for you’ together with access to a worthless website.”
Online complaint forums such as Complaints Board, Ripoff Report and Consumer Ally are filled with frustrating stories by consumers who describe the site as “a total scam” and “a rip-off.” YouTube even has videos reviewing how the site works, luring potential member into parting with their financial information for a questionable database (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAosamXDINQ).
One of the two plaintiffs in the California lawsuit, John Clerkin, signed up for one month of service for $21.95. Once he learned he didn’t know any of the people looking for him, he tried to cancel and discovered he’d been billed $155.40 instead. He claims in the suit that MyLife refunded him $104.55 but refused to return the remaining $50.85.
The other plaintiff, Veronica Mendez, signed up for a $5 trial subscription, and also realized no one she knew was searching for her. When she tried to cancel, the suit says, she learned she’d been billed $60, none of which MyLife.com refunded.
“Victims of the ruse then find that MyLife.com hacks into their address books to target their friends, family and other contacts with spam solicitations stating that ‘someone’ is looking for them,” the suit also charges. “This starts the cycle anew by priming the pump with a fresh crop of victims that MyLife.com tricks with false solicitations, overbills, and hacks.”
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Financial lesson learned?
Beware handing over your precious credit card information to websites out of nostalgia, loneliness or curiosity like I almost did–because even if what MyLife or other do is unethical, it’s not clear until suits like these go to trial that it’s illegal.
In the user agreement, MyLife.com explicitly stated: “you are licensing to MyLife.com and our third-party service providers any content you provide through or to MyLife.com and the service they offer. By submitting content, you automatically agree, or promise…MyLife.com and anyone they permit may reproduce, display, distribute, and create new works of authorship based on and including the content.”
Translated into English from legalese, this is the worst part: MyLife.com sells your information to third parties, which then start billing you as well. According to one user: “The next thing that happens is that your credit card starts getting hit by a company called MVQ*SAVEACE. When you call to find out who these people are they tell you that you have a membership with them too! They have absolutely no product except billing your credit card without authorization.”
Guess where Savings Ace and other third parties got your name, address, email address, and credit card info? MyLife shared it with them. Cancel your card, have fraudulent charges reversed and beware of this company. According to the lawsuit: “They survive on your bad decision to become a premium member. They are silver tongued devils.” Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not respond by press time; MyLife.com founder Jeff Tinsley still has not returned phone calls or email for comment.
Tinsley is also founder of Reunion.com and Classmates.com, which in 2010 settled a similar class action suit for $9.5 million that accused the social networking site of using false emails to get people to pay for premium memberships.
What about the Better Business Bureau? Last year, the BBB in Los Angeles complaint board had to say about MyLife.com, at one time gave MyLife.com an “A+” rating, now an A-:
“Complainants generally allege that the company automatically renews memberships and debits accounts. Some customers report signing up for the service based on a low monthly rate but are charged for a non-refundable yearly or a lesser term subscription up-front. In some cases, complainants are dissatisfied that their information is posted on the company’s website and request its removal. The company generally responds by providing refunds and states that accounts are set to auto-renew at the end of the subscription term, unless the customer disables the auto-renew feature before the renewal is processed. In response to the amount of the charges, they state that customers signed up for a term account with a monthly subscription rate billed up-front for the entire term and is listed in several places on the order page. The company promptly removes profiles when requested and also states that the information was gathered from public sources.”
What to do?
If you join an online marketing club or accept a subscription of any kind and charges from unfamiliar companies start showing up on your credit card bill, call your credit card company immediately and contest the charge. And never use a debit card for an online transaction. If that doesn’t work, contact your local Attorney General and file a written complaint.
Avoid signing up for MyLife.com or social networks that make you—the consumer—pay them to build their own database. Sounds like a circle of hell to me.