Elizabeth Steiger doesn’t need auto insurance. The 98-year-old Californian hasn’t driven for years and no longer owns a car.
But that didn’t stop Bank of America from deducting $18.95 each month from Steiger’s checking account for a BofA auto insurance program, sold by a third-party vendor, that her daughter says was never ordered.
“I called the Bank of America customer service phone number several times to stop these charges,” says Ann English, 78, who discovered the deductions when she began caring for her mother after Steiger had a stroke last fall. “I called Bank of America Insurance Services. I even went to her local bank branch twice. But no one did anything.”
English was told that the insurance policy hadn’t been canceled within the specified 30-day trial period. “But how can you cancel something you never ordered? We never received a policy. We never even provided my mother’s bank account number for this,” says English.
It’s an example of what can happen in “negative option” marketing, in which a merchant doesn’t have to “sell” you something—he assumes you bought it. It’s up to you to cancel the order within a set period, or monthly charges continue. Such plans are legal, as long as certain notification rules are followed.
A scam of the same type was shut down this year with the assistance of AARP consumer columnist Ron Burley.
Writing in the September/October issue of AARP The Magazine, Burley tells how he learned of a consumer fraud lawsuit filed by Arizona’s attorney general against Phoenix-based Central Coast Nutraceuticals. The suit alleged that CCN hooked consumers with a trial offer, then billed them for products they’d never ordered.
Burley informed major credit card companies of the suit, and eventually all of them terminated CCN’s merchant account, forcing the company to settle with Arizona.
In the BofA case, other customers reported on online complaint boards that they received unsolicited telephone or mail offerings for bank-branded insurance. When they didn’t respond with a cancellation order, their bank accounts were charged. Others say they never received any information before being hit with automatic withdrawals.
Steiger’s case began when her son Clarence, 68, received his monthly statement for his personal BofA checking account. It contained an insert promoting the bank’s Customer Years life insurance program. He called to get information. “But instead of life insurance, he was sent a packet for car insurance,” says his sister. “So he immediately called again to say he didn’t want it.” However, the charges started appearing—on another BofA account he shares with his mother.
BofA spokeswoman Jumana Bauwens says that “mistakes were made” in Steiger’s case. “We listened to the tapes,” she says of the recorded customer service phone calls. “We were not happy with what we heard from our end.” She says all charges made to Elizabeth Steiger’s account have been refunded. Other customers with BofA insurance issues should call 1-888-665-9900, a new, toll-free hotline.
To prevent this from happening to you, regardless of where you bank:
- Immediately review bank statements. Under current law, customers have only 60 days to dispute charges on mailed statements.
- Beware of free trial offers. They often are negative option programs.
- Request a contract. In some states, an offer for goods or services cannot be legally accepted “by the silence” of the customer.
- Send certified letters, with return receipt notifications, asking companies not to send you information about company-branded programs.
If you are unjustly charged for a negative option program, contact your state attorney general; go to www.naag.org and click on “The Attorneys General.” You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov or 1-877-382-4357.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of "Scam-Proof Your Life," published by AARP Books/Sterling.