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Real estate company's pitch leads to unexpected bill

Even though Maria Casanova ended her RealtyTrac subscription not long after enrolling, an ad that appeared on the foreclosure listing site led to her being billed $44.95 a month for another service.

November 04, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

Maria Casanova, an assistant professor of economics at UCLA, toyed with the idea earlier this year of buying a foreclosed property near the Westwood campus. She signed up for a prominent listing service called RealtyTrac.

Casanova, 31, canceled her subscription not long after. Yet a few days ago she discovered that some other real estate company she'd never heard of has been billing her almost $45 a month for the last eight months.

Consumer advocates say it's an all-too-common problem: People signing up for one thing online and inadvertently signing up for something else that comes with recurring monthly charges.

"It's a practice we're seeing more and more online," said John Breyault, vice president of public policy for the National Consumers League. "People need to be very wary any time they sign up for a service."

In RealtyTrac's case, the enrollment process for access to the site's foreclosure listings includes a marketing pitch for another company, a Utah business called Real Estate Promoter.

The pitch says you can become "a real estate investment pro," and prominently features the word "free."

But if that's not for you, there's a bright orange button at the bottom of the page marked "continue," which it's easy to assume would be how you continue signing up for RealtyTrac.

Unless you read the fine print, which consists of gray letters on a gray background, you won't know that clicking continue will in fact sign you up for Real Estate Promoter's service at a recurring cost of $44.95 a month.

"I would consider this a clearly deceptive business practice," Breyault said.

Rick Sharga, senior vice president of Irvine-based RealtyTrac, sees it differently.

He said that most people signing up for RealtyTrac understand that clicking the continue button will sign you up for a different service. Those who feel misled by Real Estate Promoter's page simply weren't paying close enough attention.

"This is a classic online co-registration issue," Sharga said. "It's the nature of the beast."

Oliver Bigler, the chief executive of Real Estate Promoter, said marketing tactics like this have become an industry standard.

"This is an extremely common marketing method online," he said. "It's almost universal."

Be that as it may, Casanova, for one, believes it's a deliberate attempt to deceive people.

"I was completely unaware that I was signing up for this other company," she told me. "I thought the whole sign-up process was for RealtyTrac."

The charges from Real Estate Promoter came to light only after Bank of America contacted Casanova about a separate matter concerning her credit card. In untangling that situation, she took a closer look at her most recent credit card statement.

There was a charge for $44.95 from Real Estate Promoter. And there was another in the previous month's statement, and another before that -- eight in all, totaling almost $360.

"I'm normally on top of my statements," an embarrassed Casanova said. "I don't know how I didn't notice this before."

She shouldn't be so hard on herself. Many otherwise astute consumers neglect to parse their credit card bills, much less read the fine print of the myriad contracts and agreements that cross their paths.

In any case, Casanova called Real Estate Promoter and asked a service rep why she was being billed nearly $45 monthly by a company she'd never heard of and had never done business with.

The rep explained that Real Estate Promoter had set up a house-hunting website on Casanova's behalf and was billing her monthly for its use.

"What website?" Casanova wanted to know. "I wouldn't even know where to find this website."

The rep explained further that Real Estate Promoter is affiliated with a variety of other services. She said RealtyTrac is one such partner.

A Google search turns up numerous complaints from people who were similarly surprised to find $44.95 charges for Real Estate Promoter on their credit card statements -- in virtually all cases, as a result of signing up for RealtyTrac.

What makes business partnerships like this particularly insidious is that by signing up for the service you want, you may be authorizing that company to share your personal information with another business.

For example, RealtyTrac says in its privacy policy that it will not "sell or rent your personal information to other companies, entities or individuals without your consent or approval."

But the company will share your personal info with others "to assist in making offers, promotions, goods and/or services from RealtyTrac and/or third party(ies) that we believe may be of interest to you."

What that means in practice is that if you click "continue" on the Real Estate Promoter pitch, you're giving the go-ahead for RealtyTrac to hand over your credit card number and other info.

Real Estate Promoter's Bigler emphasized that his company sends out no fewer than seven e-mails during the initial trial period warning people that they're about to be billed (Casanova says she recalls only one such e-mail).

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