FORT MYERS, Fla. - If you've ever watched TV and saw something advertised you wanted to buy, then picked up the phone, this story is for you.
When you call to order, the operator may ask if you want to join a membership program that promises discounts. They offer free gifts, and tell you, you can cancel at anytime or you'll be charged.
It's completely legal but WINK News uncovered three lawsuits against one big marketing company and the lawsuits against the company claim what the company is doing is deceptive.
After this story, you'll want to take a second look at your credit and bank card statements. The three lawsuits all say this company, Sempris, markets membership programs under the names Value Plus, Budget Savers as well as other names.
The lawsuits claim it's often hard to get the free items offered and claim it can be just as hard to cancel without your credit card being charged.
It's called negative option marketing. Where you agree to try something, usually for free, but have to remember to call and cancel in order not to be charged.
"I said no no no. I don't want that," said Glenda Holzman, Clermont resident.
We met Holzman in Clermont, which is near Orlando. She's not part of the lawsuits but told us she ordered a vacuum cleaner she saw on TV and was offered a membership to Value Plus.
"You get two free gifts. You get $20 cash and you'll get a free $50 gift certificate. Free," said Holzman.
When Holzman heard all about the freebies, she asked questions and thought she understood the answers when she signed up.
"What do I have to do? Well, we'll send you the value pack and you're going to look it over and if you like what you see. After a month or so, then you will be charged $24.95 a month," said Holzman.
She said it seemed simple. As did the cancellation policy.
"I said if I cancel, say in a week or so, will I still get the gifts? Oh yes, yes no problem. You'll get the $50 gift certificate from Wal-Mart and the $20 cash. Well low and behold I never got that," said Holzman.
Attorney Jay Edelson is leading the lawsuits against Sempris.
"These companies get your information through legitimate business partners then try to up-sell you in a number of different ways," said Edelson.
Sempris sent us internal documents, they said, show they made two attempts to get Holzman her free gifts. But Holzman said the forms were confusing and claimed she had to do more than just fill out a form to get her free gifts.
"Filled it out. That was the end of it. Never heard anything back. Called, oh you have to do something else. Forget it. It never came," said Holzman.
Holzman ultimately didn't pay anything but complained to the Florida Attorney General that she never got the special gift she was promised.
"We have to show that they operate in the same way with regards to groups of people," said Edelson, attorney
The three lawsuits filed in Michigan, Illinois and California say they do. In the Michigan and California suit, attorneys claim Sempris has "systematically defrauded consumers by enrolling and charging them for membership programs without consent."
"These bills kept charging me for it over and over and over," said Joseph Pickett, St. Louis resident.
Pickett, 75, told our CBS affiliate in St. Louis he never got anything for his money.
The lawyer for this company says everyone who calls and requests a refund gets one?" said reporter Chris Nagus. "Oh no, we tried and haven't gotten nothing," said Pickett.
Pickett claims he was charged for two years before he figured it out. As of early this week, Sempris sent WINK News an email about whether or not Pickett asked for a refund. The email said Sempris reviewed Pickett's customer service call and "confirms that Sempris cancelled Mr. Pickett's membership at his request." But then the email goes on to say in the next sentence that "at no time during this call did Mr. Pickett request a refund and we have no other record of such a request."
We asked again and we're told Thursday afternoon that Sempris has continued to review internal records and said now "Pickett has requested a refund" and he will get it soon.
Sempris wouldn't let us hear the audio tapes of that customer service call or the call where they said Pickett gave his credit card information. Sempris' attorney told us in an email, "all members are entitled to immediate cancellation upon request and they can receive up to 100% of their money back for any reason or no reason.
But Jack Berman said he got a letter from Budget Savers, a program of Sempris, saying he wasn't eligible for a refund.
"I supposed there was something, some kind of instruction when I first did it that said well what you've got to do is, you've got to, apply for your coupons," said Berman.
WINK News also uncovered consumer protection websites with complaints about Budget Savers and Value Plus, dating back years.
Our requests in December and January for an on camera interview of conference call, got no response.
"Is there anyway we could talk to you about budget savers and value plus, those membership clubs you run out of Minnesota?" said St. Louis reporter Chris Nagus. "No thank you," said George Richards, CEO, Sempris.
Richard is the CEO of Sempris. He lives in Naples. We again tried talking to him at his $18 million home in Port Royal. He wouldn't talk to us. When we requested on camera interviews of a conference call with Richards through his attorneys, we were told via email, "he is not available to do an interview" and asked us to direct further questions to his attorney.
Now that leaves a lot of people, with a lot of questions, that may only be answered in court.
"At some point you have to ask who can you trust," said Edelson.
Attorneys filing the lawsuits tell WINK News, Sempris hasn't filed an answer to the lawsuits in court yet. Another suit against them in 2011 was dismissed. The Better Business Bureau said they've taken 49 complaints from Floridaians over the last three years in regards to Sempris.
Nationwide, close to 800 complaints have been filed with the BBB. The company has an A - rating which the BBB said is because Sempris' response to the complaints filed and the resolution to those complaints.
If you're not sure about charges on your statement from Value Plus or Budget Savers, email WINK News Investigative Reporter Genevieve Judge at firstname.lastname@example.org