Investigators: Businesses buying your credit card number

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @cjingalls

KING5.com

Posted on March 9, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 9 at 6:52 PM

$10 here. $15 there. 

By putting little charges on your credit card  some companies are making tens of millions of dollars a year. These are businesses that you never gave your credit card number to.

Some consumer groups call it fraud, but it may be perfectly legal.

Christie Frison-Thornton, of Rainier, spotted a $19.95 charge just a few weeks ago.   A company called "Privacy Matters" billed her credit card.

"I thought what the heck is this? Cause I really did not have a clue," said Frison-Thornton.

A check of back statements found more charges, dating back six months.

She called "Privacy Matters," which said it got her credit card number from a company she did recognize, Classmates.com, the school reunion Web site on which she entered her credit card number last summer.

"It's really scary when it's a company you think you can trust and you can't," said Frison-Thornton.

Internet companies call this "post transaction marketing." To consumers it might feel more like electronic pickpocketing.

Some time after Frison-Thornton gave her credit card number to Classmates, a survey or free trial offer probably popped up. It didn't ask for her credit card number or any personal information so she clicked it.

But she didn't know that meant classmates would sell her credit card number to another company, like "Privacy Matters" which, ironically, offers a credit card protection service. Yet it put unwanted charges on Frison-Thornton's bill.

"I feel like my credit card was fraudulently used," she said.

Internet companies argue that customers agree to the release of their credit card information in disclaimers often buried in fine print.

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna says evidence collected by his office shows many consumers are being tricked.

"In our state alone we estimate that over a four-year period companies using these tactics took about $50 million from Washington residents,” said McKenna. “It's a huge amount."

McKenna testified last year as the U.S. Senate considered tightening the law.

Washington's legislature has twice considered bills. But there's still no criminal law against it and authorities can only stop the worst violators by using time-consuming lawsuits.

"The complaints mount every year,” said McKenna. “Sometimes we can take action on them and sometimes we can't because they're not strictly speaking illegal."

After last year's senate hearings some companies say they stopped selling credit card numbers to third parties.

Intelius in Bellevue, which wouldn't comment on camera, says it cut off its business relationship with Privacy Matters.

Renton-based Classmates.com also turned down an interview request. It provided KING 5 with a transcript of its CEO’s announcement in January that Classmates "terminated" such agreements.

But he also admitted Classmates made $20 million last year from these controversial tactics and that the company is working on a new model for "post transaction offerings."

Frison-Thornton thinks that can't be good for her. "I will never go to classmates.com, again,” she said.

Experts say the best advice is not to click any surveys or free trial offers because it's hard to be sure exactly what you're agreeing to.

Frison-Thornton got her money back from Privacy Matters, but others have complained they’ve had a hard time getting refunds and subscriptions canceled.

Editor's note: This story has changed from the original version that was published on March 8.

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