The Discover Card Discovers … Minnesota’s No Pushover

Discover cardAs someone who lived in the state of Minnesota for years, long ago I came to the understanding that many people there view themselves as the ethical if not intellectual “umbilical cord” for the nation.

And why not? Minnesota has long been the font of “good government” initiatives many other states have sought to emulate. It’s the state that routinely leads all others in voter turnout, not to mention being the springboard of reformist politicians such as Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.

So I wasn’t surprised to read last week that Minnesota’s Attorney General Office has filed a lawsuit against the Discover card for “deceptive marketing” practices. Discover is accused of making “aggressive, misleading and deceptive” telemarketing contacts in an attempt to lure customers into signing up for additional services that they didn’t realize carried a charge.

According to the complaint, customers were ostensibly being informed of Discover’s well-known “cash-back rewards” program, but then were told of the fee-based services as if those were regular features of the card’s benefits.

“Discover’s telemarketers employ an array of deceptive tactics to elicit an affirmative response from the cardholder without the cardholder actually understanding that they are supposedly aggreeing to purchase an optional product for a monthly fee,” the lawsuit contends.

According to the suit, Discover allegedly enrolled “tens of thousands of Minnesotans and charged them millions of dollars for enrollment in the plans” which include a “payment protection plan” that allows unemployed or disabled customers to suspend making credit card payments without penalty, an identity theft protection plan that costs ~$13 per month, and a credit-score tracking service that bills at ~$8 per month.

I love the way Lori Swanson, Minnesota’s attorney general, put it. “People expect their credit card company to stop and prevent these fraudulent charges – not be the ones making them.”

Or course, it’s not surprising that credit card companies are attempting to sell customers on fee-based services; the lawsuit claims that Discover earned over $295 million on these optional products during 2009 alone.

But the fact is, consumers are paying for additional services they don’t really need, as much if not all of their risk exposure is covered by other laws on the books. Of course, Discover conveniently left out that bit of information in their sales pitch to consumers.

“The biggest credit card companies make huge amounts of money by getting their customers to sign up for add-ons that are useless,” says Edmund Mierzwinski, a consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The Minnesota lawsuit seeks to order Discover not only to cease its aggressive marketing of these services, but also to reimburse customers who signed up for services they no longer want.

Based on how earlier cases of a similar nature against Experian and Providian have turned out … my guess is that Minnesota is going to be successful.

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