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.

Insurance Fraud: The $80-billion Elephant in the Room

Insurance FraudIn all the debating about health insurance over the past two years, issues of consumer access and allowing pre-existing conditions have been at the forefront of the discussion.

One aspect that’s been much less reported is the issue of insurance fraud. Recently, I read some eye-popping statistics from the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud (CAIF). This not-for-profit organization estimates that the level of annual insurance fraud amounts to the equivalent of ~$950 for each household in the United States.

Moreover, the Insurance Information Institute estimates that fraud accounts for ~10% of the losses in the property and casualty insurance segments, while the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association reports that ~3% of the U.S. health care industry’s expenditures are due to fraudulent activities.

So we’re not talking chump change.

Insurance fraud to the tune of $80 billion per year doesn’t happen just because of a few bad apples out there. What’s happening is far more serious than that. Indeed, there are highly organized fraud rings operating throughout the country engaging in everything from staging dangerous accidents to setting up bogus medical services.

The problem goes beyond merely the added cost being borne by consumers. CAIF contends that lives can be endangered, too, due to staged auto accidents, arson incidences, and “medical procedures” being performed by phony physicians.

Is it any wonder that insurance companies like GEICO have well-staffed special investigations units devoted to ferreting out illegal insurance activities wherever they can find them.

Insurance fraud has surely been a problem since the dawn of time, because at its heart is the opportunity for financial profit. In response, a plethora of national and state laws aimed at controlling fraudulent activities have been on the books for years (although surprisingly, insurance fraud is a crime in just 48 of the 50 states – what is it about Virginia and Oregon, I wonder?). Most states maintain their own fraud bureaus as well.

But like so much else the government tries to control or influence, all of these earnest efforts to stem fraudulent activities don’t seem to be adding up to much or getting us closer to a fraud-free world.

Now here’s an idea: Let’s pass some more anti-fraud laws!