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March 16, 2020

Is it a News Story or an Advertisement?

Filed under: Business,Finance,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:00 am

More and more online news sites seem to be blurring the line between bona fide news and stories that seem more like advertisements.

Last fall, we demonstrated how some Tribune newspapers published product reviews naming the “best” products in a particular but sometimes obscure category, while the publisher quietly earned a commission on the sale of each one shown. Making money may have been a big motivation behind the columns.

Now Business Insider, a popular online site featuring business news stories, is publishing some articles that seem more like promotions than news features.

For example, last week they published this story:

Ally -10 more accounts

Starting in the second paragraph, the reporter touts Ally Bank and the 11 high-yield savings accounts that she has opened there:

I earn interest on the money that’s sitting in that account, and it feels like I won a prize every time I check it.

My husband and I have 11 high-yield savings accounts with Ally, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ally’s online interface makes it easy to see how much I have saved for each goal, and how much I’ve earned in interest this year — currently $44.31.

Say what? You have 11 accounts at Ally and all you’ve made is a measily $44? (We wrote to the reporter to ask if all that was really true, but she did not respond.)

In the story, not a negative word is said about Ally. The reporter mainly extols the virtues of high-yield savings accounts and the one at Ally Bank, but ignores the fact that more than three dozen other banks tracked by DepositAccounts.com pay higher rates of interest on savings accounts than Ally does.

Toward the end of the story, there is an embedded advertisement. Can you guess what bank is being advertised there?

*MOUSE PRINT:

Ally ad

That fine print says that a company called SmartAsset has placed this ad and earns revenue from it, as one might expect.

Business Insider then posts a disclaimer but only after the end of the story:

*MOUSE PRINT:

disclaimer

So Business Insider gets a cut of the commissions when readers open an Ally Bank account. Or perhaps 11 of them.

What is surprising is that back in October, Business Insider published two other similar pieces about Ally Bank where different reporters each touted their experiences with the same bank (and did not include criticism, nor any comparisons to other banks with high-yield accounts):

“I opened a high-yield savings account with online bank Ally to earn 20 times more on my money, and it’s safe to say I’m obsessed”

and

“I ditched my bank when I got married to earn 200 times more with an Ally high-yield savings account, and now I’d tell anyone to try it”

Exactly how many first person testimonial articles touting Ally Bank is Business Insider planning to publish? Could all these stories really be more about making money for Business Insider, Smart Asset, and Ally Bank rather than serving readers with a useful, objective analysis of high-yield savings accounts and the pros and cons of various providers?

Apparently a marketing theory gaining traction suggests that publishers can increase their their income by filling webpages with more “commerce content” — product-centric stories rather than traditional news stories or sponsored stories or ads. When viewers read these positive stories and if tracking reveals they bought the product or service, the publisher is compensated. According to one company in this business, Skimlinks, the most advanced publishers can derive 25-percent of their revenue this way.

The problem for readers is poor disclosure. Publishers should be upfront and disclose financial ties right at the top of stories, so we can better distinguish articles designed to sell us stuff from conventional editorial content.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has two sets of guidelines that call for clear and conspicuous disclosure — one when commercial content is made to look like conventional editorial content (Native Advertising Guidelines) and the other when there is a financial connection between a presenter of information and the subject of that information (Endorsement and Testimonial Guidelines).

We asked all the parties involved (Business Insider, Ally Bank, and Smart Asset) to explain what’s going on here. Are these bona fide news stories or advertisements? Who provided the story and who is paying whom? And do any of them think that readers are being put on clear notice of the underlying commercial nature of them?

Business Insider did not respond directly, but through SmartAsset provided this statement:

Business Insider’s personal finance reporters covered Ally as a product they would recommend, which is their standard practice. In lieu of affiliate links – which are common when it comes to “commerce content” – SmartAsset was used to sell ads against these stories. Any ad revenue generated by such coverage occurred independently of and only after the reporters’ decision to write about Ally.

For its part, SmartAsset (the company which placed the Ally ad), said it did not write the stories, nor pay Business Insider to write them. It only shares revenue with them.

Lastly, Ally Bank said it was not aware of the three stories above before they were published. It says it neither paid Business Insider nor SmartAsset to run them. It does pay SmartAsset to list its deposit rates on various websites.

So, what’s a savvy reader to do? Look more closely at content (stories, blog posts, etc.) even on respected news websites. Ask yourself why is this being posted? Is it truly conveying objective information, including both pros and cons? Are other competing products or services compared? Is there an ad or link within the content directly related to the subject of the story? Are there any disclosures that might reveal a hidden financial connection?

For our part, we will be bringing the concepts and issues related to “commerce content” to the attention of the FTC as they explore what changes should be made to their testimonial guidelines. You can participate in their process here.




• • •

February 17, 2020

Surprise: Stuff You Buy With Your Credit Card Could Be Repossessed!

Filed under: Finance — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:10 am

MrConsumer recently applied for a new credit card and was shocked to see a particular clause in the credit card agreement. [See identical clause from a different credit union.] It said the credit union was taking a security interest in any goods I purchased with the card.

*MOUSE PRINT:

security interest

That means if I don’t pay my credit card bill, they could theoretically come to my house and repossess that big screen TV set I might have bought to watch the Super Bowl, or deduct the delinquent part of my unpaid balance from any savings accounts I have at the credit union.

We normally think of a security interest arising when taking out a mortgage on a house or buying a new car, but not when buying a refrigerator. Nonetheless, if your credit card issuer tucked a security interest clause in your credit card agreement, and depending on the wording they used, they could repossess that still unpaid for big-ticket item.

They will have to follow state law, which might impose restrictions such as the security interest does not apply to items under $200, or they can’t disturb the peace in the repossession process, or they have to get a court order first, etc. See some rules that apply in New York State, for example.

We’ve reported on various unexpected and sometimes funny clauses that have been secretly tucked into various contracts (see, for example, story one, story two), but this one raises potentially serious issues for those who fall behind in their credit card payments.

Does your credit issuer use one of these security interest clauses? To check, see if the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has your bank’s credit card disclosure form in their database.




• • •

February 10, 2020

How Quickly Do Free Credit Monitoring Services Alert You When Someone Accesses Your Credit Report?

Filed under: Finance,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:08 am

Like many people, MrConsumer has had a variety of ID theft notification services that have been offered by various companies that have experienced a data breach. He has also signed up for some from financial websites that offer credit monitoring as a free benefit. All these plans are supposed to be an early warning system to alert you when someone applies for credit in your name or when there are major changes to your credit report. If it was a crook and not you, a quick call could stop that new credit line from being opened.

On January 6, a little before 1 PM, I applied for a new credit card. I got an email confirmation of my application from the bank at 12:58 PM and received almost instant approval. Seconds after that, also at 12:58 PM, I received an email from Experian entitled, “Alert: Change to your credit file detected, Edgar.” It alerted me that a bank/credit card inquiry had been made on my account. Wow! How is that for being on the ball? However, it wasn’t until 24 days later that I received an alert from them that a new trade line (account) had been opened and added to my credit report. This service from Experian is called CreditWorks Basic, and it only monitors activity on Experian credit reports and not the other two credit reporting agencies — Equifax and Trans Union.

But what about all the other ID theft notification services I had subscribed to? How fast did I receive alerts from them?

*MOUSE PRINT:

Credit Monitoring chart

Experian’s other service offered to AAA members didn’t notify me of the credit application until the next day, and CapitalOne took three days. Worse, none of the other services ever let me know that someone (me) was applying for credit. Why is that?

We asked an Experian executive and found out that credit bureaus don’t generally share inquiries made by lenders with their competitors. In other words, if you apply for a credit card and the card issuer gets your credit report from Experian, Experian doesn’t share that information with Trans Union or Equifax.

If you don’t happen to have a credit monitoring service that explicitly watches the credit bureau which was contacted for a copy of your credit report by the lender, you are likely to never get a notice that someone has accessed your file. Yikes! If your monitoring plan is connected to the bureau from which your credit file was pulled, you will likely get an instant notification. So had my new credit card company asked Trans Union or Equifax for my credit file rather than Experian, services that monitor those companies would also have notified me either immediately or very soon after my application.

Now how come all the monitoring services took about a month to notify me that a new credit account had been added to my credit file? It is common practice in the industry for credit grantors to only let the credit bureaus know of a new account after the first statement is rendered. And that is typically close to a month after the account was actually opened.

So, what does all this mean for you? The best protection against anyone applying for credit in your name is to lock or freeze your credit file at all three credit reporting agencies. But if you want an early warning whenever anyone, including yourself, applies for credit in your name, you need all three bureaus to be monitored with one service (a three-bureau report) or a combination of ID theft protection services.




• • •

November 18, 2019

American Express to Drop Benefits From Some Cards

Filed under: Finance — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:08 am

American Express just announced that it is dropping a number of pro-consumer benefits from a number of its free credit cards.

Tucked on page five of MrConsumer’s October billing statement for his American Express EveryDay card was the bad news.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Amex benefits cut
List edited for easier viewing

So no more double the manufacturer’s warranty, return protection, etc. They are retaining but shortening “purchase protection” for items that are lost or stolen. And collision damage waiver on car rentals will still be offered. (See more details here.)

AMEX’s announcement continues a disturbing industry trend of reducing traditional card benefits that have provided cardholders who utilized them with very valuable perks. See our previous story about Citi dropping benefits on its cards a couple of months ago.




• • •

August 5, 2019

Get 3% on Savings and 3% Cash Back on Purchases… BUT

Filed under: Finance,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:42 am

The TV airwaves have been flooded by a new advertising campaign from Green Dot. Mostly known for their prepaid cards, Green Dot is branching out into bank accounts with an almost too-good-to-be-true offer.

They are offering a 3-percent interest rate on your savings account, and 3-percent cash back when you make purchases with the debit card that comes with that account. Unheard of benefits on both scores.

Don’t get too excited however. Their fine print is sure to put a damper on your enthusiasm.

The deposit agreement for the Unlimited Cash Back account is full of goodies.

*MOUSE PRINT:

The offer promises 3-percent interest on your savings up to $10,000. Well, how much is the interest rate on amounts over $10,000?

Answer:

Green Dot interest

So, you get no interest on larger deposits, and it is possible that the 3-percent interest rate could change.

That possible change in interest rate is an important disclosure because of the following additional disclosure:

*MOUSE PRINT:

Interest is only credited once a year, and at the rate in effect at that time!

Green Dot once a year

And the bank has fees for this account. If you make a deposit in cash at a retailer, you can be charged up $5.95. Here are two more fees.

*MOUSE PRINT:

fees

You have to pay $7.95 a month unless you spend $1,000 using their debit card. That seems pretty steep on both scores.

If you do spend any money with the card, you do get 3-percent cash back, but even that has some key restrictions.

*MOUSE PRINT:

in-app purchases

Only purchases made via an app or online qualify for the 3-percent back. And even certain of those purchases don’t count either, like airline tickets, person-to-person payments, bill payments, gift card purchases, etc. And to add insult to injury, the cash back you are entitled to is only credited to your account once a year.

With all these restrictions, you may not become green with envy of anyone using this card.




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