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May 11, 2020

Bored at Home? Reading “Terms of Service” Agreements Will Fill Your Days!

Filed under: Business,Humor,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:53 am

Most of us usually don’t have the time or patience to read a website’s “terms of service” (TOS) agreement. We simply click “agree” if we are even asked in the first place to consent to their various conditions. But now that we are all cooped up at home, we actually have the time to review those contracts. I know, you’d rather clean your kitchen counter one more time and wipe down all your groceries instead.

Some of those policies are ridiculously long. The Microsoft TOS agreement, for example, runs over 15,000 words — just slightly shorter than Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

So, to help you visualize what a daunting task it would actually be to read the TOS agreements from 14 of America’s leading companies and websites, the Visual Capitalist created this infographic. It depicts the comparative length of each company’s policy and how long each would take to read.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Terms of Service

Scroll down the chart OR Click to enlarge.

These companies rely on the laziness of their customers who rarely take time to read the fine print of what they are agreeing to. And most times, the terms benefit the company more than you.




• • •

May 4, 2020

How Unscrupulous Sellers Mislead on Shipping, Country of Origin

Filed under: Health,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:52 am

In his quest to find protective masks after Amazon and eBay removed most of their listings on account of price gouging, MrConsumer turned to AliExpress — the eBay/Amazon of China.

While masks there were likely double or triple their pre-pandemic prices, some third-party sellers on the site offered fast four to seven day delivery from sources in the United States (at a higher price than the same masks if shipped from China).

AliExpress Mask Ad

So MrConsumer ordered these masks on April 11. The package was shipped two days later with a USPS tracking number from New Jersey and should certainly arrive in Massachusetts in just a matter of a day or two, or so I thought.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Shipping confirmation

While the USPS tracking number was issued on April 13, two days after ordering, as of May 4 – three weeks later – the post office still had not received the package from the company.

The tracking information screen showed that the item was being shipped from one United States location to another, however, a hidden tracking number indicated the real origin was China. See that inconspicuous link at the bottom that says “Data Provided by CAINIAO?” That takes you to a Chinese shipping company with the real tracking information.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Chinese tracking

The package was actually shipped from Shenzhen, China on April 21 — 10 days after the order was placed, and three days after it should have already been received.

What is going on here? It appears that this company and others that play this game on AliExpress, eBay, and perhaps Amazon Marketplace, make customers believe their shipment originates domestically when in fact it is coming from overseas. A USPS shipping and tracking number is issued at the outset to further mislead customers about the shipping timing and origin. At some point, either in China or when the package arrives in the US at the transfer point, the USPS label is slapped on the package indicating the final leg of its journey to the customer.

MrConsumer used the AliExpress dispute process because the goods had not been received during the buyer protection period. The company authorized a full refund on May 2.




• • •

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 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.




• • •

January 27, 2020

Caution: You Could Get Overcharged on Some Advertised Sale Items at Staples .com

Filed under: Business,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:09 am

If you’re not careful, you may wind up paying the regular price for an item rather than the sale price when shopping on the Staples.com website.

Here is a chair that was advertised last week in both their physical circular as well as the online version.

Staples chair

When clicking this item in the online circular, a box comes up with the $149 price showing, and a button to add it to one’s cart.

Chair - add to cart

If you click that button, the item is confirmed to be added to the cart at the sale price. But then something unsettling happens on the next screen.

*MOUSE PRINT:

In the cart, the chair jumps back up to the full regular price — $100 higher than advertised. If you were only buying a single item, the overcharge would be easy to spot. But if you were buying many things and had no idea what the order should total, you could easily overpay.

We asked the PR folks at Staples what’s going on here — why aren’t customers always being given the advertised sale price when shopping on the Staples.com website particularly if using their clickable online circular? Despite multiple requests, the company did not respond, but lo and behold soon after receiving our initial email, that chair magically became an “in-store only” item at the advertised price.

If the company is relying on the blurry, microscopic online general disclaimer below [that we highlighted] saying that prices can vary on the phone and online, they better check state rules that require exceptions to prices and availability to be disclosed specifically as well as clearly and conspicuously, among other requirements.

*MOUSE PRINT:

disclaimer

Unfortunately for customers, the chair example above is not an isolated case. In all, while the price of most test items we tried did not change, we found half a dozen sale items from last week’s online circular with substantial discounts (shown under the green “ad price” below) that all jumped up to regular price when added to our cart. And none of these was specifically listed as in-store only prices or items.

*MOUSE PRINT:

cart with five items

We don’t know why this is happening. While we don’t think Staples has a grand plot to misrepresent sale prices, this does not appear to be just a one-time problem. This week (the week of January 26) it took no more than two minutes to find an advertised sale item in Staples’ print and online circular that jumped up in price when added to the cart for in-store pickup. This time, however, the price in the cart was even higher than their regular price, triggering what appeared to be a $13 overcharge.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Thumb Dirve at Staples

We are turning over our findings to the Consumer Protection Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office with the hope that they will open an investigation into these advertising practices. We have no illusions, however, that the AG will do anything about it despite the fact that Staples is headquartered in Massachusetts and many people could experience overcharges. Nine months ago, we alerted them to widespread misleading savings claims being made by Wayfair.com, another Massachusetts-based company, but they seemingly have done nothing. These everyday pocketbook issues are important, affect thousands of consumers, and represent alleged violations of the AG’s own regulations.

In the meantime, shoppers have to protect themselves. Be sure to double-check the price you are actually going to be charged when you add any sale items to your cart at Staples.com.




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