Last week I needed to look up the physical address and mobile number for someone I knew only by name. In my Google search, I was presented with the usual sets of data aggregators that service marketing departments - e.g. Zoominfo, RocketReach, ContactOut. But by random chance, I clicked through to a link to Spokeo, which brought me to a record for the person I sought with all the relevant information blurred out. The site offered to reveal the information for $0.95, which at the time seemed like a reasonable deal. It then steered me to pay via PayPal, which I thought odd but not entirely unusual. When I finished the PayPal transaction, I had been charged $0.95 and the information in the record had been properly revealed.
If this story ended here, I would have been a happy customer that returned every now and then to use the Spokeo service. Unfortunately it didn't end here. Seven days later, PayPal let me know that I had been charged $29.95 for a Spokeo service. Looking at PayPal, it appears Spokeo used the $0.95 transaction to setup a recurring $29.95 monthly payment that started 7 days after my original purchase. In other words, they were providing me the record I sought for $0.95 in return for a 7 day trial of their $29.95 per month service. The only problems were: 1) they never mentioned this was a 7 day trial for a full subscription, 2) they never sought permission from me to setup a recurring transaction with PayPal as part of the $0.95 transaction, and 3) they didn't let me know I needed to cancel if I didn't want to be charged for the full subscription.
This practice seems at a minimum to be deceptive, and quite possibly is illegal for the Pasadena, California based company. I immediately went to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) to see if I was alone in my issue. I found Spokeo had 147 reviews from customers, with a ranking of 1.11 out of 5 stars, and 188 complaints over the last 12 months alone. In reading the reviews, there were number examples of people like me who fell prey to their automatic subscription scam. Many of the reviewers also tell the story of how Spokeo refused to return their money - with one person saying he was eventually refunded $12.
If you fall prey to this scam, here is some advice on what to do:
- Cancel the subscription - You need to go into PayPal, go to Activity to see your recent transactions, click on the $29.95 Spokeo charge, and cancel the subscription. This will not refund your money, but it will at least prevent future charges.
- Contact the company - You should immediately contact the company (888-271-4559, firstname.lastname@example.org) to request a refund. Based on the BBB reviews, this is mostly a formality and they will provide a boilerplate response that they must wait 10-14 days for an investigation.
- File a dispute with PayPal - With any PayPal charge, you can choose to dispute the transaction. PayPal will collect information from you regarding the reason for the dispute, which they will then use to approach the company to seek resolution. In my case the dispute took less than 24 hours and Spokeo chose to refund my transaction.
- Write a review and file a claim with the Better Business Bureau - While this is not likely to resolve your issue, filing the claim and writing a review with the BBB has the benefit of at least putting your experience on record. I filed the claim with the BBB while my PayPal dispute was ongoing, so I expect it will get closed once the company provides proof of resolution.
- Flag the transaction with your credit card company (if possible) - In my case the PayPal transaction used my American Express card. I set an alert on this charge to ensure I would be notified in the event it posted. While it was an option of last resort, if the PayPal and BBB disputes did not properly resolve this, I had planned to reverse the charge to let Spokeo deal with American Express.
Whatever you do, don't let a company like Spokeo get away with this scam. They are relying on your inaction.