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Fool Me Once, Shame On You But Fool Me Twice...

In aiming to settle a class action suit, a group of companies is throwing a proverbial pie in the face of affected consumers.

A Security Fix reader forwarded an e-mail about a benefit he allegedly was eligible to collect as a result of a class-action settlement over services offered by a subsidiary of Experian, one of the three major credit reporting bureaus.

I immediately sensed a phishing scam after reviewing the e-mail and the third-party site touted in the message, which asks the visitor to enter a Social Security number and birth date. But it turns out that the site is legitimate, although extremely insensitive to consumers.

The class-action case referenced in the e-mail is the latest in a series of lawsuits against Consumerinfo.com. The firm promised free credit reports but allegedly failed to clarify that it would charge a customer's credit card $79.95 for a "credit monitoring service."

In yet another insult for affected consumers, the Web site providing more information about the settlement encourages affected individuals to further expose their personal data online.

Consumerinfo.com agreed last week to pay $300,000 to settle charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission that it violated the terms of a previous settlement with the agency over the misleading "free credit reports." It was originally fined $950,000.

The impersonal e-mail was sent to consumers from browningnotice@gardencitygroup.com. It begins: "NOTICE FROM FEDERAL COURT. PLEASE READ. Records show that you entered into an agreement over the Internet with Consumerinfo.com or an Experian entity to purchase any Credit Check or Credit Check Monitoring (which were formerly known as CreditCheck Monitoring Service), Credit Manager (including Yahoo! Credit Manager), Triple Alert, or Triple Advantage credit-monitoring product, or you paid for a credit score sold on a Web site that also sold one of these credit-monitoring products, between June 17, 1998 and December 27, 2006. If so, you may be eligible to receive a benefit under the proposed settlement."

So, exactly what is this perk? It's 60 days of free credit monitoring service from Experian. If you don't cancel this "benefit," Experian will bill you $9.95 per month after the initial 60 days.

The e-mail details the terms of the settlement:

"If you choose credit monitoring, and you don't cancel your credit-monitoring membership after using your code to obtain the credit monitoring benefit but prior to the expiration of the 60 day, settlement benefit period, you will be billed at the then-applicable rate, which is currently $9.95, for each month that you continue your membership."

If you were an individual burned by this bogus "free credit report" offer who wasn't already insulted enough, go to browningsettlement.com, the site erected by Melville, N.Y.-based Garden City Group, a company that administers class action settlements.

The Web site includes a link to "update your contact information," where it asks a visitors to enter a Social Security number and birth date. Phishing scams almost always try to dupe people into entering personal data at fake bank and e-commerce sites by blasting out e-mails telling people they need to "update" their information. I spoke with the contact who registered the site, Frank Dmuchowski, but he referred me without comment to Garden City's public relations staff. That person in turn referred me to a woman at Experian, with whom I'm currently playing phone tag.

How else does this whole operation resemble a phishing scam? The e-mail does not address the recipient by name. It contains some very elaborate explanations and legalese that is somewhat akin to a Nigerian scheme. There is also the element of urgency. Recipients are told that if they do not respond within a given period of time, they will give up their rights to sue the company in as part of a class in any other lawsuit. Maybe that's one reason why we have seen phishing scams disguised as settlement offers succeed so well: settlement companies are conditioning consumers to respond to them, and the federal courts are encouraging this practice.

But wait, there's more. While a federal court has deemed it acceptable for companies like the Garden City Group to communicate with people this way via e-mail, anyone who wants to object or exclude themselves from the settlement terms must do so by snail mail by May 15. Anyone who wants to accept the dubious settlement benefit, however, is free to do so by e-mail.

Please do not let this May 15 deadline slip away. Write to the Browning Settlement Administrator to tell the court why you think the settlement stinks:

Objections-Browning Settlement Administrator
P.O. Box 91141
Seattle, WA 98111-9241

In addition, you can request to speak in court about the fairness of the settlement at a hearing on July 31.

Under federal law, all U.S. citizens are eligible for a free copy of their credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus: Experian, Equifax and Trans Union. Consumers should take advantage of this benefit, but only by visiting http://www.annualcreditreport.com or calling a toll-free number: 1-877-322-8228. You will get the most mileage out of your free reports if you scatter them across the entire calendar year by contacting a different credit bureau every four months.

Update, 3:50 p.m.: I heard from Experian spokesperson Heather Greer, who said that all communications were reviewed and approved by the court in accordance with the settlement." With regard to this settlement, we felt that this was the best way to inform consumers as soon as possible as to the products they were entitled to as part of the class," Green said. She added that the settlement site also includes a toll-free number (1-800-399-4322) that consumers also can use to either opt-out or accept the terms of the settlement.

By Brian Krebs  |  February 26, 2007; 3:35 PM ET
Categories:  Fraud , From the Bunker , Latest Warnings , Safety Tips  
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Comments

The folks at Experian also deserve a bad rap for not complying with terms of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. They routinely violate the 90-day limit for correcting incorrect information in their credit reports.

Posted by: Emery | February 26, 2007 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Do the credit bureaus live in the legislators' back pockets? It's as though Microsoft were granted exclusive distribution channels as part of an antitrust lawsuit settlement. Why can't they be forced to issue a cash refund like any other business?

Posted by: Moike | February 27, 2007 6:15 AM | Report abuse

This almost looks like collusion: the lawyers collect their big fees and Experian gets a whole new crop of subscribers.

Posted by: Wayne | February 27, 2007 7:17 AM | Report abuse

This is interesting because it reminds me of settlement email I recived from ProFlowers.com, which also looked just like a scam at first. I had to google a bit to find out if a lawsuit had ever happened... and when I did find out it was true, what was the settlement? 10% off next purchase.

Something is seriously wrong here. How can this be proper restitution - an email most users will legitimately suspect as fruad, offerring a *discount* on your next purchase??

Posted by: Kelsey | February 27, 2007 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Thanks Brian for the information ... the business of credit has been, is now and will ever be the place where consumers are at their highest financial risk.

Posted by: Lee Cassetty | February 27, 2007 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Apparently not all U.S. citizens are eligible for a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting bureaus. Those of us overseas who visit http://www.annualcreditreport.com are greeted with the message, "The AnnualCreditReport.com website is only accessible through ISPs (Internet Service Providers) located within the United States and its territories." I happen to live in Germany among the largest population of Americans residing outside the U.S. I suppose the non-toll-free (dialing from Germany) toll-free number might get us what the law grants us.

Posted by: Edward Johnson | February 27, 2007 3:01 PM | Report abuse

I just blew it away. I had enough of dealing with them last time altho I did have charges billed back at the time so I did not lose on it. One would think they could trust the 'credit bureaus' tho!

Posted by: J Gilliland | February 27, 2007 3:09 PM | Report abuse

This is unbelievable! Nearly everyone who was defruaded by Experian wasn't interested in credit monitoring. They just wanted a free credit report.

These victims deserve cash, not more of a worthless service they didn't want in the first place.

The FTC is really dropping the ball in its duty to look after American consumers in this case. I'm glad Brian and the Post are exposing this.

Jeff
Credit Monitoring is a Rip Off!
http://www.knowzy.com/Personal_Finance/Credit/Credit_Monitoring_Is_A_Rip_Off.htm

Posted by: Jeff | February 27, 2007 5:36 PM | Report abuse

It's like that Nintendo settlement ages ago - $10 coupons off of $60 games - who wins?!?!?!
What a #$%^&* joke!

I'd like to know how these moronic judges can get away with letting this go on for so long. They must go to the same law school as the judge, prosecutor and attny. who tried to put that teacher in jail b/c her IT guys left her unprotected for porn pop-ups. Idiots.

Like everything else related to law and gov't, it just gets worse instead of better. I need a third party again in '08. Stewart/Colbert anyone?
;^)

Posted by: NothingNew | February 28, 2007 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for this article and expose on this bizarre email, which was confusing to say the least. Makes you wonder if it was crafted that way on purpose.

http://www.thecredittruth.org/news/proposed-class-action-lawsuit-filled-against-experians-consumerinfo.aspx

Posted by: Wendell | February 28, 2007 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Here's a ludicrous class action lawsuit. Sprint overcharged it's cellular phone customers, so the settlement was for Sprint to give its customer a $15.00 credit towards their next bill. For us it was a hollow settlement since we could not get a refund as we had dropped Sprint because of their bad business practices. Another insincere settlement that only benefited Sprint and the lawyers.

Posted by: Steve R. | February 28, 2007 9:10 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for putting this blog up.

We just received an email about this "will be billed $9.95 to be part of a settlement". It looks some what real, but WE are always hesitant. We will vote on adding more of your (Brian Krebs on Computer Security) information to our website.

Good looking out.

CoFounder@endlessmall.org

Posted by: L. Billingsley | March 1, 2007 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Did Experian hire the whole AOL Accounts Payable Department, or just that phone-less part-time janitor in the basement in charge of service cancellation ?

Posted by: GTexas | March 1, 2007 4:47 PM | Report abuse

5. Do Nothing

You will automatically be included in the Settlement Class and give up your right to be part of any other lawsuit about the claims in this case, but you will not be eligible to receive a settlement benefit unless you submit a registration form.

What does this mean?? its part of the email. so nothing will happen? I just want make it clear because am not gonna do nothing. Regards.

Posted by: Hello | March 2, 2007 1:32 AM | Report abuse

I just received ANOTHER very similar email from Hillis Slack Settlement Notice (hillisslacknotice@tgcginc.com) which makes the other email really look funny. It starts out:
Hillis v. Equifax Consumer Services, Inc. and Fair Isaac Corp., Case No. 1:04-CV-3400 (USDC, ND GA) and Slack v. Fair Isaac Corp. and MyFICO Consumer Services, Inc., Case No. 1:07-CV-314 (USDC, ND GA)

A FEDERAL COURT ORDERED THIS NOTICE. THIS IS NOT A SOLICITATION FROM A LAWYER. THIS IS NOT A SOLICITATION FROM EQUIFAX OR FAIR ISAAC TO PURCHASE ANYTHING.

PLEASE READ.

You may be eligible to receive a benefit from a class action settlement if you purchased, paid for and received a credit score or credit monitoring offering from an Equifax website (Equifax.com), Equifax entity, Fair Isaac website (myFICO.com) or a reseller of the Suze Orman FICO. Kit between November 19, 1999 and February 8, 2007.

Posted by: Sunnye | March 6, 2007 9:26 AM | Report abuse

This whole devious lawsuit is a joke and an outrage. The conflict of interest stinks -- read the first paragraph at Browning's website "what is this lawsuit about?" and you'll realize why. Experian gets two things: off the hook, and yet another subscription charge if you're not careful. Consumers get nothing! Sure, sign us all up to recurring charges at $9.95 a month. That'll certainly make me feel better about having gotten ripped off in the first place. Experian and the others have been using the credit report laws to simply profit.

Posted by: Mike M. | March 7, 2007 7:58 AM | Report abuse

I just received this email, and assumed it was phishing, so went investigating. How is it a fair settlement for the criminal to get off without retribution, and also get new customers as a part of the settlement? Credit agencies are like the IRS...untouchable.

Posted by: Teresa | March 8, 2007 10:25 PM | Report abuse

What's interesting about credit scores is how much your scroe can vary from one agency to another, even after you've made sure that all 3 are reporting the exact same info! It seems that in addition to having 3 agencies to deal with, there's also a special score from each for credit cards, car purchases, and mortgage purchases. My score varied over 100 points from my TU credit card score to my Experian car score. So which score is the right one?

Posted by: hudgoddess | March 9, 2007 11:19 PM | Report abuse

What's interesting about credit scores is how much your score can vary from one agency to another, even after you've made sure that all 3 are reporting the exact same info! It seems that in addition to having 3 agencies to deal with, there's also a special score from each for credit cards, car purchases, and mortgage purchases. My score varied over 100 points from my TU credit card score to my Experian car score. So which score is the right one?

Posted by: hudgoddess | March 9, 2007 11:23 PM | Report abuse

I also received the email from Hillis Slack Settlement Notice[hillisslacknotice@tgcginc.com]. The web site the email refers you to is: http://www.hillisslacksettlement.com/
It too is asking for the last 4 digits of your social and DOB. There is an option to complete a form & mail it in but the verbiage is so lame that it comes across as a hoax. "You may mail in an Authentication Form but that will cost you postage."
If you choose to mail in the form you still have to enter your name and address & the form is prefilled for you to print out and mail in.
Whole thing is very badly set up and I think the court should be flooded with letters from the "Class Members" objecting to this. I'm certainly mailing them mine. Knowing that this is legitimately being done via email is just encouraging more phishing. This is some really stupid stuff.

Posted by: PostMorgan | March 10, 2007 9:43 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, one more thing to Teresa who wrote "How is it a fair settlement for the criminal to get off without retribution"
Here's the damages to the criminal (Defendants); we, the class, just get very little:

"As part of the Settlement, Class
Counsel will seek up to $4.0 million in attorneys' fees and expenses. The Court will determine a reasonable fee and
expense award at the Fairness Hearing based on Class Counsel's Fee and Expense Application and responses thereto.
Defendants will not oppose Class Counsel's Fee and Expense Application. Class Counsel will also ask the Court to
approve a $7,500 Incentive Award to each of the Plaintiffs (Robbie Hillis and Christy Slack). None of these payments will
reduce the benefits you receive. Any money the Court awards Class Counsel and the Plaintiffs will be paid by the
Defendants.
Next discussion: frivolous lawsuits and their cost to the consumer?

Posted by: PostMorgan | March 10, 2007 9:59 PM | Report abuse

I also got this email from Hillis Slack Settlement Notice (hillisslacknotice@tgcginc.com). It starts out: Hillis v. Equifax Consumer Services, Inc. and Fair Isaac Corp., Case No. 1:04-CV-3400 (USDC, ND GA) and Slack v. Fair Isaac Corp. and MyFICO Consumer Services, Inc., Case No. 1:07-CV-314 (USDC, ND GA)

I wonder if Equifax is behind a lawsuit against themselves. Why not, if it will generate new business. Use the legal system to promote your business. Afterall, there are no ethics in the business world.

Posted by: Maineman | March 11, 2007 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the article it clears up some of the confusing I had about the three or four emails I have received regarding this settlement.

Posted by: EJ | March 13, 2007 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Just received the notice from:
hillisslacknotice@tgcginc.com
Deleted.

Posted by: Ron Bestrom | March 13, 2007 6:40 PM | Report abuse

I got the same darn e-mail in my inbox. Is this a real phshing scam or not?

Posted by: john | March 15, 2007 4:35 PM | Report abuse

Is anyone receiving MASSIVE amounts of spam to the email address associated with this account?

After filling in the settlement info I am now receiving emails where they use my old, old, old address I haven't lived at in years in the subject line. An address they got from my settlement apparently.

Also I get emails with just my city and my name.

Guts of the email without including the white on white type you cannot see unless you mouse over it,

Are you currently paying over 7.53? We will help

[Link not shown]

Our propositions will only be here for the next 24 hours

Kind Regards,
Andrew Kaufmann

Posted by: Jay M | March 17, 2007 6:17 AM | Report abuse

I just received a mailing on this settlement. It just didn't look right when I was asked for my SSN on the website listed. While I'm sure there is an actual lawsuit and settlement, it is obviously a scam. I don't understand how they can get away with using the Federal Courts to perpetrate their scam.

Posted by: Mitchell Noland | March 27, 2007 9:59 PM | Report abuse

Since there seems to be no legal way to put these greedy butts out of their somewhat slimy business, the only way is for people to opt out even if one does "have to pay postage" I have received these from various attorneys making their millions offering me up to as much as $4.00 time after time although this is the most convoluted one. I have spent my good time opting out with great resentment at the waste of my time. "Kill the lawyers first" still makes good sense to me.

Posted by: rodeco1@alltel.net | March 31, 2007 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I just received a postcard regarding this settlement. I don't understand why I must send a snail mail request to be EXCLUDED from this lawsuit. Most class action settlements say you must respond only if you want to be A PART OF the settlement.

This simply doesn't make sense to me. I'm not responding.

Posted by: G. McRae | March 31, 2007 12:39 PM | Report abuse

I just got notice about this settlement in the mail. Perhaps they have stopped emailing but I never got one and would have been suspicious as well. I worked at a law firm and was on the other end of these class actions so I know settlements take years and little is paid. I have gotten them in the mail too. (Only one I sent in was for music cd buyers and they made it easy and gave cash). I have seen the opt out response requirement before (as opposed to opting in). They send it after much research is done to determine if you are likely in the class to get the mailing. In fact companies specialize in researching and coordinating all the paperwork/computer data. Then you can return info to get the benefit, do nothing and get nothing, or opt out to retain your rights to sue separately. However, I was outraged at the monitoring benefit that continues to bill you if you (like many of us) forget to cancel. That's why such offers are made, right? And I didn't even know what the complaint was about. So I went to the site thinking I might apply for the credit score and it was clearer than the verbose form. It said quite plainly that I can not fill it in until the effective date but I have to monitor for that. So now I am charged with watching out for when that happens and then registering within 60 days to get a free report score god knows when. I decided to search for other info and found this article. Thanks for your explanation as to what the suit was about, the phishing caveat for the future, and the call to arms. I now plan to object to this settlement offer.

Posted by: Mary | March 31, 2007 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Just received same email . . .what a rip off.

Posted by: Sal | April 1, 2007 5:25 AM | Report abuse

I received one of these at my address for my daughter who is deceased. Hasn't she already opted out?

Posted by: A mother | April 1, 2007 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I really don't know what to think. What happens if you return the postcard to the senders?

Posted by: anon consumer | April 3, 2007 12:05 AM | Report abuse

Just received the post card and am afraid to do anything. The postcard states that I "MAY" be a member of the proposed settlement case. If I "OPT OUT" they in essence have made some sort of contact with me. Will I then be bothered with something else in the future?
I will do nothing.

Posted by: confused in CT | April 6, 2007 8:35 AM | Report abuse

I vote for a class action settlement against the lawyers and system that doesn't have the common sense to send a settlement document that mirrors philshing, proposes that you give them all the information you are warned to be careful not to give out by the very monitoring system they are sueing and requires you to do something or suffer the consequences of future contact, monthly payments or release of your rights under the law.
I especially hate how they have not given enough information to verify their legal briefs and documentation. I say we call Chuck Browning since we can not call the "court".

Posted by: average american being side-swiped by the legal systems inefficiency | April 8, 2007 9:18 PM | Report abuse

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