Nothing Up My Sleeve

Jon Gallagher

Buyer Beware

There’s an old saying that “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”  The more I live, the more that saying holds true.

I don’t watch a lot of TV these days.  I do most of my writing after everyone else has gone to bed and the TV in the other room is on, mainly to provide some noise.  After Jay Leno has told his last joke, Conan has done whatever it is he does, and Carson Daily has bid a fond farewell for the evening, the infomercials start.  Like I said, the TV is on for noise.

Usually, when an infomercial is on, I either pay little attention or I laugh at what they’re trying to sell.  I’ll bet there’s plenty of people who purchase the little electrical box that shocks stomachs into looking like they’ve done 1000 crunches a day, but I’ll certainly never be one of them.

But the other night, one did catch my attention and I actually got up from my desk and went into the family room to watch.  It was for a product that teaches young children to read.  They had actual home movies of little kids, ages 9 months to about four years reading.

Okay, so the nine month old kid wasn’t reading, exactly.  The parents were holding up cards that said, “Arms Up,” but by golly, the kid would raise its arms!!!  They’d hold up a card that said, “ears,” and the kid would pull on his ears!  Four year old kids were reading books and paragraphs that contained words that English majors like me avoided at all cost (tetrahedron, trapezoid, and parallelogram).  I was impressed.

I have a four year old daughter who is pretty advanced for her age.  She not only knows her alphabet, something my older daughters didn’t learn until kindergarten, she can write the entire alphabet (upper case and lower case) and she’s already reading simple words, sounding out simple words phonetically.  I know she’s at the age where her brain is a little sponge, soaking up everything she sees and hears, so it makes sense that there would be a program like this.  It makes sense that it would work.

I waited through the entire infomercial to hear the price.  I knew it was going to be steep.

Fourteen ninety-five.


Yep.  Fifteen bucks for the entire program.  Normally I’ll consult my wife before buying something like this, but for $15, I deemed myself fully qualified to make the decision.  I grabbed pen and paper and jotted down the number and at 1:34 AM, made the call.

A machine on the other end picked up and welcomed me to the telephone ordering system so that I knew I had the right number.  Then the voice asked me to enter my credit card number on the keypad.

Enough red flags went up to tick off every bull in Spain.  I waited, instead, for a live operator.  I didn’t know quite what was wrong, but there was something about this that I didn’t like.  The machine prompted me twice more to enter my credit card number before thanking me for calling and hanging up on me.

Now that my curiosity was at an all time high (or at least it was off the ground a little ways at this time of the morning), I called back.  This time I was connected to a live operator immediately.  No machine asked for my credit card number.

A live person did.

I told the operator that I had a few questions to ask before giving her my information.  First of all, I wanted to make sure I had heard the price correctly.  Was the program fifteen bucks.

“Yes,” she said.

“So you charge my card fifteen bucks and I don’t have to buy anything else, right?”

She then explained that we would have 30 days to use and evaluate the product.  If we didn’t like it or if our daughter didn’t learn to read,  then we could send it back.  They’d keep my fifteen bucks.

Okay.  So much for a money back guarantee.

Then came the fine print.  Or the whispered clause.  Or the fast talking guy who used to do the Federal Express commercials.  Whatever.

If we kept the program, then my card would be charged $66.00 the following month.  And the month after.  And the month after that.

Hold the phone Maynard!  Something ain’t quite right here.

Or if I preferred, they would charge my card the entire $198 all at once and I wouldn’t have to pay the fifteen bucks up front.

I didn’t recall seeing anything in the infomercial about the program costing a couple hundred bucks.  I think I might have remembered that.

I expressed my surprise quite eloquently.  “Say WHAT?”

She began laying a guilt trip on me about depriving my child of the love of reading.  As a former English teacher, I would never do anything of the sort.  I began telling her that I thought it was just a tad bit deceptive to advertise the program for $15 while hiding the fact that it really cost $200.  She hung up on me.

Is the program worth $200?  Probably.  If it does everything that it says it is.  Heck, even if it does only half of what it says, it’s probably worth it.

I just object to the hidden, and very deceptive, real price.

I did a little investigation and found out some interesting things.

Had I entered my credit card number the first time like the machine had prompted me to do, it would have charged me $15, then told me later about the $200 charge.  I would have been given a choice of paying it all at once or paying it in installments.  There would have been no “wait-just-a-cotton-pickin’-minute, cancel-my-order” choice.  I’d have been stuck.

Evidently a lot of people go ahead and enter their credit card number because there are consumer complaint sites on the internet filled with all sorts of people who made that mistake.  The Better Business Bureau also lists complaints against the company.

Because I didn’t enter my credit card number the first time, their computer remembered my phone number and that’s why I was connected to a live person the second time around.  Different people on the internet report different things, but it seems that their computer will remember your telephone number in case you hang up for up to 24 hours, maybe longer.

I’ve always been one of those people who believe in paying a fair price for a fair service.  When I download music from the internet, I pay for it rather than deprive an artist of the few cents they’d be out if I downloaded it for free (not to mention the virus that I’d probably pick up). 

But I’ll be honest here… if I see this program on the net for free, I’m going to be tempted to download it. 

Or maybe I’ll just go to eBay and buy it there from some poor schmuck who got blindsided by his next few credit card statements.