The Congress finds the following:
The Internet has become an important channel of commerce in the United States, accounting for billions of dollars in retail sales every year. Over half of all American adults have now either made an online purchase or an online travel reservation.
Consumer confidence is essential to the growth of online commerce. To continue its development as a marketplace, the Internet must provide consumers with clear, accurate information and give sellers an opportunity to fairly compete with one another for consumers’ business.
An investigation by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation found abundant evidence that the aggressive sales tactics many companies use against their online customers have undermined consumer confidence in the Internet and thereby harmed the American economy.
The Committee showed that, in exchange for “bounties” and other payments, hundreds of reputable online retailers and websites shared their customers’ billing information, including credit card and debit card numbers, with third party sellers through a process known as “data pass”. These third party sellers in turn used aggressive, misleading sales tactics to charge millions of American consumers for membership clubs the consumers did not want.
Third party sellers offered membership clubs to consumers as they were in the process of completing their initial transactions on hundreds of websites. These third party “post-transaction” offers were designed to make consumers think the offers were part of the initial purchase, rather than a new transaction with a new seller.
Third party sellers charged millions of consumers for membership clubs without ever obtaining consumers’ billing information, including their credit or debit card information, directly from the consumers. Because third party sellers acquired consumers’ billing information from the initial merchant through “data pass”, millions of consumers were unaware they had been enrolled in membership clubs.
The use of a “data pass” process defied consumers’ expectations that they could only be charged for a good or a service if they submitted their billing information, including their complete credit or debit card numbers.
Third party sellers used a free trial period to enroll members, after which they periodically charged consumers until consumers affirmatively canceled the memberships. This use of “free-to-pay conversion” and “negative option” sales took advantage of consumers’ expectations that they would have an opportunity to accept or reject the membership club offer at the end of the trial period.