The pattern of white collar criminality by Scientologists continues unabated as Doug and Laurie Dohring, owners of the Age of Learning Inc. (ABCmouse) were slammed with a $10 million fine by the US Federal Trade Commission on September 2, 2020. The fine was paid to settle charges of illegal advertising and billing practices.
FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra was scathing in his condemnation of the Dohring’s sleazy actions to prevent cash-strapped parents from cancelling their memberships in ABCmouse. Instead of allowing parents to cancel, the Dohring’s and their company created a maze that made it virtually impossible to cancel.
The basis of the FTC’s enforcement action and fine is that tens of thousands of parents tried to cancel their memberships only to discover that the confusing ABCmouse website kept them locked in a credit card auto-renewal nightmare. Bizarrely, some parents who thought they had cancelled were mislead and actually agreed to a renewal due to the deceptive cancellation instructions on the ABCmouse website. Such tactics sound just like the Church of Scientology’s byzantine and deceptive refund/repayment scheme.
The website Dark Patterns describes a “roach motel” as any online website deliberately designed to make it easy to get in and subscribe but impossible to get out and cancel your subscription. FTC Commissioner Chopra invoked this term to publicly denounce ABCmouse as a roach motel:
The ABCmouse Roach Motel
ABCmouse was undoubtedly a roach motel. Through the dark patterns detailed in the FTC’s complaint, ABCmouse deployed tricks to lure families into signing up for its service, and traps to prevent them from cancelling. First, ABCmouse tricked consumers with a “12-month” membership offer, without disclosing that this membership would automatically renew. Instead, the company buried this information in its “Terms and Conditions,” which were accessible only if users clicked a hyperlink. Even those families that did click the link would have struggled to learn the truth, which was concealed in small, dense text. Unsurprisingly, these problematic practices prompted tens of thousands of families to file complaints.
Instead of fixing the user experience, ABCmouse doubled down on deception by deploying a host of mazes and obstacles to prevent families from cancelling their membership. As detailed in the Commission’s complaint, the company made it difficult for families to know where to start the process by deeply burying the link to the cancellation path, and by frequently refusing to honor cancellation requests initiated through their Customer Support portal or over the phone. Then, families who tried to cancel through the website were forced to click through a labyrinth of pages urging them not to cancel. In addition to wasting families’ time, these pages were riddled with traps – ambiguous menu options that in some cases re-enrolled members if they clicked the wrong button.
When families complained, ABCmouse responded by making the site even more deceptive. For example, the Commission’s complaint details how in 2017, ABCmouse changed its site to make the already-buried “Cancellation Policy” link less prominent. The trick worked, with the company’s Senior Design Director reporting that more families were abandoning their efforts to cancel.
As we have reported, the Church of Scientology makes every effort to get its former members to abandon their repayment request for unspent monies on account. Once a person abandons their efforts to get their money back they typically forfeit their legal rights to pursue the matter in court. The Church of Scientology told the IRS that its refund/repayment policy was based upon a “meet or abandon” basis:
Scientology has made it virtually impossible for former members to get unspent “monies on account” back. The Church will run former members in circles for years until these people give up and abandon their claims. This allows Scientology to keep their money without having delivered any services. L. Ron Hubbard himself wrote of this practice:
First consider a group which takes in money but does not deliver anything in exchange. This is called rip-off. It is the “exchange” condition of robbers, tax men, governments and other criminal elements.
The Dohring’s and ABCmouse appeared to have engaged in these same obstructionist tactics to enrich themselves at the expense of hard-working parents. And for this, the Dohrings have been fined $10 million and publicly exposed.
Commissioner Rohit’s Statement on ABCMouse:ABC.Mouse.Statement of Commissioner Rohit Chopra
California-based Age of Learning, Inc., operates ABCmouse, a membership learning site where parents can have their kids between the ages of two and eight access educational content. In addition to monthly memberships costing $9.95 per month, ABCmouse advertises a “Special Offer” – a 12-month membership for $59.95. But according to the FTC, from 2015 until at least 2018, the company failed to clearly disclose that memberships would automatically renew, charged consumers’ credit card without their express authorization, and made it difficult for consumers to stop those recurrent charges.
ABCmouse also offered consumers who enrolled in a 30-day “free trial” membership the ability to extend it beyond the trial period for $39.95 for 12 months or $29.95 for 6 months. But according to the FTC, ABCmouse again failed to clearly disclose that consumers would be charged automatically – and repeatedly – after the initial period ended. The complaint alleges that ABCmouse revealed key terms of the offers only on separately linked “terms and conditions” pages. Even if consumers knew to look there – a big if – the FTC says the details were buried in dense text, in a small font, and in single-spaced type.
Furthermore, for potential customers who might be on the fence, the company made the supposed simplicity of the cancellation process part of its sales pitch: “Easy Cancellation. If your family does not absolutely love ABCmouse, you can cancel at any time!” But when consumers wanted to cancel their memberships and stop recurring charges, the FTC says ABCmouse made them navigate through a confusing hide-and-seek maze – hardly the “simple mechanisms” mandated by ROSCA.
For example, the company allowed cancellations only through one online link that the FTC alleges was difficult for people to find and challenging to complete. More than 100,000 exasperated consumers tried to cancel through the Contact Us link on ABCmouse’s Customer Support page. But instead of honoring those requests, the company responded that “A member’s account can only be cancelled by that member on the site itself, not via email or any other means.” ABCmouse offered a novel rationale for its policy: a purported concern that accounts might be cancelled “unintentionally or maliciously.”
In addition to a $10 million judgment, the proposed order puts provisions in place to protect consumers in the future. Among other things, the order prohibits misrepresentations about negative options – including deceptive representations related to “free,” “trial,” “sample,” or “no obligation” offers. ABCmouse also will have to disclose the terms of negative options “clearly and conspicuously, and immediately adjacent to” claims about “free, trial, no obligation, reduced, upgraded, or discounted” offers – which means no more hard-to-find and hard-to-read fine print. In addition, the company will have to follow up on customer orders with written confirmation.
See our March 2020 article: Scientologist-Owned ABC Mouse & Its Confusing Coronavirus Marketing Campaign.
We wrote this article after we navigated the ABCmouse website and tried to make sense of its “free offer.” After we wrote this article, comments were posted on our blog by supposed “parents” who stated ABCmouse’s free trial offer was legitimate. The FTC’s $10 million fine argues that these comments were likely posted by ABCmouse shills.
The website Dark Patterns has an excellent short and educational video on “roach motel” websites:
FTC Case Timeline on ABCmouse: September 2, 2020
Categories: The Scientology Money Project