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PlayGirl Nabbed

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Consumers who used their credit cards to sign up for a “Free Tour” of porn websites got more than a little peep. The owners and operators of playgirl.com, highsociety.com and scores of other adult Web sites have been charged by the Federal Trade Commission and the New York Attorney General with illegally billing thousands of consumers for services that were advertised as “free,” and for billing other consumers who never visited the Web sites at all. According to the complaint, New York City-based Crescent Publishing Group took in more than $141 million in income from the porn web sites during the first ten months of 1999. The defendants include owner Bruce Chew and principal David Bernstein. The “Free Tour Web Sites” claim that consumers’ credit card numbers are required solely to prove that the consumers are of legal age to view the adult material, and that the credit cards will not be billed. But thousands of consumers were charged recurring monthly membership fees ranging from $20 to $90, the complaint says. Consumers who tried to dispute the charges were met with a variety of barriers designed by the defendants to thwart their efforts. According to the complaint, the defendants use billing names different than the names of the Web sites, so consumers often had no idea who was billing them or why. Moreover, consumers often had difficulty contacting the defendants to get refunds from information provided to them on their billing statement. According to the joint FTC/ New York A.G. complaint, the defendants routinely changed corporate billing names and merchant banks in an attempt to avoid the fraud detection systems of credit card organizations such as VISA U.S.A. When it realized what the defendants were doing, VISA U.S.A. disqualified them from using its credit card system. The defendants moved their merchant banking relationship to Guatemala, adopted several new merchant names, and continued to process credit card transactions. For more information visit www.ftc.gov.

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