SCIENTOLOGISTS DOUG + LAURIE DOHRING, Owners of Age of Learning Inc. (ABCmouse), FINED $10M BY THE USA FTC for Their Illegal Marketing + Billing Practices
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.
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