People who signed up with the Jacksonville-based Alcoholism Cure Corporation were promised a “scientifically proven” program that “cures alcoholism while allowing alcoholics to drink socially.” What they got was a shopping list, instructions to take handfuls of unproven supplements, and a particularly troubling surprise when they tried to cancel their membership.
A recent ruling by a federal judge upheld FTC and Florida AG allegations that when people attempted to cancel, the defendants “routinely used disclosure of personal and health information as a threat to extract payment.” And they weren’t just whistling Dixie. Despite promises to keep people’s information private, the defendants went ahead and revealed highly personal facts to PayPal, credit cards companies, and the Better Business Bureau. But they didn’t stop there. When people wouldn’t pay up, the defendants disclosed their identity in small claims court filings. In addition, they exposed their entire database of consumer info to debt collectors they hired to pursue their fees.
The defendants — who also did business as the Alcoholism Cure Foundation, Enjoy a Few, and Guilt Free Drinking — made what the court called “impossible demands” on people who wanted out. When customers tried to cancel their membership because the program wasn’t working, the defendants made them submit “proofs of continued drinking,” in the form of expensive lab tests and hair samples, among other demands. According to the Court, the defendants also made unauthorized charges of alleged fees ranging from $9000 to $20,000, falsely represented the credentials of owner Robert Douglas Krotzer by referring to him in ads as “Dr. Doug,” and couldn’t back up their treatment claims with evidence.
In addition to ordering refunds, the ruling prohibits the defendants from using trade names like “alcoholism cure” or “permanent cure,” bans unauthorized billing, and puts a stop to collection actions. The order also makes it illegal for the defendants to misrepresent the cost or terms of any offer they make, to say anything untruthful about staffers’ professional qualifications, or to falsely claim to be a charity.
The lesson for businesses? It’s hard to know where to start.