ECA Responds To Membership Controversy, But Doesn't Say Much

Yesterday, ECA President Hal Halpin emailed Consumerist and other blogs a formal statement addressing the charges that the ECA is deliberately making it hard for members to break free. I’m printing the letter below, along with a summary of the key points Halpin makes and the issues that remain unanswered.

First, the letter.

We were disheartened to read some of the coverage and comments related to complaints regarding our member cancellation policies this morning. The issue seems to have begun following a guest article that I penned a few months ago, where I highlighted the various policy issues that gamers should be aware of – from Net Neutrality and Universal Broadband to Digital Rights Management (DRM) and End User License Agreements (EULAs). I concluded the piece by providing those who had taken the time to diligently read the article with a coupon code, encouraging them to sign up for a free trial membership… the logic being that we’d like to have readers who care about the issues among our ranks. For about four weeks following the publishing, we had a small bump in new member acquisition, but they were not coming from the article, unfortunately. These new members were coming from websites and forums that were solely promoting the coupon code, sans important reading.

Within a relatively short period of time, some of the new members found an exploit in one of our partners’ promotional codes and spread the word. The partner tried to resolve the situation, during which time we removed any references to the program, but ultimately it was decided that the offer be terminated. We advised members as soon as we were aware and reassured them that we were working on additional offers with new partners. We updated our website during the same timeframe in a long planned for Content Management System upgrade and an inactive back-end feature became visible, which looked to give some members the option to opt-out of the association. We were alerted to the error and removed the non-functioning feature immediately. Because it was viewable and then removed, those same few members became concerned that it was a feature that had been live all along and was suddenly removed. We then attempted to explain the situation and allay their concerns.

There were then concerns about the auto-renew structure of our payment system and business model related to that same function. We explained that we are working on ramping up infrastructure to become more automated going forward, but due to a small but active number of members who were repeatedly joining, leaving and re-joining the organization – in an effort to exploit our member benefits and unduly take advantage of our partners’ generous offers – we would require a mailed letter, as per our membership agreement. Needless to say, that incensed the exploiters who then contacted the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and their personal banks to report that we attained their membership under fraudulent conditions, in effect committing fraud themselves. Upon investigating the opened investigations, the respective banks and BBB all found ECA to be soundly reputable. We understand that several of the banks have since opened fraud investigations into their customers and that they take such matters very seriously.

Over the past few years, membership in the ECA has grown substantially, the primary reason for which is directly attributable to the important work done by the association, partnerships formed with coalitions, parallel trade associations and corporations, all eager to help defend the rights of game consumers. We have added many valuable benefits for members including discounts on games-related goods and services, purchases and rentals and a whole host of additional affinity benefits. We have several retail partners who offer significant promotions and several more, which are in the process of being finalized. It is important to note that the number of members who were/are involved in this unfortunate issue is very small and not representative of the organization as a whole. We sincerely thank the dedicated ECA members and the gaming community for their understanding and support on this matter and we look forward to continuing to grow the organization to suit the needs of the consumers.

Hal Halpin – ECA President

The key points (and if I’m wrong, hopefully someone from the ECA will get back to me):

Re. the disappearing Amazon discount:
The September offer was part of an article Halpin wrote. It went viral, and some of the “great unwashed” new members who joined began abusing the Amazon coupon code by stacking it. The problem couldn’t be fixed so Amazon killed the program.

Re. the disappearing Auto-Renewal functionality
This feature appeared only temporarily after a site-wide upgrade, and was never actually functional. It was removed once a member brought it to ECA’s attention. No dates are given for when this was up or for how long.

Re. requiring snail mail cancelation requests
Although they are working on “ramping up infrastructure… due to a small but active number of members who were repeatedly joining, leaving and re-joining the organization – in an effort to exploit our member benefits and unduly take advantage of our partners’ generous offers – we would require a mailed letter.”

Halpin goes on to say that those who reported the ECA to their banks or to the BBC for fraudulent activity were themselves committing fraud, and some are now being investigated.

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There are several questions that are raised by the letter, or that the letter doesn’t address. I’ve asked for more clarity on some of these issues, but as of yet haven’t heard back from them. I’ll put them here for general discussion:

  1. If there’s evidence that Halpin the ECA promoted the Amazon discount explicitly as an incentive to join, even though it had already been discontinued while Amazon and ECA tried to find a solution, why has Halpin told ECA members that he didn’t promote it?

    In this ECA forum thread, which has since been deleted, Halpin writes,

    To address the folks that claim that ECA advertised the Amazon promotion and then sold memberships, it’s a bit disingenuous, frankly. The ads were removed while the codes were off-line (prior to us being notified that they were going to terminate the promotion due to code stacking).

    An ECA member responds, “People that joined and looked for them were confused because the benefit page said it was there but there was no longer a link to get a new code.” I can verify that I myself experienced that confusion on the day I signed up, which was the morning I posted the offer in our Morning Deals.

    Even as of today, if you go to the site, the very first item listed under “Membership Benefits” is this:

    Discounted games sales/rental offerings from:

    • Amazon.com – Currently this offer has been discontinued.

    The fact that it’s still listed, and that it’s listed first, and that the word “currently” is used, seems to at the very least create the impression that it may return some day as a benefit. If it’s gone for good, why isn’t it gone for good? Halpin may be correct that any ads were removed, but it’s clear the ECA still hasn’t stopped associating itself with a benefit that no longer exists, and he hasn’t addressed that larger issue.

  2. How, exactly, do repeat offenders exploit the ECA’s member benefits? If membership costs $20 a year and there are no refunds, then a person who joins 5 times in a two-month period is going to pay the ECA $100 for access to the same discounts. Pretty much all of the benefits are percentage discounts from retailers or online services, or dollar-off coupons on minimum purchases.

    In addition, why not restrict memberships to one per unique credit card per year, or one per address, or something similar? It seems to me this would put the brakes on yo-yo members to some degree.

    Beyond that, if the ECA is making $20 every time someone joins, where’s the harm in that? If processing new members costs more than the membership fee covers, then it seems to me that would demand some improvements on the administrative side of things, or a higher annual membership fee, or a screening process for new members.

    And finally, why pick a solution that harms all members just to punish the ones you don’t like? Even an A+++ would-do-business-with-again member may have good cause to terminate his membership; why, in 2009, would you close off both Internet and telephone routes to customer service?

  3. The one other troubling thing to me about the letter is that there’s a general anti-member vibe throughout it. First, the general theme is that some bad elements crashed the party, which is hardly the mindset you’d expect a consumer rights organization to have toward its members. Then Halpin goes on to imply that members who have filed complaints against the ECA are now in trouble with their banks, as if to warn others that they’d better not try anything. Halpin also notes that the ECA is what it is today thanks to its own hard work–which may be entirely true, but it’s rare to come across an organization that doesn’t at least share the credit with its customer base, which Halpin leaves out entirely. And finally, Halpin dismisses this entire incident as the rantings of a “very small and not representative” group of members.

It’s true, anyone who has signed up in the past few months has himself to blame for not reading the terms, where it’s clear that the only way to cancel is through snail mail.

But “knowing what you were getting into” and “treating your customers fairly” are two different things. If you signed up and now want to cancel, follow the rules you agreed to and send in a letter through the USPS. Or, find a more creative way to do it by canceling your credit card. Or continue to agitate for an improvement in the way ECA does business.

But if you’re the ECA, why not start treating your customers like you really are advocating for them? Making the membership life cycle of your own organization fully transparent and easy to participate in would be a terrific first step.