San Leandro resident Amelia Perez was a bit surprised when her husband Carlos decided to order something called the Pro Line card he saw on TV, especially since it cost $299 to open an account. Maybe he was won over because the ad has been so pervasive on local Spanish-language television. "It's sometimes two or three times a day," she says. Or maybe it just sounded too good to pass up; the couple understood it to be a sort of "starter" card with a $2,000 line of credit, designed to help people with little or no credit history establish a solid rating. Like many of the consumers the Pro Line card attracts, the Perezes are working-class Latinos with a limited credit history. They are retired and live off Social Security checks; they have one other credit card but avoid using it. "I don't know why he wanted this card," Amelia laughs. "You know how when they talk on the TV, you think, 'Ooh, this is nice.'"
But the card turned out not to be so nice. Amelia remembers that when she called the toll-free number to sign up, she was explicitly promised she could use it anywhere. "The girl said with this card you can go to any store and buy the same as Visa or MasterCard," she recalls. "But it was not." In fact, once Perez sent off her $299 money order and received her new card, she was shocked to discover that the only places it could be used were a catalogue and an e-commerce site, both run by Pro Line. "You could not use it anyplace except the book they sent us!" she exclaims. "We were disappointed really very bad."
Or take case of Berkeley resident Omar Lliro, who signed up for the Pro Line card to buy a new car he needed for his home repair business. Lliro, who emigrated from Cuba in 1996, liked the part of the company's sales pitch about how customers' payment records would be reported to the major credit bureaus so people could shore up their credit histories. "My credit is not that good," he says. "I saw the opportunity to build up my credit again."
But then the card arrived. "Right away I knew," Lliro says. "When I saw those catalogue that they gave me, I said, 'This is not a credit card, this is a company who wants me to buy things from them and then pay them some money." It was clear no auto dealer would accept the card, but it was too late -- he had already sent away his money. "They don't allow you to see anything until you deposit the $299!" he laments.
Stories like these are becoming all too familiar to San Francisco-based Consumer Action, an advocacy group that has fielded 350 complaints in the last several weeks from irate Californians wanting out of their contracts with the card company. Joseph Ridout, consumer services manager for Consumer Action, says that while Pro Line is headquartered in Florida, its cards are selling briskly in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, where the company has targeted Latinos with ads on affiliates of networks such as Telemundo and Galavision.
While the ad is ambiguous about what the Pro Line card actually does, Ridout says, the vast majority of the cardholders who contacted Consumer Action said that they were promised a Visa card that could be used anywhere. When they tried to complain, they were often told that the person who handled their initial registration was no longer available or that they must pay a variety of cancellation and processing fees that add up to about $250 of the original $299 deposit. "It's really just a transparent scam," he says. "This card has no value whatsoever."
Carlos Mendez, a principal in Pro Line Card LLC who identifies himself as marketing manager, claims that customers are indeed ordering from the catalogue and Web site. The company, in operation since last November, has about ten thousand customers, Mendez says, of whom two or three thousand are placing orders.
Assuming that's true, it might still seem strange that just 20 to 30 percent of the cardholders bother to use the card. That is, until you see what Pro Line charges for some of the ten thousand products it boasts are available: A 5.8 GHz VTech cordless phone the company offers for $229.99 sells for $59.99 at BestBuy.com. The Canon PowerShot 3.2 megapixel digital camera, which Pro Line lists for $599.99, is $149.99 from Best Buy. And Pro Line members pay double for that Evenflo car seat or family-size George Foreman grill, compared with Sears or Target's online shops. "They're products no one would ever want to buy because you can get it for half the price in the store," Ridout notes. "There are only three or four people we've heard of who have ordered from this thing. They mostly take a look at it and go, 'Oh my God!'"
It gets even more outrageous: Amelia Perez, one of those few who actually tried to order something, inquired about a $500 home gym and was told she'd need to pony up $300 for shipping. The operator explained that the hefty fee was because of the weight of the product. Perez declined on the gym, but when she later tried to purchase a coffeemaker that Pro Line listed for less than twenty dollars, she was shocked to learn she'd have to pay sixty bucks for shipping. "I said 'Forget it,'" she recalls. "I can buy it at Walgreens."
Pro Line's Mendez defends the price structure as the trade-off a small company must make to do business with clients other retailers might regard as credit risks. Unlike Wal-Mart and other megastores, he says, his company doesn't deal in bulk. More to the point, he says, Wal-Mart and its ilk won't finance your purchases without knowing your credit history. Pro Line will. "We don't ask nothing about the person -- where they work, how much they are making in the payroll," he says.
In fact, you don't even need a Social Security number -- which makes the deal more enticing to illegal immigrants. Mendez portrays the company as one that offers a valuable social service. "It's mostly for Spanish-speaking customers and people that don't have credit history," he says. "We help them to begin that because we don't check credit history. We only ask them for a down payment."
Pro Line cardholders are indeed asked to pay a portion of the purchase price upfront -- 40 percent, according to the enrollment contract on the Web site, although this number appears to be flexible. The balance is then billed monthly for a year, the contract states. If customers demonstrate that they can pay on time, they are charged less upfront for future purchases, the company claims. Meanwhile, Mendez says, Pro Line helps customers build positive credit histories by reporting their payment records to the credit bureaus.
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