Online Extra: Club Buyer Beware...
Myron Shore is an avid golfer. He's also a model credit-card customer. As it turns out, those two qualities made Shore an ideal candidate to be ripped off. Shore is hardly alone. He is one of thousands of golfers to fall victim to an offer that sounds like a risk-free way to test supposedly high-tech golf equipment. Instead, it turns into an extended stay in consumer hell -- countless calls to unresponsive customer-service departments, a series of disputes with credit-card companies, and complaints to the Better Business Bureau -- all in an effort to get your money back.
It's a con that the BBB, state attorney general offices, and federal prosecutors estimate has been practiced by as many as 50 companies in the past 10 years, prompting complaints in every state in the country. "This is absolutely on the radar screen, and it's absolutely fraudulent, there's no doubt about it," says Ken Julian, assistant U.S. attorney in the Central District of California. "We're talking about thousands of victims from all walks of life. It will be a matter of months, not years, before you see indictments."
Here's how it works, according to investigators and consumers in dozens of cases reported to the Federal Trade Commission and described in Freedom of Information documents obtained by Golf Digest. In some instances, it's classic boiler-room telemarketing. In others, it's a personalized mailer detailing an exclusive offer of custom-made clubs that comes with a toll-free number or an invitation to a golf instruction "seminar" that morphs into the sort of aggressive sales pitch you might find at a bad time-share development.
You get an offer to "play test" a new line of clubs -- no obligation. You give a credit-card number as "security" for the clubs that are to be sent to you. You return the clubs within the required period but discover your credit card has been charged -- it turns out that you "bought" the clubs the day you signed up for the test. And if you've kept the clubs for the 60-day trial run usually mandated by the agreement, most credit-card companies tell you it's too late to dispute the charges. Faced with an uncooperative equipment company, you're stuck.
"It just makes you shake your head," Julian says. Adds Shore: "It didn't matter who I talked to, I'd get a different story every time, one excuse after another. It felt like they were going to do whatever they were going to do whenever they wanted to do it." Often, it appears, when customers attempt to return the clubs and get the charges taken off their credit cards, they are met with delay tactics, offers of additional equipment, or no response at all.
"That's what their gimmick is," says Kim Burge, director of trade practices for the BBB of the Southland in southern California, where many of the companies are located. "They purposely do it and offer a product for 60 days. Why else would you pick that number? If you make it shorter, a consumer can dispute it." Some customers, like Jeff Duby of San Diego, not only lost their money, they didn't end up with the golf clubs, either.
"Every time I followed up -- assuming I was able to get through -- they kept promising that the clubs would be shipped the following week. Of course, it never happened," says Duby, who was out $700 until the charges were reversed after he threatened to cancel his credit card. "The embarrassment of falling victim to a telemarketing scam also prevents people from pursuing the issue. I know that I felt pretty stupid."
Shore says that in his case, the company relented after his complaints started reaching the Internet. "It took four months and several phone calls to get my refund," he says from his home in Rural Hall, N.C. "They gave me a different excuse for the delay in my refund each time I called. I will never, ever test clubs in this fashion again."
Duby's and Shore's difficulties arose with a company, Gary Player Direct, which was licensing the Gary Player name but was not part of Gary Player Group -- Player's personal company. The relationship between Gary Player Direct, which has declared bankruptcy, and its customers apparently is no better than the relationship between the company and its namesake. According to Tim Smith, vice-president for the Gary Player Group Inc., "Gary has pulled money out of his own pocket to refund money to a customer complaining about these guys."
Warrior Custom Golf Inc. of Irvine, Calif., is one of the companies disputing its unsatisfactory rating by the Better Business Bureau for the test-play telemarketing of golf clubs. The BBB says "the company is not interested in test results but instead uses the test to deceive people into purchasing their golf clubs."
Warrior spokesman Stewart Wilson says he is gathering information to present to the BBB about complaints against the company. "Obviously [the BBB] had a perception of us," he says. "We think that after they see what we have to show them rethey'll have a different view of how we do business."
Officials at Warrior assert that their company does not take advantage of customers. "We make it very clear to people that they're paying for the clubs," says Wilson. "I guess the point would be: Why would there be a money-back guarantee if you took no money in the first place? There would be nothing to give back because we wouldn't have taken anything."
Warrior president Brendan Flaherty says his company has sold clubs to more than 100,000 customers over the past three years. According to Flaherty, approximately 10 percent of those customers who signed on in the past two years returned the clubs and asked for refunds totaling approximately $10 million.
"If somebody's not happy after 45 days," Wilson says, "he gets his money back, regardless of the reason. There are no exceptions." Wilson says that if "a few customers somehow slipped through the cracks and were not satisfied," they constitute "a tiny fraction of 1 percent of our customers."
Many companies have been hard to find or have gone out of business. A BBB investigation of PGK Worldwide Inc. (also known as Test Play), a Framingham, Mass.-based company, found consumers' money tied up in as many as three club-assembly companies. One of those assembly companies, Tsunami Golf Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., went out of business.
"If you do nail them, they'll shut down their operation one day, and two weeks later they'll open up around the corner," says Barney Adams, the CEO and founder of Adams Golf, who launched his company with infomercials for Tight Lies fairway woods, which came with a legitimate money-back guarantee. "For the consumer, it's worse than buying a knock-off club from a store. At least then you can go back to them and work a deal. With these people over the telephone, it's just a lot harder."
An application for a search warrant for the office of Professional Golf Products Inc. of Huntington Beach, Calif., included excerpts of an interview with an ex-employee who told investigators about "heated arguments" over "unethical business practices" before she quit in early 2001. According to the search warrant, the employee told investigators she received "approximately 6-8 threats over the phone" after repeated demands for a final paycheck. During one threat, the employee maintained that a person with a male voice told her, "You have a grandson that plays on a farm.... I hope he doesn't disappear out of the yard someday."
Thomas W. Harris Jr., an attorney who represents Professional Golf Products, declined comment through an assistant. Julian, the assistant U.S. attorney in California, says companies that run test-play scams can generate millions in sales. "I think a million dollars a month is not an exaggeration," he says.
"At some point, when they realize that the fraud is going to be discovered and the letters from the Better Business Bureau are going from 10 a week to 100 a week, they'll do what they call a 'pump and dump,' " Julian says. "They double and triple the number of calls they're making so they can get as many clubs out there as possible and as much money in as possible before the thing gets taken down."
So what's a consumer to do? The BBB and other watchdogs offer these tips:
1. Don't give out credit-card information over the phone when you do not initiate the call.
2. If it seems unlikely that you can be custom-fit for a set of golf clubs over the telephone, that's because it probably is.
3. Take note of the fact that established golf equipment companies generally do not participate in programs like this. (One major equipment company estimates its return rate to be about 1 percent and that nearly all of those returns are for replacements, not refunds.)
4. Finally, it should raise a red flag if you are ever asked to provide a deposit for the full price of a piece of golf equipment if you're only going to "play test" it.
In short, if it sounds like a great deal, it probably isn't. Just ask Myron Shore. The only clubs he uses now are the ones he makes himself. He won't be fooled again. "All golfers are interested in trying some magical club," Shore says, "but not when it's going to cost you $600 that you might not ever get back."
BY MIKE STACHURA