McLean, VA (written by Susan Tompor/USA Today) -- It started innocently enough with the words: "We Found Elizabeth Garbo."
But it turned into a search that uncovered consumer complaints about being charged far more than expected to find old flames and friends.
Two years ago, I started a little search for Garbo. I had met a friend of my brother-in-law who was on the St. Florian High School 1962 reunion committee. They couldn't find their classmate Garbo, whom they'd lost track of after graduation.
Now, all of a sudden -- a few weeks before the 50th reunion for that high school class -- my e-mail said someone found the elusive Garbo.
I didn't think twice before forwarding that MyLife.com e-mail to my brother-in-law.
It wasn't an hour later that my brother-in-law called me to complain that he just went to the bank to stop a charge of more than $80. That charge popped up somehow after he plugged in his account number and agreed to spend $15.95 to find Garbo.
He didn't want to spend what could amount to a few rounds of golf to track down a classmate.
He got on the phone to talk to someone at MyLife.com to get a subscription canceled.
Then we began a little search about MyLife.com.
"I get calls and e-mails from people every week about MyLife," says L. Timothy Fisher, an attorney at Bursor & Fisher in Walnut Creek, Calif.
Fisher is seeking class-action certification in a case involving MyLife.com.
People are often surprised by the charges, he says. The service initially looks like it might be $13 or $15. But Fisher says some consumers have complained that they ended up being charged more than $100.
Jeff Tinsley, founder and CEO for MyLife.com in Los Angeles, maintains that Bursor & Fisher is trying to "extract money out of a good company."
The CEO says it's only a matter of time before his company wins the case.
MyLife.com has 60 million registered users, he says, and minimal complaints.
The service is primarily free, Tinsley says. But customers can choose to upgrade.
Tinsley says the company is clear about its payment plans -- now $15.95 a month. Or customers can pay $95.40 upfront for one year -- making the price essentially $7.95 a month.
"Do people make mistakes? Sure they do," Tinsley says. He notes that MyLife.com does provide refunds if customers e-mail or call.
E-mail isn't the only way people end up connected to the site. At times, MyLife.com is one of the first sites to pop up in a Google search for a friend's name. "Search for friends, family, love interests, classmates, co-workers and more," the link reads.
My brother-in-law says he has all his money back. But he's very unclear how he ended up being charged nearly $100.
He discovered the yearly fee only when he went online to look at his bank account that day.
He worried after he did an online search of MyLife and saw claims that the social-networking site was involved with a scam.
Hundreds of consumers have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau about issues with MyLife.com.
Consumers allege that MyLife.com automatically renewed memberships and debited their accounts, according to the BBB.
Some consumers discovered that they were charged a non-refundable yearly subscription upfront when they signed up for the service based on a low monthly rate, the BBB said.
The BBB reported that 949 complaints were closed involving MyLife in the past three years, including 227 complaints in the last 12 months.
MyLife.com has an A-minus rating at the BBB. The scale is A+ to F.
According to the BBB report, the company's grade was boosted by the lower level of complaint volume filed with the BBB for a business of this size.
The BBB said the factor that lowered the company's rating was the failure to resolve the underlying cause of a pattern of complaints.
The company has responded to individual complaints, the BBB noted, by providing refunds.
Deep into the company's terms, MyLife.com states that subscribers will be automatically renewed at the end of the original subscription term, unless the customer disables the auto-renew feature.
Also the renewal charge would be the current regular price â?? not a promotional price.
After all this, did we find the Garbo?
No, much like the movie star, she remains a mystery. The St. Florian reunion is Oct. 6. No one knows if Garbo is now a doting grandma,enjoying a quiet life out of state or sadly died many years ago. The site gave an address in California, my brother-in-law says, but no phone number.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, of course, we did find a few more warnings. Such as: Fine print is required reading before you give your account information online. Search online, if you can, about any complaints ahead of time, too.
And, oh yes, if you want to be invited for Thanksgiving, do not rush to forward e-mails to your brother-in-law before reading something closely, as well.
Finding out more about online services:
To see Better Business Bureau comments and grades on a company, go to www.bbb.org.
Consumers can file complaints about services and products at companies with the BBB online complaint system. Complaints that are submitted via the BBB are forwarded to the business.
The Federal Trade Commission will not resolve an individual's specific complaint. But consumers can report complaints about companies, business practices, and identity theft to www.ftc.gov.
When trying to work out a complaint with a company, be persistent but polite.