An Internet training company under investigation by several states and Australia is holding seminars in the Mid-South.
According to its web site, Utah-based StoresOnline.com holds seminars all over the country. It sells products and web-hosting services to help people launch their own online businesses.
It sends unsolicited invitations in the mail to consumers. The invitations include tickets to attend the seminars. It's unclear how StoresOnline.com obtains consumers' mailing addresses.
According to the Better Business Bureau, StoresOnline.com has a F-rating with 714 consumer complaints over the last three years.
11 government actions are either pending or settled against it. Utah, Indiana, Illinois, California, Oregon, Connecticut, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida have sued the company. They allege StoresOnline.com conducts deceptive trade practices and makes false promises to consumers about the performance of its services and products. Australia has filed two separate actions against the company. Read the BBB's report here:
Nancy Crawford, communications director for the BBB of the Mid-South, says the pattern of complaints focuses on an initial $50 package to obtain what's called a StoresOnline.com Express site. The money covers site access and a reservation for the company's follow-up training seminar on marketing and promotional strategies. It's at that seminar where consumers are offered a second site, StoresOnline.com Pro, and additional software or product packages to expand their e-businesses.
"People are buying the package, and they're not getting what they think they are paying for," says Crawford.
William Collins of Olive Branch, MS, attended a previous StoresOnline.com seminar in Memphis. Receipts show he paid the initial $50 for the Express site and the reservation for the follow-up seminar. He says he planned to sell remote control cars and boats on the web with StoresOnline.com's support and site start-up.
"They never gave me the site," says Collins.
Receipts show he paid more than $8,700 to StoresOnline.com in an effort to establish his site and monthly service. He says he received nothing and got nothing but trouble when he argued with the company's customer service supervisors.
"One supervisor after the other lied, lied, lied," Collins says. "I said, 'What's wrong with you guys? Where's the integrity?'"
"It's a company that we certainly caution people about, but they've got some satisfied customers," says Randy Hutchinson, president of the BBB of the Mid-South.
The Action News 5 Investigators found satisfied customers touted all over StoresOnline.com's testimonials page. We spoke to one of them: Lily Gery of New York. She hired StoresOnline.com to help her host and launch her online toy store, easyfuntoys.com.
She says StoresOnline.com's services have helped her become self-employed so she can stay at home with her children.
"I think some people think StoresOnline.com is going to run their business. That's not how it works," Gery told us on the phone from New York. "They get you started, and you do the work. With StoresOnline.com, you can always get (customer service), and I couldn't get that with other web-hosting companies."
Bryan Castleman of Martin, TN, started discountedboots.com after attending StoresOnline.com's Memphis seminars in 2003. He says he and his father now maintain eight e-tail sites.
"We invested about $6,000 up front in 2003 and by 2005, we were up to $2 million a year in gross sales," Castleman said in a phone interview. "StoresOnline.com helped me by just giving me the tools. They just kind of showed me the light and showed me how to market."
Jeffrey Korn, chief legal officer for StoresOnline.com's parent company, iMergent, Inc., says the government lawsuits, settlements and injunctions concerned mostly legal questions over what exactly his company is selling.
"Some states claim we are just selling a 'business opportunity,' and we dispute that," says Korn. "We sell software which allows the purchaser to develop their own web-based business, but we do not provide to them a 'business-in-a-box,' which we make clear to our customers.
"We stand behind our software. We think it's superb. Obviously, we make mistakes, and we work to rectify those mistakes."
Here are the BBB's warnings about seminar sales pitches:
Are they legitimate?
What are the kinds of claims that we should be wary of?
What advice does the BBB have for people before they invest in such opportunities?