This started out as a post to the EFA members’ discussion list, where we’ve recently discussed a couple of scams, but it got a little long so I’m posting it here. I also gave out my URL and was promised it’d be linked to my member profile, so in case that actually does get published anywhere, I want to emphasize here that I am not affiliated with the National Association of Professional Women. Which should also be clear from the rest of the post.
I come with a word of warning about the National Association of Professional Women. They’re advertising heavily on LinkedIn, I hear, and targeting new business owners whose bullshit detectors might not be finely tuned yet. (That would include me, I’m sorry to say.) The organization seems reputable but they’ll use flattery and high-pressure tactics to upsell you on anything they can.
A week or two ago, I got a postcard in the mail offering membership and providing a preapproved membership code. I thought about it, went and checked out the org’s website, and decided it looked legitimate and possibly useful to me. The site said that every woman who applies (should have been red flag #0) gets a complimentary basic membership but that there were many membership levels. I entered the code from the mailing, filled out a form, and figured I’d check it out at the free level.
A few days later, I got a phone call from Savina (at a blocked number; red flag #1) wanting to interview me before my membership was approved and leaving the number 866-540-6279, extension 270. I called back today, and the given extension was Pamela Caldwell’s voice mailbox. I left a message anyway, and Savina called me back an hour or so later. (Red flag #2 — there was no mention of “oops, I gave you the wrong extension” or “Pamela gave me your message” or anything like that.)
Savina seemed friendly, but I could also tell she was reading from a script at points. I answered questions about my work experience, my education, my business, where I see myself in five years, what I hoped to get from the organization, what I was most looking forward to, etc. At the end of the interview she said she was pleased to offer me membership. I thanked her, thinking I’d passed some test or received some honor, and we proceeded with the paperwork process. She said there was the Elite membership level, which cost $900-something, or the Premium level, which cost $700-something but didn’t have quite so many benefits, so which did I want to sign up for?
WHOA THERE. I don’t want to sign up for either! However, we’d now spent about 15 minutes talking about me and what I wanted from the organization, so I didn’t want to feel foolish by saying “no thanks, never mind” at this point. (Red flag #3, in retrospect.) Savina said she could offer me a trial membership at $99. I said, didn’t I see something on the website about a free level? She said that was a listing only and didn’t include all the networking and seminars and other benefits I’d just said I wanted. So would that be American Express, Visa, Mastercard…?
At this point I felt trapped enough to give up my credit card information. I wish I’d come up with some other excuse: I wanted to review the welcome packet she promised to send; I wanted to run it by an accountant or a mentor; I wanted an invoice or an online form instead of giving my card info over the phone. (I later found out that others who’d said things like these were told the offer of membership was a now-or-never thing, or that welcome packets or requested invoices never came.)
So once Savina had my card info and enough information to create my member profile, she then offered to sell me a very nice plaque commemorating my acceptance into membership. She read off what the plaque would say and said that they only reserve two plaques for each member, so did I want to buy one or two for $99 each? That, I managed to turn down. To finish the signup process, Savina told me I’d get an email with my member ID and website login, told me I could download the organization’s logo and put it on my own site and business cards and wherever else, and described what would be in the welcome packet
When we ended the call, I felt swindled. I’d had no intention of spending a dime on membership, but because I’d been enthusiastic about membership for most of the call, I felt pressure not to backtrack. The more I thought about the whole thing, the more red flags started to appear, and I did what I should have done in the first place: researched the organization. My phone even offered “national association of professional women scam” when I started to type in the search box. Uh-oh.
I found blog posts and comments from 2007 through January of this year, all telling pretty much the same story, with some of the same names and phone numbers, though the exact dollar amounts changed from year to year. A post, Women Work Smart: Watch Out for Scams Attacking New Business Owners, and comments that echoed the experience I’d just had. An unfavorable article from 2009 that NAPW wanted taken down in 2012. A speaker who’d been offered a complimentary membership, then asked to pay for memberships and awards. A Ripoff Report article that had a fluffy, glowing “special update” at the top and a name removed from the original, critical report. Even negative Yelp reviews of the organization.
The more I read, the more infuriated I got. I called the number back and pressed 0 for “immediate assistance.” An operator transferred me to the Finance division, where I left a stern message saying I did not want membership, do not charge my card, and call me back to tell me there will be no charges. I read more stories of people getting the runaround and called the number again, this time dialing the extension Savina had given me, which again directed me to Pamela’s voice mailbox — only this time, her last name was something like Jean-Michel, not Caldwell (another red flag!). I left another stern message saying not to charge my card.
I expected I’d have to fight a little harder to avoid charges, since Savina had said that all membership orders were final. But an hour after I left the first message, I got a call from Ben (blocked number) from the Finance division. He asked me to confirm that I’d purchased a membership today. I said instead that I’d done a little more research on the organization and decided not to proceed with membership. He said, “So you looked at the website?” I said that I’d looked at the website and some other recommendations online, and I no longer wanted to be a member of NAPW. Ben offered no other resistance and said that he’d reverse the charges, which could take up to 24 hours. And that was that.
My bank account doesn’t show a pending charge yet, so I can’t say what amount they charged or refunded. If anything does come through, I’ll update the post.
ETA, 3/29/13: I think it’s safe to say now that no charges came through at all. It looks like I changed my mind quickly enough that NAPW really didn’t charge my card, instead of completing the transaction and then reversing the charges.
Update, 2/4/14: There have been so many more comments on this post than I ever expected (almost 200 as of this morning)! If you did purchase a membership at any level in the National Association of Professional Women, I can’t offer specific advice beyond what I’d recommend for any other purchase: contact NAPW for a refund and to cancel your membership. Contact your bank or credit card company and ask to stop the charge if it hasn’t gone through yet, or if it has, ask the customer service rep what your options are. Several readers have mentioned automatic renewals without clear notice — commenter Kim Hales said in December 2013 that text authorizing the renewals is hidden in new/updated terms and conditions that NAPW members must accept in order to login to the members-only area of the website, where you’d need to uncheck a renewal option — so if you’re already on the phone with your bank or credit card issuer, ask if you can prevent that specific renewal charge. NAPW may also have a policy disallowing cancellation within 30 days of the membership’s renewal date.
Many readers have mentioned the misleading ads NAPW has placed on LinkedIn. Yesterday, commenter Karin posted the text of the support ticket she submitted to LinkedIn and the reply she received, in which an Ads Support Specialist promised to “investigate the advertiser in question.” LinkedIn’s advertising guidelines prohibit deception or lying. Since NAPW does have a free membership level, I don’t think advertising a free membership is lying per se, but I do think this tactic is deceptive. If you’re on LinkedIn, you can submit a support ticket here.
Other readers have mentioned NAPW’s Better Business Bureau rating, which seems to have tanked over time. Commenter Glenda said in August 2013 that the LinkedIn ads touted NAPW’s A rating but that, according to the BBB, NAPW was not an accredited business. As of October 2013, NAPW still had a high rating, but commenter Lil W. said in December 2013 that NAPW had an F rating then. Last week, commenter Gabby said that NAPW’s Wikipedia page had a “Controversy” section that mentioned a C rating from the BBB. Here’s the text of that Controversy section as it appears today:
As of January 2014, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) reported 256 customer complaints against NAPW since 2011. Based on these complaints, the Bureau issued the company a C rating (on a scale of A+ to F) for its “failure to resolve underlying cause(s) of a pattern of complaints”, among other factors cited in their review of the company. Dozens of consumer complaints were also filed against NAPW with other complaint bureaus, reporting fraudulent practices. In response to BBB’s inquiry regarding what measures the company was taking to resolve “underlying issues”, NAPW reported that the “trend” of complaints reported to BBB was heavily due to online “negative PR” rather than customer experience.
My post here tends to rank highly in Google searches for the National Association of Professional Women, with or without the word “scam” included. NAPW has not contacted me about my experience (or for any other reason). I don’t think I or my blog really register with them.
The BBB gives NAPW a D rating today, for reasons that match my experience and those of almost all the commenters below: “Many consumers tell BBB that they are misled regarding membership prices, membership levels, and additional fees for processing and set-up. For example, consumers reported seeing an ad for free membership for NAPW on LinkedIn. However, these consumers claim that when they contact NAPW to take advantage of that offer, they find out that joining is not free. Some consumers also allege that they were subjected to high pressure sales tactics by company representatives to join the organization even before they understood the costs or benefits. Other consumers that originally agreed to join the organization but opted afterward to cancel the membership say that they have difficulty reaching any company representatives to seek a refund.”
I’ll continue to update this post with more news as it develops.
Update, 11/13/15: There are more than 550 comments on this post, which is about 500 more than I ever expected! I’m amazed that new people continue to comment that NAPW is doing the same old song and dance. Unfortunately, however, it appears to be working for them. This week, journalist Nikki Gloudemann published Anatomy of a Scam: National Association of Professional Women, a deep dive into the experiences of former members of NAPW, who’s running the organization, what it’s like to work in the call centers, and what the future looks like. (NB: This post is linked in the article and I was contacted for an interview. I wish I’d said yes.)