If you care about Web, ignore this IPO

<b style="color:#900;">commentary</b> After being accused of scamming the public, marketing firm Affinion now wants public money in the form of an IPO.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
2 min read
commentary File this one under "shameless."

After federal lawmakers concluded that Affinion Group preyed on the public, the post-transaction marketer is now asking the public to become an investor. Last month, Stamford, Conn.,-based Affinion filed for an initial public offering.

Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller and his Senate committee is working to prevent Affinion and others from duping consumers into joining membership programs. Screen shot by Greg Sandoval/CNET

Affinion said in documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it is seeking to raise $400 million. According to The Wall Street Journal, Affinion has yet to set a price range or date for its IPO.

Last year, U.S. lawmakers launched an extensive investigation and found that the practices employed by Affinion--as well as competitors Webloyalty and Vertrue--were a "scam." All three were accused by federal lawmakers of duping millions of Web shoppers into joining membership programs and then charging their credit cards up to $20 every month.

I have written at length about how these companies paid well-known retailers, such as Buy.com, Orbitz, Priceline, Continental Airlines, Classmates.com, FTD.com, and others to gain access to their customers' credit card information. I could go on about the innocuous ads that the marketers presented shoppers with during the transaction process that were stuffed with fine print or how the marketers threw up obstacles to make it hard for people to get money back.

But perhaps it's better to point out that, at least for Affinion, these dubious practices haven't appeared to pay off. According to the Journal story, Affinion is saddled with $1.7 billion in debt, hasn't reached profitability, and the number of members in its loyalty programs "has been trending down."

Perhaps some of the lawsuits the company has been slapped with over the years have taken a toll on profitability. The company has been sued by more than a dozen state attorneys general, including those in Maine, California, and Florida.

The scandal involving Webloyalty, Affinion, Vertrue, and their retail partners is easily one of the worst to hit e-commerce. These are the kind of horror stories that will keep shoppers offline and undermine the credibility of e-tailing for honest merchants.

With all that debt, the stock doesn't appear to be a very attractive investment. But investors should bypass these shares because it's the right thing to do.