Bamboozled: An exercise in exasperation

Tom Kuhn likes to stay in shape.

So when LA Fitness bought out the Parsippany location of Bally’s Total Fitness, where Kuhn had been a member for more than 20 years, he decided to check it out.BB branding

Kuhn, 62, signed a contract for six months of personal training on Dec. 31, 2011. He’d pay a total of $1,970 over six months for the service.

“When I got home and reviewed (the contract) I realized it was not consistent with the agreement we reached,” he said “I was to make an initial payment of $370 and five monthly payments of $320. I arranged for this to be charged directly to my American Express card.”

The contract called for different payment options. It said he would pay $320 per month for an entire year.

Once he saw the error, Kuhn said, he drove back to the club. Within two hours of the first signing, the contract was revised to reflect the deal he struck, he said.

“All the changes were properly initialed by the sales representative,” Kuhn said, and he thought that was that.

Until the additional charges hit his credit card.

The errors started in July.12312

Kuhn’s credit card was charged $320 that month, and again in August, and again in September.

He said he immediately contacted American Express during the July 4 weekend to dispute the charge.

“Given that I have a valid contract and am a 26-year ‘member,’ I expected this would be easily resolved. We all know ‘membership has its privileges,’ ” he said. “Well, I learned whatever those privileges are, they don’t include dispute resolution. My customer service experience with them was, and is, atrocious.”

During the first call, there were two points Kuhn wanted to make. The first was the $320 overbilling, and the second was that there should be a valid $14.95 per month fee for his monthly LA Fitness dues. He wanted to make sure that charge was not disputed in error.

On July 14, he received a letter from the credit card company acknowledging his request.

On Aug. 13, American Express sent an identical letter. No news of progress or a decision.

One Aug. 30, American Express wrote again, this time saying LA Fitness said the charge was valid, and it presented a copy of the contract it had on file.

“(LA Fitness) explained that a 12 month personal training membership was purchased. …” the letter said.

“This was the first time I learned the amended contract was not the only version that existed,” Kuhn said. “I have no knowledge how that came about. I was annoyed because I had sent Amex a scanned copy of the amended contract and nowhere in their resolution letter to me did they even acknowledge it.”

Kuhn protested the decision via e-mail and with a telephone complaint. The only response? A standard request to fill out a survey about his customer service experience.
Kuhn turned to LA Fitness in early September to try to stop the billing.

Over several conversations with an LA Fitness rep named Erica, Kuhn was told that a “very busy” vice president was reviewing the case, so it could take some time.

“All I can say is they made Amex look good,” Kuhn said. “Erica told me LA Fitness would stop the billing if I agreed to pay the $960 they had billed me in excess of the $1,970 I agreed to pay and is stipulated in the amended contact. She told me if I didn’t agree the billing would continue. I protested.”

The rep wouldn’t give Kuhn the name of the vice president — because they don’t disclose “personal information.” He asked for a supervisor to call. “Jack” would call, Erica told him, but Jack has never called.

Shortly after Kuhn first contacted Bamboozled — but before we contacted the companies — American Express accepted Kuhn’s dispute of the first overbilling month and credited $320 to his account.

Still out $640, he opened disputes for the two remaining wrongful charges.
“At this point I am not even certain who I have a dispute with. Is it American Express or LA Fitness?” he said.

Seemed to be little bit of both.


American Express has Kuhn’s proof that the subsequent charges were errors, and it accepted the initial dispute. One would think the same would happen with these additional charges.

But it never should have come to that. If LA Fitness made the error of not having the amended contract on file, it should have fixed the problem when Kuhn asked for intervention.

We reached out to LA Fitness.

Again. And again. And again.

Its media representatives did not return our calls or e-mails.

So we tried social media, and found a guy in the LA Fitness marketing department.

Maybe he could put us in contact with the correct person.

He suggested we try the customer service department. Really?

We asked Mr. Marketing to please forward our request to someone at the company who has permission to speak to the press.

The waiting continued.

Not being much of a shrinking violet, we turned to American Express to see if it could speed up the dispute resolution — to end Kuhn’s problems one way or the other.

Within hours, American Express said it would take a closer look, and before long, American Express had an answer. It said it couldn’t resolve the issue.

“In this case, (the cardmember) released his Card to the Merchant and did clearly sign a 12 mo. Service Term Agreement,” said spokeswoman Desiree Fish in an e-mail. “We would respectfully request, at this point, that Mr Kuhn contact LA Fitness directly to further pursue his overcharge claim.”

We reminded Fish that we had sent her a copy of the amended contract.

“The Agreement copy from Merchant is unaltered and clearly indicates a 12 month term,” Fish said. “The copy of Agreement provided by Mr Kuhn has been altered and so there really is no way for American Express to determine if those alterations were made in the presence and authorization of the Merchant.”

She also said the initial $320 dispute was not approved because of the merits of Kuhn’s case, but because LA Fitness didn’t respond to the American Express dispute inquiry in time.

That was helpful.

We turned back to LA Fitness. Because the media relations people still hadn’t responded — and really, a “no comment” is one thing and a lack of response is something else entirely — we resorted to our last option: a corporate executive e-mail blast.

In no time, we heard back from Orlando Gonzales, who neglected to share his title despite several requests. He asked for details, and we sent them.

Within hours, Kuhn reported the good news.

“According to Mr. Orlando Gonzales of LA Fitness media relations in Irvine, California, my account will be cleared of the excessive charges with apologies for my inconvenience,” Kuhn said. “Incredible. I spent two months on this and you clear it up in a matter of days.”

Kuhn will let us know when his account is credited.

A side note to any corporate execs or business owners out there: There will be times when your company makes a mistake. We all make mistakes. It’s human nature. What your customers will remember is how you handle the mistake. If you make it right. If you respond to requests for help. In a reasonable time frame.

An ignored customer probably won’t be your customer for very long.