A proposed class action alleges Merck subsidiary Home Again has deceived consumers into thinking they must buy an annual membership after their pets receive the company’s location-tracking microchips.
According to the 26-page lawsuit, Home Again, by way of “deceptive marketing,” has tricked consumers into believing that they must buy a membership in order for their contact information to be maintained in the company’s database, which the suit stresses “enables reunions between owners and their lost pets.”
What consumers do not realize, according to the case out of New Jersey, is that Home Again maintains their contact information “for free, forever,” regardless of whether an annual membership is purchased. As the suit tells it, Home Again “profits from keeping that secret,” and consistently links its annual membership with its database in marketing materials, “even though the two have nothing to do with each other.”
Per the lawsuit, Home Again’s microchip and database “work independently from one another,” and a pet owner whose pet has an off-brand microchip may still register with the company’s recovery database.
“In other words, consumers do not need to purchase a Home Again annual membership to keep or update their contact information in Home Again’s database; it will remain in the database regardless of a consumer’s membership status and the contact information can always be updated, free of charge,” the complaint says.
The filing states that microchips have become an increasingly common way for pet owners to recover their pets when they are lost. When a microchip is scanned by a vet or shelter, it transmits an ID number linked to the contact information of the pet owner.
The lawsuit argues that Home Again’s annual membership provides pet owners with “useless services that no reasonable consumer would pay for if they realized what they were actually buying.” In particular, the membership provides pet owners with lost pet alerts, an emergency medical hotline and travel assistance for lost pets who are found more than 500 miles away from their home, the case says, contending that these services “provide little practice value and are not the reason that consumers continue to pay the annual fee.”
According to the lawsuit, Home Again “intentionally obscures” the difference between enrollment in its annual membership and “registration” in its database. The company’s conduct, the suit alleges, starts at the veterinarian’s office, where pet owners are provided with paperwork that prominently represents that Home Again’s membership services are $19.99 per year.
“Nowhere on this form does Home Again explain the difference between registration in its database and enrollment in its membership program,” the case says, adding that pet owners are also not told that the first 12 months of “membership” enrollment they receive for free is not the same as database access.
Lastly, the proposed class action argues that Home Again’s arbitration provision in its enrollment forms is unenforceable given the fact that it is “small, unnoticeable, and unconscionable” to the extent that it is forced on consumers without consent.
“Indeed, consumers do not provide affirmative consent to the arbitration provision,” the suit contends. “Importantly, a consumer is only provided with Home Again’s enrollment paperwork, which purport [sic] to contain the arbitration provision, after their pet has already received a Home Again microchip.”