State probing Bob's Furniture offers

The state Department of Consumer Protection said Wednesday it is looking into complaints about Bob's Discount Furniture's interest-free financing offers.

"We have opened an investigation," said department spokeswoman Claudette Carveth in an email. "As is the department's practice, we will not provide additional comments on the status of the investigation or on any findings during the pendency of the investigation."

The Manchester-based Bob's Discount, which has a large store in East Lyme and a distribution center in Taftville, said through a spokeswoman that it offers "multiple disclosures" to customers who take advantage of the free-financing offer.

But a consumer group alleges that the disclosures are inadequate because Bob's does not make it clear that it will back-charge customers nearly 28 percent interest if they do not fully pay off these loans in 12 months.

In one case, the group said, a Bob's customer was asked to pay about $600 in interest charges on an unpaid balance of $200.

News of the state investigation followed a Tuesday announcement that the Madison-based watchdog group truthinadvertising.org had filed a complaint with state officials about Bob's Discount practices.

The group also filed a complaint with state Attorney General George Jepsen and said he is also investigating the claims, though Jepsen's office did not return a late-afternoon phone call seeking confirmation.

Among the watchdog group's allegations were that Bob's failed to adequately disclose that consumers need to make more than the minimum payment to pay off balances in full within the required one-year period to avoid interest charges and that customers are so focused on the interest-free pitch that they ignore the interest-rate charge of 27.99 percent that is tacked on after the one-year grace period.

"It is completely deceptive for Bob's to market its financing as gimmick- and interest-free without simultaneously explaining to customers all the ways in which consumers can be saddled with 28 percent interest from the time of purchase," said Bonnie Patten, TINA.org's executive director, in a statement.

TINA charged that consumers were "being set up to fail" and that "hidden interest charges" were being tacked onto bills. It called on state officials to take action against Bob's "deceptive practices," saying its own investigation came after a reader contacted TINA to document his experiences - a complaint subsequently corroborated by several others.

TINA said it contacted Bob's about the situation but the company "failed to take adequate measures to respond to readers' complaints." The watchdog group, formed about two years ago and investigating advertising abuses nationwide, said a Bob's official assured the group that consumers all received a point-of-purchase flier disclosing the back-charged interest charges, but when it sent investigators posing as customers into Bob's to verify at three separate stores, none actually handed out the information.

"In the Niantic store, sales representatives wore tags on their lapels asking consumers to inquire about the gimmick-free financing plans, thus leaving it to the staff to adequately explain the details of the plans," TINA said in a story on its website.

Brandie Young, a spokeswoman for Bob's, said it complied with requests by TINA to review its disclosures.

"It was a little surprising to see this," Young said. "We are commited to conducting our business with the utmost integrity. ... The forms are clear and transparent."

Last year, the private equity firm Bain Capital said it was buying a majority stake in Bob's, founded by Bob Kaufman. Kaufman at that time was made president emeritus of the company, though he remains a key figure in frequent television advertisements.

According to the company website, Bob's has 54 retail showrooms in 11 Northeast and mid-Atlantic states.

l.howard@theday.com

Twitter: @KingstonLeeHow

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