My day (and sometimes night) job is as an attorney. Although we get a terrible rap and are accused of being unethical, the reality is that most good lawyers (and many bad ones) actually think about ethics A LOT. We have to take a separate ethics exam before we get our license, and many jurisdictions have additional ethics content on the bar exam. We have to take ethics continuing education courses regularly. And believe it or not, I’ve had dozens of email chains, conference calls, and meetings discussing the ethical implications of a particular issue.
In my career, I’ve also primarily worked with low-income and middle-income people — many of whom were taken advantage of by an “expert” or a salesman. So I am particularly attuned to consumer scams, deceptions, and half-truths.
When I started reading points and travel blogs, very few people made a living off them. It was a hobby. And people blogged to share info or to amuse others. Alas, that has changed drastically, and many people now blog and travel as a full-time job. Now there’s nothing wrong with that per se. It’s not how I personally would feel like a contributing member of society, and it makes me sad that people rather travel all the time than build meaningful relationships, but there’s nothing *wrong* with that.
But what is wrong is pretending to give “advice” when in reality you are selling a product. Several bloggers now make money by “referral links” — essentially selling credit cards through links on their sites. Calling something a “reader question and answer” or a “credit card review”, and including a link that gives the writer a kickback — that’s wrong . Letting people think you’re on their side, when you’re really on your own — wrong. Encouraging people to take out credit cards so you can make fifty cents and not making clear that you’re a salesman — wrong. Telling people that it’s foolish to have a cashback credit card because they can pay a high annual fee and get miles to fly in Lufthansa business class (by themselves, pending availability) and so you can get fifty cents– wrong. It’s almost as if we don’t live in a country where credit card debt is one of the top reasons for bankruptcy, or that we haven’t seen the devastating effects of an overleveraged working class population. (And don’t get me started on the ethics of people encouraging various forms of bank fraud.)
Update: One of my heroes, George, points out that it’s closer to $100 commission per credit card sale. My inaccuracy speaks volumes as to the transparency to the general public.
So where am I going with this. One of the clearest examples I have seen of patently outrageous unethical behavior has come in the form of recent blog posts about changes to the US Airways Mastercard issued by Barclaycard. I’ve had this card for years. Besides a sign-up bonus, the only real value of the card comes from an annual pass to the US Airways Club, and a $99 companion ticket which, though restricted, has come in handy for me and my boyfriend and saved us hundreds of dollars a year. Well, these benefits, which were unique to this card — Chase United card gives lounge access passes on a sub-$200 annual fee card — are going away, and the benefits of the US Airways card are going to be aligned with the American AAdvantage card issued by Citi, and become comparable to other cards.
This change was covered in 4 of the blogs still left in my reader. A quick google search has found another 5 in the past two days, with more to come tomorrow as America’s favorite bow-tie wearing “Manufactured spender” hasn’t weighed in yet. All of them are of course encouraging you to get this card, and buy it through them. (That’s what a referral link is, essentially.)
This isn’t the worst example I’ve seen, but it is such a clear demonstration of how you can’t be both a reviewer and a salesman. If someone makes money off you buying a product, you cannot trust a word they say “reviewing” that product. Even if they happen to be acting honestly in that one instance. I have no idea if each of these bloggers truly thinks the US Airways card is manna from heaven and the new benefits are worth a ding to your credit score and a ring on their cash register. But I view these things from a perspective that’s echoed in the federal law for judges, 28 U.S.C. s. 455, which states a judge shall “disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” The standard isn’t whether you actually *are* impartial. It’s whether knowledge of all the facts would cause someone to question your partiality.
You can’t actually be a legitimate “expert” and a salesman of the product of your expertise at the same time. If I want an honest review of a new Chevy, I don’t ask the Chevy dealer. And if a Chevy dealer was pretending to be a neutral impartial expert, he very likely would be violating consumer protection law. And as the comments, “reader questions”, and massive amounts of people being driven to Flyertalk as a result of these “Get Rich Quick! You can fly first class too!” shysters makes clear, LOTS of unsophisticated consumers are falling prey.
There are some honest bloggers out there. And there are bloggers who give advice that doesn’t include a dozen referral cash-generating links. And to be fair, some bloggers have added a “disclaimer” informing people they make money on the link. But that’s not good enough.
The list of blogs I follow in my Feedly reader is shrinking as of late, because I don’t have patience for shysters, and for I don’t have patience for overentitled Peter Pans.
And yes, I am perfectly aware this is basically a rant. But I’m okay with that, because I think I rant interestingly. A shout-out to Jared Blank who has had a recent post on a related topic, entitled “If You Don’t Get Credit Cards, You A Loser!”
I rather pay for my travel in coach then cheat to go for free in First Class.