Trouble in FarmVille: Facebook, gaming company face lawsuit over deceptive ads

For the players of Mafia Wars, Vampires, FarmVille and a handful of other Facebook games, the temptation of earning "virtual currency" by clicking on the various offers that popped up on the page was too much to pass up. Unfortunately, what these gamers didn't realize at the time was that the advancement of their virtual characters came at the expense of their own personal bank accounts.

Now, some are fighting back by filing a lawsuit against Facebook and Zynga, the maker of the games. The suit, which is seeking class action status, claims that some offers in the games prompted a series of unauthorized charges or triggered enrollments in programs without the user's knowledge. More than 100,000 people fell victim to these offers, losing more than $5 million, the lawsuit claims.
Among several other examples, the lawsuit cites an IQ test that requires the user to provide their cell phone number. After doing so, some were billed for a text messaging service. Another example from the lawsuit involved an offer that asked consumers to sign up for a "risk-free" trial subscription to a green tea herbal supplement program. Yet somehow that trial became a difficult-to-cancel subscription that every month delivered tea and pills from China.

The only named plaintiff in the lawsuit, Rebecca Swift of Santa Cruz, Calif., said she was charged more than $165 for two months' worth of pills and tea before she was allowed to cancel. She said she first tried to cancel during the trial period, for which she was supposed to pay $5.95 to cover shipping.

In a written statement to WalletPop, a Facebook spokeswoman said the company was not involved in the ad placement and didn't profit from it. She also said Facebook has been working to clear its pages of scam ads and the company is committed to fighting the suit.

"The ads in question appeared in third-party applications, were not from Facebook, and provided no benefit to Facebook," she wrote. "However, we are concerned about any potential threat to our users' experience. As a result, we have, and will continue to, take action against both the ad networks and developers who violate our principles or policies. We do not see any merit in this suit and we will fight it vigorously."

Facebook said it is committed to banning ad providers that deliver content in violation of Facebook "principles or policies" and already has cut off four providers.

Zynga, billed as the most popular social gaming company, is in a different situation. Its CEO had the misfortune of being videotaped explaining that his hunger for cash outstripped his interest in keeping his users from being subjected to unsavory offers.

In the video, CEO Mark Pinkus said: "I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this ... toolbar which ...I downloaded it once and couldn't get rid of it. We did anything possible just to get revenues so that we could grow and be a real business."

A Zynga spokesperson said the company would not comment on the lawsuit, but said it will no longer let scam ads appear with its games.

"Our mission is to provide users with the best possible experience. We deeply regret any difficulty this may have caused users and to make sure we continue to offer the best user experience, we took all offers down," a Zynga spokesperson said in an email to WalletPop. "We take our responsibility to our users very seriously and will continue to take steps to ensure they have a fun and positive game play experience."
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