Weighty records: Dieters to get files, not money

Positive Changes Hypnosis promised its clients that they would "adopt the characteristics, behavior, and habits of naturally thin people." Instead, at least three of their clients adopted the characteristics and behavior of highly irate customers- and they want their money back.

Those customers will undoubtedly be as diverted as I was by the latest chapter in the Positive Changes saga. I've written about the Charlottesville center, which closed in November 2002, three times now.

In the first column ["Disappearing Hypnotist," January 30, 2003], I reported the experience of Terry Fry, who paid $1,477 for a one-year contract. She lost 25 pounds in four months, and stated that "everything was going well"– until she arrived for her November 1 session and learned that owners David and Heidi Porter had closed their West Rio Road office, leaving only a sign saying that clients would be contacted by mail. Fry wasn't contacted, however– then or ever– and continues to believe that Positive Changes owes her $984 for the eight months left on her contract.

Fry was soon joined by a woman I called Pat Foster ["Fly Away," February 20, 2003], who not only lost no weight, but, by her own reckoning, was out $400 on her six-month contract when Positive Changes folded. Foster's concern, however, wasn't money; she wanted her records back, because she had discussed her medical and psychiatric history– and felt she had the right to know where her records had gone.

I next heard from Debbie Holt, who figured she'd lost "about $530" on her contract ["Updates," June 19, 2003]. In the course of my research for that column, I learned that Positive Changes, which was headquartered in Virginia Beach, had declared bankruptcy. When I tried to reach founder Patrick Porter– David's brother– my call was returned by Keith Alessi, who informed me that he had bought certain assets of the bankrupt corporation, along with the franchise centers in Virginia Beach, Newport News, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Alessi was at pains to emphasize that he could not be held responsible for any "trials and tribulations" at a franchise he'd never owned, but promised to talk to David. If he did, it didn't lead to any grievances being redressed.

By then I'd heard from three of the four Porters: founder Patrick, bankrupt franchisee David (via voice mail), and Michael, the brains behind Positive Changes' nutritional program. Now, thanks to a recent email from Heidi, I've collected the whole set.

Heidi began by stating that I'd been given some "misinformation" she wanted to correct. "We opened our office in Charlottesville with the sincere hope that we could make a difference in the lives of the people there. Unfortunately, we opened without $20,000 in start-up money that we had been promised. We also started the day before 9/11, which didn't help business either. Those two factors were the main reason we weren't able to make it past our first year."

Patrick, on the other had, attributed the center's failure to the drought.

You don't have to read between the lines to see that relations are a little testy in the Porter clan. "We received absolutely no assistance from the corporate office"– i.e., brother Patrick– "even though we had been told when we opened that we would always receive support from them. Imagine our disappointment that David's own brother refused to help us stay open when he had the means to do so," Heidi wrote.

Patrick, she claimed, had made "many... false statements" to me, including his version of how they had closed the office. Patrick first told me he had learned the Charlottesville office was closing "the same way the clients did"– but then admitted, when pressed, that he'd found out a month earlier. Heidi, by contrast, claimed, "Patrick was the one who advised us to leave in the way we did." Seeking business advice from her brother-in-law, she declared, "was the biggest mistake we ever made."

As for client records, "I have no problem forwarding client files to anyone who requests theirs." According to Heidi, she's in the process of returning Foster's file; other former clients should contact her at the Newport News center (757-249-3082), where she and David are now– truly– employees.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.