Is it worth fighting over 87 cents?

I think so, and that’s why after years of fuming – and fighting – nickel and dime billing abuses, I decided to start this blog.

Because when you multiply 87 cents times thousands or millions of customers, you have one stupendous rip-off.

We’ve got to stop the incessant thievery of our time and money. The battle starts here and now.

Here’s my 87 cents story: I cancelled a cable television subscription with Adelphia awhile back. Then, I started getting monthly bills showing an .87 “credit balance.” This was money they owed me for having paid in advance for cable service I was no longer receiving.

My Adelphia Bill

I figured that eventually Adelphia would send me a check for the 87 cents.

After waiting eight months for my refund, I finally called them up. When I asked Paul, the customer service representative (I always get their names), for my money back, he scoffed: “you’re serious?” as if I was some kind of crank for asking.

If I had been short 87 cents on a bill payment, you know Adelphia would have insisted I pay – and shut off my service and send my account to “collections” if I didn’t.

Not so, said Paul. He told me Adelphia would “waive” an under-payment if the account was in good standing.

I’m not buying it. Never heard of a company “waiving” its charges for “good customers.” Have you?

Meanwhile, I don’t expect to get my money back. Adelphia, bankrupt after a corporate fraud scandal, is now defunct.

Most people wouldn’t bother fighting over 87 cents. Just not worth the time – certainly not worth my time. If I calculate it out, it was a money losing proposition even to look at the bill.

But that’s exactly what companies count on when they overcharge a customer. To me, this is a matter of principle. As a consumer advocate and public interest lawyer, I’ve made matters of principle my career.

Through “Givememymoneyback,” I plan to chronicle my personal fight to be treated fairly as a consumer. I’ll also name the companies that treat their customers right.

If you’ve had similar experiences, feel free to contact me. I’ll post interesting stories from other victims.

This isn’t just about ranting. American consumers need new laws to protect themselves against billing abuses. You can help figure out what those new laws should be by sending in your stories and your own proposals for legislation.

Gourmet Magazine offered a twelve issue subscription for $1 an issue – $12 for twelve issues.

That whet my appetite.

But when the bill came, the “amount due” was $15.96.

Huh?

According to the fine print, the difference, $3.96, was for “postage and handling.”
You’d think that the price of the magazine would include getting it to you – that’s the way newspapers and the other magazines I’m familiar with do it.

Gourmet’s technique is known in the health care arena as “unbundling,” a way to soak people for a few extra bucks. For example, hospitals bill people for a night in a hospital room but charge separately for the television in the hospital room. A growing number of companies have picked up the tactic. Cell phone companies routinely impose extra fees and charges for things that are really part of their overhead.

Apart from misleading consumers, this kind of marketing cripples competition itself. If you aren’t able to determine the actual price you are going to pay, then how can you comparison-shop?

We’re not talking about optional items here – like adding a sunroof or twenty inch wheels to a car purchase. A magazine subscription is worthless if it is not delivered to you. The only reason why Gourmet’s marketing department breaks out the cost is to hope that consumers won’t notice the extra thirty-three cent per issue charge.

PS Check out the offer on the bill to “extend” the subscription another 12 issues – once again, for $1 an issue. Are they going to cover “postage and handling” this time, or are they going to demand another thirty-three cents an issue when they bill me for the extra year?

Give me my miles back.

I’m a loyal customer: I’ve banked at the same bank for 24 years, bought the same brand soap since I was 25, used the same credit card to make most of my purchases since 1976. My strategy is simple: do business with a merchant consistently and they will appreciate your business, no matter how modest.

So when the airlines inaugurated their frequent flier programs in the 80s, I immediately signed up with them all, but I concentrated my loyalty on United Airlines. I was flying a lot in California and coast to coast, and I figured if I gave all my business to United, they’d treat me right.

It worked out great with United – at first. I traveled as much as 50,000 miles a year on the airline, and United personnel would do their best to help me out on last-minute rescheduling, seat assignments, billing issues. If I had a real problem, I had the number of a person on their “executive staff” – the branch of the company that deals with problems that can’t be resolved by the front line customer service people – who would step in. Meanwhile, I hoarded my miles, saving them year after year for a trip to some exotic destination.

But then, in the mid-1990s, United expanded its operations. Planes were impossibly crowded; flights were cancelled and passengers were bumped; customer service at the gates collapsed.

To add insult to injury, United, like most other airlines, made it far more difficult to redeem frequent flyer miles.

Not surprisingly, when the industry fell off the cliff after 9/11, United found itself without many loyal customers to sustain the company.

Things are even worse now, after United’s bankruptcy. Customer Service is based in India. So is the “executive staff.”

And when I finally tried to cash in all the miles I had saved up so I could get a free trip overseas, United would not give me a single seat on a non-stop flight. Ended up on three separate flights that added six or seven more hours each way.

I called the Mileage Plus staff to complain, of course. Their response: “Well, what did you expect? You aren’t paying for this trip.” My reply: I paid for these miles with the tens of thousands of dollars I spent flying on your airline for years. This is not a “free trip.” I earned it with my loyalty.

Too bad that is not worth much today.

Here are some problems we’ve identified, and a first shot at some possible solutions. Please post your pet peeve – and what you think should the solution is, and feel free to comment on anything else you find here.

Problem: Standardized, fine print contracts drafted by companies say that consumers surrender many legal rights they have by law when they sign the contract. Then, when the company does something wrong, the consumer has no recourse.

Solution: Companies may not require that consumers surrender their fundamental legal rights under state law.

What is this about? Read the explanation here.

Here are some problems we’ve identified, and a first shot at some possible solutions. Please post your pet peeve – and what you think should the solution is, and feel free to comment on anything else you find here.

Problem: Customer Service. When a customer tries to reach customer service to resolve a problem, no toll-free phone number is provided on the bill. There may be no phone number at all. Or, customer service may be outsourced to overseas locations where the staff is inexperienced or not fluent in the consumer’s language. Customer service personnel may be rude or disinterested.

Solution: Require all companies to provide a telephone number for customer service; companies doing business interstate must provide a toll-free number. Customer service must be provided by persons fluent in English and Spanish. Companies must provide opportunity for immediate escalation to a supervisor if the dispute is not resolved satisfactorily.

Problem: Some stores no longer permit returns for individuals reported to a database as frequent “returners.”

Solution: Return policy must always be printed on receipt. All companies must accept returns for full refund without re-stocking or other fee if the product is defective.

Problem: Standardized, fine-print contracts drafted by companies allow the company to change the terms of the contract at any time, sometimes without notice.

Solution:
Companies may not change the terms of the contract without a customer’s independent written approval and may not penalize the consumer for failing to agree to the change. Independent written approval means that the consumer has been properly notified of the proposed change and may accept or reject the change without retribution and only by way of a written signature on a document modifying the contract.

What is this about? Read the explanation here.

Here are some problems we’ve identified, and a first shot at some possible solutions. Please post your pet peeve – and what you think should the solution is, and feel free to comment on anything else you find here.

Problems: Advertising and/or packaging does not disclose the details of the product or service. Extra charges, fees, conditions or restrictions are not disclosed, or are described in a confusing or unintelligible way. Consumers are required to comply with these undisclosed terms.

Solution: Require all terms of sale to be specified on product advertising and/or packaging. Disclosure must be readable and understandable by the average person. Consumers are not required to obey terms that are not properly disclosed prior to purchase.

Problem: Junk mail and email wastes time and money. Worse, it contains personal information that makes it easy to steal a consumer’s identity.

Solution: Data concerning an individual’s buying habits and transactions is the property of that person and cannot be sold or exchanged without that person’s written approval.

What is this about? Read the explanation here.

Here are some problems we’ve identified, and a first shot at some possible solutions. Please post your pet peeve – and what you think should the solution is, and feel free to comment on anything else you find here.

Problem: Receipts are often unitemized, making it impossible to determine whether charges are correct. Unitemized receipts also make it harder to comparison shop.

Solution: Receipts must be issued in all transactions, and must state the product or services performed.

Problem: Credit card and other receipts requiring signature contain language stating that by signing, a consumer agrees to accept another product or service, which may or may not be free, or agrees to other obligations that the consumer did not bargain for.

Solution:
All offers of other products and services may only be “accepted” after full written and oral disclosure and through a separate document, requiring a separate signature, which sets forth the entire terms of the agreement. Retailers may not suggest that a transaction entered into by a consumer requires the consumer to sign a second agreement.

Problem: Manufacturers and retailers advertise lower prices by offering “rebates” rather than dollar discounts at the time of sale. It is typically very hard for consumers to collect the rebates they are entitled to.

Solution: Bar rebates or establish reasonable limits on the qualifications for the rebate.

What is this about? Read the explanation here.