April 2007

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.


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.