You're Being Scammed Right Now

You’re probably being ripped off at this very moment and you don’t even know it. Do you have frequent flyer miles? Have you checked lately to see what they’re worth? Probably a lot less than when you signed up. Everywhere we turn, companies are pulling back from the value they offered when you signed the contract and handed over your payment, and leaving fees and restrictions in their wake. Gift cards whose value dwindles over time. Credit card payment due dates getting shorter and shorter. Credit card interest rates shooting up for no reason. Impossible to fulfill warranty repairs. Overdraft fees completely disproportionate to their cost. Health insurance coverage denied for the flimsiest of reasons. The list goes on.

Companies have clauses in their contracts which say they’re allowed to change their policies at any time. You can imagine what would happen, however, if you instead arbitrarily decided that you felt like paying your cable company $20 less per month because of a change to your “personal consumer policy.” That’s right, they would harass you with notices and phone calls and then eventually sell your bill to a debt collector who would phone you all the time and call you nasty names that you normally have to pay $2.99 a minute to hear. Yet, somehow they have the right to degrade the level of service or quality or quantity, THE VALUE, at any time. Well guess what, the promise was X dollars for Y service. Effectively, by say, making Y service ½ Y service, they are stealing your money.

If you bought what you thought was a new microwave and came home to find it full of wet paper towels, you can easily say that this is a scam. But the practices of some of the most trusted companies come with bubbly corners, and everything looks so pleasing and professional, and everyone wears a tie, and all the “policies” are clearly explained in nanoscopic print …but that doesn’t change what lies there once you cut away all the fat and gristle. We call it a scam. They call it a business plan.

Most people seem not to care. They accept these minor inconveniences as part of the absurdity of modern life. Or maybe it’s just “learned helplessness.” Of feeling that effort is futile, or would be seen as “whiny.” Well you can get what you deserve without raising your voice or making threats. Our readers do it every day. They use tactics like those described in The Ultimate Consumerist Guide To Fighting Back to get what is due. Sometimes it’s as simple as just asking, politely, and firmly.

Comments

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  1. surewriting says:

    Ha! I commented first…do I get a reward of some type? perhaps a small trophy?

  2. xQuizx says:

    Ahhhhh you’re right about that! I have recently been jipped with Southwest airlines. I had 2 round trip tickets which I was going to use anyway I please. Then they instituted the new tiered pricing for tickets as well as the create of the “Freedom Pass” where you can comebine 2 of your roundtrip tickets to be used anytime then just half the time. Am I making sense? Anyways…now if the flights have a cost of more then $130 one way you can’t use the regular old tickets….grrr!!!!

  3. xQuizx says:

    @xQuizx: Sorry for my lack of syntax and diction but I was venting.

  4. ARP says:

    Another great Op-Ed. But I think you need to further break out the two different kinds of scams we face because the solutions can be different:

    1) Incident specific scams- those that happen infrequently and revolve around a specific set of circumstances: Xbox with a brick in it, the fridge they can never deliver or fix, freezing my account after a charge in Paris (even though I called you and warned you in advance), etc.

    2) Systemic scams- Aribitration, increased interest rates, dwindling value, increased fees, etc.

    The easy answer is not to spend your money at those businesses that have these sorts of policies. But what about # 2, systemic scams that involve an entire industry? Mileage programs, credit card fees, etc. often happen on an industry level. What do we do? You can’t politely but firmly say, “I want that trip for fewer miles.” Is this where laws or industry standards need to step in?

    And a big FU to any of those super-capitalists that glibly respond, “just don’t have a mobile phone, just don’t have internet, just don’t have a credit card,” etc. We live in the modern world. There are some things that are needed to be productive (or even have a job) in this world even though I can physically survive with less.

  5. cmdr.sass says:

    @surewriting: You win the disdain of anyone who has been on the internet for more than 5 minutes.

    Welcome to the internet, by the way.

  6. krom says:

    ITS CAPITALISM YOU PINKO COMMIE< EVERYONE HAS A RIGHT TO MAKE MONEY1 YOU DONT LIKE IT GO LIVE IN SUVIET RUSSIA111 AMERICA IS ##!1 PS GET A HARECUT

  7. bohemian says:

    @ARP: This is why I think cell phones, internet and cable need to be regulated just like other “necessary” utilities are. There was a time where electricity was a luxury, now it is considered required for most living situations and for business.

    State PUC and more federal oversight are needed in these two industries, their time has come.

    As for many of these creative ways to devalue goods and services I tend to err on the worst possible outcome. I assume the warranty that comes with a new fridge probably isn’t worth much so I don’t rely on it when making my decision to purchase. I guess I build into the overall cost concept of the item that I might have to call the local repair guy. I assume that my bank will screw something up if I don’t watch them and my accounts. I also don’t use something for an incentive program because they have a way of never being what they claimed to be.

  8. krom says:

    *ahem* Sorry bout that. Channeling Morton Downey Jr. there I think. What I really wanted to say was… It seems like more and more these days the only way to survive the future is to live in a shack in the woods and grow your own food.

    That is, until the government sells the park you’re shack is in to a subdivision / strip mall developer.

    Or, say, forcefully evicts you because they have suddenly discovered that the land wasn’t really owned by the guy who sold it to you.

  9. sleze69 says:

    @cmdr.sass: Does Ben revoke comment permissions?

  10. brent_w says:

    I would love to see some sort of regulation in the form of forcing transparency and enacting penalties for breaking contracts.

  11. Buran says:

    @krom: As soon as that site caused sound to come out of my speakers, I was gone. What’s the story?

  12. castlecraver says:

    Well said, Ben.

    Dugg: [digg.com]

  13. weg1978 says:

    Wow. Hard-hitting. I think maybe you should take a field trip to a panacea where there are no depreciating frequent flyer miles, no dwindling gift cards, no credit card companies wanting you to pay back the money they are lending you (for free) in a timely fashion, no rising credit card rates, no impossible warranties, no overdraft fees, and no health care denials.

    Where is this Utopia, you ask? It’s called Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, or any other developing country where the institutions you simultaneously despise and need do not exist.

    Basically, you want everything you are getting now, but for less, if not nothing. I can’t state this clearly enough: The world does not work this way. At least not the developed world.

    Are companies not allowed a rate of return (your ‘fat and gristle’)? You feel that large companies like BoA, Exxon, and such are taking advantage of you? Fine, just don’t complain when your 401(k) tanks because the stocks in it underperform.

    Nordstrom has great customer service because they make a great margin and have a strong brand. Apple fleeces its fanboys and fangirls to the tune of a 300% markup, yet they are revered for their excellent customer service. Where do you think they get the money to pay for that customer service? Margins in the banking industry are much lower…if BoA or WaMu took their margins up to Apple’s levels, I’m sure they’d have great customer service, but you wouldn’t go near them because of the outrageous cost.

    This is the era of the end of personal responsibility. What you call “a scam” I call “a tax on stupidity”. Let the smarter people acquire more of the money, even the dull ones will be better off.

    Let the whining commence…

  14. Xkeeper says:

    @surewriting: A flagged comment, yes.

    @sleze69: I wish. The practice of axing commenters seems to have ended long ago, which is quite a pity considering.

    Why isn’t this marked as a feature?

  15. Xkeeper says:

    @weg1978: So paying for something and getting half of it is just supposed to be accepted as “normal”?

    Wow, what a long, utterly useless comment that was. Why are you here?

  16. Tankueray says:

    @krom: Yeah, I can’t get youtube at work. What does that have to do with “Or, say, forcefully evicts you because they have suddenly discovered that the land wasn’t really owned by the guy who sold it to you.”

  17. goodkitty says:

    The real problem is the omnipresent collusion between business entities. If competition and free trade really existed, this wouldn’t be an issue.

    However, I can’t say that anyone would be successful opening up a mom&pop next door to a Wal-Mart, so the consumer is also partly to blame. There doesn’t seem to be a solution to this growing problem… I don’t think you can legislate good sense and honesty.

  18. Snarkysnake says:

    Okay , lets just ask Mr. Language Person :

    scam
    From: The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English | Date: 2007
    The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English

    scam / skam/ • n. inf. a dishonest scheme; a fraud:

    This is where business is today . See the tiny sliver of space between the two parts of that definition ? Thats where a lot of big companies have wedged themselves. Raising fees , moving due dates and hiking fees in fine print are certainly dishonest,but fraud ?
    Nah.
    Fraud invites criminal and civil sanction ,while dishonesty just means that the company has to spend an ever increasing amount on marketing and advertising to attract new customers to replace the ones that are fed up.

    I left Dish Network today after 4 years.They made the calculation that it was cheaper to try to rope in a new customer than retain me.They tried every retention method EXCEPT dropping the price increase they tried to impose. (They are still advertising my package to new customers for a lot less). I won. I will take my business elsewhere (or maybe even back to DN through another family member setting up a new account). but the bottom line is, I won’t take it from them or anybody lying down. Neither should you…

  19. weg1978 says:

    @Xkeeper: Well, not to respond to flames, but since you asked…

    Since I used banks in my little diatribe, I’ll stick with them. What, exactly, do you pay for and get half of? I would like to hear it. Today, banks allow you to withdraw money at ATMs all over the world; you don’t have to go to a branch during bank hours. You can pay all of your bills online, saving you even more time. Your bank issues you a debit card, usually for free, that you can use in lieu of a check. These are all added value for you, yet the profit margins of banks have decreased steadily over the last 20 years. Maybe they are just getting worse at scamming you. Seems to me you are paying incrementally less for what you are now getting, and market forces caused this to happen.

    You want a dirt cheap flight? Fine, but the plane will be delayed from time to time, and you’ll have to pay to make changes. You want to borrow money at zero cost for a month (meaning no interest, no cost of infrastructure to process payments, etc)? Fine, but you’ll have to pay for it if you are late. You want to make phone calls from a wireless device across the country (or watch tv on it, or send text, or listen to music, etc)? Fine, but you’re going to drop a few calls in your basement. All of these things could be remedied if you are willing to pay a much higher price. TANSTAAFL still applies.

    To your larger point, I’m here because it pains me when companies make egregious customer service blunders, and I read about them so I don’t commit them. Equating profit with scam, however, solves nothing.

  20. Oracle989 says:

    @weg1978: clap, clap, clap. THIS MAN UNDERSTANDS THE MARKET! I hate it, but he’s right.

  21. forgottenpassword says:

    I have said it before & will say it again. Most Companies these days rarely rely on a good product & excellent customer service. Instead it seems to become competitive they have to rely more on tricking or misleading the customer into buying their product/service… and they have the balls to call it something seeminlgy innocuous like “marketing”.

    I think this is a result of too many greedy BIG companies in the marketplace competing for too few customers.

    Because of this… it has become a “war against the customer” mentality of many companies. “Those people have money & we want it!… so lets do everything we can to trick our customers out of it!” Companies have a whole host of strategies, schemes & other resources at their command that they can bring to bear against the consumer, while consumers have at most their own wits & the internet (with sites like the consumerist) to attempt to help them from getting screwed.

  22. synergy says:

    “a debt collector who would phone you all the time and call you nasty names that you normally have to pay $2.99 a minute to hear.”

    ROTFLMAO Well put.

  23. savvy999 says:

    @weg1978: Not speaking for Mr. Popken here, but the issue is not that anyone wants a free lunch, but that people simply wants the plain lunch they mutually and simply agreed upon.

    If when I signed up for the airline miles, the airline said it took 40k miles to get a ticket, and by the time I got to that magical number, boom– sorry, there’s been a slight change in the rules of the program, now it’s 80k!– that’s being scammed.

    Ben aptly points out many other examples of declining value for the same product, in total disregard for the established relationship with the existing consumer.

    There’s no argument against inflation, against rising prices for new or future customers/product, but there is a strong case to be made against companies systematically revising the terms of the past to suit their profit margins of the future. That is what is unacceptable, that is what I wholeheartedly agree is total freakin’ scam.

  24. Curiosity says:

    @savvy999:

    I doubt that @weg1978 took into account the totality of what he is saying. If he did he would realize that he is just spouting nonsense and supporting a corruption of the basic rights of Americans (USA) – the freedom to contract.

    The freedom to contract allows people to depend on another, a point that @weg1978 seemingly does not get.

    For constitutional freedom of contract does not mean that a party is to be as free after making a contract as before; he is not free to break it without accountability. Freedom of contract, from the very nature of the thing, can be enjoyed only by being exercised; and each particular exercise of it involves making an engagement which, if fulfilled, prevents for the time any inconsistent course of conduct.

    Very simply if a consumer is bound to pay money to a corporation and is accountable for it, then the corporation is bound to make good on their promises. Both parties have obligations and it would be absurd to assume that only one party needs to meet those obligations when people are bound in this matter (bilateral vs unilateral contracts).

    To put this even more simply – to endorse @weg1978 means that you can and should not honor your promises or change them without the other persons consent.

  25. douchrti2004 says:

    One of the big problems is that people still believe that big business is there to serve them. Gone is the day of the customer always being right. And also the fact remains that people dont read their contracts when using a big business. Its easier not to.
    Big business is on a quest these last few years.
    Rape and pillage, then bayonet the survivors.

  26. Sure I could agree with you, but then we'd BOTH be wrong. says:

    @krom:

    Why would I want to cut a rabbit?