Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dick Corporate Moves

Nothing illustrates the failure of the “free hand of the market” more than the growing list of dickish corporate practices designed to trip up consumers and fleece them for money. I’m talking about the booby traps and potholes consumers are now expected to navigate as we simply try to live our lives in this world and make use of modern conveniences.

It’s created an “us vs them” climate in the marketplace; no longer are there goods and services presented and consumers select what they want. Now stuff is slipped in your pocket, unbeknownst to you, and then you’re stuck with the bill at the end of the month.

For example, unknown fees on your phone bill:
His March phone bill included a company's charge for an enhanced long distance set up fee of nearly $19.

"The only thing I know they're enhancing was my bill," Bradley said.

The bill also had a $12.95 voicemail charge from another company. What Bradley didn't know, until CBS 2 inquired about the case, was he'd paid that amount for 11 months, a total of $142.

And if you’ve got a cell phone, you’ve got an even worse problem:

About a year ago, I was offered a chance to try VCast for 1 month free. I did not care to continue this service after the month was up and yet somehow the $15 per month fee was never removed from my bill even though I assumed the VCast had been disabled. By my own stupid neglect, I failed to notice that I was being overcharged since November 2007 and assumed the extra fees were because of picture messaging or the few accidental times my phone connected itself to some bullshit internet service. I know that many cell phone companies probably make hundreds of extra dollars by taking advantage of their customers in this way. Verizon, next time you offer a customer a "one month free" subscription please make sure the customer understands that they need to cancel this extra nonsense themselves and not rely on the network.

Yes, we should all be on top of these things but hey, life is complicated and busy enough. Things fall through the cracks. The idea that a company would set up a “free service” with the idea of tricking you into shelling out a few bucks every month and hoping you won’t notice is the definition of a Dick Corporate Move.

And yes, Verizon is the king of Dick Corporate Moves. They’ve actually designed their phones to fleece you:

At about the same time, I got a note from a reader who says he actually works at Verizon, and he's annoyed enough about the practice to blow the whistle:

"The phone is designed in such a way that you can almost never avoid getting $1.99 charge on the bill. Around the OK button on a typical flip phone are the up, down, left, right arrows. If you open the flip and accidentally press the up arrow key, you see that the phone starts to connect to the web. So you hit END right away. Well, too late. You will be charged $1.99 for that 0.02 kilobytes of data. NOT COOL. I've had phones for years, and I sometimes do that mistake to this day, as I'm sure you have. Legal, yes; ethical, NO.

"Every month, the 87 million customers will accidentally hit that key a few times a month! That's over $300 million per month in data revenue off a simple mistake!

"Our marketing, billing, and technical departments are all aware of this. But they have failed to do anything about it—and why? Because if you get 87 million customers to pay $1.99, why stop this revenue? Customer Service might credit you if you call and complain, but this practice is just not right.”

No, it’s not right. And it’s not even the worst Dick Corporate Move I’ve heard, either. That honor goes to our illustrious banks, who have figured out if they disguise your bill as junk mail, maybe you won’t pay it and they can fleece you with fees.

Digby alerted us to this scam last month:

The same thing happened to me. The plain brown envelope looked like it was one of those car dealership "checks" that were all the rage before the credit crisis hit. And because I didn't realize the first month that I hadn't gotten my bill, it created a black mark on my credit for a late payment which resulted in a cascade of raised rates on several cards.

After I read that I started to panic every time one of my bills was late. Did I accidentally throw it away? The last thing I need right now is a cascade of escalating fees because I was “late” making a payment. As Digby wrote at the time:

And that's what people are dealing with all the time as consumers, with their health insurance, their credit cards, their mortgages, their pensions---overwhelming complexity designed to trip them up and cost them money or deny them benefits to which they believed in good faith they were entitled. And its all perfectly legal --- or at least there's no visible accountability for it.

This is exactly right. And it’s pissing me off. It’s not dealing with customers honestly or fairly. It’s “how can sneak one past my customers today and scam them for a few bucks.” Well, screw you.

DirectTV has been so egregrious that the Washington State AG’s office is suing:

California-based DIRECTV is accused of wooing new viewers with ads for low prices while hiding a multitude of fees, planned rate changes, and terms that call for automatic renewals in the fine print.

DIRECTV's contracts "are so one-sided as to grossly favor defendants. The contracts limit the customer's rights and remedies and impose numerous, sometimes undisclosed fees, while at the same time maintaining defendants' flexibility to alter any terms and conditions," the state's complaint states.

This all reminds me of that new “Harry and Louise” ad the health insurance companies threw out last summer, the one that got the media’s attention because it was supposedly in favor of healthcare reform whereas the one from the Clinton era was not. Of course, our media missed the real story in the message of the ad: that AHIP supports Congress’ effort to make the words “pre-existing condition” a thing of the past. Hey, AHIP ... you guys could just, you know, stop the practice all on your own. You don’t actually need an act of Congress to outlaw your own dick policies.

You ever think about that? Of course not.

And that goes for Verizon and DirectTV and the banks and all of the other assholes out there trying to trip up us consumers with their hidden land mines. Congress shouldn’t have to tell y’all to behave like good “corporate citizens” (and I'm not entirely sure what that even means anymore). Instead, we have a series of Dick Corporate Moves that these companies invent. As soon as consumer complaints are heard and one Dick Corporate Move is banned, they dream up a new one.

Since when has the marketplace become a battlefield? Does anyone really think this is a good way to do business?