Buy a Starbucks Prepaid Card: Give up your Rights as a Consumer

I think I just figured out the meaning of Starbucks’s name. Buck$ are its star. Several public interest groups, including Public Citizen, Alliance for Justice, National Association of Consumer Advocates, and National Consumers League, have started a campaign to protect consumers who purchase Starbucks gift cards.

Personally, I think that while they’re at it they should protect consumers from Starbucks’s coffee itself. Have you ever had drip coffee that was left on the warming plate so long it tastes like someone had taken a blowtorch to it? I believe Starbucks has used that method to sell overpriced coffee to America. But I digress. It’s not about my taste.

Starbucks now not only burns its coffee (at least they came up with their “blonde” roast, so you can get not-burned overpriced coffee); it potentially burns its prepaid card customers. When consumers pay for such a card, they are agreeing to settle any disputes concerning the card by arbitration. And if a dispute arises that concerns thousands, or even millions, of its customers, those caffeine junkies are precluded from joining together in a class action lawsuit. You would have to argue your own trivial case before a Starbucks-chosen arbitrator . . . in Seattle! Good luck with that. This constitutes grounds (I couldn’t resist) for outrage!

As you may be aware, more and more contracts contain corporate language that says the customer may not sue and may not join lawsuit classes that pursue unified redress. As Public Citizen News puts it in the January/February issue: “If Starbucks rips off every cardholder by a few dollars, it would mean millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains – with no accountability for Starbucks.”

Public Citizen even circulated an Internet petition for those who were foaming at the mouth about this injustice. Unfortunately, that petition is now closed.

        So what’s the big deal? Forced arbitration clauses mean that the consumer has to rely on a would-be impartial arbiter to make a judgment. The trouble is that these deciders often depend on the businesses that selected them for repeat business. So, let’s say, Starbucks charges a hidden fee on the use of the card. If each customer buys several cards per year and there are millions of such customers, the company reaps the benefits knowing there is virtually no chance that any one customer – no matter how much anger is percolating in his bean – will initiate an action for arbitration.

In case you think that such a contingency is unlikely, you should know that last November Massachusetts fined the caffeine conglomerate for unlawfully charging customers a hidden $1.50 fee on bags of coffee of less than one pound.

So here’s the upshot . . . make that a double shot: If you are about to sign any agreement or contract, read it first, especially if it involves your money. Second, don’t sign it if you are not comfortable with the terms. And (this makes it a triple shot) always check the receipt to be sure you were not overcharged (or undercharged – c’mon, be ethical).

And one more thing for you to get steamed about –skip the venti mocha cappuccino with whipped cream. It’s fattening, sugar-loaded dessert, not a beverage.