Part 2

On our first full day in Southern Italy, with no practical vehicle at our disposal, Cheryl and I took a train from Sorrento to Pompeii.

The ruins at Pompeii

Pompeii. Photo by Alago,public domain, commons.wikipedia.org

The following day we had no choice but to take a bus down the treacherous Amalfi Coast with a return stop in Positano. We passed a dozen places where, if we had a car, we would have loved to stop to soak in the views and take photographs. It was not to be.

The narrow, winding road to Amalfi

The treacherous Amalfi Coast Road

Upon our return home to San Jose I asked our travel agent, Barbie, to see about getting our money back for the car we had reserved, or at least the approximately   140 dollars extra we paid for the automatic transmission. She contacted Auto Europe, the company that booked the car with Avis. Auto Europe was unsuccessful in getting our money back. I contacted Avis Budget Group. myself. They sent me two 25-dollar coupons toward a future rental and a denial of responsibility for blowing our reservation .

I contacted American Express, which took a long time to reply, telling me that I should not have accepted the car Avis had offered me, as if we would have otherwise taken three trains and a bus to get to our hotel. I could have given up at that point, but there was a principle involved here. After all, I am the Consumer Guy.

Trying to call Avis Budget Group at its headquarters in New Jersey got me nowhere. Its answering system is totally digital and I had no way of knowing whom I needed to speak with. I looked up its legal department online and found the head honcho is Michael Tucker. I called back again and entered Mr. Tucker’s name but apparently the system did not “know” that he exists, despite his being Avis Budget’s chief legal counsel.

Can you say, “lawsuit”?

So off I went to my local small claims court, paid the filing fee, and had a subpoena served on Avis Budget Group via its agent for service in Sacramento. I should explain this. If a company does not have an administrative office in the state where you are suing it, it must have an agent for service which can accept legal documents such as California’s “Plaintiff’s Claim and ORDER (sic) to Go to Small Claims Court.”

On the trial date Avis Budget’s representative showed in court. His name is bill. He is the airport manager for Burbank Airport, over an hour away from the courthouse. Bill had never heard anything about the case until the day before. He had virtually no defense. The judge awarded me the $297 plus $45 court fee. Avis Budget was notified that it had 30 days to pay up. By this time it was rush hour in L.A. It would take Bill at least an hour and a half to get back to Burbank. Think of it; five hours of the airport manager’s time to defend a case about which he knew nothing and that was indefensible.

But justice was done. I’m kidding. Avis Budget didn’t pay. So back to court I went. The next judge issued an “Order to Produce Statement of Assets and to Appear for Examination.” A new trial date was set at which Avis Budget was to present a list of its California assets. Don’t ask; in theory it would have to show where everything it owns in the state is located and what it’s worth.

Three months had now passed since I filed in December of 2014 and once again Avis Budget dropped the ball (or kicked it into the stands). Back to court I went and once again the defendant was delinquent. The new judge (in small claims court the “judges” are usually lawyers who sit in for real judges but who supposedly know the ropes) said he would issue a bench warrant that would require a representative of the company to show up. This would involve the assistance of a sheriff’s deputy. The judge set a new court date.

Love the New Car? Wait! Don’t Drive it off the Lot Yet

When I was a kid in the Bronx, yo-yo “season” would come around each spring and every kid in the neighborhood would be walking around with his Duncan or Cheerio. Nowadays, yo-yo season can be an all-year thing … for unscrupulous car dealers. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, if you are dealing with an unscrupulous car dealership, when you make the down payment on your new car (it could be in the form of a trade-in), the finance guy has you sign a great financing agreement and leads you to believe the deal is final.Be careful before you sign for that loan

So you drive off the lot whistling a happy tune (the epitome of which would be “Whistle a Happy Tune”). Hours or days later, you receive a call from the dealer in which you are informed that the deal fell through. The caller asks you to come in and the salesperson tries to convince you to take a higher-interest loan, by about 5 percent. If you say, “No deal,” the dealer tells you that you have driven the car and informs you of the costs, which may include keeping your down payment (or trade-in) or charging you for wear and tear.

Solution: Never drive a new car off the lot without having a fully authorized financing agreement in your clutches.


The Consumer Gal and I are about to have our book, Enough of Us – which deals with other subject matter – published. In preparation for the big event we need to concentrate on that project. So for the next eight weeks or so, I will be suspending my semi-monthly Consumer Guy full-length blog posts and, instead, providing  a short consumer tip each week (I hope).

If you would like to learn more about our book that deals with issues of ethics and procreation, please visit our other website, www.enoughof.us. Many thanks for your interest.

Look out for Sneaky Contract Terms

I recently came across a magazine article that goosed me into writing about something that has rankled me for a long time. I guess I had to come across this issue elsewhere before I heard my internal wake-up call to write about this issue.

I’m talking about the one-sided contracts with unconscionable clause that most of us sign because we are – or perceive ourselves to be – powerless. The worst of the worst are arbitration clauses. If you want to open a bank account, use an Internet service, or sign onto Netflix, you’ll probably have to agree to a clause that says if you have a dispute with the company, you agree to take it to arbitration, often an arbitration company selected by the vendor. The problem is that arbitrators are notorious for siding with the parties that give them the most business. And that ain’t likely to be you. Adding insult to injury, you may have to share in paying the arbitrators’ fees.

A typical contract arbitration clause

Arbitration clause. photo- CreditInfocenter.com

Recently, each time I logged onto Netflix I saw a banner at the top of the page telling me to read and agree to a change in the Netflix contract. I read the change. It was a requirement that all disputes be settled by arbitration. So I ignored it. The notice was there each time I logged on. After a while I was warned that time is running out. So I let time run out. I never agreed and the banners went away. I guess Netflix would rather have the business of those who wouldn’t agree than lose them as customers. After all, they know we can visit our local Redbox.Here are some tricks you can try to avoid arbitration requirements. If you must agree to an online contract, go ahead. Then email the company’s customer service department and tell them you rescind your agreement to subject disputes to arbitration and that you reserve your right to take disputes to court. Send the email from your own email account; not the company’s “Contact Us” link, and keep a copy of your message. If you don’t hear back, you may be in good shape. If they send you an “either, or” response, you’ll have to make a choice.If you are signing a paper contract, cross out and initial the arbitration clause. If they don’t notice the change, you may be in like Flynn.If you receive a contract by email that you are to print, sign and mail back, yahoo! (Not the Internet service provider – just old fashioned “yahoo.”) Delete the arbitration clause, print the contract, and sign it, and mail it in, keeping a copy for yourself. If the company doesn’t notice the change, too bad for them.  It should have read it before it signed. Just make sure you get a returned copy signed by the appropriate company official. If they can try to slip one by you … turnabout is fair play.

Has your bank, brokerage, credit card company, cable TV provider or any other business ever slipped a little sheet into your statement or bill that notifies you of changes in the terms of your agreement? Read it! If you don’t like what you read, call the company and tell it how you feel. If necessary, take your business elsewhere. If the change of terms is significant, it could give you a way out of your contract with your cellular service company, Internet provider, or the like.

I’ll finish with this. When you get a bill for any utility service that is not a government sanctioned monopoly, like for instance, your electricity provider, check the fees on the statement. There may be a lot of small dings on the bill for just pennies or dimes. Call the utility and ask them to explain each fee and whether it is required by the government as a tax or fee. Many may not be. If so, it’s time to negotiate including the polite threat to take our business elsewhere. Think about it this way: If they say your service (exclusive of taxes and government fees) costs 50 bucks, but they are charging you $54, that’s a four-dollar, or 8 percent – rip-off. While the service provider may not reduce those fees, you threat to leave may prompt them to offer you an extra goodie at no charge. Recently, when I threatened to leave my cable company, the phone rep called me back and offered a “tier” upgrade and a 10 dollar monthly price reduction for six months.

Remember my motto: “Whoever holds the money, has the power.”



TV appearance tonight

I’ll be appearing tonight on NBC Bay Area news at 11:00 p.m. It’s a story on hidden fees used by merchants in various transactions.
You can find it tomorrow at www.nbcbayarea.com/news and search for “Stephanie Chuang” (reporter).

What’s with Those Direct Marketing Commercials that Offer a Second Item . . . for Free?

What’s with Those Direct Marketing Commercials that Offer a Second Item . . . for Free?

If you watch much television, you are familiar with those adds that promise a second item for free. The bonus offer usually starts with, “But wait! If you order now, we’ll send you a second widget . . .  for free!” Then, in a somewhat more muted voice, and stated very fast, is the phrase, “Just pay processing and handling.” Aha!
Let’s parse this marketing technique, using the ChefDini as an example. About that name, my best guess is that it’s a Houdini reference. The ChefDini is a food processor without all the inconveniences of an electric processor because you crank it by hand. Wow!
It’s $39.99. But wait! We’ll send you a second ChefDini for free. Just pay additional processing. Processing costs $7.99. So when you order, you end up paying $53.97.
Why do they do that? Here’s why. Putting a second item in the box costs the vendor just pennies for shipping. The balance of the additional $7.99 means they are still making a profit on the second gadget.
The Ped Egg is a small grater that has an integrated container. It removes rough skin from feet. Price? 10 smackers. Gimmick? $6.99 shipping and handling. Handling? Really? When I go into a local store, how come they don’t charge me for handling? So, sure enough, you can get a second Ped Egg free. Just pay shipping and handling. So when you order a 10-dollar Ped Egg, the yolk is on you (I couldn’t resist). It ends up costing you $23.98.
If you send any of this stuff back because you don’t like it, guess who pays the return postage. Yep, you do. But here’s the unkindest cut of all. They refund the purchase price but not the processing (or shipping and handling) costs. So, in the case of the Ped Egg, you send them 24 bucks, they refund 10 dollars, and you also lose the return postage. Let’s say you pay five bucks to return the stuff. You are now out 19 dollars and you have zero product.
Some malls have As Seen On TV stores where you can buy the direct marketing products that are “not sold in stores.” The trouble with these outlets? They typically charge a 15 percent restocking fee. Here’s the pitfall. You buy a product for, say, $20. You decide the product sucks – or at least doesn’t meet expectations. You bring it back. They charge you a restocking fee of 15 percent, which means you get 17 bucks back. The store keeps three dollars. Then they put the item back on the shelf. So you are out three dollars and they keep their profit anyway.
The bottom line:
Don’t buy direct marketing products from TV. It’s too risky. The two items I ever bought that were both junk. Wait for the products to come to traditional retail stores. If that doesn’t happen, it’s probably for a good reason.
If you decide to buy at an As Seen On TV store, have them cross out the restocking fee notice on the bottom of the receipt. If there is no notice, but a sign posted in the store instead, have the salesperson right on the receipt “No restocking fee” and sign it. If they won’t do it, repeat after me: “Sayonara.” (Hasta la vista or ciao will suffice.)

You may be out of Warranty, but not out of Luck

The product you bought is broken. The limited warranty has expired. And you are as exasperated as hell because you think the piece of crap should have lasted longer. Well, fret not. Try these approaches.

********DISCLAIMER – Although I mention several brand names in this column, this is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation. This is based on my personal experience with these companies and is no guarantee of future success or failure********

Almost three years ago I bought an Armitron digital sport watch at the Mervyn’s going-out-of-business clearance sale. The watch looked great and cost only 18 bucks. It came with a limited warranty that covered the watch’s internal movement. Last June, immediately after being felt up by a TSA officer at San Francisco Airport, I boarded a plane to New York and proceeded to strap my watch back onto my wrist. The strap
came off in my hand. I discovered that it wasn’t the strap that broke, it was the watch case. The plastic case had broken apart.

Considering that I only wore this watch when traveling or participating in sports, I was particularly irked. I reckoned that I had worn this watch perhaps 200 days in less than three years. When I returned home to San Jose I called Armitron in New York. The agent told me that only the movement is covered by the warranty. I conceded the accuracy of the statement and got off the phone. But the more I thought about it, the more the inequity of this situation ate at me. Why on Earth should a watch case ever fall apart?

A few days later I called Armitron again and asked for a supervisor. I left a message on his voicemail and lo and behold he called me back. I explained what happened and made my case about the case. He felt it was reasonable to expect a watch case to last more than three years. He asked me to send him my watch so he could inspect it. A week later a new watch arrived in the mail.

I called the guy and left a message on his voicemail. I told him that I appreciated the great customer service and that he had won me over as an Armitron customer. After all, one good turn deserves another.

Before I make my point I’ll tell you a related story. I regularly attend an upper-body class at my local health club. I usually leave the class a little early as the cool-down and stretching part of class begins (I do my own stretch routine after doing a few more independent exercises). I noticed that as time went by, my Reebok sneakers were not helping me sneak out of class. They started squeaking – louder and louder each week. The squeak was coming from inside the shoes’ soles.

I called Reebok, explained my problem and the customer service agent asked me to send them the shoes. About a week and a half later I received a new pair of Reeboks. They lived out their lives without a peep.

Here’s my point. If a product fails way before it reaches its reasonable life expectancy, speak up. A good manufacturer will do the right thing. And what is there to lose? After all, the worst thing a company can say is, “Sorry.” (Okay, they could also tell you to go pleasure yourself – but how painful would that be?).

If you are the type of person who is easily daunted, I can only say don’t fear the daunt. Most customer service reps are polite, even if they turn you down. And the sooner you take action, the sooner you will get the intended request off your mind and – I guarantee – you will feel great about standing up for yourself. Go get ‘em tiger.