Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Idea for Money Magazine: Study of Bogus Charges

Recently I added a third line to my Sprint family plan. It normally costs $20 per added line, but they sweetened the deal considerably, giving me the line for $10/month, plus a 10% discount on my bill. That made the incremental cost about $3, cheap enough that it seemed like a no-brainer to pick up a third phone for the kids to share, when needed. But when I got the bill--almost indecipherable--it looked to me like the discounts weren't there.

I took it to the Sprint store. The salesperson first tried to tell me it was included, pointing at various line-item adjustments, where the discounts plausiblly could have been hiding, but weren't. I politely schooled him as to the incorrectness of his assertions, and he was persuaded. It was another 10 minutes to get a manager to figure it out, then 10 more minutes to get the right "codes" in the system.

As if that experience weren't bad enough, 3 months later, my bill reverted to the no-discounts version. I called Sprint and read them the riot act. After some research, and the usual opening bid of "your bill looks right to us", they again fixed the problem, but could provide no reasonable explanation as to how the codes got dropped.

I can't help thinking that we consumers lose a not insignificant amount of money to bogus charges like this. A few days before our trip last weekend, we decided to change motels. Beth canceled the original reservation well in advance, no problem. But when she checked our Visa statement after we returned, lo, there was a one-night charge for the rooms, corresponding to the advertised cancellation penalty. She called, and they removed the charge without a protest. But even if only 3% of people fail to call on such bogus charges, that represents a pretty significant net profit for the motel chain.

So anyway, my idea would be for Money Magazine, or maybe even better, Consumer Reports, to do a fairly comprehensive study to estimate the overall impact of such bogus charges. (Just to be clear, I am talking about totally bogus charges, as distinguished from "unfair" ones, like late fees, that do in fact meet the letter of the contract.)

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