Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 1/14/2008 6:59:17 PM ET 2008-01-14T23:59:17

Let me make a confession. I hate getting cheated. I mean, really, really, really hate getting cheated. I mean veins-pop-out-of-my-forehead, glad-I’m-not-getting-my-blood-pressure-checked-today hate getting cheated.

And yet, I feel like I’m getting cheated all the time.

I often open the mail with dread. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, as if I were some primal creature readying for a fight.  I walk into a cell phone store, check my online statements, or just turn on my television, and I feel like everyone is out to get me.  I suffer from what a therapist might call low-level, background anxiety. I think someone is always trying to steal something from me. 

Am I crazy? 

When I was a child growing up just outside New York City during the 1970s, I learned to be afraid of getting mugged.  But this is not that.  The criminals I’m talking about don’t bop anyone over the head and steal hundreds of dollars.  These criminals slowly take $5, $10, and $20 from me, often with a smile. They pop a surcharge onto my monthly phone bill. They pad my TV bill with services I didn’t ask for.  They drain my bank account — drip, drip, drip — when I’m not watching.  These hidden fees keep me up late at night like the sound of a leaky faucet. I feel like I have to watch everything all the time, because it’s so easy to miss some statement on some form with some asterisk that means the company can take even more money from me. And when that happens, I suffer from what I call small print rage.        

Am I crazy? Or am I just paying attention? One thing I know for sure: I’m not alone.

I’m not a therapist, or a sociologist, but I feel on firm ground saying that small print rage is a close second only to road rage as a source of angst in America today. As author of the Red Tape Chronicles on msnbc.com, a twice-weekly column that exposes small print, corporate sneakiness, and other 21st Century headaches, I invite readers to share their woes with me.  Tens of thousands have e-mailed and left comments on my blog as a desperate last attempt to get justice. I can see the exasperation in the amount of CAPITAL LETTERS that show up in their notes.

So I know: You suffer from small print rage, too.

Sneaky fees peck away at us like a swarm of mosquitoes that ruin an otherwise beautiful summer evening. And like mosquitoes, an individual bite might seem trivial, barely more than a nuisance, but repeated bites can actually change the way you live. They chase you inside, make you build a screened porch, and in extreme cases make you sick. 

As a too-sticky summer night breeds mosquitoes, today’s business environment breeds sneakiness. Companies under pressure to keep advertised prices low have seized on trickery to pump profits up. The most successful firms are now the ones that hide their prices best:  Under asterisks, deep inside terms and conditions, in fees they call taxes, bills that come months after the fact, or around a dark corners in auto dealerships where the manager’s office is. Then, right when you think you just got a good deal, an unexpected bill comes, or a car salesman jumps out from behind the corner and yells: GOTCHA!

One Gotcha might be irritating. A few might make you angry. But Gotchas are everywhere you turn, now. They are a way of life for consumers. They are our economic system, one that has replaced our former system, the free market economy.  Gotcha Capitalism — your personal finances, under siege.  Mosquitoes might threaten your life with death by 1,000 bites; Gotcha Capitalism threatens your finances with death by a thousand fees.

“C’mon, Bob,” you might be thinking.  “We’re talking about nickel and diming. It’s not that bad.”

Yes, it is. I’ve got research to prove it.

During November 2006, I asked independent researcher Larry Ponemon of The Ponemon Institute to conduct a nationwide survey of fees and surcharges. Together, we asked consumers around the country how much they believed they’ve lost to sneaky in the past 12 months.  To be fair, we didn’t allow much speculation; instead we asked consumers to identify the amount of hidden fees they’d later discovered in 10 important product lines one at a time, such as cell phones, groceries, and travel. 

The result?  Those $5 and $10 charges really add up. Even with these limitations, Americans told us they lose $946 to sneaky fees every year, enough to stock a sizable retirement fund.  And when you add up all sneaky fee revenue, the total is simply massive.  According to the survey, corporate America’s take in the 10 industries surveyed was $45 billion.  To put that number in context, $45 billion is about equal to the amount of money stolen through the fastest-growing crime in the country, identity theft.  ID theft is such as epidemic that Presidential task forces have been formed to fight it. There are entire divisions of law enforcement officials being trained to stop it. There is an entire industry of companies that has grown up to prevent it.  I know of no single agency or company devoted to stopping the explosion of hidden fees, which cost our society just as much as identity theft.

Of course, the crime of hidden fees is not so dramatic.  There are no spectacular million-dollar diamond heists accomplished in the name of deceased CEOs.  Instead, hidden fees are a slow drip-drip-dripping out of Americans’ hard earned salaries.  Cell phone users, for example, reported to us that they pay about $5-$10 more a month — on average — than they expect to, thanks to sneaky fees.  That doesn’t sound like much, until you consider there are more than 200 million cell phones users in the U.S. alone.

Now perhaps you’ll think like I do, that that the proliferation of hidden fees — and not identity theft — is the fastest-growing white-collar crime in America.

For consumers making $45,000 or less a year, that $946 in hidden fees can mean one fewer vacation per year; or no evening classes for additional job training.  They can take a huge bite out of a family’s retirement savings.

And that number is conservative. For starters, to make the study manageable, we limited the survey to 10 likely culprits: cellular phones, credit cards, banks, airline travel, hotels, cable TV/satellite, home Internet access, retirement services, insurance, and groceries.

Remember, this $946 total is an average. So for every consumer who manages to exert Herculean effort and minimizes hidden fee expenses to a tidy $200 or $300, there’s another who pays nearly $2,000 a year. It also only represents the sneaky fee take among those 10 industries — obviously, other kinds of companies stick their customers with fees, too.

Finally, this $45 billion total — that’s just the sneaky fees consumers know about.  Others are surely lurking out there underneath mountainous monthly bills that busy consumers miss, and couldn’t reveal to us when asked. 

It’s easy to calculate sneaky fee estimates that are much higher.  Simply adding up analysts’ estimates of total fee income from credit card late fees, homeowners’ title insurance, wacky hotel resort fees, and the like, consumers lose well more than $100 billion a year to hidden surcharges. 

But the real total is probably even more than that — in 2004, Consumer Reports guessed it was around $216 billion annually.  Your family’s portion of that would average closer to $4,000 each year. 

GOTCHA!  Perhaps those mosquito bites are starting to itch. But I have yet to describe the biggest bite of all.

That $4,000 annual drain is nothing compared to what Gotcha Capitalism is doing to your retirement. In the biggest fee swindle ever invented, hidden fees — siphoned off in total silence by Wall Street — will force you to work four, five, even six year longer than you should.  They’re stealing roughly one-third of the money the average American has set aside for old-age.  And get this: The better the investor, the greater the penalty. Later in this book, I’ll show you how Wall Street fees can suck up fully 80 percent of the money a 20-year-old invests for retirement. Eighty percent!

Hidden fees are so drastic now that they may even be screwing with the national inflation rate.  Companies often don’t supply surcharges and fee data to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, so when it computes inflation rates, fees aren’t reflected. As a result, our national inflation rate is held artificially low.

Yes, hidden fees are a big deal.

Excerpted from GOTCHA CAPITALISM by Bob Sullivan.  Copyright (c) 2007  by Bob Sullivan.  Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

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