July 7, 2011 at 3:36 AM ET
Is this the new normal -- a mom with 7-week-old twins waiting tables for travelers at a late-night diner?
I interviewed dozens of people during my just completed cross-country journey, but my idle late-night chat with a waitress in southern Idaho seemed to strike the loudest chord with readers. I was at a Perkins in Idaho just before midnight; she was talking about her children to customers at another table. When she came to plunk down my salad, I asked about her kids.
"I have an 18-month old at home," she said. "And two 7-week-old twins." Her husband works during the day, and she works at night so someone is always with the kids.
Over on my Facebook page, barbs were slung about this anonymous waitress, who seemed to draw forth every political argument of the past half-century -- about our inadequate health care and maternity leave systems; about low minimum wage standards; about a lack of economic opportunity in small towns, or large ones; about the two-income trap that forces both parents to work to survive; about birth control -- she should have used it, some said -- and about letting people sink or swim on their own personal choices. And many more.
One thing seemed undeniable, however: the waitress and her story made us angry. Or rather, she exposed our anger.
To drive across this great country, coast to coast, is to engage its beauty, its history and its spectacular depth. Making the trip today, however, forces a traveler to confront something else: the unmistakable frustration that grows with each passing month of anemic recovery from a bad recession. The unemployed are tired of looking for work; the underemployed are tired of being insulted by their bosses; home sellers are exhausted trying to find buyers. Even people who are doing OK feel stuck, wondering when their next city park might close, if their health care co-pay is going up or when might be a better time to open a small business.
We are tired, and we are angry.
But we are Americans, which means we don't give up.
I was privileged during this past three weeks to meet hundreds of msnbc.com and Red Tape readers who overwhelmed me with their stories about fighting cable TV and cell phone fees, fighting school taxes, fighting to keep small towns alive -- and, yes, fighting with burger customers at midnight so their children will have a chance. The common thread is obvious. Sometimes it can get ugly, and it's almost always uncomfortable, but America is a nation of fighters. That spirit is our greatest national resource. That is what will pull us through this dark time.
With that in mind, here is a collection of stories about men and women I met who have taken on that fight across this great land, and how they are doing. They may not always get the result they want -- who does? -- but just by fighting, they're already won. A few of them offer ways you can get involved in the fight.
Theresa Amato has grand dreams. She wants to put an end to confusion caused by fine print in everyday consumer contracts, sometimes called "standard form contracts." If you've ever called a company looking for a refund or a replacement and heard those dreaded words, "No, that's in the contract you signed," you should know Amato and her project, FairContracts.org.
"What have you agreed to today," is the slogan used by the new project of Citizen Works, a nonprofit.
Armed with a rotating group of legal interns, Amato invites frustrated consumers to send in every contract they sign with cell phone companies, cable companies, auto dealers, etc., so the folks at FairContracts.org can catalog them and then work to translate them into plain English. The group then works to educate consumers on the latest “tricks and traps” through its website.
The immediate goal is to make consumers aware of all the consequences of signing everyday contracts. The long-term goal is to shame companies and regulators into making the contracts more fair.
"For several decades now, government regulators have used disclosure, and even more disclosure, as the primary tool of monitoring business activities, under a theory that if businesses tell consumers in their fine print, businesses can do as they please and consumers can read for themselves if they agree or not to the terms of any transaction, and choose to enter or walk away from the deal," said Amato, who is based in Chicago. "But unfair and deceptive policies and practices, some would say fraud and abuse, can be and are buried in the fine print. Many scholars argue that it is not rational for consumers to read the fine print, or for courts to expect them to. But courts do expect them to under a ‘duty to read’ in contract law. And there’s the rub."
Among the most common, unfair provisions, according to Amato: Terms that force consumers to surrender their rights to file lawsuits, or enter class-action lawsuits, simply because they buy a phone or a television set.
At its core, the problem is this: Because most of these companies include the same contract language, consumers can't really "walk away," unless they plan to avoid using a cell phone or buying a car. Therefore, these aren't really contracts -- deals bargained between two equal parties -- as much as they are one-sided warning notices from companies stating what they plan to refuse to do.
Amato has firepower behind her effort; Ralph Nader is founder of the organization -- he's called the problem "contract incarceration" in the past. But she wants help -- believe it or not, she wants your fine print. Interns working for her project often have trouble getting copies of contracts unless they actually sign up with the companies, which often refuse to surrender copies to non-customers. So she wants consumers to e-mail all the fine print they have to contracts@FairContracts.org. She'll get her volunteer army to sort through them and make sense out of them.
Devoted fee-fighter John Davis of Pittsburgh just couldn't take it anymore and ditched his $1,000-per-year pay TV bill about a year ago. But he made good use of that now-silent satellite dish on the roof. He turned it into an over-the-air TV antenna. Now that's making lemonade out of lemons.
It may look a bit alien, but every time Davis sees his contraption, he thinks about all the money he's saving.
"Our mantra: Never pay subscription fees to watch commercials," Davis said.
One secret about those new, free digital over-the-air signals that are available to most Americans: the picture quality is often better than pay TV options, even if you're springing for HD.
Davis' antenna picks up signals from 35 miles away -- about two dozen stations in all. Thanks to small amplifiers that cost only a couple of dollars, he's able to send signals across 100 feet of coaxial cable to several sets in his house. A $12.95-per-month TiVo subscription rounds out the setup, giving him a neat on-screen programming guide and, of course, DVR functionality.
"That's really all we need," he said.
Axton Betz, 29, was hit hard by ID Theft as a child growing up in Indiana. An impostor spent years opening up credit cards and other accounts in her name. The mess was so bad that when she first applied for a car loan, she was turned down repeatedly, had to use a dealer 100 miles from home and ultimately paid 18.99% interest.
"It was like buying a car with a credit card," she said.
Betz has slowly restored her credit rating over the nearly 20 years that she's been dealing with the issue since it was discovered when she was 11. But she's done much more than survive. She turned the crime into a career, and is now wrapping up a PhD in Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University, focused on identity theft. She's a subject matter expert who's given presentations to the Federal Reserve and other financial industry groups, and she'll begin a teaching career next month at Eastern Illinois University.
Her current research involves the emotional impact and "recovery experiences" of child ID theft on victims who don't discover it until they are adults. Most, like Betz, have no chance to learn the identity of their impostor because the crime is so stale. They also can suffer from a unique sense of loss about their childhood identity, which can have impacts that range far beyond damaged credit. Betz, for example, says she doesn’t consider her “real” hometown her hometown any longer because of the ID theft.
"I'm doing this because the consequences of ID theft are not well understood. There's no real research into it," Betz said. "I'm interested in where they sought support, how they think society did or didn't help with their recovery and on their personal experiences of going through it."
She's still looking for volunteers, who will be paid $40 for sharing their stories in two one-hour chats. Anyone who's interested can reach Betz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Ultimately, I believe this will make a difference because it will some day help influence policy, perhaps make punishments for identity theft more severe because of the consequences on victims," she said. "If it does, then my 18 years of experience would be worth it."
Jaimee Napp sure would like to see punishments for ID theft criminals increased. She tried to do that single-handedly last week in Omaha, Neb., when she sued her impostor for damages in civil court.
Napp, in one sense, is lucky -- she's among the few victims who knows her impostor, who was a co-worker. Napp spent the last two years working to drag the impostor to district court, and get her to pay for emotional damages inflicted by the crime. We told Napp's story last week. A skeptical judge seemed unmoved by Napp's claims of suffering. He even questioned the very definition of ID theft, but left his ruling for another day.
That ruling arrived Monday. As expected, it wasn't good news.
Napp sued for $40,000. The judge awarded her $215.20.
The amount won't begin to cover Napp's legal expenses, which are still being tallied. (For perspective: She paid $700 just to have her therapist testify in court.)
"The theft of a person's Social Security number and other personal facts and the use of that information in attempting to secure credit ... does not rise to the level indicated for (intentional infliction of emotional distress)," the judge said in his order. "It would seem that plaintiff has not suffered from a medically diagnosable and significant emotional distress." The judge instead awarded her compenation for the credit-monitoring services.
Napp was distraught immediately after the hearing date, but expressed more resolve this week.
"The verdict is confirmation that identity theft and the (Social Security number) is worth more in the criminal world than the judicial system values it," she said. Napp continues her work for a government agency in Washington D.C. as a victim's rights advocate, and said she's undeterred by the result. "I will always work and will continue to dedicate my life to indentity theft victims and their rights."
The Hidden Fee Tour of America II
Golden, Colo – When Lucky died: A grief observed, on social media
Somewhere in the Midwest – Driving in a bad story? You might be doing the wrong thing
Pittsburgh – Drastic bus cuts strand consumers
Washington D.C. – Follow the fight for small-town America
Additional photos from the trip, including “The prettiest Interstate in America?