Jan. 15, 2008 at 8:00 AM ET
If you're like most Americans, you feel you're getting screwed all the time. When you open your monthly bills, rent a car or sign up for pay television service, you hear that tiny voice inside saying "Watch out!" You're not paranoid. You're merely paying attention. Hidden fees cost the average American consumer nearly $1,000 a year, $5 or $10 at a time, new research shows.
For the past two years, I've been writing about the kinds of 21st century headaches that lead to consumer paranoia and compiling them in the Red Tape Chronicles. In response, more than 50,000 of you have left comments on the blog. Sometimes you criticize me and my conclusions, sometimes you cheer me, but most of the time you come to share your complaints about unfair companies and government policies. In the past year I've heard from a father whose daughter ran up a $10,000 cell phone bill, a man who lost his entire $179,000 retirement fund to a hacker and countless others who paid hundreds of dollars in surprise bank overdraft charges.
In the face of this tidal wave of complaints, I set out to scrutinize the issue of unfair fees, taxes and contracts, and I found something you probably already know: Corporate cheating not only hurts your wallet every day, it is assaulting our way of life. The results of that research were recently published by Random House in a book I wrote titled “Gotcha Capitalism,” which is now available in bookstores and online. You can read a free excerpt of the book today on msnbc.com. Other excerpts will follow later this month.
Fundamentally, “Gotcha Capitalism” is a story about the death of the price tag, about the constant bait-and-switch tactics that layer on fees and surcharges long after we’re in a position to bargain over them. It’s about rampant false advertising, about the explosion of small print and asterisks and about the seeming disappearance of federal authorities working to keep our marketplaces fair. It's about a threat to our economic system, which was designed to reward good companies with innovative products, low prices and smart employees, but now benefits cheating companies who hire the best liars and create the most misleading ads and confusing fine print.
I know all these fees -- and all the resulting phone calls, letters and other hassles -- can be a depressing topic. But there's good news: You don't have to take it anymore. You have each other.
The Internet is a powerful tool that consumers can use to find each other and share tips and tricks about getting around red tape and getting justice. It can also be used to expose unfair companies and their bad habits. And, of course, it can be used to call attention to a problem, which can lead to media interest and sometimes congressional hearings and news laws. In the last year, several unfair credit card company practices were stopped, largely because consumers complained and Congress began to listen.
I want to thank each and every person who has taken the time to leave a comment on the Red Tape Chronicles over the past two years. In some way, all of you have contributed to “Gotcha Capitalism.” Some Red Tape readers will even find excerpts of their submissions in the book.
And I would like to invite anyone who's ever felt cheated by their cable company, Internet provider, 401-k administrator or anyone else to do one powerful thing: complain. And keep complaining. Do so politely, but don't put up with poor treatment. Complain to the clerk and then to a manager. Write an e-mail to the corporate office. Complain on the Internet, on this blog and on others like it, such as Consumerist.com and RipOffReport.com. Or make your own Web site and send it to your friends. By speaking up and making your complaints public, two things will happen. You will often get your money back. But more important, you will be placing a vote for a return to fairness, to a true market economy where companies can afford to be fair and the best firms win. You will be sending the message that "gotchas" just won’t be tolerated.
Got some Red Tape you want untangled? Or just want to blow off steam? Share your story below.