Saturday, May 24, 2008

Gotcha capitalism

Last year, I read John Bogle's little book of common sense investing, and learned how the little investment fees in the end can cost your dearly.

Tonight I started reading Gotcha capitalism by Bob Sullivan. The book is about how companies add hidden fees everywhere. No surprise there. I fall into the category of people who reviews every bill thoroughly. I fight back and don't mind going through several layers of phone support to get my money back. Example:
A few years ago, I received a $400+ cellphone bill. Ouch. My regular monthly bill is $75 for our family. As it turned out, they had dropped the free in network calling from my plan, several months before but only now did I reach the minutes limit. I was now billed for calling all our friends using the same cellphone provider. But worse, every call with my wife was rung up twice: once for me and once for my wife. Early calls to AT&T wireless were met with "Nothing we can do". It then changed to "Let's split it in half". That's when I realized there was more to fight for. It was just the right catalyst to start a spreadsheet. I took every phone number from the bill and figured out whether he/she belonged to AT&T wireless. With details in hand, resistance was futile (I can boast now). At the end the monthly bill was lower than regular. But it took some stubbornness.
Knowing there is a chance to beat the system, I am typically looking forward to the fight. This book appears to be written for me. In the first chapter of the book the author brings up how the real cost of a printer is difficult to estimate. Well, I am part of the few who attempted it. When purchasing a printer, I consider both the acquisition cost, the cost of a ink cartridge and the amount of pages I print per month.

One thing is clear early in the book: as a consumer in America, you are often alone. The influence and power of Federal Trace Commission (FTC) has been clipped. Worse, companies have been allowed to create one-sided contracts just by mailing you a letter. As such many companies made you to silently agree to mandatory arbitration and avoid the court system.

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