Thursday, December 04, 2003

NICKLED AND DIMED TO DEATH (or at least to penury). Does this sound familiar to anyone?
Attracted by the superior coverage of Verizon's wireless network, I signed up for a new cellphone. The $60 package included unlimited night and weekend calling and 800 anytime minutes.

A few days later, a welcome letter congratulated me on my new 700-minute plan. I called customer service. It was supposed to be 800 minutes, yes?

The phone representative explained that what I signed up for was the 700-minute plan, with a 100-minute bonus. The welcome letter didn't reflect the bonus, but I would see it on my monthly statements.

All right, no problem. All I'd lost was the 25 minutes on the phone with Verizon.

Yet when the first statement arrived, Verizon had charged me 25 cents for every minute over 700.

I called the 800 number again; the representative apologetically credited me the 100 minutes. Cost to me: another 25 minutes.

When the same error cropped up on the next month's statement, my wife mentioned that she had gone through precisely the same ritual with MCI long distance a few months earlier. In fact, after reviewing our records, we discovered at least seven cases in the last few years when a service company (including at least three phone companies) overbilled us and didn't correct the mistake until we turned ourselves into human pit bulls.

All right, mistakes happen. But over and over and over again?

There is, of course, a reasonable rebuttal to this conspiracy theory:
"I can't speak for all the cell companies,'' wrote a two-year customer-service veteran at one of the big carriers, "but the idea that we would intentionally overcharge customers is just plain wrong. Any time someone calls an 800 number, the company is charged, staff has to be paid and call centers have to be maintained. Where I work, we try to find ways to prevent customers from calling in. It would not make financial sense to do things that would purposely cause customers to call in."

Less easily denied is the following:
Every few years, economists identify another mutant variation of inflation to keep them awake at night. In the 1980's, it was stagflation. Three years ago, it was deflation. And now, meet the economic specter of the new millennium: stealth inflation.

That's when phone companies and just about anybody else who sends you a bill manages to extract more money from you without actually raising their rates

Phase 1 of this program was the proliferation of miscellaneous fees - for "regulatory assessment," "handling," "restocking," and so on. According to Business Week, newly concocted fees will generate $100 million for hotels this year, $2 billion for banks, $11 billion for credit-card companies - and an average of 20 percent extra on every phone bill.

I have noticed this on my phone and cable bills but usually don't bother to take the time to inquire or contest the increase. What's a few pennies anyway? Of course if millions do what I do, those pennies can add up. Ain't the invisible hand grand?

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