What to Do When Big Business Rips You Off

By Martin Brown

Darwin suggested that the survival of a species depended on its degree of fitness. In today’s world of lose business morals, survival of your rights as a consumer often depends on the volume of your complaints.

There was a time when laying claim to a legitimate business gripe was a rather genteel sport. But in an age where every tenth of a profit point counts on Wall Street, getting a bank to reverse a charge, an airline to give a credit, a retailer to fix a problem, has become more of a blood sport. The simple truth is that corporate America today plays hardball. If you’re going to score a few points from Team Little People, you’re going to have to play a little hardball of your own.

In my parents’ day, there were such things as “complaint departments.” Today those flesh and blood people have been replaced by 1-800 numbers with virtual operators that are designed by many companies to send you off into caller hell. Want to speak to a life operator? Sorry, that person doesn’t work here anymore.

Government regulations are way down, and consumer rip-offs, not surprisingly, are way up. United States Congressional committees sit in wood paneled rooms and with great sobriety questioning oil company, banking, communication executives about “grave concerns.” After the hearings fade from the front page in a few days, it’s back to business as usual and the consumer, more or less, is back to her own resources.

So what can you do when the odds are stacked against you?

In this game, the fittest are the loudest. Here are five quick tips that will come in handy the next time you’re ready to wage consumer war:

1. Fight the battles worth fighting.

That doesn’t mean necessarily a fixed amount. I went after a bank on one of their $39 credit card late fees. Now honestly, I probably spent a total of three hours in the process, and I’m happy to say that my hourly wage is a good deal better than $13. So as a dispassionate financial equation, I lost. But oh the satisfaction of stopping one of America’s banking behemoths from running over me with a misleading policy! As MasterCard says, that’s priceless. But take care not to over exert yourself on a $15 parking meter violation. Seniors living on fixed incomes can dedicate their week to projects like that, the rest of us have mortgages to pay, a family to feed, and college tuitions to save for.

2. Organize your case.

Sure you’re ticked off, and probably with good reason. But build your case thoughtfully before you go off half-cocked. Start, perhaps with a couple of lower level employees. Here’s an example: If you feel like the rebate that you thought you were getting was misleading, don’t ask to see the manager right away; talk instead to one or two of the sales clerks. Test out your issue and see how they respond. The staff is more likely to comment, “People complain about that all the time,” or “My mother was mad about that too.” In other words, the kind of candor you’re not going to hear from the store’s manager. Never forget that in all our dealings, information is power. So gather information before you suit up for battle. It is your best chance to win your argument.

3. Go up the chain of command.

It’s fine to gather information from the ground troops, the retail clerks, the mechanics, and the bank tellers. Chances are they don’t like the corporation they are working for much more than you do. But the rank and file employees are not the people who can fix whatever it is you want fixed. For that you need to go up the ladder. And that takes time, and a little patience. One of the many good things about the Internet is the amount of information that is listed there. Like, for example, a list of company officers and their job titles. Don’t be shy, pick up the phone and let them know how, where, and why you’re unhappy with their company and what you expect them to do about it.

4. Putting your thoughts in writing.

Snail mail or e-mail, the written word has a power all of its own. We live in a society where many people no longer know how to write a simple business letter. No, simpler than that, let’s just say how to organize a few thoughts and memorialize them in a written statement. That’s a shame, because as any good lawyer will tell you, “paper the file.” If you don’t have something that says, on this date I wrote this and on this date I wrote that; your grievance is much weaker than it otherwise would be. Short of a written file, simply maintain a phone log where you put down: I called on this date and spoke to this person, I called on that date and spoke to this other person, they suggested that the company would do the following. The simple matter is that in a more serious complaint you’re going to have to step-up at some point and say here are the efforts that I have made to rectify this situation and your company to this point has still done nothing.

5. Can you hear me now?

Finally, here is where the volume comes in. A lot of these companies operate on the same theory that a street mugger operates on. In other words, they prey of the weakest of their customers, and back off on those who appear strong and are willing to put up a fight. Perhaps “mugger”is too strong a word. Let’s just say bully. Most people roll over. The bully knows that. Confronted with a tougher target, the bully says, “The hell with this,” and moves on to the next victim. When you show a willingness to keep a call record, paper a file, take it up the ladder, and perhaps go to one of the many consumer complaint agencies, big business thinks you’re simply not worth the trouble and as a general rule they give you the refund, credit back your account, or do whatever they need to do to get you to go away.

This is often a time-consuming process. That is why I began by saying, if it’s not worth the fight don’t invest yourself in this process. There are times, in fairness, when we all need to take a deep breath and say, “this is a rip-off, but it’s a gotcha.” You don’t like what’s happened but it’s the house rules and you’re on the wrong side. In other words, know when you’re fighting the wrong fight and just walk away.

If, however, you’re clearly in the right, don’t let big business rip you off. You can’t stop them from doing it to someone else, but you can say “no go” when it comes to you!

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