Maybe you've noticed that the customer is always right attitude is in short supply these days. Companies have embraced technologies and practices that marginalize the little guy.
If you have a problem on a credit card, want to return something, or feel that you've been ripped off in a questionable transaction, your choices may be few.
Right now it's just the best cheaters who are winning in business, says consumer writer Bob Sullivan.
His book Gotcha Capitalism: How Hidden Fees Rip You Off Every Day -- and What You Can Do About It (Ballantine Books, $14.95) goes on sale Dec. 26. It bares a dirty laundry list of unfair contract provisions, punitive fees, unresponsive customer service reps and inadequate regulation.
These practices are costing consumers almost $1,000 apiece every year, says Sullivan, an MSNBC blogger. And that's not proportional: Shy, conflict-averse and uneducated consumers are subsidizing the assertive complainers and the folks who take the time to learn the rules so they can play the game well.
Here are some ideas for protecting what's in your own pockets right now.
-- Read all of the mail you get from your credit card issuer, even if it seems like junk mail. Ditto with your bank. Learn when your payment has to be in to avoid late fees and how much of a minimum balance you have to maintain to avoid monthly fees. Keep a cash buffer in your checking account and have your credit card bill paid automatically every month so that you never pay a late fee.
-- Learn how to get past the voicemail. Start by using a speakerphone, so you can go about your business while you're on hold. Call during regular business hours, when the A team is on duty. You can use the Web site gethuman.com to learn ways to shortcut the lengthy press 4 to hear this menu again detour. Every time you're prompted by a voice response system, say representative. Once you finally get to a person, get their name and contact info first. Then politely explain your complaint and, in specific terms, what you want to make it better. They will try to upsell you while you're on the phone. Just say no.
-- Be a detective. If you're getting ready to make a big purchase from a company you're not familiar with, do some Google searches to see if the company has a big complaint history online. Especially if you're expecting a rebate or getting into a long-term contract. Of course, not every posted complaint is necessarily legitimate or enough reason to kill the deal, but if there's a slew of people all having the same problem, you could end up having it too.
-- Complain after the fact. Feel like you've been overcharged and you've already paid the bill? Write a letter asking for a refund.
-- Pick your fights. It makes sense to optimize the time and energy you spend complaining by going after the bigger dollar amounts and the companies and industries that tend to be more responsive. Sullivan did a survey, and found that credit card companies are most likely to reverse charges after customers complain; the airlines were second. At the bottom of the list were cell phone companies and pay-TV firms, both of which Sullivan charges have recipes for futility -- many petty fees and an unwillingness to reverse them in the face of complaints.
-- Bring in the states, and the feds. If you feel like you've been tricked into paying a fee or agreeing to a service you didn't want, it's important to notify your state attorney general's office and your community or county consumer affairs office. Individual consumers, working alone, are never going to be able to fix some problems, like those ubiquitous arbitration clauses in which shoppers, workers, borrowers, investors and telephone users are required to sign away their right to sue.
Spend a little bit of time (while you're on hold?) writing to consumer affairs groups, agencies and politicians to push for more regulatory fixes. Find them all in the references section of consumeraffairs.com.