The worst kind of “gotchas” are the ones you have no choice about. Or that you think you have no choice about.
Most recently, there was the story of the tow truck driver posing as a Good Samaritan in Miami. William Lopez reportedly came to the rescue of stranded drivers and then charged them $900 to tow and store their car for one day. (The flat rate in South Beach is $250.)
Motorists believed they were in no position to turn Lopez down, and he probably knew it. It wasn’t until long after he swooped in with his tow truck that they realized they’d been had.
A significant percentage of the shady deals out there are perpetrated under pressure. How do you make sure you’re not the next victim of an unscrupulous tow truck – or worse?
The tow truck victims failed to notice that Lopez hadn’t been sent by their automobile club. (Normally, a tow service for AAA will have a logo on its trucks.) But other victims of this type of “gotcha” also fall for it because they don’t pay attention, failing to read contracts or even look at the service provider. A good number of the consumer problems I deal with every day could be avoided by simply reading the terms and conditions on an invoice. Sometimes, it’s as simple as looking at the final price you’ve agreed to.
If you’re not sure, ask.
One popular money trap I deal with is hotel resort fees. Clever property managers think they can get away with these exorbitant extras (anywhere between $10 and $30 per day added to your bill) by disclosing them, and often not too prominently. Guests don’t realize they’re on the hook for this mandatory fee until they check out. But then they recall the fine print under their bill and the little sign that greeted them when they checked in. Had they asked about the fee then, all of this might have been avoided. I’ll have more on that in a moment.
Knowing how much a business will charge you for a product is, of course, the first step to making sure you’re not overcharged. The second step is negotiation. Had the motorists known about the $900 charge, or the hotel guests been aware of the $30 resort fee, could they have persuaded the business to lower its rate? I’ve seen businesses lower or eliminate unjust fees in order to keep a customer, and I suspect that refusing to pay the going rate before you agree to a service, would yield a different result.
Turn them down.
When you’re dealing with an unethical business that tries to stick you with a fee when you can least afford to pay it, you’ll always want to keep your options open. Should the negotiation fail, you’ll want to walk away. Call another tow truck, stay in another hotel, use another real estate agent – but whatever you do, say “no.” The unscrupulous business won’t expect it, because they’ve carefully laid a trap and think you have no choice. But you do have a choice. Now take out your phone, because you’re going to need it.
If you ever stumble across one of these companies – and I sincerely hope you don’t – you owe it to the rest of us to report them. Call your local, state or federal authorities and tell them what happened to you. Otherwise, the scam will continue, and many more people will get hurt. You don’t want that on your conscience.
Money traps like this are almost always perpetrated by the most unethical and corrupt companies. Not only do they not deserve your business – they probably also deserve to be put out of business.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.