By Quentin Fottrell
Christopher Elliott, author of “Scammed” and airlines passenger advocate, tells Pay Dirt how he fell for some of the oldest tricks in the book before becoming a consumer advocate. Known primarily for his work as a journalist and campaigner for travelers, Elliott himself used to work for a travel trade publication 20 years ago. He said seeing the travel business from the inside was very “eye-opening.” He also tells Pay Dirt about a valuable lesson he learned from a parrot named Scarlett.
Pay Dirt: What are the most naked scams that we don’t even see as scams?
Elliott: You’re being scammed right now.
Pay Dirt: I am? But you are promoting your book.
Elliott: Consumers are always being scammed. Usually, if you have to ask if it’s a scam, the answer is yes. The common definition of a scam is pretty narrow: A fraudulent deal that some shady guy offers you on the street or an email from someone in Nigeria telling you you’ve inherited $1 million. I talk a lot in the book about contracts. Some of the most onerous are mortgage contracts where the fine print is so dense that – at the end of the first six months – your interest rate suddenly goes up. And shrink-wrap contracts: By opening the box you are agreeing to the terms of purchase. Also, beware of contracts that self-renew.
Pay Dirt: What about gift cards? I received a holiday gift card for a month’s free membership at a gym, which expired on Jan. 5. As a consolation, the gym gave me a training session with a fitness instructor– a few weights and some push-ups – and then tried to sell me a year’s membership. Are gift cards a good idea?
Elliott: Often, the answer is no.
Pay Dirt: What’s your stance on “mandatory arbitration” contracts that require customers to settle any disputes using a private arbitrator, instead of in the courts?
Elliott: It’s worse when people agree to mediation without having to read the contract. This happens a lot when you download software. A message appears: “Do you agree with the terms?” One click and you agree.
Pay Dirt: Is that not the consumer’s responsibility to read the fine print?
Elliott: I spend half of the book telling consumers what they can do. It’s really tough love. Businesses are always being deemed as the bad guy is not always practical or helpful. Kids are not taught how to be good customers either, they’re taught to be voracious consumers – not taught to read contracts and negotiate. This is a failure of the education system, parents and consumer journalists.
Pay Dirt: What should we be watch out for in the airline industry this year?
Elliott: If you took away all baggage fees, the airline industry would not be profitable right now: early boarding fees, seat reservation fees, Wi-Fi, on-board meals. Anything that’s not included in the price of your ticket will substantially add to it. (Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an industry group, says airline profitability is razor thin and points to the Department of Transport’s new rules released last year to protect airline passengers, which tackled major issues like lost-baggage fees and price transparency. “We share the DoT’s goal of continuously improving the customer experience and our member airlines will implement the new rules as efficiently as possible,” she says.)
Pay Dirt: Isn’t the answer to that: Travel light and bring your own lunch?
Elliott: Yes, for now. But the victims are those who travel once or twice a year, and end up paying more than they had intended.
Pay Dirt: How did you become involved in consumer advocacy?
Elliott: I became what I am because I got scammed. I hired an unlicensed contractor to build a fence for our property. We paid him up front. He dropped off a couple of posts and disappeared along with our money. I also fell for a financial services pyramid scheme right out of college. I lost $4,000. I remember beautiful people in expensive suits telling us we could earn six figures by the end of the year.
Pay Dirt: Have you heard about the old windscreen wiper scam? You find a note on your car saying, “Earn $1,000! Guaranteed! Send $10 to this address for details on how to get started.” The most gullible will send away and receive instructions to tell them to put leaflets on car windows saying, “Earn $1,000! Guaranteed! Send $10 to this address for details on how to get started.”
Elliott: Yes, I have heard of that one.
Pay Dirt: Were you the victim of any retail scams?
Elliott: I was living in South Florida a few years ago and I really wanted a parrot. It taught me to never go the discount route when you are looking for a pet. I wanted an African Grey Parrot. I paid $900. She died 24 hours later. Her name was Scarlett. She fell to the bottom of her cage and died from pneumonia. We were told she was probably sick before she came home with us. Thankfully, my credit card company sided with me and I got all my money back.
Pay Dirt: Did the parrot ever speak?
Elliott: It was too young to speak.
Pay Dirt: Do you know what the parrot would have told you had she lived long enough to speak?
Elliott: No, what?
Pay Dirt: “You have been scammed. You have been scammed. You have been scammed.”