Think you're not getting a fair shake? Here's how bad it really is.
Economists call them "market inefficiencies"--those periods when the price of something veers from its underlying, inherent value. Consumers on the short end of these misalignments call them rip-offs.
We're not talking fraud here, though there's plenty of that going around, too. We're talking about all the ways, within the law, that we allow ourselves to be taken for a ride.
Rip-offs imply choice. If there's truly no substitute for a particular good or service, then you'll put up with sticker shock. (Think movie theater snacks and certain life-saving medications.) That's good work for businesses that can get it, but plenty rely on our collective naiveté, distraction, shortsightedness and high stress levels when pushing this flimflam.
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To be sure, in some cases we know we're being taken but we put up with it anyway. What you may not know is just how egregious the gouging is.
We started unearthing rip-offs in 2009, and our hunt continues. Here are some of the latest lowlights.
Airline Club Memberships
The Rip-Off: A year of access to United Airlines' Red Carpet Club costs $425, plus a $50 sign-up fee. For that you get cushy chairs, short customer service lines and peace and quiet at some of America's busiest airports. Sounds nice, except that the airline is taking you for a ride.
How to Avoid It: For $375 a year you can get a United Mileage Plus Club Visa card that earns airline miles and includes a Red Carpet Club membership. Delta Air Lines (DAL - News) and Continental offer similar deals.
The Rip-Off: Reebok calls it the EasyTone; Skechers, the ShapeUp. These curved-sole shoes, transforming people into human rocking chairs, cost up to $130 and promise to keep you fit even while grocery shopping. During 2009 sales grew 14-fold to $245 million, estimates market researcher NPD. One problem: "They mostly affect the foot and ankle," says Dr. Michael Ross, director of Rothman Institute's Sports Performance Lab, which counts the Philadelphia Eagles, Phillies and Flyers among its clients. "There is no evidence they will help you tone better or quicker than a regular shoe."
How to Avoid It: Join a gym.
The Rip-Off: Textbooks cost the average American student about $900 per year. New editions often come out every three years and tend to run 45% more than used copies of previous editions. Between 1995 and 2004 textbook prices rose at more than four times the rate of inflation, according to Nicole Allen, a director at Student Public Interest Research Group, a student advocacy group. "Students are a captive audience since professors decide what books they need to buy," says Allen.
How to Avoid It: Sites like ecampus.com and alibris.com offer better deals than campus bookstores. Then there's chegg.com, a textbook rental site with an approach similar to that of Netflix (NFLX - News).
The Rip-Off: Americans spend more than $1 billion on travel insurance (paid to agents) to guard against cancelled flights and stolen bags. Thing is, other policies often cover the same stuff. Some homeowners' policies and credit cards cover lost luggage; airlines reimburse travelers for up to $3,000 worth of goods. "It's not a good economic decision for most people," says Robert Hunter, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America.
How to Avoid It: If you just can't sleep without insurance, "don't buy from someone who's selling you something else," say Hunter. "It's almost always a bad deal involving kickbacks to whoever's offering the service."
Ready-to-Drink Baby Formula
The Rip-Off: Is it that hard to mix powder with water to feed your child? Take Enfamil's Premium Lipil, a popular formula brand. A 32-ounce can that you can crack open and serve might last a day or two. On Diapers.com a 6-pack of 32-ounce cans (192 fluid ounces of formula) costs $45, while a container of Enfamil's water-mix powder that makes 168 ounces goes for $25. That's 23.4 cents an ounce for liquid vs. 14.9 cents an ounce for powdered--a 57% markup.
How to Avoid It: Buy a $30 Brita pitcher (to purify the water), add powder, shake.
Credit Card Gift Cards
The Rip-Off: Consumer protection types are coming down on hard on aggressive credit card companies. They might take issue with gift cards, too. American Express (AXP - News) charges $3.95 for its cards, whether you're buying a $25 card or a $3,000 one; Visa charges $3.50 for cards purchased at bank branches and tacks on a $2.50 monthly fee after the first 12 months following the purchase date. Another rub: Merchants often reject cards bearing amounts less than the price of an item. (So much for that $2.59 left on your card.)
How to Avoid It: Give cash.
Prepackaged Deli Meat
The Rip-Off: Plenty of supermarkets offer pre-sliced, prepackaged deli meats while employing lots of people to slice the same stuff at the deli counter. The grab-and-go premium? Whole Foods (WFMI - News) charges $4.29 for a 4-ounce package of Applegate Farms soppressata. The same meat (likely fresher) at the deli counter: $13.49 per pound, or $3.37 for 4 ounces. That's a 27% markup for the packaged stuff.
How to Avoid It: Walk over to the deli counter and have them slice it for you.
The Rip-Off: These products initially claimed to fight germs, help battle colds and boost the immune system. They don't. In 2007 and 2008 the Federal Trade Commission charged manufacturers of three products with making false and deceptive advertising claims. All have since changed their packaging. Airborne Health, marketer of Airborne, paid $23.5 million to settle charges. CVS agreed to pay $2.8 million in consumer refunds and to stop making certain claims.
How to Avoid It: Wash your hands and get enough sleep.
The Rip-Off: If you need a mortgage, you need title insurance. But costs and regulations vary wildly from state to state. Insurance on a $500,000 home can cost $3,000 in Houston and less than $2,000 in Boston. Your real estate broker will likely steer you to a title company with which the broker has a relationship, but it may not offer the best deal.
How to Avoid It: You can't avoid title insurance, but you can shop around. Your best bet: contact the company hired by the previous owner. They've already done most of the work and are likely to give you a good rate.
The Rip-Off: All you want is basic cable, but your cable company wants you to have so much more--and pay through the nose for it. That's why it bundles in a whole mess of channels, including dozens that even the most feckless of couch potatoes won't watch.
How to Avoid It: Hulu.com offers thousands of videos, TV episodes (new and old) and full-length movies--all free. And Netflix charges as little as $9 a month for access to more than 100,000 TV episodes on DVD, as well as 12,000 movies.