Preface: I have lots of lawyers in my family whom I love dearly. They are not the lawyers referred to in this post. Further, I would like to commend Mr. Erwin Inc. A/C repair as a sterling alternative to the shady companies mentioned below.
I was 23 years old. Standing at the checkout desk of a nasty little hotel in Sarajevo, and I had been railroaded for the last time.
After four days of sharing a bed (not a room mind you, a BED) with a chain-smoking Norwegian who slept in black lingerie, being shoved by disrespectful men on public transportation, and otherwise made to feel completely ill-at-ease, I was not taking anymore crap.
When they presented me with my bill, which included two late night minibar raids by the Norwegian, 4 days of calls to Brazil by a third roommate, and miscellaneous charges racked up the fourth roommate, I simply said “no.”
Now, seeing as we were in Eastern Europe, this all played out in a very on-the-nose style. There were no forced smiles or corporate jargon. And thus it serves as a perfect illustration for railroading techniques employed by many huge companies, as they not only profit from selling legitimate products and services, but fatten the margins by imposing penalties, convoluted fee structures, and trapping people into contracts that far exceed the value of needed services.
1) The “There’s nothing that can be done.”
The desk clerk said, “there’s nothing I can do. The system won’t let me check you out until the bill is paid.”
This is a favorite. The helpless underling at the mercy of technology. But thanks to my impaired mental state at the time of check out, I replied with, “Well I’m sorry. I’m simply not paying. But I am leaving. You’re going to have to do something about that.”
This is what I said yesterday to the customer care representative at the billing company who handles my gym membership when I called to cancel my month-to-month membership with Blast Fitness (this is AFTER canceling at the gym itself, and being told that memberships must be cancelled 30 days in advance, so I would still be charged for another month, and then that I must call the billing company to complete the cancellation of services).
She said that she couldn’t help me because the system had me listed under a year long contract, and so I needed to contact my gym again to straighten it out. I wanted her to patch me through to someone who could help me. Someone with an override pass-code. But she persisted in her victim-of-the-system routine.
2) The “Somehow This is Your Fault”
Meanwhile, back in Bosnia, upon seeing that I was not just going to wimp out and pay the $350 bail she’d set for my release, the clerk involved the Bosnian conference-organizer who said, “You are responsible for this bill. You should have come to check out with each of your roommates to make sure they didn’t do this to you.”
Aha. This is a gift that the legal profession has bequeathed upon the world. It’s a favorite of pastors as well. If there is some way that you could have prevented yourself from being defrauded, some moment where you chose to let you guard down or heaven forbid if you messed up even a little, then no one else is responsible for their actions against you.
Thank goodness I was a banshee on the loose at that point. I replied, “Excuse me? My roommates left at 5 am. And it is NOT my responsibility to make sure that they didn’t leave without paying THEIR bills. In fact, they are your guests, and if those are the kind of people you invite to your conferences, then that’s the risk you take. Furthermore, I requested a single room, so these roommates were less than my responsibility, they were a burden imposed on me.”
This is similar to when we realized that we had misunderstood what a “grace period” was in credit card billing. Apparently, in a normal credit card agreement (billed in a monthly statement) the “grace period” is the 3 days between the due date and the day you start accruing interest. However, if at any point the terms of the agreement change (in our case due to a check written to ourselves against our credit balance), then a “grace period” refers to each passing day between when you swipe your card, and when you transfer money to your credit card company. That’s a fun one to find out when you see that you’d accrued $80 of interest on a tank of gas.
Again this “it’s your fault” tactic was employed during the gym cancellation saga when this conversation happened:
Customer Care Rep:”May I ask why you are cancelling?”
Me:”Because they are closing my preferred location.”
CCR: “I’m sorry to hear that. But there are two other locations within 10 miles of the closing location.”
Me: “Yes, 10 miles further from my house. It would take me 30 minutes each way to get there.”
CCR: “I’m sorry for that, but that’s just not reason enough to waive your cancellation fee.” [which we subsequently established that I was not supposed to incur]
So yes. My choice to live 30 minutes away from the gyms I do not use penalizes me when they close the gym I do use.
OR when Perma Pier leveled our house with the wrong kind of pier and beam system, did a shoddy job, and then offered to come back and fix it for $27,000 (minus $7000 for the shoddy original job…gee thanks). Since we’d signed off on the work, (after seeing ONE appropriately serviced pier) we were liable. Because we should have hired an inspector to crawl under the house to make sure they had not ripped us off before they left. Literally. That’s what they told us.
3) The Guilt Trip
Meanwhile, back in the twilight zone, the conference-organizer then tried to guilt me into paying.
“If you don’t pay, then it will come out of my paycheck.”
I’m pretty sure I just stared at her. But I also said, “That’s really not my problem.”
It’s like when you’re made to feel like a naughty car owner if you don’t upgrade to the super special oil for your oil change.
The happy ending of the Bosnia story is that the American organizers of the conference saw that there was conflict, intervened, and handed over their credit cards without hesitation. And paid for my cab ride to the airport.
The regional manager of the gym cancelled my membership without penalty.
We used another credit card until we could restore our original credit card agreement.
We pestered a foundation company until they reimbursed us for half of the shoddy construction job. (And we hired a wonderfully honest company to fix it, for half of what Perma Pier quoted.)
And from this day forward whenever I am given the runaround by someone who hired a lawyer to write a ten page contract absolving that person from treating me like a human being instead of a bank account, I will say this:
“I want you to patch me through to the person who can write me a personal check for [disputed amount], mail it to my house, and sort it out in the “system” for himself. Because I guarantee you, if he’s out [disputed amount] he’ll tell you the override code. I am tired of living in a world where people are just trying to see how much money they can get me to lose at no cost to themselves. ”
I also have a recurring fantasy of walking up to the lawyers who write the contracts for these horrible, slimy companies, and saying this: “Do you know how the little guy feels when he finds himself taken advantage of by the big guy? Do you know how he feels when he is powerless to free himself from the spiderweb of your contracts? You don’t?”
And then I’d kick him in the testicles. And then I would say, “Well I don’t have testicles, so I don’t know what that feels like.”