Creative Ways People Used The Internet for Buyer’s Revenge

Have a beef with some faceless corporation? Don't get mad—get creative.

By Sam Boykin and Michelle Crouch from Reader's Digest | November 2010

Rotten airline customer service

They lose and damage our luggage, trap us in grounded planes for hours, and bump us off flights we bought tickets for months ago. Then, when we call to get our problems resolved, we spend fruitless hours on the phone only to hear that the airline can’t control the weather, can’t control mechanical problems, can’t control what the person we just talked to told us—and, of course, can’t compensate us for those things it can’t control.

The usual advice: If you’re still in the airport or on the plane when a problem arises, find an employee who has the authority to take care of your issue, and make sure you write down the names of everyone you deal with. If that doesn’t work, a brief letter via registered mail to the airline—with any relevant documentation—offers the best chance for redress. And don’t forget to file a complaint at airconsumer.dot.gov, the federal agency that tracks airline service issues.

Still can’t get satisfaction? Try this: Dave Carroll was waiting to disembark from a United Airlines flight in Chicago when he heard another passenger say something about what was happening out on the tarmac: “Oh, my God, they’re throwing guitars!” One of those guitars was the Canadian musician’s beloved $3,500 Taylor 710 acoustic/electric, which suffered a broken base. When he contacted United requesting compensation, he was shunted from one person to another, each one claiming another party was responsible. After nine futile months, the airline told him it wasn’t responsible for the damage. And soon all contact ended.

It was not the end as far as Carroll was concerned. Knowing that conflict is at the core of all good theater, he filmed a music video called “United Breaks Guitars.” Over images of actors portraying clumsy baggage handlers, a busted guitar on the tarmac surrounded by a crime-scene chalk outline, and a tearful wake for the dearly departed Taylor 710, Carroll sang “You broke it, you should fix it/You’re liable, just admit it/I should’ve flown with someone else/Or gone by car/’Cause United breaks guitars.”

Within days, over a million people had viewed the video on YouTube, and the story caught fire with the media. “It was bizarre watching Wolf Blitzer on CNN talk about my video between stories of Barack Obama and the Pope,” says Carroll.

The outcome: United Airlines changed its tune after Carroll’s video went viral. While it refused to apologize or take responsibility, the airline did offer $1,200 in cash and $1,200 in flight vouchers. Carroll turned them down. “I said, ‘Talk of compensation ended when you closed the door on me.’” The incident has given Carroll’s musical career a boost. Best of all, Taylor Guitars invited him to its California plant and handed him two brand-new guitars. Says Carroll, “It pays to stand up for yourself.”

Unwanted Robocalls

The phone rings just as you sit down for dinner. Or maybe you don’t recognize the number, so you pick up. “This is a limited-time offer. Your car warranty is about to expire!” Argh—another robocall. Extended-warranty companies are some of the worst offenders, with one company purportedly calling more than a million numbers-—in one day. The good news? After over 700,000 people complained about prerecorded marketing pitches last year, the FTC banned most robocalls (unless the company has your permission in writing to make them—fat chance). The law allows a few exceptions: charitable organizations, surveys, and, unfortunately, politicians. Companies can still have a human being make the pitch, unless you’re on the national do-not-call registry.

The usual advice: If you receive an illegal robocall, stay on the line and note the company’s name and the number it’s calling from, says FTC spokesman Mitch Katz. Then file a complaint at 877-FTC-HELP or donotcall.gov.

The FTC can fine companies as much as $16,000 for just one illegal call.

Still can’t get satisfaction? Try this: Pushed over the edge by one telemarketing call too many, a justice-seeking vigilante decided to get even with his auto-calling tormentors in 2009. Auto One Warranty Specialists was the target of our hero’s righteous ire. The still-unidentified citizen was being bombarded by unsolicited robocalls from the Irvine, California, company, which was trying to sell him an extended auto warranty.

Rather than slam the phone down, he stayed on the line long enough to jot down the company’s phone number. He then posted it on the social news website reddit.com, urging fellow frustrated call recipients to give the company a dose of its own medicine. Soon disgruntled customers and Internet crusaders were flooding the company’s phone lines with junk calls, elevator music, angry rants, and even Rick Astley’s cringe-inducing 1987 hit song “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

The outcome: The deluge of calls overloaded Auto One’s phone lines. Even the Missouri attorney general jumped in. Last December, he sued Auto One’s parent company, Credexx Corporation, accusing it of robocalling people on the state’s do-not-call list. The company agreed to pay a $75,000 fine to settle the suit.

Lesson learned: When it comes to fighting back, don’t go it alone.

Now, here’s how to write a complaint letter

If you’re not the Viking-helmet-wearing type, take a page from Mark Twain. In 1905, the author penned this ire-filled missive to J. H. Todd after the salesman pitched him some bogus medicine via a letter and brochure. The Elixir of Life was said to cure meningitis and diphtheria, ailments that killed Twain’s daughter and son.

Dear Sir, Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good & exhibits considerable character, yet the letter & the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, & scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the missing link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter & your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; & always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded & passed & I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, & enter swiftly into the damnation which you & all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned. Adieu, adieu, adieu!

—Mark Twain

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