“Call your congressperson.” “Write the company president.” “Start a petition.”
All fine suggestions if some business has given you the shaft. But, fueled by high-octane righteous indignation, these men and women took a far more unorthodox approach when it came to …
Car dealers who won’t pay for warranty repairs
Most car dealers hate doing repairs covered by your warranty. To avoid picking up the tab, some dealer repair shops are not above trickery, says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. First, they may try to blame you, because problems resulting from wear and tear usually aren’t covered. If a particular vehicle model has a history of defective rear axles, for example, the dealer may still insist you hit a pothole. Another ploy: the old run-the-clock-out ruse. Every time you take your warranty-protected vehicle to the shop, the mechanic says he can’t find anything wrong, so of course he can’t fix it. Then, after your warranty expires—whaddaya know?—the mechanic miraculously identifies the problem. And by the way, that’ll be $1,800.
run-in with Volvo,
Cesario called on
her alter ego:
The usual advice: Save repair records, Ditlow says. Some states require manufacturers to fix at no charge any defect that occurs after the warranty lapses if the problem first showed up during the warranty period. If your car is not under warranty when something breaks, don’t assume you are out of luck; automakers sometimes have case-by-case repair policies that cover problem items even after your contract expires, especially if you make a fuss.
Still can’t get satisfaction? Try this: Petra Wennberg Cesario’s Volvo was covered by a Volvo-sponsored extended service contract when the transmission failed a few years ago, after just over 60,000 miles. The local dealership in Pasadena, California, replaced the faulty transmission at no charge, but the car continued to slam into gear, rev, and lurch. Wenn-berg Cesario complained and took her car in for further repairs, but the dealership, Rusnak Volvo, was never able to duplicate the problem.
Three years later, Wennberg Cesario’s service contract expired. “The dealership recommended I replace the transmission again,” she says, “but this time, I would have to pay $3,700. That was not acceptable.” She contacted the office of the president of Volvo North America. She was told that was Volvo’s best offer.
Wennberg Cesario, a 41-year-old mother of two, did the next logical thing as far as she was concerned. Harking back to her Nordic roots, she created a sword-brandishing, Viking-hat-wearing Swedish goddess named Freya Svensson.
In a series of tongue-in-cheek video blogs on her website rusmackedvolvo.com, “Freya” lashed out at the car dealer. In one, she plucks a guitar while warbling in Swedish (with English subtitles), “O Volvo and Rusnak-aaaaaaaak/You gave me a broken transmission-ooooo-n/Now the love we once shared/is fading in the past.”
The outcome: Within ten days, more than 20,000 people viewed the video, including a Volvo executive who called Cesario and told her the company was “committed to getting to the bottom of the problem.”
After examining the car in December and finding multiple problems, Volvo agreed to cover repairs worth nearly $9,000.
“This was not about some vendetta,” Cesario insists. “I was just documenting the fact that I wasn’t being treated right. I never dreamed it would become this big, but it feels good to be a voice for the little guy.”
The careless computer click that keeps on costing
Maybe you click a box offering a big discount on your online purchase. Or maybe, in a moment of weakness, you sign up for a “free” video. Boom. Next thing you know, you’re getting charged every month for a product or service you never wanted.
Welcome to data passing.
Even after you notice the fee on your credit card or bank statement (you do scour them each month, don’t you?) and try to cancel the deal, it can be frustratingly difficult to opt out. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires companies to make the terms of such offers “clear and conspicuous,” but by 2009, over 35 million consumers had been snared by data pass offers.
The usual advice: If you spot an unauthorized charge on your credit card or bank statement, notify the card issuer, then ask the merchant for your money back. If that doesn’t work, tell your card issuer to fight the charge and then file a complaint at ftc.gov or by calling 877-FTC-HELP.
Still can’t get satisfaction? Try this: As Dave Clarke was finalizing his purchase online at 1-800-Flowers, he clicked on a link offering a discount on his purchase. And unbeknownst to him, he inadvertently became a “member” of TLG Livwell, a partnership between 1-800-Flowers and Trilegiant (TLG) that offers deals on 1-800-Flowers brands and others. According to the two companies, Clarke shouldn’t have been surprised—the terms of the membership offer were disclosed in a new window when he clicked on that discount offer button. He even had to supply information to agree to membership.
But surprised he was. And a year went by before a blissfully ignorant Clarke, 27, noticed something on his credit card statement one afternoon: TLG had charged him $11.99. In fact, TLG had been siphoning off $11.99 every month since he’d pursued that discount offer, and now he was out $155.87.
“I’m pretty tech-savvy,” says Clarke, a New York City Internet consultant. “I’m on the Web all day— it’s what I do—and I still got tricked into this.” He’s not alone. TLG has been sued multiple times and has been the target of thousands of consumer complaints.
Clarke spent the rest of the day caught in a hellish black hole of customer-service phone trees, getting bounced between TLG and 1-800-Flowers. The best TLG would do was reimburse him for two months’ worth of charges: $23.98. “That really didn’t cut it for me,” Clarke says.
Clarke vented his frustrations on Twitter; he outlined what happened to him and warned people about the 1-800-Flowers checkout problem. He immediately heard from others who said they had been ripped off. Moreover, many “retweeted” his message, spreading Clarke’s online rant exponentially.
The outcome: Within hours, a 1-800-Flowers customer-service representative responded to Clarke’s tweet, asking how he could help. Clarke laid out his case, and the company arranged for TLG to refund all his money. Better yet, 1-800-Flowers no longer offers the program online.
“It’s social-media activism at its best,” Clarke says.
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.”
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!