Fleeced

A physician relates the story of a bank in New York charging him $2 because he deposited a check made out to him into his own account without endorsing it.

Supermarket shoppers write us to complain of all the added water in their hams, poultry and fish that is selling at meat prices. Motorists inform us that on buying a car, their dealers are adding a billing charge that can reach $50 — billing the customer for being billed.

Being forced to pay for something that you did not intend to buy is a big business. Ask homebuyers about all those charges that are packed on to their agreements. Ask buyers of consumer durables such as cars or large appliances about the credit life insurance that is tacked on to the bill.

Consumer finance transactions have reached the state of the art in “packing”. The Attorney General of Arizona recently settled a case with an ITT subsidiary for engaging in deceptive lending practices. The “packing” involved added charges often without telling the customers for unneeded insurance policies, extras and other products to the cost of the loan.

Coming around the corner in the consumer coercion racket will be surcharges if you do NOT use electronic funds transfer. The electronic payments crowd wants to draw everyone into the plastic card and away from cash or checks. All kinds of information about your buying habits and other forms of control attach themselves to this latest grip on your money by the giant financial institutions planning your future.

It used to be that the word “adulteration” meant putting water in food products so as to increase the weight and amount the consumer is charged. It still means that, but much more. The marketplace is being overwhelmed by what is known as “unbundling” in the sellers’ lingo. Where you once paid one charge, now the computerized bills list more and more items you thought were paying for in the lump sum. Some dentists now charge for their tools. Hospitals are having a field day packing charges onto the daily room rate which formerly included such items.

Last week the Washington Post had a challenging article entitled “Water, Water Everywhere.. And Sometimes Where You’d Least Expect to Find It.” Reporter Carole Sugarman itemizes instance after instance where water is deliberately placed in food products to increase the charge to consumers.

For example, chickens are dipped into chilling tanks during processing and absorb much water. An effort to get the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require that net weight reflect only the weight of the chicken failed in the late Seventies.

Presently, the FDA says that sleazy processors have added up to 40 percent of shrimp and lobster weight with water. The agency terms this ripoff “overglazing.”

There are complex government regulations governing the adding of water to food products. They are inadequately enforced and sometimes easily avoided. Watch out for ham, hot dogs, catfish, canned fruits and vegetables and, of course, fruit juices. There is, indeed, water everywhere.

If you want to start something happening to reduce the adulteration of the marketplace, here are some suggestions:

1. Report some of these raw frauds to your state attorney general’s consumer fraud office or the FDA.

2. Refuse to pay charges for services you did not ask for or were not told about. Inform your friends about what you have observed, since they may be exposed to the same gouge.

3. In some blatant cases, you may have a good consumer class action which a lawyer will take on a contingent fee. Such a lawsuit can obtain lots of inside information from the corporate offender about the racket.

4. Finally, call up local consumer reporters on newspapers and television stations in your area. There are Action Lines in over 200 newspapers that should be eager to look into your complaint.

If consumers do not say enough is enough, they will be fleeced more and more.

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