Friday, August 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

POSTED: Tuesday, July 1, 2014, 2:54 PM
A T-Mobile store sign is seen in Broomfield, Colorado. (Rick Wilking / Reuters)

T-Mobile has made big strides portraying itself as the nation's most consumer-friendly wireless carrier, thanks to initiatives such as eliminating gotcha! data-roaming charges that can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to travelers' bills. Now it has a ton of egg on its face from a much less consumer-friendly practice: The FTC says that from 2009 to November 2013, it allowed third parties to sneak hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of small monthly charges onto customers' bills - a practice known as "cramming."

It a complaint just announced, the Federal Trade Commission says it has filed a complaint accusing the number-four carrier of "making hundreds of millions of dollars by placing charges on mobile phone bills for purported 'premium' SMS subscriptions that, in many cases, were bogus charges that were never authorized by its customers.  The FTC alleges that T-Mobile received anywhere from 35 to 40 percent of the total amount charged to consumers for subscriptions for content such as flirting tips, horoscope information or celebrity gossip that typically cost $9.99 per month."

The FTC's email announcement continued:

POSTED: Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 11:07 AM
car, rental, rental car, car rental
(istock photo)

One of the worst things about renting a car, especially for infrequent travelers, is that moment at the car-rental counter - or next to the car, if you're renting from Enterprise - when the rental agent tries to sell you on purchasing a "collision damage waiver": optional coverage that spares you from having to pay your own insurance policy's deductible in case of an accident.

If you own an insured car yourself and rent with a major credit card - some MasterCards excepted - you should know you probably don't need it. But if you haven't checked beforehand, you might be uncertain enough to spend needlessly, and some rental agents might seem eager to stir that anxiety. An Enterprise agent, while renting me a minivan because the smaller car I'd booked wasn't available, once warned that "vans aren't covered under most credit-card policies."  I had to call my card issuer to check. It turned out that the exemption applied only to big vans, which aren't considered passenger-car rentals.

The best way to be sure what's covered is to read your card's contract terms carefully and ask about anything you find confusing. But second-best may be this new study by CardHub.com, which reports that 20 percent of renters always buy the waiver, and that another 20 percent sometimes do, even though every Visa, American Express and Discover card includes rental-car protection. Some other highlights of its findings:

  • All four major card networks provide some form of rental car insurance coverage, though MasterCard does not provide coverage on all of its cards.
  • American Express received CardHub's highest score (90%) for its rental policy. Discover ranked second (88%), MasterCard third (79%), and Visa last (74%)
  • All four require cardholders to charge their entire rental car purchase on their credit card and decline supplemental insurance/Collision Damage Waivers (CDW) offered by the rental company in order to be eligible.
  • All four exempt coverage for rental of exotic, expensive, or antique cars; trucks; vehicles with open beds; and off-road vehicles
  • Visa is the only network that does not cover accidents occurring on dirt and gravel roads. However, MasterCard only covers them if those roads are “regularly maintained.”
  • All card networks exclude rentals that exceed certain time limits. Coverage may not extend to every country overseas - checking beforehand is key.
  • Minivans may not be a problem, but some SUVs are. CardHub says American Express excludes coverage for some popular models, including Chevy Suburban and Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator, Toyota Land Cruiser, Lexus LX450, Range Rover, and full-sized Ford Broncos.
POSTED: Thursday, June 19, 2014, 2:58 PM
T-Mobile CEO John Legere holds an Apple iPhone 5S as he speaks at T-Mobile's Uncarrier 5.0 event, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Seattle. T-Mobile announced a program that will offer free seven-day "test drives" of the Apple iPhone on the T-Mobile network. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

T-Mobile CEO John Legere has been waging war since last year on what he calls the "arrogant U.S. wireless industry," and his big news yesterday in Seattle was a one-two punch. He's offering a free seven-day "test drive" of T-Mobile's network on a loaner iPhone 5S, allowing it to show off its LTE investments while Apple wows new customers. And he's offering unmetered streaming from half a dozen music services such as Pandora and Spotify, promising more to come as T-Mobile subscribers request them.

Unvarnished good news? That was my first reaction, perhaps because it's easy to be a fan of Legere's profane, take-no-prisoners style targeting an industry that often acts as if it has customers over a barrel. But when I asked yesterday about the net-neutrality implications of the music streaming, which treats some companies' data packets different than others, I got the phone and email equivalent of a blank stare - as did a reporter from the Verge, when he asked Legere about it Wednesday night in Seattle. Under a headline that says, "It sounds great, but it's really, really, really bad," the Verge reports:

It sounds wonderful — and right in line with the "uncarrier" image that firebrand CEO John Legere has worked so hard to cultivate — but it's a terribly slippery slope: T-Mobile has decided, arbitrarily, that some of the data traveling over its pipes should count against a cap, while other data should not. What's to stop it from using data cap exemptions as a punitive measure against content providers that aren't on good terms with T-Mobile (or its parent company Deutsche Telekom)?

POSTED: Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 12:21 PM
Experian.com screen grab, site of one of the Big Three in the industry.

One of the dirty little secrets about the credit-reporting industry is how it profits from consumers' pain - even when its own practices are among the causes. Now Mississippi's attorney general, Jim Hood, has brought that issue to the forefront, with a lawsuit that accuses Experian of "knowingly including error-riddled data in the credit files of millions of Americans," according to this AP report, and then turning around and selling costly "credit monitoring" services to the same people to protect them from harm.

"Experian has turned its failures to maintain accurate credit reports and its refusal to investigate consumer disputes into a business opportunity," Hood said said in a statement.  Hood, a Democrat, filed the suit quietly last month in state court - much of it sealed or redacted from the public record as propriietar. It was moved to federal court last week.  The AP reports:

Despite the errors added to credit files, the Mississippi lawsuit said, Experian provides no straightforward way for consumers to correct erroneous blemishes affecting them. When consumers file a dispute, Experian reflexively finds in favor of the bank or debt collector that reported the debt, Mississippi said. And when consumers call to complain, the lawsuit said Experian employees attempt to sell consumers credit monitoring products of questionable value.

POSTED: Friday, June 13, 2014, 1:02 PM
FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 file photo, a person displays Netflix on a tablet in North Andover, Mass. (AP Photo / Elise Amendola, File)

Tired of that "buffering, buffering ..." message but don't know whom to blame? That's one of the maddening flaws of life in Internet-land, where everybody has deniability.

Is it Verizon or Comcast, or another Internet service provider? Is it the fault of Netflix, or MLB.com, or another so-called "edge provider" you're paying good money for a data stream? Or is it the fault of someone in between - maybe one of those little-known companies like Cogent or Level 3 Communications that moves traffic between ISPs and the far edge?

The FCC is - finally - promising that it's on the case, after maintaining that the issue is separate from the debate over net neutrality. In a statement Friday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler quoted a consumer's question that he said "well sums up public concern":  "Netflix versus Verizon: Is Verizon abusing Net Neutrality and causing Netflix picture quality to be degraded by 'throttling' transmission speeds? Who is at fault here? The consumer is the one suffering! What can you do?"

POSTED: Thursday, April 24, 2014, 2:02 PM

Supporters of an open, truly competitive Internet faced a news cycle's worth of scare headlines. "FCC proposal would destroy net neutrality," screamed the Verge. In only slightly more measured language, the New York Times announced last night that the: "principle that all Internet content should be treated equally as it flows through cables and pipes to consumers looks all but dead."

Not so, say FCC officials.  Pushing back against the reports, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler emailed a statement before midnight saying: "There are reports that the FCC is gutting the Open Internet rule. They are flat out wrong. ... There is no 'turnaround in policy.' The same rules will apply to all Internet content." And the push-back continued today, with a "Setting the record straight" blog post by Wheeler, and via a background briefing by senior FCC officials.

Beyond pushing back at news reports, the FCC says it is trying to thread a needle - upholding its principles of network neutrality within the confines of Verizon's latest anti-neutrality victory in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. As I explained back then, the court left room for maneuvering, and Wheeler is taking one of the paths it laid out.

POSTED: Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 2:03 PM
A Bank of America branch is seen along Peachtree Street, Tuesday, July 16, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau continues to show its worth in cold, hard cash coming back to consumers victimized directly by financial trickery.  While that may pale beside the magnitude of damage caused indirectly by such trickery - say, the Great Recession and massive, long-term unemployment triggered by a trickery-fueled housing bubble - it's real money. And an enforcement announced today against Bank of America adds $727 million to the toll: about $250 per affected customer.

The CFPB says nearly 3 million consumers will received refunds, or have already gotten them. About 1.4 million  were affected by the megabank's deceptive marketing of add-on products with names like "Privacy Guard" and "Privacy Assist," the agency says in a blog post explaining the order. About 1.9 million customers were charged for credit-monitoring and credit-reporting services they weren't actually receiving.  

Bank of America said today that it had stopped all the marketing in question -  including for products "marketed and billed by its vendors" - by August 2012.



POSTED: Friday, January 17, 2014, 12:29 PM

The news that a Washington appeals court has tossed out the FCC's 2010 "Open Internet" order gives new currency to this 2009 graphic created by a Reddit user named Quink. As I noted in yesterday's Tech Life column, Comcast has promised to abide by the principles anyway, at least till 2018. Verizon, which took the Federal Communications Commission to court, has made similar, open-ended assurances.

So how will we know if broadband providers ever decide to block or discriminate against some Internet content, as the court now says they can? It might take another Robb Topolski, who discovered in 2007 that Comcast was secretly blocking BitTorrent, the file-sharing site. But it might also come, as Quink imagined, in cable-TV-style tiered offerings for Web access - as MetroPCS, now owned by T-Mobile, unveiled in 2011 right before it joined Verizon in challenging the FCC.

About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at jgelles@phillynews.com.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
Also on Philly.com:
Stay Connected