Tricked by fine print? Ripped off? Tell me

RICK NEASE / Detroit Free Press

What matters to you most as a consumer? What impresses you about a business, or makes you likely to recommend it to friends? What gets your goat, or leaves you so frustrated that you take time to complain?

I want to know, because that's my job - as it has been for most of the last 14 years, ever since my first Consumer Watch column appeared here in November 2001. With today's redesign of Sunday Business comes a new chance to invite you to speak up.

Like it or not, consumers are like canaries in a coal mine. When businesses push too far, or scammers target new veins of fool's gold, we're the early warning system - even if it takes ridiculously long for a fix.

I first heard a dozen years ago from a Wyndmoor teacher, Carolyn Cohen, about what later became known as the "universal default," one of the credit-card industry's notorious tricks and traps. Cohen had responded to an invitation - one I'll repeat today - asking readers to nominate favorite examples of fine print that burned them in consumer "contracts," the take-it-or-leave-it terms of service you're stuck with simply because you opened a shrink-wrapped package or clicked "I agree" online.

Cohen was singed when Chase Bank suddenly raised her interest rate on a balance transfer from 0 percent to 23 percent, not because she'd missed any payments to the bank but because of something else it supposedly saw on her credit report - a document she said was riddled with errors. Losing the teaser rate for a couple months, until she could switch banks, cost her more than $400.

It's sad that it took five more years and a financial crisis for the Federal Reserve and Congress to finally bar such practices - including banks' claim of a right to change terms at any time for any reason, or, as I like to call it, the "We Can Do Anything We Damn Well Please Clause" - as unfair and deceptive. Justice, even the consumer variety, is sometimes painfully slow.

Some readers may think I've spent too much ink lately on Philadelphia's Comcast Corp., even if the leading cable and broadband provider draws justified gripes about its fast-rising prices and dominant market position - especially in local sports. But a flurry of complaints last fall seemed like something new, and stirred a series of columns about consumers who described endless waits on hold, blown appointments, erroneous bills, and other foul-ups.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts made a splash recently by announcing that customer dissatisfaction had prompted the company to "rethink how we do business" - in part, by hiring 5,500 more customer-service staffers.

Comcast rightly said its problems were a long time in the making. What it hasn't said clearly is how bad things got this winter, with a spike in problems apparently fueled by problems with its new X1 platform and a billing-system switch.

If Comcast won't say, let me offer some evidence. According to Federal Communications Commission data I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, more than 3,000 consumers complained to the FCC about Comcast in December - nearly three times as many who griped about the top six other pay-TV and Internet providers combined. A month earlier, Comcast totaled fewer than 400 FCC complaints, and in October, just eight. Comcast's problems have since tapered off - its FCC complaints were down to about 1,100 in April. But they still outnumbered those involving all six top competitors.

I mention these numbers not because complaints to regulators - or journalists - will reliably solve systemic problems. But bringing problems to light is often a necessary first step.

One lesson this job has taught me is that the best consumer protection comes from vibrant competition and transparent terms - which is surely why I hear far less often about retailers than, say, telecom providers or banks. Customers who can't easily vote with their feet are more likely to be frustrated - and companies that know you have few options, or face barriers to switching, have less incentive to behave.

Another lesson is that consumers have good reason to be leery of things that companies try to obscure - not just tricky terms of service, but also hidden marketing tactics. That was reinforced last week by University of Maryland law professor Frank Pasquale, who spoke about his new book, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information, at a conference hosted by U.S. PIRG and the Center for Digital Democracy.

Pasquale's research centers, in part, on the shadowy world of 4,000 or more U.S. data brokers. One once offered "a rape sufferers list" - though withdrew it in 2013 within hours after the list was mentioned in congressional testimony. Others sell lists of people assumed to have or likely to have conditions such as diabetes, bipolar disorder, dementia, incontinence or impotence.

"You name a medical condition that someone might feel sensitive about, these data brokers have a list," said Pasquale, who says consumers should know how their data are amassed, mined and marketed.

That story may ring familiar to regular readers, since I wrote several years ago about a Philadelphian mysteriously targeted by Bristol-Myers Squibb with an Abilify promotion. He asked how, without violating privacy law, marketers had tagged him as someone suffering from depression. Now, it seems, we know.

Pasquale says a marketer might have good reason to hide how a sensitive mailing list was assembled.

"A lot of these practices are considered trade secrets," he told me after the conference. "These people are told, if you disclose our secrets we're going to sue you for millions of dollars. So it really is a black box."

Sometimes, the only answer to a problem is better marketplace rules. But if you're aghast at fine print, mystified by a market practice, or just suspect something is unfair or wrong, let me know. It's my job to get answers you can't. And that's at least a start. 215-854-2776 @jeffgelles