MONEY Tech

How Comcast Plans to Boost Your Internet Bill With New Fees

Comcast building
Matt Rourke—AP

"People who use more should pay more, and people who use less should pay less," Executive VP David Cohen told investors in May.

Comcast COMCAST CORP. CMCSA 1.5633% has begun testing data caps in certain markets and plans to make what it prefers to call “usage-based” billing standard policy across the country within the next five years.

Previously, in nearly all cases, Internet data was an unlimited flat-rate, all-you-can-eat buffet. Under its new plan, which Comcast has already rolled out in a number of test cities, the company will sell users a flat amount of data and then charge them overages. This will take a system where customers had cost certainty and replace it with the model that has served the cell-phone industry so well — one where subscribers pay more if they go over a set limit.

“People who use more should pay more, and people who use less should pay less,” Executive VP David Cohen told investors in May, BGR reported.

That sounds correct on the surface, and charging more for data over a certain amount may be a necessity in a world where so many of us are streaming video content over our broadband connections as part of our daily lives. But the cable companies, which are also Internet service providers (along with the phone company ISPs), have a poor track record when it comes to billing. Data caps may be logical, and Comcast, which is waiting federal approval of its $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable TIME WARNER CABLE INC. TWC 2.0225% may be going about things the right way, but consumers are right to be wary about what this means for their bill.

What is Comcast doing?

Comcast has been testing two different plan pricing strategies in an expanding number of markets (there are variations and differences depending upon the market). One potential plan offers set amounts of data starting at 300 GB for a fixed price, with additional data being sold in 50 GB blocks for $10. The second plan targets low-volume users and offers them 5 GB of data at a set price, but there is a twist. Customers enrolled in this plan, called the “Flexible Data Option,” receive a $5 credit if they use less than 5 GB in a month but pay $1 per extra GB they use.

With the larger plans, Comcast appears to be making every reasonable effort to allow customers to track where they stand when it comes to data usage. People on the 300 MB or bigger plans will receive an email to their primary Comcast user email address when they reach 90% and 100% of their monthly allotment. In some markets you can also arrange to be notified when you reach 50%, 60%, 70%, 80%, 110%, and 125% of your usage. It’s possible in some markets to set up notifications via text message, and the company will also make an automated phone call to its customers when they pass 100% for the second month in a row.

The company also provides an online usage meter where customers on all tiers can track how much data they have consumed.

For subscribers to these more expensive plans, Comcast appears to be making a reasonable effort to help people avoid overages. The same can’t be said for the Flexible Data customers who are specifically not currently included in the notification system. That means that the customers choosing the cheapest plan are the ones most likely to be blasted with costly, unexpected overages.

Comcast should opt for total transparency

Under these plans, Comcast can profit by charging reasonable overage fees to its higher-data customers on 300 GB and above plans and by hitting its lower-end users with prices per GB for overages that are five times higher. Comcast may need to do this as more customers use more data and strain increases on its infrastructure. But if capping data and adding overage charges is really about maintaining network integrity, the company should warn all customers when they are getting close to their allotment and require authorization to add more data for the month.

There’s a way to do this right, if it truly needs to be done at all, and it involves putting choice in the hand of the customer and not using a data cap to inflate people’s bills without their consent. Comcast can still charge more and better control its resources — which is good for the company — while ensuring that its subscribers retain control over their expenses and avoid monthly billing surprises.

MONEY bills

The AT&T Bill That Just Wouldn’t Die

AT&T store with pedestrians rushing on sidewalk below
Richard Drew—AP

A Chicago woman got more than she bargained for when she tried to change her phone-and-Internet service.

When you have a dispute over a bill with a company, sometimes it’s not enough to respond to a collections notice with evidence that the bill has been paid. Sadly, even if the collections firm appears to drop the matter it can still come up again, and again, and again. This is the tale of the bill that just wouldn’t die.

It’s often harder than it should be to close an account. A small remaining balance, sometimes invisible to consumers, can create a big hassle, leading to collections calls and damaged credit – even bills that are several years old for as little as $50 or $100 can really punish a credit score. That’s bad enough.

It’s hard to understand how simply changing service – rather than canceling service – could lead to that kind of red tape nightmare. But that’s exactly what happened to Cathy Nestor, who lives north of Chicago, when she dropped AT&T’s U-verse TV, phone and Internet bundle three years ago and went with only U-verse Internet service.

The trouble started with a $70-something balance remaining on her old bundled account with AT&T’s U-verse, which Nestor claims she paid back in 2011.

Since then, three different firms have tried to collect on the bill, and Nestor says she provided evidence it was paid each time. Still, by the time she wrote to me, she was on the verge of getting reported as delinquent to the credit bureaus.

AT&T, for its part, disagrees with Nestor’s version of events. The company says the old account was never settled (for reasons we’ll explain shortly) and claims her evidence is faulty. Nestor says that the various collection firms never successfully communicated that to her, or didn’t push back when she told them the bill was paid.

The Confusion Begins

When Nestor dropped her U-verse bundle in 2011 but kept high-speed Internet, AT&T gave her a new account and new account number. She says she paid her new bill, thinking it would include any leftover balance from her old U-verse account. It didn’t. But soon after, she realized the error and says she separately paid the old account bill balance of $72 on Nov. 23, 2011. As evidence, she provided me a copy of an electronic payment from her bank statement. (And we should note that she is currently considered an in-good-standing customer of AT&T’s Internet service — that is, on the new account.)

Then the fun began.

She says she got a letter requesting that the bill on the old account be paid. She says she wrote back with evidence that it had been paid, claiming AT&T must have lost the payment amid the account number confusion. About 18 months later, she got a letter from another collection agent demanding that the bill be paid. Again, she wrote with evidence of payment. Then in January 2013 (“Yes, this has been going on that long!”), she received a letter from yet another collections company, Afni Inc., based in Bloomington, Ill., demanding a $79 payment.

“This account has been placed with our agency for collections,” read the letter. “We are requesting your assistance in resolving this matter. We may report information about your account to credit bureaus.”

“I WILL NOT BE PAYING THIS COLLECTION ITEM,” she wrote to Afni, in all caps. (Nestor provided a copy of the exchange for my review). “AT&T has already been paid, and they have tried to sell this off once before. I have already proven to them they were paid. I do not know why they keep trying to collect this.” She concluded by threatening legal action.

Then, nothing. No acknowledgment of receipt. No, “We’re sorry, we’ll drop it,” notice. No new attempt to collect. Silence. It was tempting to think the matter was closed, but Nestor knows consumers should never assume any such thing.

“Just waiting for it to show up again, you know,” she wrote when she contacted me to complain about the repeated collections.

Unraveling the Mystery

I reached out to Afni, and the firm shed a little light on the situation. AT&T had not sold the debt, but was using Afni as a third-party firm to attempt collection.

“When Afni had this account, AT&T was the owner of it—we did not purchase it,” said Debra Ciskey, director of compliance at Afni. “This account was recalled from Afni by AT&T on Aug. 5, 2013, so we are no longer handling it on behalf of AT&T.”

When I asked Ciskey what “recalled” meant, she said Afni was simply instructed to stop attempting to collect on the debt on behalf of AT&T.

“I am sorry that I am unable to tell you what would have happened to the account after we returned it to AT&T,” she wrote.

Ciskey’s responses suggested Nestor’s fear her bill would become zombie debt was well-founded.

“Terrific. I’m guessing that means I still haven’t seen the end of this,” Nestor said, sarcastically. She was right.

Next, I contacted AT&T, and the firm said that Nestor did indeed still owe the money. Emily J. Edmonds, director of AT&T Corporate Communications, acknowledged the payment Nestor made in November 2011, but said it was applied only to her new Internet service account rather than her old bundled account. That left a $79 balance (Nestor and AT&T also disagree on the old account balance).

“This customer has had an outstanding balance on her former account since 2011 that was never paid, ultimately resulting in the bill being sent to collections,” Edmonds said in a statement. “Once we were notified that the customer claimed to be wrongly charged, we conducted a thorough account review and determined the outstanding balance was indeed still owed.”

She also said Nestor had only contacted AT&T directly once during the three-year dispute to complain.

There’s no way to know who’s right about the payment, unless of course Nestor provided proof that the $70-something check was applied to the old account or AT&T provided proof that it was applied to the new account (which should have led to an account surplus, or reduced bill, if logic serves). But we do know for sure that when the third and final collections firm tried to collect, she wrote back with evidence the disputed amount – or something close to it – was paid, and then Nestor heard nothing more.

Edmonds said she could not explain why Afni didn’t respond to Nestor’s letter with further evidence that the debt was owed, and referred that question to Afni.

Afni says a collector is not required to respond to a consumer disputing a debt if it simply ceases collection. “A response is required only if the agency is going to continue collection attempts,” Ciskey said.

And that is one reason some bills never die; it’s also how consumers come to be reported to credit bureaus as late. While Afni could not pursue the debt any further without continuing the dialog by “validating” the debt, that doesn’t stop AT&T from contracting a different collector, or selling the debt.

Margot Saunders, a debt collection law expert at the National Consumer Law Center, said that’s true. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires any firm collecting a debt on behalf of a third party to “verify” the debt if a consumer objects to a collection notice – but only if the firm continues to attempt to collect. Second or third collections firms get to start the process over, and are currently not required by law to keep track of prior collection attempts by others.

Moving Forward

AT&T is now working directly with Nestor to resolve the dispute, so at least for now, she appears to have a happy ending. There is a lesson in her tale, however. She is an example of a concept I call the “exception bin.” Computers and databases are great at handling 99% of transactions. When things follow standard patterns, computers hum along and take care of everything. But once there’s something even a little unique about your situation, you land in the exception bin. And because corporations rely on computers so much, many run into trouble when dealing with items that land in the exception bin. Often, it can feel impossible to get out of it – even if you send letter upon letter providing evidence.

In Nestor’s case, it’s perfectly sensible that she thought she could just keep paying the bills AT&T sent her for U-verse and her account would be current. If you think like a computer, however, you can see how the firm’s computers might handle customers who downgrade from bundled service to a single service. Then, once her bill was handed over to collections, she became an exception that just wouldn’t die. Yes, AT&T used three different firms during a three-year stretch in an attempt to collect a $70-something debt from someone who otherwise seems to be a good customer. And yes, the firm could have seriously harmed her credit over a small bill that she thought she’d paid, that she provided evidence she’d paid, and for which she’d received no response (until the next collection attempt).

So what’s the lesson? In broad strokes, do whatever you can do to avoid the exception bin. Of course, that’s not always possible. Moves happen. Mid-contract cancellations happen. Early service upgrades or downgrades happen. And mistakes happen on both sides. But when they do, realize that your odds of getting caught in corporate red tape go up astronomically. In that case, you must be hyper-vigilant for signs that your exception will soon lead to headaches. Be proactive: Pay a bill, then call to make sure the payment is applied. When you cancel a service, get a letter confirming cancellation and a bill showing a $0 balance. Furthermore, check your credit scores and credit reports regularly for signs of trouble, and dispute any errors as soon as possible. You can get your credit reports for free once a year from each of the major credit reporting agencies, and you can get two credit scores for free from Credit.com along with an explanation of what they mean.

It may seem tedious, perhaps even unfair, but it’s a reality of navigating your way in the 21st Century.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Tech

Best Buy Is Finally Making a Comeback

Best Buy employee with box
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The company appears to have found an in-store strategy.

On Thursday, Best Buy BEST BUY BBY 1.3773% delighted fans and investors by reporting a blowout fiscal third quarter. The results, reported before the bell, were non-GAAP diluted EPS at $0.32 per share versus analyst expectations of $0.25 per share. And while total revenue growth was still sluggish at 0.6% over last year’s quarter, that figure also beat analyst expectations by coming in at $9.38 billion versus $9.11 billion.

More importantly, the company appears to have found an in-store strategy. Domestic comparable sales increased 2.4% ex reclassifications, signaling it’s finding a way to use its stores as an advantage against online retailers. And speaking of online retailers, Best Buy increased its domestic online revenue an outstanding 21.6% over the same quarter a year ago. Although online is still a small portion of the total revenue haul, it is encouraging to see Best Buy growing this segment instead of conceding this channel to other retailers.

Great quarter, but is it sustainable?

Over the last five years, Best Buy has had a tough time. The company found itself a victim of the macroeconomic environment and suffered during the recession. However, unlike other retailers, the company never recovered post-recession. The chart below will give you proper context of Best Buy’s struggles versus the greater S&P 500.

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Two issues for Best Buy

The company faces two problems: aggressive pricing competition and the discretionary nature of their products. Due to Best Buy’s large store footprint (read: costs), the company would find itself losing a pricing war to online retailers — mostly Amazon.com. The trend of shoppers coming into Best Buy stores to test products then buy them from online retailers was so prevalent it inspired its own name: showrooming. CEO Hubert Joly has instituted price-matching strategies and improvements to counteract this trend and it appears to be paying off.

The second issue is the discretionary nature of Best Buy’s products. Unlike a grocer or a discount retailer like Target, consumers generally can postpone electronics purchases until they are more comfortable about the overall economy and their personal finance situation. And although the recession is over, wage growth is still harder to come by. Many were left scarred by the recession and have closed their pocketbooks. In addition, the recession has been tough for technology savvy millennials that are a natural fit for Best Buy’s brand.

Are better times ahead?

However, more recently, price drops in oil and slowing healthcare inflation have given many Americans a stealth pay increase. The consumer confidence index is sharply up and generally portends more discretionary spending, which is good news for Best Buy going into its seasonally heavy fourth fiscal quarter.

There’s been a host of positive economic news — GDP grew at a 3.5%-plus annualized rate the past two quarters, there have been nine straight months of 200,000 jobs created, and an unemployment rate below 6% — that will eventually lead to more discretionary spending. And when that happens, a leaner, better-ran Best Buy will be in a position to benefit from it.

MONEY Tech

Why Amazon is Quietly Investing in a Massive Land Grab

Amazon.com employees work the shelves along the miles of aisles at an Amazon.com Fulfillment Center in Phoenix.
This Amazon.com Fulfillment Center in Phoenix has aisles that go on for miles. Ross D. Franklin—AP

Here's how Amazon is building its competitive advantage.

Correction: Appended, Nov. 6.

On the outskirts of almost every major city in America, Amazon.com AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 0.7288% is building massive but inconspicuous warehouses designed to dispatch goods in an increasingly real-time fashion.

The strategy is expensive, consuming billions of dollars in capital expenditures every year, but its audacious scale and execution could consolidate Amazon’s still-incipient stranglehold over the biggest retail market in the world.

The transformation of Amazon

It’s important for investors to appreciate that the Amazon of today is nothing like the Amazon of five years ago.

In 2009, it operated 18 fulfillment centers in a smattering of second-tier states such as Washington, Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas, and Delaware. Today, more than 60 of these mammoth facilities are scattered across the country in proximity to the nation’s major population centers.

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The expansion gives Amazon physical beachheads from which it can capture a growing share of retail sales on a city-by-city basis. Perhaps most importantly, it chips away at one of the principal deterrents to online shopping: immediacy.

Thanks to fulfillment centers built since 2012, Amazon offers same-day delivery to customers in 12 out of the 14 largest metropolitan areas, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. A full 31% of the American population can now order something from Amazon in the morning and get it delivered to their doorstep that evening.

“As we get closer and closer to customers with fulfillment, we have seen growth,” Chief Financial Officer Tom Szkutak said on a conference call last year.

The move also lays the groundwork for Amazon’s long-known desire to tap into the $600 billion-a-year grocery market, which is second only in size to the $650 billion market for general merchandise.

It’s initiated grocery delivery services in its hometown of Seattle as well as in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. And by its own admission, it is “branching out as fast as we can while being careful not to sacrifice the quality and convenience our customers expect.”

Finally, this burgeoning infrastructure will allow Amazon to capture share in the market for bulky, big-ticket items such as televisions, refrigerators, and laundry machines. In 2013, for instance, it opened facilities in Texas and Florida designed specifically to “pick, pack, and ship large items to customers, such as kayaks, televisions, and more.”

A land grab of unprecedented size

Taken together, the speed and scale at which Amazon is expanding its network of fulfillment centers represents a retail land grab unseen since Wal-Mart WAL-MART STORES INC. WMT -0.9076% exploded onto the scene in the second half of the 20th century. And the stakes this time around are even greater.

Whereas Wal-Mart disrupted mom-and-pop retailers and general merchandisers, Amazon’s ambitions are without limit. It wants to be the “everything store,” and it’s laying waste to large swaths of the existing retail landscape in its pursuit of that objective.

Accurate, real-time salaries for thousands of careers.

Moreover, whereas the vulnerabilities of Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers were exposed by the emergence of e-commerce, it’s hard to imagine another paradigm shift anytime soon that will further reduce costs while simultaneously increasing convenience.

In short, by laying siege to local marketplaces with fulfillment centers, it isn’t unreasonable to conclude that Amazon is in the process of erecting an impenetrable moat that could last for generations.

MONEY identity theft

4 Reasons Why You Should Shop at Stores That Got Hacked

141020_EM_CCBreachStores
Mike Blake—Reuters

Almost half of all consumers surveyed are afraid to shop at retailers like Target. They shouldn't be.

Retailers are gearing up for the holiday shopping season, but one thing has some consumers spooked: According to a new survey by CreditCards.com, 45% of respondents say they are less likely to shop at stores that have suffered a data breach, such as Target, Home Depot, or Michaels. Almost 30% say they will “probably” avoid stores that have been hacked, and 16% claim they “definitely” will.

While it’s hard to believe that half of all shoppers will actually skip the sales at major retailers come holiday season, Target did suffer a 5.5% decline in transactions last year after its data breach.

But shoppers, you’re being silly. You don’t need to avoid stores that have been hacked. Here’s why.

1) If someone steals your credit or debit card number, you have very limited liability.

You’ve got at least one reason to thank Congress: The Fair Credit Billing Act and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act cap how much money you’ll lose if someone steals your credit or debit card. If someone steals your card number but not your actual card — which could happen during a data breach — you are not liable for any fraudulent transactions. Read: You won’t lose any money. Just be sure to report any fraudulent debit card charges within 60 days of receiving your statement.

The rules are a little different if someone steals your physical card. With credit cards, you still won’t need to pay anything if you report the loss before a thief uses the card. Otherwise, your liability is capped at $50. With debit cards, you’ll only pay up to $50 if you report the theft within two days, or up to $500 if you report the theft within 60 days of receiving your statement.

There’s another reason to prefer credit over debit. When someone makes fraudulent charges on your credit card, you can challenge the bill when you receive it. But when someone else uses your debit card, that money comes straight out of your account, so it could take a little bit longer to recover your funds.

And if you’re really afraid, just stash the plastic. CreditCards.com reports that 48% of shoppers say data breaches have made them more likely to spend cash.

2) Avoiding these stores won’t protect you from the scariest kinds of identity theft.

When someone steals your credit card number and spends your money, that’s considered “existing account fraud.” Banks and credit card companies have gotten pretty good at identifying abnormal spending patterns, so you’re likely to catch existing account fraud early, and your liability is limited.

But if someone steals your Social Security number, opens a new credit card in your name, provides a new billing address, and runs up big charges, it might take you a while to notice. That’s called “new account fraud,” and it’s a real headache.

To catch new account fraud, check your credit report three times a year. It’s not hard to do, and it’s free. Your report will show all your accounts and debts, as well as your payment history. Check to make sure all of the information is accurate and all of the accounts actually belong to you. (Go. Do it now. Did you catch a problem? Here’s what to do.) If you’re afraid that your social security number has already been stolen, you can put a free fraud alert on your credit file to let lenders know or freeze your credit so that no one else can open new accounts in your name.

But you don’t give out your Social Security number every time you swipe your credit card, don’t worry about going shopping.

3) Safer cards are on the way.

Are you sick of all these data breaches? So are businesses — after all, they’re the ones on the hook for fraud, not you. That’s why Visa and Mastercard are sending out new “chip-and-pin” cards. These cards have embedded microchips, which are more secure than magnetic stripes. If you’ve ever traveled abroad, you might remember what chip-and-pin technology looks like; Europeans have been using this system since the 1990s. While not foolproof, these cards are a great improvement. President Obama signed an executive order last week requiring that all government credit cards use chip-and-pin technology.

Practically speaking, chip-and-pin cards won’t do much more to help consumers at point-of-sale — remember, you have limited liability. But starting Oct. 1, 2015, the liability will shift to whichever business has the oldest technology. If credit card companies don’t update their cards, they will be liable for any fraud; if retailers don’t offer chip-and-pin terminals, they’ll be on the hook. So everyone has an incentive to make payment systems more secure, which is ultimately in consumers’ best interest.

4) Retailers that got hacked are working harder to win back your trust.

Guess which retailer is installing chip-and-pin technology in all of its stores and on all of its branded cards — Target!

Guess which retailer offered free credit monitoring to all its customers — Target!

Guess which retailer just started offering free shipping — Target!

Given that there have been 606 data breaches already this year, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, you can probably expect more to come. But the retailers that have already been hacked are beefing up security and offering free identity theft protection services to consumers, so you’re probably safer there than everywhere else.

If that doesn’t put your mind at ease, here are some more steps you can take:

 

MONEY Customer Service

3 Industries That Desperately Need Customer Service Makeovers

Chimpanzee on a telephone
Brad Wilson—Getty Images

Comcast is hardly the only company that should be doing some soul searching and commit—not only with words but actions—to making customer service genuinely better.

Because the state of customer service has been bad for so long, and because we’ve heard many times over that some or another big initiative would improve customer service dramatically only to have little or no impact, we’re skeptical about the effectiveness of any broad campaign supposedly crafted to address age-old customer grievances. Nonetheless, it was good to see Comcast’s recent announcement that a long-serving executive named Charlie Herrin had been named as the company’s new senior vice president of customer experience. “Charlie will listen to feedback from customers as well as our employees to make sure we are putting our customers at the center of every decision we make,” a message from Comcast president and CEO Neil Smit explained on Friday.

Read between the lines and it sure looks like Comcast is acknowledging that in the past, customers haven’t exactly been top of mind when it comes to company decisions. That’s no revelation to consumers, of course, who have routinely dinged Comcast for terrible customer service. In 2014, Comcast “won” the annual Worst Company in America competition as voted by Consumerist readers, the second time in recent years it has nabbed that dubious honor.

While it’s unclear what Herrin and Comcast will do to improve customer service, the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that you have one, which Smit did more squarely when he said, “It may take a few years before we can honestly say that a great customer experience is something we’re known for. But that is our goal and our number one priority … and that’s what we are going to do.” To which the consensus reaction among consumers is … it’s about damn time. Followed by, we’ll believe it when we actually see real,meaningful change.

To be fair, it’s not just Comcast that’s sorely in need of a customer service makeover. Here are three entire business categories that are regularly bashed for not putting customers’ needs first on the agenda.

Pay TV & Internet Providers
Current Comcast competitor and likely merger partner Time Warner Cable is also a regular contender for the worst service title, as are other pay TV-Internet providers including DirecTV and Verizon.

Among the complaints are that there is a lack of true competition in the category, because roughly three-quarters of Americans have exactly one local choice for a high-speed Internet provider. A survey published this summer indicated that more than half of Americans would leave their cable company if they could, and nearly three-quarters said that pay TV providers are predatory and take advantage of the lack of competition. Among the most hated pay TV practices that consumers would love to see changed are promotional rates that are replaced by skyrocketing monthly charges, frustrating and time-consuming run-ins with customer service reps, and bundled packages overloaded with channels and options the customer doesn’t want (let’s add smaller packages and a la carte channel selection, please).

Wireless Providers
The good news for cell phone users is that customer satisfaction is on the rise, increasing 2.6% according to the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). The bad news, however, is that while we’re happier with the actual gadgets (from Samsung in particular), satisfaction with the companies providing our cell phone service—including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint—remains stagnant and below average.

Plenty of other studies also show just how frustrated and dissatisfied consumers are with wireless providers nowadays. A vote-off at Ranker.com, for example, placed AT&T at the top of the list of “Companies with the Worst Customer Service.” Among the many problems consumers have with wireless providers is that choosing a handset and data-minutes-texting package is absurdly complicated, with countless permutations, obfuscations, and mysterious add-on charges. This past weekend, a New York Times columnist presented a painstaking step-by-step analysis of why the $199 price advertised for the new iPhone 6 is a joke—because by the time fees and monthly upcharges are tacked on, upgrading to the new phone will easily run more than $600.

“Wireless service has always been one of the most complex purchases a human can possibly make,” Eddie Hold, a wireless industry analyst with market research firm NPD Group, summed up in a Consumer Reports story last year. “It’s always been horrific.”

Banks
Number 3 on the Ranker list of companies with the worst customer service, just below AT&T and Time Warner Cable, is Bank of America. Another study, from 24/7 Wall Street, used customer service surveys to put Bank of America in the #1 spot for its Customer Service Hall of Shame, and two other banking institutions, Citigroup and Wells Fargo, are in the top (bottom?) 10. (The study factored in ratings for these institutions’ banking and credit card services.)

What may come as a surprise—a sad and ironic one, at that—is that customer satisfaction with banks is apparently at a record high. The 2014 J.D. Power study on U.S. Retail Banking Satisfaction indicates that big banks and regional banks have made some strides in terms of making customers happier (or less disgusted) with their service, and that overall bank scores are higher than they’ve ever been since the study has been conducted. Yet the J.D. Power study shows there’s a long way to go: The most common reason given for switching banks is poor customer service, and millennials, minorities, and affluent consumers stand out as being particularly dissatisfied with today’s banks.

“Even with record high satisfaction, there are some banks that fall far short in meeting customer needs,” J.D. Power’s Jim Miller said via statement. “It is easy for banks to become complacent. To stay at the top of their game, banks should focus on those customers who are not satisfied. And consumers should keep in mind they have the opportunity to shop banks to find the right combination of services, products and fees to meet their needs.”

What’s your pick for the company with the worst customer service? Tweet us at @MONEY with the hashtag #unhappycustomer. Here’s what readers have already said. Add your nomination, and we may publish your feedback in a future post.

Related:
5 Packages That Could Replace Pay TV As We Know It
How to Pick a Bank

MONEY Airlines

Holiday Travel Just Got More Annoying Thanks to New Airline Fee

A ground crew member loads baggage onto a Spirit Airlines Inc. plane at the San Diego International Airport in San Diego, California, U.S.
Sam Hodgson—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Spirit Airlines already charges more fees than any other domestic carrier. Now it's adding a surcharge for checked bags on flights around the holidays.

In an industry enraptured with airline fees, Spirit Airlines stands out as the most fee-crazed carrier of all in the U.S., with fees for things others still provides at no additional charge, including carryon luggage, water, and the printing of a boarding pass at the airport. (If you don’t print yours at home, you’re asked to cough up $10 at check-in.) Spirit is also known for being highly profitable, and for being outrageous to get attention—the latest example being the gimmick of giving away free miles to customers who send a message to the airline explaining why they hate it so much.

This past spring, Spirit relaunched its brand to better explain how exactly it does business—low upfront fares combined with a la carte fees for almost anything beyond basic transportation, dubbed the “bare fare”—in order to quell the hate. CEO Ben Baldanza has also gone on record saying that his company may stop adding fees because it’s become difficult to think up any more new ones.

Apparently, however, the creative folks at Spirit have put their heads together and come up yet another fee—or, rather, a fee on top of a fee it already charges. The Los Angeles Times reports that Spirit has quietly tacked on a $2 surcharge on top of its usual checked baggage fees for passengers traveling during the peak winter holiday period, December 18 to January 5. The standard price to check a bag during online check-in is $40 for the first piece of luggage, so if you’re flying during the holiday period, it’ll run $42.

“Winter is coming … and that means holidays. Which means more people than ever will be traveling with Spirit to visit their loved ones,” states a message from Spirit attempting to explain the holiday surcharge. “To make sure we have room for everyone’s bags, we’re encouraging customers to pack a bit lighter.”

It almost sounds as if without such a fee, and without customers packing less, Spirit might have difficulty finding space for all the luggage people want to bring. Which is preposterous. Clearly, the fee is intended to milk passengers for a couple more bucks here and there, at a time when they’re more likely to have to pay up because they’re flying with gifts and bulky winter clothing.

No matter how Spirit tries to spin this, the airline is yet again demonstrating that it’s in love with fees, that it can’t help but push the envelope with the annoying, outrageous, nickel-and-diming of its customers—and that, in all likelihood, it’ll maintain its status as a highly profitable operation regardless.

MONEY Shopping

Now You Can Return Stuff to Sears Without Getting Out of Your Car

Sears Returns
Mel Evans—AP

A new service from Sears promises shoppers that they can make returns and exchanges in less than five minutes, without ever having to step foot outside the car.

For old-fashioned brick-and-mortar-based stores, it’s hard if not impossible to compete with the cut-throat pricing and convenience of online shopping. The strip malls and shopping centers of America are littered with shuttered stores once occupied by iconic retailers like Barnes & Noble, Staples, and yes, Sears. This week, Sears shares plummeted when news hit that the struggling retailer needed a $400 million loan from its CEO, Eddie Lampert—actually, the loan came by way of a hedge fund Lampert owns—to stay on track with plans to, well, not totally go out of business.

Also this week, Sears announced a new service that will hopefully make it a more appealing shopping option compared with online and physical store competitors alike. Earlier this year, Sears rolled out In-Vehicle Pickup as an option for its Shop Your Way app, and now customers can not only do curbside pickups of purchases without going inside stores, they can do exchanges and returns as well.

In recent years, grocery stores and select chains such as the Container Store have introduced drive-thru and pickup services targeted at today’s harried, on-the-go consumers, who can pre-order merchandise online and then swing by to pick it up—without having to actually “go shopping” for the goods inside, and without ever having to get out of the car.

To take advantage of Sears’s new service, the customer requests a return or exchange at the Sears website, and after getting an email confirmation heads to the selected store to handle the physical transaction. Once you’re in the parking lot, you use the app to alert the store you’ve arrived, and Sears guarantees a store associate will appear within five minutes to complete the return or exchange. A YouTube video explains further:

Obviously, Sears prefers that customers keep the merchandise they purchase rather than return or exchange it. But a good return policy is incredibly important in helping retailers drum up sales in the first place. Shoppers are more likely to make purchases when they know it’ll be quick and easy to return or exchange the merchandise. And once items are bought, they tend to stay bought. So long as customers don’t take advantage of the system, generous return policies generally benefit stores even more than they do shoppers.

One of the biggest reasons for the success of online sellers such as Zappos (which is owned by Amazon) is that they are renowned for terrific customer service, especially when it comes to easing the return process—complete with free shipping in both directions. Shoppers like anything that makes their lives easier, and the ability to conduct purchase pickups, returns, and exchanges from the comfort of one’s car certainly qualifies.

MONEY online shopping

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MONEY Banking

Why People Mistrust Financial Advisers

Untrustworthy businessman crossing fingers behind back
RubberBall Productions—Getty Images/Vetta

A financial planner says people can be cynical about her work. Her own experience as a bank customer helps explain why.

Very often, we financial planners convey the impression that getting your financial life into shape is easy. And that we’re in control of our finances.

If we had a bit of humility, we’d admit that we share the same frustrations as our clients.

Like dealing with low interest rates on checking accounts in combination with high banking fees.

“You get interest on this account,” the customer service representative from my bank said. This was about a month ago. I had called the bank upon receiving my monthly statement.

“Yes,” I replied. “I got a penny last month. A penny. And now you want to charge me $25 a month to have a checking account?”

She had to laugh.

I was calling to ask why a $25 charge had shown up on my formerly free checking account.

She asked if anything had changed. It had. I had paid off all my big debts. I was in much better financial shape.

Well, that explained it.

Now that I had repaid my loans to the bank, apparently my relationship with it wasn’t sufficient to earn me free checking. I was no longer paying the bank large amounts of interest, so it would start charging me this monthly fee. That is the way it works.

If this makes sense to you, you must be a banker.

Okay, that was a low blow. But for me, it’s an example of why so many clients have a bad attitude toward financial services institutions and professionals.

It’s not just the malcontents, it’s everyone. The surveys confirm that the public does not hold financial services institutions in high regard.

Many of my clients been burned before. And they’re probably still getting burned by such ridiculous tactics as fee-ing the customer to death or the inability to get a new mortgage or a small business loan without a dossier three feet thick that proves you do actually pay your bills.

I told the woman on the phone, “I just opened two checking accounts at another bank for my twin daughters. The other bank is going to charge $12 a month for each account. And as soon as my girls go show their college IDs, the accounts will be free. So tell me why I should pay you $25.”

I spoke politely, without a trace of anger.

Eventually, the customer service representative found a way to give me some credit for direct deposit of my paycheck. And she switched me to an account that will ding me only $7 a month.

Of course, if the bank had wanted to provide the best deal for a longtime customer, they could have recognized this direct deposit before. But they hadn’t. They had just slapped a fee three times larger than on my new account, perhaps hoping I wouldn’t find out how I could save some money.

Cynicism? Anger? The emotions that I feel are the same ones that people have when they approach me as a professional. As a certified financial planner I have much larger ideas that I need to convey to our customers and the general public than “I won’t cheat you or slip in something that benefits me and not you.”

But it’s tough to get through all that dreck first and get on to the important ideas.

I told the customer service representative that I didn’t mind giving up the penny in exchange for a lower monthly fee.

When I told this anecdote to one of my partners, he just had to raise the ante. “Last month, I got three pennies,” he said.

Another happy financial services customer.

———-

Harriet J. Brackey, CFP, is the co-chief investment officer of KR Financial Services, a South Florida registered investment advisory firm that manages more than $330 million. She does financial planning for clients and manages their portfolios. Before going into the financial services industry, she was an award-winning journalist who covered Wall Street. Her background includes stints at Business Week, USA Today, The Miami Herald and Nightly Business Report.

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