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Fine print or fraud?

Unauthorized credit cards. Bait-and-switch pricing. For big business, the bottom line is literally the bottom line.

Elayne Clift has written about women, health, politics, and social issues since the very earliest days of this newspaper.

Saxtons River

Back in 2015, Wells Fargo was caught imposing illegal bank practices on its California customers.

The company’s tactics included having accounts opened by customers without their permission, while bank employees were instructed by senior management to “do whatever it takes” to meet sales goals by pushing checking account customers into savings, credit, and online accounts that could generate fees.

Workers were told to withdraw money from customers’ unauthorized accounts to pay Wells Fargo fees and to place customers into collections when the unauthorized withdrawals went unpaid.

According to the lawsuit filed by the state, some Wells Fargo employees pressured their own family members and friends to sign up for accounts. In the end, the company paid $190 million to settle the case, $185 million in penalties, and $5 million to customers who regulators say were pushed into fee-generating accounts that they never requested.

The case was stunning. But what’s even more astounding is that Wells Fargo is still one of the largest banks going, none of their executives was ever personally penalized, and the courts ruled that consumers could not sue the bank for damages.

Wells Fargo isn’t the only bank abusing customers. A few years ago, a disgruntled employee at Bank of America in New York secretly told my daughter, who was encountering pressure when applying for a mortgage, about the firm’s “script” for enticing customers into dubious agreements. He couldn’t wait to get out, he whispered, because he found the bank’s practices intolerable.

It’s not only banks that are getting away with despicable behavior. Walmart, having recently boasted of giving employees raises and bonuses, fired a large number of managers in favor of promoting people with less time in the company or hiring newcomers who could be paid less.

* * *

Not long ago, I purchased a computer from a recognized office-supply company with a huge market share. In the process, I was offered a payment plan that would allow me to pay in installments.

I stupidly fell for it, believing it was an agreement between me and the store that I would make two payments. But when I filled out the required information online at the store, I was told my “application for a Citibank credit card” had been denied.

I had never been informed that in agreeing to proceed with the application I would be applying for a credit card, nor was I asked for permission to make that application on my behalf. The words “credit card” were never uttered.

In my book, that constitutes fraud. But, they said, “it’s in the fine print” of the agreement I’d signed.

Ah, the fine print. But no one reads the fine print, I argued. Everyone knows that! Why, I asked the salesperson, didn’t he tell me that I’d be applying for a credit card?

He looked at me and rolled his eyes. I got it right away.

Are salespeople instructed not to make that clear, or ask for permission? I asked.

He rolled his eyes again in silent affirmation — which begs the question: Why isn’t critical information in the tiny script, four-page “fine print” documents we all sign ever underscored, highlighted, bolded, or articulated so that we can see what we really need to?

* * *

Here’s another example of companies driving people mad. I routinely order a hair product online. The last time I placed an order, I also purchased a pocket-size version of the product.

Suddenly, I started receiving merchandise I hadn’t ordered. When I called about the problem, I was told that when I purchased the two sizes of product together, I had, unbeknown to me, signed on to “auto ship” because the two items together constituted a “special offer” that had included putting me on the regular shipment list. Trying to solve that problem and receive credit was enough to make me not need a hair product at all.

Even smaller businesses can be aggravating, and dishonest, in their practices. At an elite store that has a renowned specialty product, I saw (while browsing) some candles that had been marked down. A sign next to them said “20 percent off lowest ticketed price.” But at the cash register, the clerk said the sticker price reflected the 20-percent reduction.

Having grown up in retail (my father owned a small haberdashery) I know something about loss-leaders and false advertising. So I told the clerk that this pricing would be misleading and dishonest. But her manager backed her up, declaring that the ticket price was the price.

As a matter of principle, I returned the candles to the shelf, and suggested that they remove the sign.

* * *

These examples are a matter of scale on a long continuum, but you can appreciate, I hope, why I felt compelled to write this commentary. More and more, it seems, the bottom line is the company’s bottom line. It’s all about profit, and the customer be damned.

In the days of my father’s shop, you might have suggested to customers that they add a tie to go with a shirt, but that’s as far as it would go. The customer was always right, and if a mistake occurred, you’d own up and compensate for it.

There was never the scent of fraud, or the aggravation of having to set things right.

As Archie Bunker used to say, “Those were the days.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #445 (Wednesday, February 7, 2018). This story appeared on page E1.

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