Trifling fees crop up just about everywhere these days. From banks charging a couple bucks for what once were standard services to hotel phone connection charges to confounding phone bill tag-ons, everybody seems to be nickel-and-diming consumers.
When Linn Schofield traveled to Hawaii a few months ago, she asked the clerk at the Alamo car rental counter to add her rental miles to her frequent flier account. He said that would be an additional charge of $5.58.
"I reacted like most consumers and asked why. He told me that it has always been that way," e-mailed Schofield, who travels to Hawaii often and didn't recall being charged that fee before.
Back home in Falls Church, she called Alamo for an explanation. A customer representative told her the frequent-flier fee was a new policy -- 50 cents per day plus tax -- and credited her the amount since she wasn't told about the fee when making the reservation.
"There is certainly no value added to the customer's rental with the fee," says Schofield, "and it would seem to be just another way to gouge the public since probably most renters will pay the charge to build up their miles."
ConsumerAffairs.com, a consumer advocacy Web site, reports that Hertz and Avis started charging car rental customers a fee for collecting frequent flier miles as early as 2003. Since then, most car rental firms have fallen in line, charging from 50 cents a day to a flat fee to compensate for costs and taxes they pay for passing along the miles.
"These optional charges, along with other conditions of the rental contract, are reviewed with the customer at the time of rental pickup," says Charles Pulley, spokesman for Vanguard Car Rental USA Inc., the company that operates Alamo and National car rentals. "While surcharge amounts may vary by location, they generally do not exceed 50 cents per day."
Brooklyn reader Leslie Cole, meanwhile, e-mailed to "blow off steam" about her Verizon "Freedom Package With DSL" bill that charged her a 67-cent universal service fund surcharge and an unidentified 37-cent surcharge under basic local service, plus a long-distance USF surcharge of $1.40, another unidentified surcharge of $3.83 and a DSL USF surcharge of $2.88.
"How many FUSF/USF surcharges are you supposed to pay in one bill?" asks Cole.
Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell provides this short primer on Federal Universal Service Fund charges that are passed along to customers: "The federal government requires all telecom companies that provide service between states -- including long-distance, local, wireless, paging and pay phone companies -- to contribute to the Federal Universal Service Fund" that supports telecommunications services for schools, libraries, rural health-care facilities and low-income households. "The charges on a Verizon phone bill allow Verizon's entities that provide basic phone service, long distance service and DSL service to recover the money each pays into the Federal Universal Service Fund."
Credit Card Risk Update
Since MasterCard reported a security breach involving 40 million credit card numbers more than a week ago, several worried readers have called wondering how they can check whether their accounts are vulnerable to fraud.
Recent high-profile breaches associated with companies such as ChoicePoint, Bank of America and now MasterCard are to stolen financial information what the Exxon Valdez is to oil spills. And consumers' anxiety is rising with the realization that no matter how tightly they guard their Social Security numbers or how often they shred their invoices and documents, their information is still out there and in jeopardy.
But don't bother calling MasterCard International or Visa (which had account numbers among those hacked) if you're concerned. Call the bank or financial institution that issued your card -- the toll-free number's on the back. But you may not get the answer. MasterCard says it has notified card-issuers which accounts were compromised and each bank decides whether or how to contact the cardholders.
Only credit card numbers were stolen, apparently, and not other personal info that identity thieves need to open fraudulent accounts. ScamBusters, an online consumer clearinghouse that provides information on scams, recommends that all cardholders need to be alert for unauthorized charges on their credit cards -- but at-risk cardholders especially.
And federal law limits a consumer's liability for fraudulent credit card charges to $50. Credit card companies often don't demand that in fraud cases. And MasterCard's zero-liability policy totally protects cardholders in good standing who haven't reported two or more unauthorized charges in the past 12 months.
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to email@example.com or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.