Rip Off van Winkle
March 18, 2010 3:45 PM   Subscribe

What are some different ways that businesses try to hoodwink customers?

I went in for an oil change this morning, and the mechanic tinkered around under my hood and presented me with my car's dirty air filter, making the case that I should replace it. I'm savvy enough about cars to know that he was full of shit, but I realized I was one simple emotional response away from making an unnecessary $50 mistake.

That got me thinking: I'm sure I've lost money due to my ignorance over the years dealing with all sorts of vendors and businesses.

What are some ways that different businesses try to rip off of the ill-informed public?
posted by Christ, what an asshole to Shopping (40 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
the mechanic tinkered around under my hood and presented me with my car's dirty air filter, making the case that I should replace it

Ok so far.

I'm savvy enough about cars to know that he was full of shit

Er. Are you? Are you sure? What makes you think you shouldn't have replaced it? Why do you think he was trying to con you?
posted by Brockles at 3:52 PM on March 18, 2010


Well, for one thing they charge you about 10x as much as the auto parts store for the part, and if you can pump your own gas, you can replace your own air filter.
posted by peep at 3:54 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I had a Jiffy Lube guy pull that one on me. It's not that the air filter didn't need cleaning - it's that they wanted me to pay $50 for a $13 part and maaaaybe thirty seconds of tool-free labor.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:55 PM on March 18, 2010


Mouse Print examines the fine print for product/sale/grocery ads and labels. There's a lot of tomfoolery going on in them parts.
posted by carsonb at 3:57 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Umm... that's not really a "hoodwink". The "hoodwink" would be if the guy at Jiffy Lube showed you someone else's dirty air filter and charged you to replace it.

Yes, you're paying a convenience charge to have them replace the filter, just as you are paying a $30 convenience charge to have them replace your oil, when you can do it yourself with a sealable bucket and the free jack that came with your car.
posted by muddgirl at 3:57 PM on March 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


What are some ways that different businesses try to rip off of the ill-informed public?

Extended service plans and extended warranties.
posted by amyms at 4:01 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's not that the air filter didn't need cleaning - it's that they wanted me to pay $50 for a $13 part and maaaaybe thirty seconds of tool-free labor.

I totally agree with that perspective, but that is not at all how I read the OP's question. The need to change the filter at all seemed (to me) to be being questioned.

As for the 'if you can fill your car up you can change your air filter' I think a lot of people underestimate their own handiness compared to the average person and also peace of mind for the uninitiated.

One man's rip off is perhaps another man's peace of mind and convenience. Especially with the Geek Squad example - letting the average person loose with the inner workings of a PC can have some horrifying results and it's not a rip off if it prevents spyware carnage. This question is pretty subjective as it will always be a rip off to provide a service that (to the commentor) is very, very basic, unless they have a good understanding of how lacking a lot of people are in the skills required to do the job themselves.
posted by Brockles at 4:03 PM on March 18, 2010


Oil change places are especially bad about this. Last time I took a car in, the guy immediately came in and said "I notice that your windshield is streaky. Would you like me to change the wipers for you?"

I told him that I wasn't too stupid to realize that parking under a pine tree means that needles get trapped under the blades, and that no, I didn't need replacements every time a pine needle fell onto the windshield.

Getting an oil change at one of those quickie places amounts to fending off a drunken, amorous frat boy who doesn't understand the word No.

That's an example, I guess, of being sold a product that the clerk knows you don't need. If being 'hoodwinked' means being sold a product you do want and need, but with some hinkiness involved, I'd offer the example of stores that restock and sell goods that were returned as defective. That seems to happen a lot as well. (With Radio Shack always having been the worst. But no one shops there anymore, do they? So I guess it's moot.)
posted by mudpuppie at 4:15 PM on March 18, 2010


OK, are you talking about super unethical stuff, or things like extended warranties? Because those are a waste of money (almost always) but not a scam.

Also, store credit cards - like Old Navy, Macy's etc always trying to get you to sign up to save 10%. Huge interest rates, and from my experience in retail, the people who agree to sign up are young, clueless, relatively broke, and they get approved! (This was a while ago, though.) I felt whorish for pushing cards on people but it was a job requirement.

[STORY TIME! Scene: chain quick-lube place in a small Oregon town. I'm female and was 22 at the time.
Lube guy: Hey, this is your air filter and it really needs to be changed.
Me: No, that's not mine.
Guy: Yeah it is. Red Toyota truck?
Me: That truck right there? (I point)
Guy: Yep.
Me: Did you pull it out yourself? Are you SURE?
Guy: [totally annoyed] YES!
Me: I HAVE A K&N FILTER. Pull my truck around. I'm not paying.
Lube guy turned beet red and left the room in a rush.
Several guys waiting laughed. Some left.]
posted by peep at 4:16 PM on March 18, 2010 [32 favorites]


From 2007:

First car repair shop to my wife: "You need a major tune-up. $350. Your flex pipe is badly cracked. That needs to be replaced with a manufacturer part. It can't be fabricated here, and you can't use anything else. Will be approximately $400. Expect the total with tax to be about $900."
Me, to my wife: "OK, let's not let them repair it. Let's bring the car to Meineke. When you have a problem with a car's exhaust system, you should always take it to a muffler/exhaust expert."

Meineke, the following morning: "Your car doesn't have a flex pipe."
My Wife: "Excuse me?"
Meineke: "Your car doesn't have a flex pipe. Who told you that you have a flex pipe?"
My Wife: "But...."
Me: "Wait. We don't have a flex pipe?"
Meineke: "This model of Toyota Corolla does not have a flex pipe. I checked carefully. There's nothing cracked on your entire exhaust system. Your muffler is relatively new, right?"
Me: "We replaced it in December. Are you sure?"
Meineke: "My friend, you don't need anything fixed on the exhaust system. Whoever told you that you have a flex pipe is trying to rip you off."
Me: "Motherfuckers"
My Wife: "So what's wrong with the car?"
Meineke: "It needs oil really, really badly. A gasket is loose and needs replacing. You have to change the filter, flush the system, get new oil and you need a couple of other filters...."
Me: "How much?"
Meineke: "$240, including labor."
My Wife: "Holy Crap!"
Me: "We don't have a flex pipe?"
Meineke: "Here. Let me show you the system. Look under your car."
Me: "So... we don't have a flex pipe. Son of a bitch."
Meineke: "If I were you, I'd report whoever said you did."
My Wife: "Damn right."

Here's to honest mechanics.
posted by zarq at 4:17 PM on March 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


Grocery stores will often put up big sale displays on the ends of a aisles with, for example, one brand of a product ON SALE at 4 for $5, when another brand of the same product is sitting in its usual location on the shelf at $.99 each.

Gas stations that offer different grades of gasoline will often set up the pump with the most expensive option on the button on the left, presumably because enough people will mindlessly select that button on the assumption that left to right = low to high.
posted by Balonious Assault at 4:29 PM on March 18, 2010


I'm assuming because that was the example, the question is not "How do businesses try to sell you stuff you don't need" but "How do businesses take advantage of your ignorance to vastly overcharge you" and the Geek Squad seems like a reasonable answer to that. I could be misreading the question, though!
posted by restless_nomad at 4:29 PM on March 18, 2010


1) Grocery store delis that repackage expired bricks of cheddar cheese with new dates after they have the counter help slice off the white mold. (I was that counter help at 16, ugh)

2) Gem dealers who misrepresent the origin and quality of their stones; jewelers that adulterate their precious metals and lie about the karat count. I have a friend who used to be in the gem business and he said the number of dealers who knowingly trade in stolen goods is far, far higher than anyone is willing to admit. Also, a large number of diamond thefts are industry "inside jobs" with the dealers stealing from each other.

3) Competitive intelligence professionals (i.e. corporate spies) who gather proprietary data from one firm on behalf of another-- and then turn around and work for the firm they collected from on at the expense of their original employer. Also, charging clients thousands of dollars for information agents gathered in under 10 minutes with a Google search and a couple of phonecalls. On and on; it's inherently a scummy way to make a living.
posted by aquafortis at 4:37 PM on March 18, 2010


Extended warranties - arguably has value, but Im content with the return policy and manufacturer's warranty.

Shipping rates - always look at these, especially on ebay.

Store branded credit cards - usually has worse terms and worse APR than a card from your bank.

The up-sell - you come in with a coupon for the cheapest mattress but its not in stock so you look at the next model up while the salesguy talks up the benefits of the more expensive model and slyly admits the cheap model is a piece of crap.

The down-sell - You'll see an ad for a very nice TV at a great price but its not in stock either so they sell you a much crappier brand for about the same price or a bit lower. You come in expecting Toshiba but walk out with a Vizio.

Yesterday's product - you walk into the computer store and walk out with a pentium instead of a dual-core machine. The salesguy never explains any of this to you and you pay roughly the same amount.

Expensive accessories - printer inks, usb cables, hdmi cables, etc. Better off getting these online unless its urgent.

Stain protection - You'll negotiate a good price on some furniture but then get a hard sell for the stain protection and insurance.

Reoccurring charges - You might sign up for a seminar someplace but end up not being told that the fee is actually enrolling you in a reoccuring charge without telling you. RealtyTrac is notorious for this.

Hidden charges - Pretty bad with cell phones right now.

Overpriced 'emergency' items - Laptop chargers retail starting at $99, batteries at convenience stores, printer ink at the drug store, etc.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:38 PM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


What are some ways that different businesses try to rip off of the ill-informed public?

Monster Cables (and cables in general).
posted by MegoSteve at 4:52 PM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


Hiding price hikes through smaller packaging. Example: In April 2008 Columbo yogurt, owned by General Mills, reduced the size of their yogurt containers from 8 ounces to 6 ounces. That's a 25% price increase with no fanfare. Today you literally cannot find an 8oz yogurt container other than Costco's Kirkland brand.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 4:54 PM on March 18, 2010


We recently had someone come in to look at our house and give us a bid for repainting two rooms. He told us, verbally, that it would be $[amount of money]. He never sent us a written bid.

Couple months later, we're ready for the painting to be done, so I e-mail him and say "Hey, you said you'd paint our rooms for $[amount of money], are you still willing to do that?" He writes back and says "I don't remember, I'll have to come out and take a look."

He comes back, looks at the place, and says "Yeah, I'll do it for $[amount of money]." We say "Great, send us your bid via e-mail."

He sends us a "bid" that, oddly enough, does not mention the price. I write him back saying "Hey, this doesn't have $[amount of money] on it anywhere, please fix that." He doesn't write back.

I call him. He doesn't return my call. I call again, no reply. Still haven't heard from him.

It's odd, the painters are well-recommended by a number of people, so maybe it's all just one big mix-up. But I have to raise my eyebrow at someone who gives us the same bid twice, then disappears when we want it in writing.
posted by lore at 4:55 PM on March 18, 2010


Claiming they did the work when they didn't.

I had a '97 Saturn SW2 - I loved that car, and only took it to Saturn dealers for maintenance. For the first two years, it was Saturn of Albany, then it was Saturn of Jenkintown when I moved to the Philly 'burbs. Five years later, I moved to White Plains, and took it to the Saturn Dealer there.

First service in WP - "You have 70K miles on this car, and the original air filter is still in there - who did you have do maintenance?"
Me: "Saturn, the whole way."
Mechanic: "Are you sure? This is the factory installed filter when you got the car."
Me: "Saturn has a tracking system, right? You should be able to tell me..."
Mechanic: "Hrm, yeah - let me check. Son of a gun, you're right, they said they replaced it right here, and it's obvious they didn't."
Me: "So you're going to do right by Saturn as a company, and fix this, right?"

He did, in the end, but that soured me to Saturn as a company. They were very polite, even friendly, but they didn't do the work they claimed they did in writing.

My S.O.'s sister went in for an oil change at a Saturn dealer, and we strongly suspect they never put the new oil back in. The car was ruined a few days later, they blamed a leak.

Same sister has been saavy enough about her cars to know when someone is not doing the job right. On her newer car, you can't inspect part of the brakes without removing the wheels to get to them. She makes it a point to ask the mechanic if they had any problems removing the wheels - if they said there was no reason to, she knows they didn't do the inspection right. She's gotten more than a few free inspections / services out of the local garage from that one.
posted by GJSchaller at 5:00 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I used to have a job selling memberships at a gym.

There was the membership cost, and there were a couple other fees tacked on, like the "processing fee," which were basically bullshit.

If I could see that the person was wavering when I went through my whole spiel, then when I got to the part about explaining the fees, I was supposed to tell them, "and there's a $30 processing fee, but since it's X today (X could be Easter, Labor Day weekend, Wednesday, my birthday, whatever), we're temporarily waiving it." Actually, it was always waived if that's what it took. That just was supposed to make people think they had to jump at the chance to join right then.

This was pretty embarrassing to do for me, especially since often I had to do it in front of current gym members who had heard me give the spiel 100 times.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:03 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I fell for an eBay scam a couple of years ago, where the seller included a few pieces of Popular Name-Brand Building Toy with a big set of Cheap Off-Brand Knock-Off so they could use the name of Popular Name-Brand in the listing. The details were there in black and white in the product description, which was lengthy and didn't really get to "you are getting 3 pieces of Popular and 1000 pieces of Knock-Off" until near the end, but it was in there so I do have only myself to blame.

(This feels a little chat-filtery.)
posted by not that girl at 5:09 PM on March 18, 2010


Hiding price hikes through smaller packaging.

This is going on *all* the time in grocery stores; people know that it's done but I don't think they realize to what extent. Every week when the new shelf tags with price/other changes come down, there will be anywhere from a handful to dozens of items where the price stays the same, but it's being packaged smaller...just a tiny bit, usually; on the shelf you can barely tell the difference between, say, the bottle that has 5.25 oz of something vs. 5.15 or whatever. Often there is no real difference in packaging; just more air in the container. Those bits add up to quite a bit of lost value over time.
posted by frobozz at 5:09 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


My orthopedic surgeon arranged for my surgery to be performed at a clinic which was outside of my insurance network instead of the local hospital which would have covered 100% of the fee. I was taking his word for the fact that I needed surgery, why should I not also assume that he was looking out for my financial interests considering that they handle these cases on a daily basis? If my friends hadn't warned me to check into this matter before the surgery, I would have been hammered for 1/4 of the cost of the operation.

Oh yeah, did I mention that he had a financial interest in the clinic?
posted by digsrus at 5:29 PM on March 18, 2010


The worst for me are stores like Kohl's, where everything is "on sale". Take 30-40% off kitchenware, but the original prices are jacked up so high that when the 30-40% is taken off, it's the price you would pay at Amazon or something. Though sometimes Kohls has decent deals.
posted by kerning at 5:33 PM on March 18, 2010


Tree removal services who show up after hurricanes claiming to be licensed and bonded when they aren't.
posted by 4ster at 5:33 PM on March 18, 2010


1. Successfully conning people into purchasing houses with mortgages they clearly cannot afford.

2. Successfully conning people into purchasing investments made up almost entirely up of mortgages given to people who are likely to default on them.
posted by chookibing at 6:04 PM on March 18, 2010


This is going on *all* the time in grocery stores; people know that it's done but I don't think they realize to what extent. Every week when the new shelf tags with price/other changes come down, there will be anywhere from a handful to dozens of items where the price stays the same, but it's being packaged smaller...just a tiny bit, usually; on the shelf you can barely tell the difference between, say, the bottle that has 5.25 oz of something vs. 5.15 or whatever. Often there is no real difference in packaging; just more air in the container. Those bits add up to quite a bit of lost value over time.

I've heard that what they do when they decide they want to raise the price is that they slap a "30% more free!" sticker on the normal size bottles, let those sell for a while, and then start introducing smaller packages at the original price, so that people not only pay the same price for a smaller amount of product, but they also think they're getting a good deal for a while.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:18 PM on March 18, 2010


with a sealable bucket and the free jack that came with your car

The part where the car falls on your head isn't that great, though. I hope you're using some jackstands with that ensemble.
posted by bricoleur at 7:04 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Any kind of limited time offer where you must buy some expensive product or service RIGHT NOW or forever lose out on the AMAZING DEAL is pretty suspect. See DirectBuy.

Also, when you go to buy a car and finally get in the office with the finance guy and they obfuscate things to make it difficult for you to figure out what the total price you'll pay over the life of the loan is. Bring a calculator and watch them glare and sulk. They'll present something as incredibly minor, like an extra $25/month on the payments. Which is $1500 on a 60 month loan.
posted by 6550 at 7:32 PM on March 18, 2010


Not really a ripoff, but if I see Christian literature in the waiting room, I assume they're trying to overcharge me. For example, I was in a quicky lube that was just rife with 'jesus loves me pamphlets'. The sales guy was trying to up-sell this lady on these super expensive flexible windshield wipers. She asked if they were necessary, which from his perspective, translated to 'should I give you additional money?'. His response without taking the time to blink or inhale was 'Most definitely. For the safety!'. So she shelled out $30 more than was necessary for new wipers and got a pair of super neato wipers with none of that old-fashioned, dangerous stuff like mechanical linkages.
posted by malp at 8:15 PM on March 18, 2010


Free trial scams - A company will offer, say, a 30-day free trial of a product or service, and you won't be charged if you return or cancel within that time. What you don't know until you try to cancel or return the product or service is that the 30 day trial period starts the day you order, NOT the day you actually receive anything. Coincidentally enough, the product arrives 28, 29, or more days after you order.

Also, "free" products that require you to pay a high shipping/handling charge in order to receive them.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:53 PM on March 18, 2010


I used to work as a Best Buy tech before Geek Squad came in and I can confirm it's not worth it. The "optimization" they want to run before selling you a computer is just installing Windows and doing things like setting MSConfig so nothing loads on startup except the antivirus, and turning off all the "visual" features except for the XP/Vista theme. Total rip off.

Re the grocery store stuff, if there's a sale price, see if you can lift it up to see what the price was before the sale. Sometimes it was actually lower before, especially if you're at Target. (According to the Consumerist, anyways.)

Sometimes the car shops can be honest. I was 16 and my dad gave me a check and told me to take my car and get the oil changed. The guy comes out and says "this, this, and this needs to be done" (probably air filter, wipers, etc) and I said okay. He looked surprised and said, "this is gonna cost a few hundred dollars, are you sure you don't need to check with someone?" I called my dad and he said to turn all the extras down. Yay for the ones who take pity on naive teenagers.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:06 PM on March 18, 2010


i sell equipment and we generally don't jack people but we sometimes get them by padding the freight quote.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 10:18 PM on March 18, 2010


3) Competitive intelligence professionals (i.e. corporate spies) who gather proprietary data from one firm on behalf of another-- and then turn around and work for the firm they collected from on at the expense of their original employer.

Wrong. This is not Yahoo Answers, please do not make such ridiculous claims without citations.

"Competitive intelligence professionals" are not corporate spies and there is not a revolving door as you suggest. The SCIP FAQ addresses these issues in detail. For example, "a member agrees to abide by the Society's Code of Ethics, which forbids breaching an employer's guidelines, breaking the law, or misrepresenting oneself"

Also, charging clients thousands of dollars for information agents gathered in under 10 minutes with a Google search and a couple of phonecalls. On and on; it's inherently a scummy way to make a living.


It's slightly more complicated than that. Not everything is on Google. Proprietary research reports, from this firm for example, cost >$5,000 and you can not obtain them via a Google search.
posted by mlis at 11:53 PM on March 18, 2010


Razor Blades. A razor with two cartridges is a low price and a pack of replacement cartridges is about 10 x the cost of the razor. Womens razors are an even bigger rip off.

Shipping costs on small items on eBay. $15 shipping costs to send something that will go in a padded envelope with a $1 stamp on it? I don't think so.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 6:03 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reference Prices. You know, when a store says a shirt "Was $75" but now is "Just $35" but the shirt really was just a $35 shirt. And what the hell is a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price but some price someone made up. As I understand it, price is an ephemeral concept, a meeting point between buyer and seller. There is no "official" price. So stores make up a fake reference price to make you think you're getting a deal.
posted by lpsguy at 6:58 AM on March 19, 2010


This thread is increasing my nervousness. I'm waiting for my Vespa to be returned today from the shop after a tune-up, oil change and new rear tire. This thread is why many more women need to own (and work in) repair shops.
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:20 AM on March 19, 2010


I worked (briefly) for a motorcycle dealership that marked up interest rates. Say you qualify for a 7% loan from the local bank. The shop would write the note at 9% and pocket the difference. Obviously, you were never told about the lower rate.

Yeah, I don't work there anymore.
posted by workerant at 7:43 AM on March 19, 2010


The examples of hiding price hikes through smaller packaging reminds me of Girl Scout Cookies, which lowered the portions on their more popular cookies last year. Of course, I don't feel as guilty eating a whole sleeve as I once did, but I do remember opening that first box of Thin Mints and being a little miffed. I understand rising costs and all that, but it just seemed so sneaky...coming from the Girl Scouts, no less!
posted by mysterpigg at 7:56 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Swoopo
posted by pollex at 12:46 PM on March 19, 2010


Refinancing. Lawyers fee's are quoted as X and when closing at the end of the month the last months payment is Y. Then the closing happens in the early days of the month and X increases to almost Y so that the total closing cost stays the same but they get to keep almost one months mortgage payment.
posted by Ferrari328 at 1:07 PM on March 19, 2010


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