Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Letter to eBay - bogus fee

Here's something I sent to eBay today.

For those who don't sell on eBay, here's the 411. eBay makes money in a number of ways. As a seller, you can be charged when you list an item for sale (depending on how prominently you list the item, the number of pictures you post, etc); you can be charged after the item is sold (with a percentage of the closing price that is the Final Value Fee (FVF); you can be charged for your use of PayPal which is owned by eBay (a percentage of the payment made).

For the most part, I don't mind the fees - eBay provides a means for me to sell certain items that I otherwise would not sell so it's a win-win for everyone. What I object to is the sneaky stuff; the unexpected; and frankly the unfair. In the past, eBay has never charged a FVF on the fee a buyer pays for shipping. This makes sense - the buyer is paying the seller to pack the goods and send it in some manner. A seller typically enters the weight of the item and lets the buyer select from one or more delivery services. Pretty straightforward and accurate. Buyer pays seller to ship, seller ships, done.

Some sellers try and bend the rules by artificially setting very high shipping rates. They know that buyers won't bid up the item as much since buyers tend to look at the overall cost - item + shipping. For those sellers, they end up selling items for less but still receive the same overall fee when shipping is added. And best of all, since the FVF is charged only on the closing price, they pay eBay less. As a buyer, I've seen a few such sellers but not many - they are rare as far as I can tell.

Sometime this year (April '11?) eBay responded by charging a FVF on shipping. I wasn't aware of this until today. Below is the letter I sent them. To me, this fee falls in the above-mentioned sneaky and unfair category. Not that eBay cares of course. I won't get a response since I used the general feedback web page. But does feel good just to send it.

"You must hate sellers. Really. I guess I've been too trusting; never scrutinizing your invoice. Today I took a look and finally noticed that you now charge a FVF on shipping. WTF!

I try to be honest with my buyers and only charge what I pay to ship. I never realized that you were robbing me all along. Tell me, what's the point of entering an accurate package weight and shipping method if you only get to actually see 91% of it?

I called eBay customer service about this today. I was told I could avoid FVF on shipping by providing Free Shipping! Now that's brilliant! Now I get to pay the entire shipping cost instead of just the 9% you took. I was then told I should start the auction at a higher price to cover the cost of shipping. So now that just moves the FVF on shipping to FVF on the item. You come out the same, the customer pays more and usually, that means they don't bid as high so guess who loses. Customer service must think the sellers are all idiots. Or maybe most are like me and never noticed the change.

I know a few former eBayers. They're "former" because they're fed up with your nonsense. You see, I don't mind the FVF on the item's closing price; that's an HONEST fee. But the FVF on shipping? That's underhanded fine-print-like sneaky stuff. It smells; it's rotten. And there's no way for a seller to compensate because the best we can do is add a flat S&H fee (oops, there goes another 9%), not a percentage like you're taking.

In case you haven't figured this out, at the end of the day, it's about the integrity of the process. You've failed with this one."

Monday, September 26, 2011

Yet another reason why you can't always get that great gas mileage

It's funny what happens when gas prices go up. All of a sudden, that new generation automobile - the same make and model one you have - now gets better mileage. Especially on the highway. Did it go hybrid? No. Is the engine smaller? Oh no, they'll never do that! Wow, something great must have happened right? After all, necessity is the mother of invention and soaring gas prices sure make better mileage a necessity. At least in the marketing brochures.

A lot has been said about the deficiencies of the existing EPA mileage rating system. Among the known problems - they don't represent real-world driving conditions where accelerations are quicker for instance. The EPA changed the measurement system once recently when mileage ratings for hybrids came out looking a whole lot better than reality. They're supposed to be looking at them again.

For me, the mileage I got used to be almost spot on with that on the window sticker. Not anymore. What changed? Was it the car or the testing? For me, the answer is a little of both. On the highway, my Civic can get upwards of 39 mpg or as low as 30 mpg; depending on which highway. What's the difference?

It all starts with where you're driving. To measure mileage, the testing is done on a dynamometer. The car itself doesn't go anywhere no matter how fast or slow the wheels are turning. And most important of all, it's on level ground. We all know that climbing a hill is harder work than walking on level ground; well the dynamometer only knows level ground. When I'm cruising down I-95 in the Carolinas, that's flat ground. When I'm traveling through the Berkshires, that's not. In my previous cars, this hardly mattered. The testing was no different - still on a dyno but the key is that my transmission never changed gears - it stayed in top gear.

To improve mileage, automakers have been adding gears. During the 80's and 90's a typical manual transmission had 5 forward speeds and an automatic had 4. In the US, automatics far outsell manuals so what has happened in recent years is that a 5th and sometimes 6th forward gear has been added. Talk about overdrive! Take the Hundai Sonata for instance. Starting with the 2011 model, the new 6 speed tranny bumped the highway mileage estimate from 32 in the 2010 model to 35. True, these are very different models - a new "generation" Sonata but the engine is the same and so is the rough overall weight. And it's not just Hundai of course. Just about every manufacturer across the board has done so.

Don't get me wrong, this is a good thing. If anything, it's too bad they waited until gas prices soared before adding more gears. But there's a potential downside. If you live or commute through roads that are not table-top flat, that great mileage suddenly looks deceiving. What happens is that the last gear - the one added to make the highway mileage spec look better, only works on relatively level ground. Put a load on the engine - like say going up a hill, and you drop a gear. Here in New England, there's hills everywhere and that means you can expect to shift up and down a lot even on the highway. Don't expect to hold top gear. And because that top-notch mileage number is the result of a dyno test, it bears little resemblance to hills. It knows nothing about downshifting on the highway. Testing and reality just don't see eye-to-eye.

But wait, if the top gear was added for mileage reasons, and you drop out of it, doesn't that mean that mileage should be at least as good as the previous model without the extra gear? One would think so, but that's not quite right either. The problem is that when a new gear is added, the other gears are often moved a bit. So the 4th gear out of 5 is not where it used to be when there were only 4 gears and so the mileage in 4th gear is lower when downshifted than when it's the top gear.

So the overall effect is both one of the car's design and that of the testing conditions. Again, there's nothing wrong with the better highway numbers - drivers living in areas of flat terrain certainly benefit from it all. But it'd be nice if the EPA could also provide another number that shows what happens in less than ideal highway driving conditions so that consumers are better informed, and have more accurate expectations, at the time of purchase.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

hospital corners make me sick

After a couple of recent stays in hotels, I came away more convinced than ever that hospital corners should be classified as torture by the Geneva convention.

Out of curiosity, I did a quick Google search and lo and behold, the first page of results is all about how to make that perfect corner. But I'm looking for an explanation; as in "why would anyone subject themselves to sleeping in a bed where there's no room for their feet?".

Now I don't know about the rest of you but when I'm lying down on my back, my feet don't point sideways. They point up; as in up-to-the-ceiling up. OK, so gravity may angle them sideways a little. But just a little. And I like to move my feet, not to mention the rest of me. After all I can't just drop onto a bed and fall asleep exactly where I landed; not when sober at least. So the first thing I do when I come feet to feet with hospital corners is kick them. That's kick them straight up. Some hotels seem to have over achieving staffs and it can take upwards of 3 or more kicks to loosen the sheets. But I can live with that. What I can't live with is folding my feet sideways while sleeping. Maybe the inventor of the hospital corner was a side-sleepers. Or just a really, really mean person. Either way, to me, it's a simple case of visual aesthetic not seeing eye to eye with comfortable reality.

Then there are people like my wife, who prefers fully made, perfect, hospital corners all the time. She must have the retractable foot gene.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Paperless Banking, Technology and the Human Factor

Technology can be a good thing. Of course, the big technology thing these days is the internet. Everywhere you look, it's internet this and internet that. Banking is no different. There is online banking, electronic payment, and now there's paperless banking.

Bank of America just sent me my latest monthly statement. And there sitting between my non-existent interest earnings for the month and the list of electronic withdrawals was a single line that said:

 Check Image Service Fee   $3.00

Let's rewind the clock shall we?

A few years ago, the banking industry lobbied Congress to pass Check21, legislation that changed the time honored process of check cashing. When you write a check, it eventually makes its way back to you with a cancellation mark to show that it was cashed. That canceled check is proof of payment. The banks claimed that check processing was too expensive and scanning technology was sufficient to protect consumers. A physical check was no longer required as long as an image of the check could be accepted legally in its place. And so it was that Check21 was passed (though the legislation did not require the savings to be passed on to the consumer).

Needless to say, this "Check Image Service Fee" seemed strange to me. After all if the banking industry wanted check scanning, why are they charging for it now? So I visited my local BoA branch office and confirmed that this is in fact not a fee to image (scan) your checks but rather to send you a copy of the images. Your check's images still exist on some computer at the bank. This is really a printing fee. In my case, this amounts to one side of one double sided page of my entire monthly statement. That's some expensive printing.

So I turned to Google and found some banking industry website that described this practice as "weening the consumer" to paperless banking. The $3 is artificially large enough to entice you and I to not want check images. How much do you want to bet that in due time, additional charges will show up to print any statement at all. The end goal is to be entirely paperless and this is the first salvo.

Truth be told, I'm no fan of receiving tons of paper from my bank or any other institution for that matter. So long as I can get access to the documents I want, when I want them, I prefer to save a tree. BoA told me that I can print out the scans anytime I want. But I do wonder - if some day I change banks and later realized that I needed an image for a particular check written years earlier, how easy will it be to get access to that image as an ex-customer?

So now I have this $3.00 charge but I don't feel like paying it. The very nice teller at BoA did two things. First she got rid of the charge since she says the company did a poor job of notifying its customers of the pending charge (I concur). Second, she tweaked a setting in my account profile stating that I no longer want those check images (I did what BoA wanted; Pavlov would be proud). I bet I could have saved some time by tweaking that setting myself online, if I poked around long enough. But saving myself a whopping $3 could only be done by a teller with the authority to perform the "fix". Which makes me wonder if this is just going to increase foot traffic at the branch offices to "fix" this and that. This would be ironic since many banks are now charging you fees each time you use a teller.

Years ago, I wrote a $9.00 check. On my statement it rang in at $900.00. That's the only time I can recall when I absolutely needed my canceled check to prove that some data entry person hit that "00" button twice when cashing my check. Likewise, looking back, I can only recall a few times when I absolutely had to have access to a teller, a real human being sitting directly in front of me fixing a problem. The other 99.99% of the time my bank was already as good as a paperless entity. So is the shift to paperless banking going to really affect me? Probably not; as long as I avoid the 0.01%.

About a week after my $3.00 surprise, I received another statement from BoA. This one is for a line of credit that I never use. I get a statement like this about once a year. It reads in part:

  Previous balance: $0
  New balance: $0
  Minimum payment due: $0

Hey BoA, I have an idea about paperless statements you may want to look into...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

motivation and anger

It's funny how anger gets one motivated. Just take a look at the Middle East; at Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen (etc) and witness the changes that have already occurred. Closer to home, I need to look no further than my monthly Verizon bill to get motivated by anger. Let me explain.

Last month, my bill arrived with a $14.95 charge from ILD Teleservices. This company acts as a payment center for another company named Members Edge. Supposedly, I subscribed to some email service at Members Edge. Yeah, right. A phone call later, I had the charges removed an Verizon install a block on future billings for such changes from 3rd parties.

Fast forward to this month's bill where a company named Payment One has issued a charge of $14.95 on behalf of another company named Enhanced Teleservices for MyAutoBackup services. Yeah, doubly right. After another 20 minutes on the phone, I had the charges removed and yet another block installed at Verizon.

At this point, I think the anger part should be obvious. After all, there is something very basicly wrong with the system as it stand. Consider what is really happening here. Some company claims I signed up for services via their web site. On this site, all one has to enter is a name, address, phone number and email address. No payment information is required (like a CC number). In my case, the email address was wrong but since nothing was done to verify the so-called subscription, it didn't matter. There's no way to know if the subscription actually happened (via a malicious individual, a software bot, etc.) or if it's just a case of pure fraud. All that really mattered here was the phone number. Armed with a phone number, said company can go to an outfit like ILD and pass on the responsibility of collecting the fees. ILD then passes on those responsibilities to Verizon by attaching the fees to your phone bill. If Members Edge or Enhanced Teleservices were to handle their own billing, they would need my credit card number or some other form of payment. But here, all they need is a phone number and voila, they can get paid. This is just plain wrong! A phone number is not credit card numbers but with Verizon (and AT&T, etc) acting as payment consolidators, this is exactly what is happening. The beauty of this system for those involved is that they all win. The phone companies charge fees for their services. ILD gets their cut too. And the companies initiating the charge get paid as well. The only ones that lose are the consumers who have to scrutinize their bills each and every month, and waste time with customer service reps to fix any problems they find.

Who's to blame? For me, its the phone company. They make it too easy to tack on charges. They leave the door open by default and in my case, it's taken two calls to block these services - and it hasn't happened yet. They claim that some of these charges are legit such as accepting collect calls. But that requires confirmation from the customer whereas this form of billing does not. At the end of the day, it's all about money and not about service. The phone companies are just piggybacking services on top of their existing billing infrastructure and their customers be damned.

So now the motivation part.

When I first saw this extra charge last month, I googled the web and found that I was not alone. Many others had faced similar problems with the same companies. The power of the web is in the multitude of voices that can sound off and be heard be it near or far. For a while now, I've been meaning to start blogging here but time always got in the way. This second bill from Verizon has finally moved my butt to the keyboard to write this. The simple fact is that the more voices sound off to expose these scams, the better off we all are.