Junk fees and other obstacles of the road

Anna Lurye/Shutterstock
Anna Lurye/Shutterstock
At the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 101 in Willits, Calif., you’ll find three service stations. But look closely before you pump gas, otherwise you could pay a lot more than you expect.

What follows is a cautionary tale about junk fees, from an industry that journalists like me tend to ignore, unless it’s spilling hundreds of millions of gallons of unprocessed petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico.

But the cost of a product, both perceived and real, are very much in the news today, with a key part of the Affordable Care Act scheduled to kick in Oct. 1. Fees are a hot topic in my neck of the woods, with some industry apologists spinning the absurd argument that junk fees such as the ones I ran into are good for consumers, because it gives them choices.
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Don’t get broadsided by the car rental industry’s double standards

Vladitto/Shutterstock
Vladitto/Shutterstock

Ric Vesely knows about the car rental industry’s double standards. When he returned his Dollar Rent a Car vehicle in Minneapolis recently, an employee asked him a strange question: Did he have a receipt for his gasoline purchase?

Vesely, an engineer who was visiting from Colorado, hadn’t bought Dollar’s pricey fuel-purchase option, agreeing instead to return the vehicle with a full tank. He said he didn’t have a receipt, but that it didn’t matter — the needle on the gas gauge pointed to “full.”
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Let’s hear it for this gas price bait and switch!

Cheaper isn’t always better.

On a recent trip to Bend, Ore., I discovered that cheaper can actually mean more expensive.

The scam was perpetrated by a service station selling unleaded gas that’s 10 cents lower than the other stations along the road. With gas prices pushing $4 a gallon, a 10-cent saving is nothing to sneeze at.
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What’s your problem? Double-billed by my gas station

Question: We recently stopped at a shell Shell station in Pittsburgh on our way to the airport to catch a flight home. We wanted to fill the gas tank up or “top it off” as they say.

My husband started to pump gas and something malfunctioned with the gas pump and the attendant had to come outside to fix it. He started again to pump gas and finished up and I signed the receipt for $31.
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The Travel Troubleshooter: The needle may be on “F” but I’m not done paying

Question: I recently rented a car from Alamo, and I encountered a questionable practice that I wanted to let you know about.

I’ve used Alamo many times in the past, always returning the car with a full tank. Last month, after bringing back my rental in Tucson, Ariz., an Alamo attendant verified the full tank and gave us a receipt.

After we left, apparently Alamo felt the need to try and squeeze more gas in the tank, even after their employee confirmed a full tank, and charged us the inflated rental-gas price for two gallons.

They didn’t even try to notify us by phone, email or letter. This seems very sneaky and underhanded. I wrote them two emails, but never got any reply or explanation.

It’s not a huge amount of money, but rather the principle and the deceitful tactics to make a few extra dollars. I thought you’d be interested in this episode, if you haven’t heard of this practice, and perhaps could warn others in your column. — Stephen Farr, Sacramento, Calif.

Answer: When the car rental agent checked your tank and offered you a receipt, you shouldn’t have been charged extra. But if Alamo decided you owed it money, the least it could have done was to let you know — not find out when you checked your credit card bill.
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Can this trip be saved? “We feel cheated as tourists”

Before Steven Barlow returned his rental car at Orlando International Airport in December, he did what most rental customers do who are trying to avoid a fuel surcharge: He found a gas station and topped off his tank.

Then he looked at the digital display on the pump at the Suncoast Energies station, which seemed to be moving faster than normal. Then he looked up and saw the prices were nearly twice the going rate for gas in Florida — an incredible $4.89 per gallon.

We could see no signs advertising the price. The clerk told me that they could charge this price as the station was close to the airport, and offered no other reason as to why they didn’t need to advertise. Basically, too bad you stopped and thanks for being stupid and giving us your money.

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Bank insists $1,390 gas bill is correct — now what?

Remember last year’s soaring gas prices? Annette Lazzarotto will never forget them. She paid $1,390 for a single tank of gas on a visit to Italy. What’s worse, her bank insisted the charges were legit, and billed her for the full amount.

It happened at a gas station on Via Cassia near our hotel. As it was “my turn” to pay for the gas and not noticing this error, I signed the receipt which was then charged to my Visa card. While obtaining the gas we noticed the attendant to be very different from all other stops at gas stations. He appeared nervous, rushing around and gruff with us. Although curious, we ignored the behavior as we always present ourselves with deference while traveling as visitors in foreign countries.

Sure enought, when Lazzarotto returned to the States, she found a $1,390 charge on her Visa bill.

I contacted my Schools Federal Credit Union Visa, which obtained a copy of the signed receipt and explained because it was signed they could not help me. I was told I had to contact the company myself regarding the dispute. I found the station and the parent station and through a Web search e-mailed representatives who admitted the error and initially discussed the process of crediting my account through several e-mails of various department levels at the parent company-ERG Petroli SPA.

I then provided Visa with all the copies of e-mails from this company in Italy (as my problem was forwarded to several staff). All e-mails demonstrated the company’s willingness to credit or provide a money wire to my bank account. I was then told by my bank that now that I had obtained agreement to credit the money they would take over and handle it.

After the Visa dispute department apparently “lost” my entire file, I was asked to send it again through my Credit Union in February. I provided copies of all the documents to Visa only to receive a letter this June that the ERG Petroli corporate office does not have authority to issue credits on behalf of the individual merchant location, and the location refused to issue the credit.

What next?

Well, the Fair Credit Billing Act doesn’t protect you for overseas purchases, so Lazzarotto needed to take the matter up with one of the companies — Visa, Schools Federal Credit Union or ERG Petroli. I recommended that she take her bank to small claims court to recover the $1,000 or so she was charged.

Yesterday, I heard back from her.

The process was quite simple as the courts provide online forms to complete with support for writing the “demand” letter. I sent this to my credit union who informed me they would turn it over to their attorneys. Within a week, a CEO at the credit union called me to say they would pay the charge and “they do not like their customers to have to experience fraud like that.” Interesting they were letting me experience that fraud for 16 months as I fought with them and their Visa dispute department to no avail.

I learned to check and keep all receipts as I travel and to not hesitate to use the small claims court process even against a large company.

That’s a great lesson learned — and a long overdue, but happy, ending.