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AAA Crams a Sneaky Optional Charge onto Some Annual Paper Bills

A New York reader wrote to us recently complaining about a sneaky “optional” charge that was tacked onto his annual AAA bill that he received in the mail. We then found a Massachusetts consumer with a similar problem (her bill is below):

AAA billClick to enlarge

*MOUSE PRINT:

AAA dollar disclosure

AAA added a $1 voluntary donation to their traffic safety foundation on this bill, and automatically included it in the “amount due” rather than as a separate box to check if the member wanted to donate. On this bill, the annual membership fee due should have been $87 and not $88.

The problem with this type of billing is this: Many members may simply rip off the payment stub at the bottom of the bill and send a check or enter their credit card number for the amount the stub says is due not realizing that the actual membership fee had been bumped up by an “optional” dollar.

AAA payment stubPayment stub from New York consumer

From a legal standpoint, this billing practice may well be classified as “cramming” — tacking a charge for a new item onto a bill without the customer’s affirmative consent and including it in the total due. As such, this may well be contrary to state consumer protection laws that ban deceptive practices.

We contacted AAA headquarters multiple times asking a series of questions about how extensive this billing practice was, whether it extended to those on autopay, how many people are affected, and whether they will change the practice. We received no response despite sending three email inquiries and calling twice.

Customers should not have to scrutinize every bill they get to make sure something they never ordered was tacked onto their invoice and included in the total. Just the way that the IRS includes a check box on your tax return so you can indicate if you want $3 to go to fund presidential elections, AAA should do the same thing if you want to add a dollar donation to their safety foundation.

There’s an old consumer maxim: it is easier to steal a dollar from a million people than steal a million dollars from one person.

We need your assistance to help determine how extensive this problem is since AAA operates as separate regional clubs around the country. Please look for your last bill from AAA to see if it includes an “optional” $1 charge or not. Either way, send a scan or clear photograph of it (crossing out your member number) to Edgar (at symbol) ConsumerWorld.org. In addition, use the comment section below to indicate what you think of AAA’s billing practice, and your experience with their bills. Please include your state, and whether you are on autopay or receive a paper bill in the mail. Thanks!

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Amazon Agrees to Savings Claims Disclosures to Settle DAs’ Lawsuit

In March, a group of pro-consumer California district attorneys sued Amazon about misleading savings claims, and settled the case just one week later. Amazon agreed to pay a $2-million penalty.

For decades, Amazon has advertised fictitious savings from bogus reference prices like “list prices” or “was” prices, making shoppers believe they were saving a bundle by buying from them. In 2017, we reported on a study that demonstrated Amazon was still up to its old tricks despite seemingly having found consumer religion the year before as a result of several lawsuits about their misleading savings claims.

As a current example, in late March 2021, Amazon advertised a Cuisinart hand mixer (HM-90S) for $79.95 — a claimed savings of 45% off the so-called “list price” $145.

Amazon- Cuisinart mixer

But a quick check over at the manufacturer’s own website reveals that Cuisinart itself is selling this very model for the same $79.95, as are a host other big name retailers.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Cuisinart retailers

Worse, Amazon itself has never charged more than $88.94 in the past 10 years for this mixer according to CamelCamelCamel, and a review of the prices being charged for this very mixer at nearly 100 other retailers reveals that no one is charging Amazon’s claimed $145 list price.

As of April 2, surprise, surprise, Amazon actually changed its advertising for this mixer and eliminated the misleading list price:

Changed Cuisinart mixer

UPDATE: Eagle-eyed reader Kim W. visited Amazon on April 5, and discovered the company once again began advertising a savings of 45% for this mixer and it restored the same high list price albeit this time with a “details link” explaining how it was derived.

Under the terms of the just-announced settlement, Amazon is barred from using false or misleading reference prices, and it must include a hyperlink to a “clear and exact definition of the [reference] term” they used and a “statement that the List Price may not be the prevailing market price or regular retail price.”

Our view: Having Amazon tell customers that the reference price they display is not the real prevailing price in the marketplace does nothing to change the misleading nature of their list price savings claims. And it seems to violate the very California law that formed the basis of the DAs’ lawsuit against the company.

Bottom line: If the list price is not the price charged by a reasonable number of sellers, it should not be allowed to be used.

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No Joke: Thomas’ Upsizes Its English Muffins

This story is just in time for April Fools’ Day… but it’s no joke.

It is very rare in the food industry to find a product that has been upsized rather than downsized. But Thomas’ English Muffins recently made their packages a tiny bit larger, going from 12 to 13 ounces for six muffins.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Thomas' English Muffins

We asked the company why they made this unusual move. All a customer service rep would say is that it was a business decision in part because they were getting feedback that the muffins were too small. She could not explain the 25% increase in calories, however.

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