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!

Choice Hotels’ Customer Service Gets Points Handling Rewards Issue

Please Help Support Mouse Print*
 

Edgar Dworsky For 25 years, Consumer World, the creator of Mouse Print*, has served readers with the latest consumer news, money-saving tips, and independent investigations. It is your generosity (and not advertising nor corporate contributions) that keeps Mouse Print* and Consumer World available as free consumer resources. So MrConsumer turns to you and humbly asks for your support again this year. Your gift will be most appreciated.


MrConsumer recently got an email from Choice Hotels with some bad news. It said that his accumulated points in their rewards program were about to expire.

Choice Hotels email

The fine print explained how to keep one’s points from disappearing. Basically you have to earn or redeem points every 18 months or they go bye-bye.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Choice fine print

So I looked to see what one could get for 5,000 points. Seemed like a nice round number — surely there was something of value available. But all the gift cards required 8,000 points at a minimum, such as this one.

Choice gift card choices

I did see that I could convert the points to American Airlines frequent flyer miles, but would only get 1,000 miles for my 5,000 points. Nonetheless, that seemed like the best option for me, so I called Choice customer service to make the transfer.

I explained the situation to the agent on the phone, Ken (a female), and she said “let me see what I can do for you.” After reviewing my account, she said that as a one-time courtesy, she would bump up my account from 5,160 points to 8,000 points so I could redeem them for a gift certificate right then and there.

What? WOW! She wished me a Merry Christmas, and proceeded to process a $25 Home Depot gift card for me.

I thanked Ken profusely. What amazing and unexpected customer service she provided! But it would be nice if Choice eliminated their points expiration policy just as most airlines have in their own frequent flyer programs.

Airlines Drop $200 Change Fees, But…

Last week, United Airlines made a bold move: it dropped its $200 domestic change and cancellation fee. In short order, American, Delta and Alaska all chimed in making similar announcements. So even on a nonrefundable ticket, if you want to change your flight or postpone it, you can do so without that financial penalty.

Change fees

The fine print of the new rules is not quite as rosy as the headlines, however, particularly for bargain hunters.

*MOUSE PRINT:

“Basic economy” fares — the least expensive seats you can buy on the major airlines — are NOT included in the new plan. So you’ll still have to fork over $200 for changes. In a moment of unexpected generosity, American, United, and Delta all said that basic economy tickets purchased by December 31, 2020 will also be granted free changes.

There are some slight nuances in how the various airlines are implementing the new rules. On United, for example, if you exchange a $300 ticket for a $200 ticket, they will not give you back the difference even as a credit toward future travel. American, however, will. And Delta will only commit to providing a voucher for the difference for flights booked this year.

A bit of additional good news was contained in the airlines’ announcements. You can now standby for an earlier flight the same day without having to pay a change fee. It is unclear whether this also applies to basic economy fare passengers starting in 2021, however.

For complete rules, check with your airline since the rules keep changing. Here is a good summary of the American and Delta changes, and the ones for United.