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How hidden fees hike consumer prices

Americans are living in a “gotcha” economy, where the advertised prices for goods and services are rarely the price they pay. Whether buying a car, booking an airline ticket, attending an event or signing up for telecommunication services, hidden added fees -- most of them mandatory -- significantly boost the final price, often without the consumer’s advance knowledge or consent.

“Consumers are being deliberately fooled by advertised prices that fail to include the full amount they’ll have to pay, not just for cars but for an increasing number of goods and services,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America. “It’s not a brand-new issue, but it’s a growing trend. We’re increasingly finding that advertised prices deviate significantly from what the consumer faces at check-out.”

Indeed, a series of reports issued in the past month by regulators and consumer advocates have detailed a raft of sneaky, hidden fees that affect everything from hotel bookings and airline reservations to banking and college costs.

Here are the five most egregious hidden fees and what you can do about them:

Student fees: Over the past decade an increasing number of colleges and universities have added a litany of levies dubbed freshman counseling fees, technology use fees, advising fees, stadium facility fees, development and enhancement fees. Combined, these fees are now estimated to add over 20 percent to the price of tuition at four-year public universities, according to a report by the National Economic Council.

What you can do: All colleges and universities are required to provide students and parents with an estimate of the full cost of education, including any mandatory fees. Be sure to ask for this disclosure and use it to calculate the full cost of attendance -- after scholarship and grant-based aid -- before committing to a college. If the net cost of attendance is prohibitive, ask a financial aid counselor to review your file for additional grant and scholarship aid.

Good students often have significant bargaining power to reduce their final cost of attendance if they’re willing to make the price tag a major factor in their college choice. However, colleges are more likely to bargain for students who have other good options and are at the top of their academic acceptance range given grades, SAT/ACT-scores and other factors, such as sports and outside activities.

New car fees: You negotiate what you think is a fair price for a vehicle and then go into the sales office to write up the deal. There consumers often get sideswiped by a variety of bogus charges that can add thousands of dollars to the purchase price. 

For instance, in Florida, where these fees are not regulated, dealerships can add as much as $999 for “documentation fees,” that supposedly reimburse the dealership for filling out purchase paperwork, according to car shopping service Edmunds.com. Ten states limit these fees to as little as $75. In other states, the fee is completely at the dealerships discretion.

In addition, some dealerships also levy “floor plan” fees; “dealer preparation” fees; advertising, destination, delivery and processing fees. All are discretionary.

What you can do: Before heading out to a dealership, check out Edmund’s guide to average fees, including which states regulate fees and what the fees average in states where they aren’t regulated. Then make sure to ask the dealer about these charges while you’re still in the process of negotiating the deal. Factor those costs into the price when making comparisons. 

Those who don’t like the negotiating process may also benefit from services, such as Costco’s (COST), that prenegotiate the price of vehicles at a set level below invoice and demand clear and upfront disclosures.

Event ticketing fees: So-called “convenience,” “processing” and “service” fees can add as much as 21 percent to the price of a concert or sporting-event ticket, according to a recent report by the New York attorney general. These fees are among the largest unavoidable levies in the consumer marketplace, amounting to some $1.6 billion in added costs, government officials say. They’re unavoidable because many venues no longer provide their own ticketing services, leaving the consumer to deal with third-party vendors that charge these fees.

What you can do: If the concert/event operator doesn’t provide a way to get tickets without added service fees, the only current recourse for consumers is to forego the event or complain to authorities. Complaints may not help with the immediate purchase, but they could be effective in the long run, noted Consumer Federation’s Grant. 

The New York attorney general, for instance, has already suggested that these fees may violate New York laws. Additionally, if not clearly disclosed in ads, these mandatory fees may also violate Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules regarding deceptive disclosures. Both agencies -- as well as most other government offices -- offer an online complaint process that can be completed in minutes.

Resort fees: These were once relatively rare add-ons that covered extras, such as beach-side cabana service and luxury hotel gyms. Now, they’re so commonplace that it’s difficult to book a hotel in a tourist mecca, such as Las Vegas, without facing added fees that can range from $10 to $100 a night. 

Indeed, said Grant, honest hoteliers who disclose the full cost of a stay upfront are put at a disadvantage by these sneaky levies, which are often collected at the end of the hotel stay or added on like a tax when the consumer is paying for the booking.

What you can do: Shop carefully, making sure to review the fine print at online booking sites for any additional fees that might be added to the advertised price. Save a copy of the disclosures, if a fee is added later. The FTC and some members of Congress are now calling for “all-in” hotel pricing, noting that while hotels say the fees are for extras, such as coffee in the room and other amenities, the charges are mandatory. Consumers can’t simply decline them as they would for other extras, such as room service. 

Adding mandatory fees that weren’t disclosed before booking is likely a violation of Unfair and Deceptive Practices acts, which are overlaid in both state and federal laws. If you’re hit by one of these fees, complain to the FTC and your state consumer affairs department.

Telecommunication fees: Couching added charges as “regulatory cost recovery” and “administrative” fees, telecommunication companies often deceive consumers into believing that their bills have been inflated by government taxes, when these fees actually go to the phone and cable companies themselves. 

Calling the big four --  AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ), Comcast (CMCSA) and Charter -- an “oligopoly on steroids,” Consumer Federation of America (CFA) recently delivered an extensive report to the Senate Judiciary Committee that contends consumers are being overcharged by an average of 25 percent.

What you can do: Unfortunately, while you can comparison shop for cell phone service, the chance of having choice when it comes to telecommunications services provided at home is increasingly rare, according to the CFA report. AT&T’s pending purchase of Time-Warner (TWX) could exacerbate the dearth of options. 

If you have a choice of cable, TV, phone and internet providers, shop around. If you have no choices and feel you’re being overcharged and underserved, complain to the FTC.

It’s worth noting that federal and state legislatures, as well as some government regulators, have the authority to require “all-in” pricing, said Grant. However, some agencies have been reluctant to use this authority, which makes it all the more important that consumers make their dissatisfaction heard, she said. The internet makes filing a complaint with a regulator and your own elected representatives a relative breeze.

You can find your elected representatives here.

The Federal Communications Commission’s complaint forms are here.

The Federal Trade Commission’s complaint forum is here.