Buy Online and Then Get Ripped Off

Last Updated Sep 4, 2009 8:36 AM EDT

Internet makes customers better informed so they can find the lowest price, right? Uh, wrong. The Internet just makes customers THINK they're better informed and THINK they're getting the lowest price.

Here's a perfect example. I recently rented a car from Deluxe Rent-a-car at Los Angeles airport. I've used Deluxe before because they consistently come up with the lowest price on the Internet. However, once you're there, they relentlessly upsell.

In the past, for example, they've tried to force me to pay for insurance unless I could produce a copy of my insurance policy. Fortunately, the time they pulled that one, my insurance agent took my call on a Sunday evening and faxed them a copy. (I love my agent -- a real sales pro!)

This time, however, Deluxe didn't try the "gotta prove insurance" ploy. However, they did force me to sign a paper filled with dire warnings about all sorts of horrible things that could happen for which I would be financially responsible, but which would be (of course) covered by any regular insurance policy.

But they DID pull something worse. They tried to upsell me from a mid-sized to a luxury car on the grounds it was "only $35 more". This upsell came up right after I had been requoted the weekly rate I got the Internet, which was around $180 for the week.

Because I had dealt with Deluxe before, I asked "is that $35 for the week or per day?" As you might guess, I was a daily increase. So to get a slightly bigger car, they were going to charge me an additional $235 on top of the original $180.

This interchange happened late in the day, after a cross-country two-leg flight with two toddlers, so I was dead tired. I'll bet that most people in my condition would have simply said "OK" and then signed the rental agreement without looking at the total price.

What's sad is that I really wasn't surprised. It's not just Deluxe. It's become standard practice for companies to jack down the basic price that comes up on the Internet, and then nickle and dime you to death with hidden charges to goose up their margins.

That's why it's silly to believe that online buyers are better informed and successful at getting the lowest price. A lot of the time, when you buy online, you're risking getting screwed, because you only thought you knew what you were doing.

That's why I buy my insurance from an agent. And it's also why I'm hiring a travel agent next time I travel. I want to deal with a sales professional whom I can hold accountable and who knows the ins and outs of what I'm buying.

READERS: How about you? Have you noticed that it's getting pretty darn easy to get ripped off when you buy on the web? Bought products that you can't return? Been surprised by hidden charges after the fact? I'd love to hear some horror stories.