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What Kind Of Deception Do Your Customers Dislike The Most?

Duping customers is so routine, it almost goes unnoticed in today's 24/7 news cycle.

That's too bad. If you weren't paying attention, you would have missed the following recent stories:

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman last week announced a $2.2 million settlement with two energy companies that used deceptive marketing tactics to mislead thousands of Empire State residents. The utilities, Columbia Utilities and Columbia Utilities Power, allegedly offered variable-priced contracts, which did not limit the utility's ability to change the price at any time, among other things.

YTB Inc., a once high-flying online travel agency, settled with the state of Illinois over charges of deceptive marketing. It will pay $150,000. It's just the latest in a series of legal setbacks for the company.

And the The Federal Trade Commission asked the federal courts to temporarily halt what it says are deceptive tactics of 10 operations using fake news websites to market acai berry weight-loss products. The government alleges the sites masqueraded as legitimate news outlets, trying to persuade customers to buy their products.

Deceiving customers may be business as usual. But what kind of deception do your customers dislike the most?

False labels. Descriptions like "low fat" or "all natural" are probably the biggest offenders. But what, exactly, does that mean?

For example, the fast-food chain Wendy's recently introduced something called a "Natural Cut Fries." They look natural, but apparently the only thing "natural" about them was that they were once potatoes. Turns out they're sprayed with sodium acid pyrophosphate and dusted with dextrose, a corn-based sugar. The fries also contain dimethylpolysiloxane, a silicone-based antifoaming agent.

Hidden fees. Surprise fees or surcharges can appear anywhere from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which broadsides you with a "convenience" fee for paying by credit card, to your phone bill. Look at your latest phone bill. You know what I'm talking about. Banks and credit cards are dreadful, too, but airlines may be the worst.

In 2008, hit by high fuel prices, they started a deceptive practice called "unbundling" â€" systematically removing everything from the base price of a ticket and then charging you for it separately. Air travelers got the low airfares they wanted, until they showed up at the airport and learned they had to pay extra for a seat assignment, to check a bag, and to get a snack. The airlines laughed all the way to the bank.

Price games. Businesses deceive their customers with pricing practices that make their products look cheaper than they are. "Padding" is a retail practice of marking an item up and then "discounting" it to make it appear to be on sale. In fact, it's probably still overpriced. These white lies told so often that customers almost expect them.

But manipulating prices can be done on bigger scale and under the glare of the public spotlight. Oil companies were accused of padding their prices in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, but they didn't bother discounting â€" they just padded and kept the difference. The Federal Trade Commission investigated soaring energy prices, but found no widespread effort to manipulate the price of oil. Hardly a surprise, given that the Chairman and Commissioner of the FTC at the time was none other than former ChevronTexaco lawyer Deborah Platt Majoras.

Which of these deceptions bother your customers?


Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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Photo: Fazen/Flickr
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