UNSCREWED

By Ron Burley

Introduction


Why You Need This Book

Every four seconds, an unsuspecting American consumer is bamboozled, cheated, conned, deceived, defrauded, double-crossed, duped, fleeced, fooled, hoaxed, hoodwinked, phished, ripped-off, robbed, scammed, shafted, stung, swindled, taken in, or tricked— more than seven million customers taken advantage of every year by an unscrupulous, uncaring or unavailable company, corporation or creep.

Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of people getting screwed out of a lot of money. Of course, I’m not telling you anything new. If you hadn’t experienced it for yourself, you probably wouldn’t be reading this book. The harsh reality is that most of us have been victimized more than a few times.

This is no “write them a nice letter and see if they’ll be nice back” kind of how-to book. This is a take charge, “I’m going to get my money back,” book for people who are tired of getting screwed!

That being said, Unscrewed: The Consumer’s Guide to Getting What You Paid For is not an attack guide or revenge manual. It does not recommend personal attacks or destructive methods. At no time are you going to have to yell, threaten, or lie. On the contrary, the opening chapters focus on understanding the nature of the customer-business relationship and how to leverage it to your advantage. Our goal is to level the playing field and create a simple, obvious business equation that will result in the obstinate company doing what’s right.

The techniques are all legal and, when used according to the Unscrewed Plan, virtually guarantee a positive result. They focus on recovering what is fairly due, rather than just trying to get even or prove “rightness.”

The first three chapters of this book, you’ll learn why you’re getting screwed, and by whom. If you’re getting screwed right now and need instant help, skip ahead to Chapter 4 – The Unscrewed Solution. You can come back later and learn the reasons behind your pain.

In this book, Unscrewed refers to small vises that medieval torturers used to crush the thumbs of their victims. They would twist the vise screw into the top of the finger. Turn by turn, a steel pin would be driven further and further into the top of the finger nail, eventually piercing it, and creating excruciating pain. (The kind of pain one experiences when on voicemail hold for thirty minutes listening to that inane music.)

All of our various names for getting screwed remind me of the Inuit tribes of the Arctic, who have more than two-dozen words for snow. Their numerous names for the white stuff come from the fact that it is a familiar part of their daily lives. What does it mean for us that we’ve got as many names for being cheated as the Inuit have for snow? It means that we are more familiar with being taken advantage of than we should be.

Why are we so beleaguered?

Not all companies are crooked, but some are.

Not all mega-corporations are disinterested in the individual consumer, but that is the case with many.

Not all problems can be blamed on a free-enterprise system that promotes an atmosphere of make–the-sale-at-any-cost, though some can.

All of these are factors, but still only part of the customer disservice equation. There are several other significant reasons why we’re being victimized more often now than ever before.

First of all, the number of businesses that we deal with on a daily basis has grown exponentially. A hundred years ago, the average household dealt with only a few companies: the local market, the seed company, maybe a doctor. Think of all the companies and vendors you deal with today:

Alarm Company

Insurance Company

Appliance Dealer

Internet Provider

Auto Dealer And Manufacturer

Lawyer

Auto Mechanic

Mortgage Company

Bank

Online Vendors And Services

Cable Provider

Phone Company

Cell Phone Company

Real Estate Agent

Clubs (Health, Business, Civic)

Schools

Credit Card Company

Supermarket

Doctor

Ticket Outlet

Gas Station

Travel Agent

Health Club

Utility Company

 

That’s not even a complete list. I know you can think of more.

All those personal business relationships mean that you have that many more opportunities for mistakes, misunderstandings, and mischief. The mathematical probabilities favor it. If every one of the two dozen companies you deal with commits just one mistake or misdeed per year—then you’re going to be dealing with a situation that needs to be Unscrewed about every two weeks.

The second reason consumers are being victimized more often is that the bottom-line economic pressures on companies are greater now than ever before. Globalization, online shopping and mega-outlets have changed the retail business landscape. As second-world and third-world nations enter the multinational economy, companies are facing a greater number of competitors than ever before. In a do-or-die battle to cut costs, many companies have slashed customer service departments, replaced them with technological obstructions and created customer service policies that are actually a disservice to their customers.

The third reason is that today, unlike a century ago, most of the businesses you deal with are not local. Companies that used to be based in your community— your phone company, cable company, mortgage company, and even your dry cleaner—are now often part of a national chain, removing any sense of loyalty to your community.

Finally, your day is already full, and your ability to get timely satisfaction for a problem is being constantly eroded. It’s at the point where you, like many consumers, just decide it isn’t worth it—leaving millions of unearned dollars per year in the hands of corporations and individuals that didn’t earn it. To you, it’s a loss. They call it “unearned profit.”

In short, you’re not imagining that you’re getting screwed more often. You are!


Why I Wrote This Book

 

During my dozen years reporting for television and radio, I often heard from people about how they were being taken advantage of, or not being listened to, by inscrutable companies. The complaints ranged from small— a call on their telephone bill they know they didn’t make —to large, a mortgage company threatening foreclosure even though the mortgage check had cleared the bank.

I learned that, today, the traditional ways of getting companies to listen to complaints—calling or writing—fall on deaf ears. Even threats of going to court, or the state attorney general, are often ignored. Why? Because the decision-makers in those companies know that you’re not really going to do it, particularly over a couple of hundred dollars, sloppy service or a botched paint job. Your adversaries are counting on the fact that those options are too expensive, time consuming and complex for most of us.

After I left journalism and started several businesses of my own, I was amazed by the number of companies I dealt with that failed to fulfill their promises or contractual obligations. When I challenged them—I was often ignored, brushed off, or in some other manner told to go away. Even threatening to withhold my business didn’t faze the big guys—the credit card company, phone company or bank.

I went through the normal routines of writing letters, phoning, cajoling, being the nice guy, being the bad guy, pleading mercy, and threatening court—almost always to no effect. I couldn’t understand why companies would treat me as if they didn’t care if I ever came back. I’d always heard that “the customer was always right.” That maxim was clearly out-of-date.

There had to be a better way to get their attention. I started to research customer service warrantees and guarantees. I studied the historical relationship between businesses and their customers. I talked with customer service insiders to get some insight into why things are the way they are today, as compared to years gone by. Those investigations, and one incident in particular that I share later in this introduction, led me to develop The Unscrewed Solution.

In this book, you will learn a set of sometimes unorthodox, but very effective, methods of dealing with intractable companies, corporations, or crooks. Most of them can be accomplished in an afternoon, some in just minutes.

The Unscrewed Solution has nothing to do with mailing letters, begging for mercy or going to court. I often learned the hard way— through failure— what not to do. I share several of those stories in later chapters. I’ve been able to refine the techniques with the selection of just the right words, manner and message—so that I am now pleased to say that it’s been several years since I’ve lost a consumer battle.

My promise to you is that—if you follow the plan— you will walk away satisfied from the great majority of situations where otherwise you may have been taken advantage of or ignored.

As I mentioned earlier, more than what I heard from other consumers or learned from my own unfortunate experiences inspired this book. In particular, there was one personal episode in the early 1990’s that opened my eyes to a simple principle that would eventually become the foundation of The Unscrewed Solution.

 

Unscrewed True Story:
The Unscrupulous Car Dealer

 

When I was a young reporter, earning just enough to get by in the high-rent lifestyle of Honolulu, I had finally managed to scrape together the down payment on a new car. I got up one Saturday morning and headed out to Auto Row. I shopped around and found a very functional four-door sedan. Happy as a Kaneohe clam, an hour or so later, I drove away in my new car. It was very functional and ran well.

However, two days after I bought the car, I noticed an ad in the local newspaper. (It was a few days old because I’d been busy.) In the ad, the dealership where I bought my car was advertising a discount of $1500 for any car purchased over the weekend. I’d been able to get the guy to take off $300 and toss in some floor mats, but it looked like he’d forgotten to mention the advertised special.

I called up the dealership. The Sales Manager told me that “there is nothing we can do. The contract is signed and the loan approved. I wish we could, but we just can’t.”

I replied, “What do you mean? You advertised the special. The salesman should have told me about it? It’s just not fair.”

“That’s our policy. I’m sorry.”

“It’s a bad policy,” I said, for lack of any other words, and hung up the phone.

I was livid. I’d just been screwed out of $1200, less the cost of a couple of floor mats.

 

Something had to be done.

 

I steamed and fumed for several hours. I thought I’d take them to court, but wasn’t sure how, and wasn’t really sure if I had a case. I wanted to call some government agency in charge of fairness in advertising, but I wasn’t sure that the dealer was required to tell me about the ad. The problem was, while the situation was patently unfair, it probably wasn’t illegal. I paced my small apartment for another hour or two until I was hit with an idea. Since money was apparently the only thing that really mattered, I would simply make it more expensive to ignore me, than to give me what I deserved.

I sat down at my computer and typed out a few words in large letters. Then I printed up a couple dozen copies of my creation, stuck them in a manila folder and drove to the dealership. It had been only forty-eight hours since I purchased my new car, but as soon as I drove onto the lot I could tell that the word had been spread that I was a “problem” customer.

Instead of the cheery salesperson meeting me at the glass double doors, the Sales Manager appeared and told me somewhat tersely, “Mr. Burley, as I told you on the phone, there’s nothing we can do. All the paperwork has been sent in.”

I stood my ground, looked him in the eye and asked if we could go to his office. He stared back somewhat quizzically, though agreed to my request. We walked to his office. He sat down behind his chipped cherry veneer desk and I took a chair on the other side.

(Note: For legal reasons, and the fact that I don’t want someone’s angry mother showing up on my doorstep, the names have been changed of individuals or companies mentioned in most of the Unscrewed True Stories.)

“Mr. Smith”, I said. “I’m here to ask you one last time for you to do what is right. You advertised the $1500 discount, and I should have received it. Nowhere in the advertisement did it say that I had to bring in a coupon, mention the ad or anything like that. Therefore, you owe me $1200.”

“That’s not the way we see it at Akamai Motors. As I said on the phone, it’s our internal policy not to revise contracts after they’ve been signed.” He looked bored.

“Mr. Smith,” I replied. “Your internal policy has very little to do with me or my circumstances. We are talking about what is right, and speaking of rights, I am prepared to exercise mine.”

Mr. Smith’s eyebrows rose up in a kind of “Scooby Doo” expression. “What do you mean by that? Are you going to take us to court? If that’s what you’re saying, then this discussion has to stop right here.”

“No, I’m not talking about court. I’m talking about the first amendment.”

He gave me more of the Scooby Doo eyebrows.

“I’m still confused.” He looked it.

I put the manila folder in the center of the desk so that the pages would be facing him. I opened it to reveal a flyer, printed in red and black, which read:

 

Akamai Motors Lies To Its Customers!

They advertised a car at one price and then sold it

to me for $1200 more. For details, please call,

Ron Burley at 808-555-5555

 

“What do you intend to do with those?” He asked, now paying much more attention.

“Mr. Smith,” I said coolly, even though my hands were sweaty and shaking. “At this point, it doesn’t really matter to me whether I get my money back or not. I am going to exercise my first amendment right to stand on that public sidewalk out in front of your dealership. I’ll hand one of these to anybody walking onto your lot, even if they haven’t already seen the picket sign I’ll be carrying with the same message.”

Mr. Smith was speechless. The Scooby Doo eyebrows were gone. He looked more like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming car.

I continued, “I’ll bet that, in just a handful of Saturdays, I can convince a couple of dozen people to shop elsewhere. It could end up that, by not paying what’s due me, you lose ten times that much in future business. It won’t put any cash in my pocket, but I’ll feel a lot better about things. What do you think?”

Mr. Smith pushed back from the desk. “Give me just a minute,” he said, stood up and left the room. I sat in his office, reading the plaques on the wall, until he returned. He sat down behind the desk, and smiled at me.

“Ron, I was wrong. I double-checked with our General Manager and he says that we should have honored the advertisement all along, whether you knew about it or not. Please accept my apology for the misunderstanding. I just try to follow policy, and sometimes the wires get crossed.”

I smiled back. “Thank you Mr. Smith. I’m glad we straightened that out. When can I get my check?”

“Bookkeeping is taking care of it right now, if you can wait a few minutes.”

“Certainly,” I said. I walked out of the dealership a half hour later holding a check for $1200. They threw in the floor mats. I left the flyers on Mr. Smith’s desk.

Driving to the bank to deposit the check, I thought to myself. No letter writing. No court threats. I have a check and didn’t have to stand on any sidewalks. There could be something more to this…

                                             © 2007 - Random House Publishing