I had a "fun" time, yesterday morning. It took an hour on the phone, so I'll just give you the very short version. The sub-heading here is to really watch closely if you click on any reasonable emails or webpages, even if they're from reasonably mainstream sources. And really watch closely most especially if you have someone in your family who's elderly and clicks on things with a wee bit less discretion than might otherwise be considered ideal...
I get the Visa bill for my 92-year-old dad, which I pay from his account. This month's bill arrived yesterday, and because he'd told me about some scam emails that he'd received and may have clicked on one, I looked closely at the charges this month. No charges for those scams appeared, though something else got me scratching my head.
There were three charges I didn't have a clue what they were for, and I thought I might have seen before on his bills. When I'd seen such things in the past, I figured they might be charities he sometimes donates to, and so I never paid them close attention, as one-time charges. But this time, I looked at previous months' bills (which fortunately I keep, because they're for his account), and noticed that they were indeed there, and being charged every month.
I did some online research, and though they seemed perhaps respectable to a degree they just didn't seem like anything he'd ever have signed up for, but likely something he clicked by accident or without reading the fine-print. Fortunately, they all had phone numbers listed, so I called them each.
The first was for a reverse phone number lookup site. It cost only 95-cents -- but if a box was checked, it meant you signed up for their monthly "service." That worked out to $20 a month...for the past 11 months. I cancelled it and was able to get a refund for three months. That seemed a bit paltry, but at least it was three months, and the main thing was cancelling. I argued a bit, but could tell it would be convoluted to get more -- and I had other charges to deal with. So, on to the next one.
That was for something called Health Care Magic, a medical-type information service. The person explained that for the $15 a month being charged, they provide the availability to contact medical professionals who -- and I immediately interrupted the person. "My dad was a physician for over half a century. There is no way on earth he subscribed to a service where he could call a doctor he'd never heard of in order to get medical advice." They cancelled the service and gave me...three months refund. Couldn't they give more, I replied? Well, if they refunded all charges to anyone who asked, that wouldn't make any sense. Right, because getting someone's money under false pretense is not a good thing, is it? I did say something like that to the person, though a bit more politely.
The third call was a hoot in two ways. It also was another reverse phone number service. (Apparently my dad likes such things. Though he insists he doesn't remember ever using one. "In all fairness," I said, "just 30 seconds ago you joked that I'm lucky you remembered my name." So, remembering this from a year ago might be a challenge, for anyone.) It was another $20 monthly charge dating back for a year, all for an initial, simple 95-cent fee.
The first funny thing about the call resulted from the difficulty in getting them to access the account, since I made the mistake of saying I wasn't the primary cardholder. In fairness to them, it was good security. In fairness to me, I had all the main information they wanted, and all the other companies I'd just contacted made the change right away. But not being the prime cardholder, I needed to be able to access his account with a user name and password -- which there was no way conceivably that my dad would have set up, let alone remembered.
"What would have been the situation if my dad called up directly himself?" I asked.
"We would have asked for his name, last four digits of his credit card and home address."
"No user name or password?"
"So, in other words," I asked, "I could have just called up, said I was my father, and you would have accessed everything immediately?"
"Well...er, I can't tell you, er...that you should...er..." the guy stammered.
"Right, I understand. I was just curious, that's all. I understand."
"So, is there something else I can help you with tod..."
"No, thanks, goodbye."
And so I hung up, called the same number right back, got a different operator, explained that I was my dad (feeling somewhat like, "I am your father, Luke..."), gave them all the information they wanted, and got the charges cancelled. No request for a user name and password. Easy as pie. And I then asked about a refund.
That's what brought up the other funny thing.
He said he could give me a month's refund. One month? Well, that's not much, I replied. The other places I spoke with at least gave me two or three months of refunds.
"Well, what kind of a refund would you want??" he asked a bit snarkily.
I was about to say the same three months the others offered, but since he had sounded snarky, I figured that I had nothing to lose. "What kind would I like?? Well...honestly, what I'd like is to have the whole past year refunded."
"Okay," I'll refund last twelve months."
Say what??? I didn't know if I heard him right. "So...you'll refund all the entire amount??"
"Yes, the last 12 months."
Hey, great. Works for me! What I found so hilarious is that he only offered to refund one month -- yet when I got annoyed off enough to ask for all 12, just to be pointed, he didn't blink and said fine.
Now, mind you, I have idea if he actually will refund the past year, but I'll find out when next month's Visa bill arrives. But then, I don't know if any of these people will actually refund anything -- the truth is though that although that's a hefty coin, what I mainly I want is the charges cancelled. But my sense is that none of these companies want problems. As I said, they're all fairly normal companies, not Nigerian Prince places. And it's probably SO much easier to refund charges than risk masses of people furious and contacting the FTC or government trade agencies. But we'll see what happens.
The larger point of this story though is even if something is from a fairly legitimate source...check the fine print. And if you have an elderly family member who is trusting upon the world of clicks -- keep relentlessly reminding them not to. And if they like to do things like check reverse phone numbers, perhaps suggest that instead of contacting a website, they contact you instead, and let you handle things...
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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