Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Fight Back

Over her years of using her Toronto Star column to help consumers fight back against unfair company practices, Ellen Roseman has built up wide-ranging consumer skills. Her book Fight Back teaches us what she has learned and goes further with many parts written by experts in different areas. Across 81 short, easy-to-read sections, Roseman covers how to deal with almost every conceivable consumer problem.

The broad categories covered in this book are banks, finances, telecom suppliers, travel, retailers, cars and houses, and the courts. I’ve had troubles in most of these areas, and I find this book very valuable. However, Dave Chilton, who wrote the foreword, shows he is better at singing Roseman’s praises than I am when he starts with “I LOVE ELLEN ROSEMAN’S WRITING.” I agree.

In the rest of this post I’ll discuss specific parts of the book that I found interesting.

Mutual Fund Companies

In the past “many [mutual fund] companies treated investment advisors as their customers, while ignoring the needs of investors. That is no longer true.” I find this surprising. I’d like to hear more from Roseman to understand what she thinks has improved.

Right of Set-Off

“If you keep your operating account with the same bank where your loans are, your funds could be seized by the bank if you get behind on your loan.” This “right of set-off” makes it useful to have “some funds that are beyond the reach of your lending bank.”

Telecom Discounts

Roseman isn’t afraid to describe some tricky tactics to counter those used by internet, cable, and phone companies. These companies have specific deep discount percentages they sometimes offer to keep a customer. “If you know what the discount percentage is, you can pretend you were offered it and you are now calling back to confirm taking it.”

Travel Insurance

“If you make a mistake in any one of your answers [on a health history questionnaire], you will not be able to collect on your insurance ... even if the reason for your claim has nothing to do with the erroneous answer.”

Rental Car Insurance

What car rental companies offer “is not insurance but a collision damage waiver (CDW). This means that the rental company waives its right to collect a high deductible from you if the car is damaged.” I’m not sure I understand this. Does this mean that rental cars are already insured but the deductible is high? If so, I can afford a fairly high deductible as long as the bulk of any very large judgements is covered.

Credit Card Disputes

In my limited experience, credit card companies seem very accommodating when I dispute charges. However, you lose your zero-liability guarantee if you “have reported two or more unauthorized events in the past 12 months.”

Little Black Book of Scams

Roseman recommends reading the little black book of scams. That’s an intriguing title.

End-of-Lease Charges

Roseman says that her neighbour is on to something when he theorizes about the motives of a particular car company when it leases cars. “The company loses money on artificially inflated residual values” and it uses inflated lease-end charges “to recover the loss.” Given how so many people focus exclusively on the size of monthly payments, it’s easy to see how car companies can be tempted to drive payments lower and make up the difference at the end of the lease.


  1. I wonder if the car rental companies have insurance on the cars for things like if the car hits and kills a pedestrian but they have no insurance on damage to or destruction of the car itself. I do know way back in the days when I didn't own a car and therefore had no personal car insurance that I was told (perhaps wrongly) that by paying for the CDW I was covered for any damage to the car and for any damage I caused with the car.

    Nowadays I have my own car insurance which includes a certain amount of coverage for a rental car, and I have a credit card which covers a certain amount for a rental car, so I hopefully would be covered if something happened. I sometimes wonder, though, if I'd be caught in a net of each company claiming the other one has to pay first.

    I suspect all insurance companies are a lot like the one Mr. Incredible worked for in the animated movie.

    1. @Bet Crooks: It makes sense that the rental car company would want protection against huge judgements. But I'm just speculating the same way you are. I also have my own coverage for rental cars with my car insurance. I never saw the movie -- I'll have to ask one of my sons about the reference.

  2. If you get bored on a flight sometime, see if they have it on the selections. There's two scenes worth watching: Mr Incredible working at an insurance company; and the costume designer explaining why she doesn't "do" capes any more for super heroes. (Can you say "jet engine"?)

  3. When you rent a car, basic coverage for things like liability and personal injury is included because it's illegal to drive without any coverage. However, if you decline the CDW and have no other coverage (such as your own policy or credit card coverage) the rental company may come after you for the cost of any repairs or the value of the car if a write-off.

    As an example, I totaled a rental car that was rented on a credit card with built in loss/damage coverage. The rental car company's insurer paid for my physio treatment, and the credit card company paid for the value of the car.

    You can think of it like forgoing collision coverage for an old clunker, except that it's not your car so the owner may want you to pay for any damage. I would not advise self-insuring on rental cars unless you don't mind a $20-30K bill in case of accident!

    1. I should add that this was at a time when I did not own a car, and thus had no auto insurance (or other liability coverage) of my own.

      While perhaps a bit overkill, someone who has substantial assets but no umbrella liability coverage provided through home or car insurance would be prudent to purchase a separate policy to protect against judgements stemming from freak accents and so on.

    2. @Jonathan: Thanks for the explanation. With all this overlapping coverage, I guess there is some fun when it comes to deciding who will pay.

  4. So to sum up bits of the book... hide money from your creditors, and lie to the cable company?

    1. @Anonymous: I would say your characterization in unfair but funny. Funny counts for quite a bit, though.