Stop getting pushed around by insurance companies, airlines and other hulking corporations. We have your counterpunch.
(MONEY Magazine) - "It was like something out of Kafka," says Jim Mensching, a physician in Cohasset, Mass. He's talking about a customer service nightmare. All he needed was the written confirmation that he had paid his car loan so he could get a new title. But his finance company couldn't produce it--Mensching had recently moved house, then refinanced, sending the Bureaucratic Disaster Meter into the red zone. "It's like it was nobody's job to fix my problem." He spent two months spelunking the depths of the bank and the DMV, until he finally found...the person whose job it was.
Helplessness and rage are a dangerous combination. Mensching's problem was pretty minor compared with those involving, for example, your health or retirement. That's where the real rage comes in. Say you're on the phone with your insurer complaining about a mammoth $1,400 error on your medical bill. They pull their Goliath bureaucracy routine, claiming there's nothing they can do but that you should try calling this number, which turns out to no longer be in service. You're left standing in the kitchen like a fool, clutching your bill, staring wide-eyed at nothing, so helpless and so fuming mad that you just want to eat your phone.
That's when you gotta outsmart 'em. In every industry, there's a gem of knowledge that will help you signal to even the most obdurate bureaucrat that you know how the game is played. Learn the basic rules governing any noble fight against a big company. Then apply them to whatever behemoth you're fending off.
1 Know the rules and speak the language. This is the most important. Before you dial 800-anything, try to understand how the industry you're fighting operates. This will keep you a step ahead of the "service" provider.
2 Acquire the basic weapon of the modern red tape warrior: the paper trail. "Each company a consumer deals with has its own culture. Some are going to be better than others at dealing with problems," says Bob Hunter of the Consumer Federation of America. You, however, have to be on top of your game each time. Document the original problem, of course, but also chronicle any hassle in trying to fix it.
3 Write a killer letter. And, more to the point, get it into the hands of the right people. The sooner you alert a supervisor or investigator, the better off you'll be. Most companies have a 30- or 60-day window for handling consumer complaints, particularly when it comes to cash-related issues like credit-card disputes or mysteriously inaccurate account balances.
4 Seek a higher power. Tattle. Rat. Take it to the top. If you've spent more time navigating customer service channels than seems reasonable--or you realize that you no longer have dedicated, sentient beings working your case--it's time to get someone with a big stick to move things along. But to do that effectively, you'll need to know where to go and what to ask for. To find out the where and the what, keep reading.
Save the Children
Who knew that so many day-care centers have no
Age 39, Lithonia, Ga.
FIGHTS BACK AGAINST UNINSURED DAY-CARE CENTERS
When Jackie Boatwright's son Juan was 14 months old, he
fell headfirst into a bucket of mop water while unattended at his day-care
center. He nearly drowned and later slipped into a semi-comatose state.
Boatwright was shocked and mystified to find that the place, which had a
license, wasn't insured and couldn't cover Juan's medical costs. More than four
years later, he remains severely disabled. "It was insane," she says.
"My plumber is insured. The people who do my yard are insured. I couldn't
imagine how the people who kept my child were not required to carry liability
insurance, nor were they required to inform me." Boatwright did some
research, and her horror deepened: Dozens of other states had the same
Boatwright waged a mother's war. Her calls to state
legislators eventually resulted in Juan's Law, passed in Georgia in 2004. It
requires that day-care centers without liability insurance post that fact
conspicuously and that parents acknowledge it in writing. She's pushing a
similar law in Virginia, and North Carolina is next on her list. Her advice for
parents: Ask day-care facilities if they have liability insurance. "Kids
are going to have accidents," she says. "If I'd been given all the
facts, I could have made a better choice about where to leave my child."
Uncovering the dangers of prescription drugs
Age 68, Washington, D.C.
FIGHTS BACK AGAINST FDA LAXITY
Ideally, the Food and Drug Administration would need no
prodding to protect Americans from unsafe drugs. But it does, and that fact has
kept Dr. Sidney Wolfe busy for more than three decades. As director of the
Health Research Group at consumer watchdog Public Citizen, Wolfe has been much
tougher than the FDA--and it's a good thing. Well before Vioxx was pulled
because of heart-related side effects, for example, the group asked the FDA to
put a stronger warning on the pain pill. "The impact that FDA-regulated
products have on health is massive," says Wolfe, who covers problematic
drugs on Worstpills.org. "By making sure the facts are correct and picking
our targets carefully, we can actually force the government to do things the
industry may not want them to do but which are better for the public's