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Are You Getting Gouged Online?

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(extracted from an article in WXPNews. For the complete article go to http://www.wxpnews.com What is WXPnews? WXPnews is the world's first and largest weekly B2C-zine uniquely focused on the many millions of new and current Microsoft Windows XP users. – I subscribe to it and enjoy reading it every time it pops into my mailbox. Sometimes the more technical articles are beyond me, but those such as the one extracted below are always enjoyable).

Today, many of us rarely ever write a check. We pay with credit or debit cards or authorize automatic bank withdrawals. I know some folks who never carry cash. We sit at home (or in a hotel room hundreds or thousands of miles away from home), log onto our computers, and pay our bills without having to write checks, buy stamps or use gasoline. Due date is tomorrow? No problem (at least with many accounts) - there's still plenty of time to pay it and avoid late charges.

Meanwhile, the payee doesn't have to worry about whether your check is good, and doesn't have to pay someone to do the time-consuming work of processing a hand written check. It's more convenient for them, it's more convenient for you, and everybody saves a little money. It's a win-win situation. Except when it's not.

There's one bill that I don't pay online; when it comes to my water bill, I still mail in a check even though the city has an online payment option. Why? Because they charge a ridiculous $2.50 processing fee for online payments. My electric company, gas company, credit card company and others that I pay online charge nothing extra to do so. A couple of times, with various one-time bill payments, I have run into minimal processing fees, on the order of 25 or 50 cents. The whole idea of online payments is that it automates things and makes it less expensive, so why is the city charging a premium to use their system? Is it because they think the people who would pay online probably have more discretionary income and therefore won't mind getting hit up for a little extra? Did they contract with some service to handle the processing and they're getting charged this fee to do it and passing it on to the customer? I don't know, but I know I'm not paying it.

Speaking of getting gouged, when I pay all those other bills online, I do it by credit card (except, of course, for the credit card bill itself). One reason to use a credit card is to get the cash-back rewards (it goes without saying that you also need to pay off the balance of the card at the end of every month so you don't get charged interest). But there's another reason: I've heard too many horror stories from people who authorized automatic payments directly from their banks, and then were unable to stop those payments when they cancelled the service. A friend of mine found that six months after cancelling a membership, the company was still withdrawing that money from her account. When she tried to cancel it through the bank, they told her that the company the payments were going to would have to cancel it, and that the only way she could stop it was to close her bank account and open a new one.

Of course, there are other ways to get gouged online. As mentioned, you can often find low prices from online outlets - but be sure you figure in the total cost. Some unscrupulous web retailers fail to show you the shipping and handling charges until you get all the way through the payment process and have already input your credit card information. That's like asking you for a blank check; in a few cases, I've seen shipping and handling costs that were four times the price of the item itself.

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