Fighting Against Corporate America

02/09/2011 06:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

About fifteen years ago, I paid a small fortune for an indoor parking spot at a private attended garage in downtown San Francisco. My car was broken into while I was shopping; the window was smashed and the CD player was taken. When I spoke to the attendant about their insurance coverage, he told me, "We're not liable. It says so right there, on the back."

I flipped over the ticket, the one I had needed to take from the vending machine in order to get the gate to swing up. Sure enough, printed on the back was a contract -- one whose terms I had apparently agreed to simply by taking the ticket. One whose terms, not surprisingly, favored the garage.

And I thought I was angry about the break-in. Compared to this nonsense, the smash-and-grab guy I'd fallen prey to was a pillar of the community. The garage had gone ahead and lined up my legal recourse in anticipation of my misfortune. No recourse at all. They weren't sorry, had no intention of making it right or filing a claim. And the attendant's goal was to scare me into accepting the situation as not only the logical norm, but something to which I'd actually consented.

That technique probably works on many, if not most of the people who would find themselves in this situation. You can't fight City Hall -- and that's what drove me crazy about it. It was a subtle form of intimidation. You took the ticket; we told you about your risks. It's not our problem you didn't read it.

But I never signed a contract. I had every right to believe I was paying for the safety of my vehicle, and nothing printed on a ticket changed that fact.

I went Ralph Nader on them. Time meant nothing to me; this was a matter of principle. The result was a long and hostile series of shouting matches, calls to the consumer protection bureau, letters to the insurance carrier and the garage's parent company.

I was the squeaky wheel, and eventually I was reimbursed for the robbery. The money was nice, but certainly not the point. I resent the corporate mentality that posits customers must give up certain rights before receiving the benefit of transacting business.

I bring this up all these years later because recently a very large credit card company that I have a long history and a global airline known for service teamed up to use similar tactics on me. After transferring credit card points to a partner airline (points that represent more than $200,000 worth of my spending), I am told that the free tickets I wanted come with fees in excess of two thousand dollars. With this revelation, I wanted to cancel the transfer. I was told that it was "irreversible."


The terms "awards," "loyalty" and "customer service" were all over the titles of the people I talked with at both transnationals, but none of them had any interest in returning what I had rightfully earned. I had not redeemed the points or even booked any tickets. They were numbers one computer emailed to another that could not, under heaven or earth, be moved back.

Take it or leave it, they said. Read your membership agreement, they said. We have a policy, they said.

They think they're protected by their legal department -- the same line of garbage as in San Francisco, on a much bigger scale.

But these people don't know what the garage owners learned: There is the court of public opinion.

Stay tuned...