First world corruption

Photo: Both Sides of Table

In Lebanon, we often write off everyday corruption as a local phenomenon i.e. “Lebanese are crooks” or a regional “Arab” one or simply a characteristic of the malfunctioning “third world.” But theft and fraud are equally a part of daily life in the more ‘civilized’ so-called first world, where extortion often takes on more sanitized forms such as hidden fees and confusing or opaque billing processes.

Take Netflix, the online video rental company, which advertises a “free month” of rentals. While recently on holiday in the US, I decided take them up on the offer only to find out that the company discreetly retains your credit card information and quietly begins to charge users a monthly fee as soon as the ‘free month’ expires. Of course the company could easily remind customers that the ‘free month’ has expired, but instead they chose to capitalize on subscriber’s bad memory rather than the allure of their service. I’m sure many if not most new subscribers fall victim to this.  

But more insidious than NetFlix’s refusal to remind customers that the ‘free’ trial period has ended is the company’s failure to warn customers that they may have created an identical and redundant cost-incurring account, which could double your monthly fees. This happened to me when I accidentally entered a different email when I decided to reactivate my account, which I mistakenly assumed had expired. Without ever warning me of the duplicity, Netflix proceeded to charge me for two identical accounts over a period of four months, which I only discovered today.

I wonder how much money NetFlix makes off of customer’s human errors, which the company is totally capable of detecting. I did eventually get some, but not all of my money back. Yet this took several phone calls, a request to speak to a manger, and an absolute insistence that this was a form of fraud. But again, how many subscribers are willing or able to spend that much time on the phone with the company?

Furthermore, how many ‘civilized’ American companies capitalize on deceptive billing procedures and the average customer’s tendency not to notice hidden or eroneous charges and lack the time to dispute them? I’m guessing that figure is pretty large; greater or at least comparable to the bribes accepted to expedite procedures in certain developing states.

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