The most ridiculous consumer stories of 2015

Outrageous fees. Deceptive business practices. Angry customers.

You can’t make this stuff up.

And 2015 delivered a bumper crop of ridiculousness — or, as Bill Maher might say, ridiculousity.

It all started with my dire prediction in January that the absurdity would get worse. And guess what? That’s exactly what happened.

They’d just ignore the rules, anyway. Would better laws protect consumers? Not necessarily. As I observed, airlines routinely ignore EU 261, a law meant to help their passengers. Why wouldn’t they do the same thing here? (Answer: They would.)

Crossing the state line costs extra. Here’s one of my favorite ridiculous stories of the year, involving a driver who crossed the state line and had to pay extra for a rental car. Seriously. Where do they come up with this stuff? (You want to know what I loved most about that one? Five percent of the folks who took the poll said these preposterous fees represented the free market at its best. What’s up with that?)

TSA. Enough said! When it comes to the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems, there’s no need to manufacture outrage (something I would never do, of course). The TSA does it all by itself. We asked some hard questions about the TSA’s ill-fated “managed inclusion” program that allowed random strangers to bypass a few of the agency’s vaunted layers of security, but no one seemed to care. Now that every frequent air traveler has shelled out money for a club membership in PreCheck, the debate is over, isn’t it?

Comcast! Do I even need to elaborate? OK, then. For a company spending tens of millions of dollars on improving customer service, it sure doesn’t have much to show. Try harder, Comcast.

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Do airlines try to deceive us? Many airline apologists think this is a game. The people who read every booking screen will be rewarded with reasonably fair treatment. The ones who don’t have the same attention to detail? Well, they deserve what they get. Witness the discussion on this post about American Airlines’ deceptive “hold” policy. Personally, I think the reaction to this story is more ridiculous than the policy. How can anyone think this policy is customer-friendly, and where can I buy what they’re smoking?

And you know what’s next, don’t you? The best — or the worst — is yet to come. Corporate America got away with a lot in 2015. It gave us less but charged us more. It pocketed our hard-earned money when it shouldn’t have. It earned record profits as a result.

Meanwhile, we stood like buffalo facing into a storm and allowed the apologists to tell us that we deserved to be hit with fees and restrictive conditions, because we didn’t read every last paragraph of the fine print. So, in a way, many of our wounds are self-inflicted. The enemy isn’t out there — it’s right here in our inner circle.

Perhaps that’s what 2016 will be all about. It’s clear that corporations have lost their moral compass. It’s clear that they will do whatever they can to increase their shareholder value, even if it means lying, cheating and stealing.

The most ridiculous part of it isn’t that we let them. Often, we had no choice after agreeing to their profoundly unfair adhesion contracts. No, the most absurd part of this is that we allowed other consumers to convince us that this ridiculousness — this ridiculousity — was something we deserved.

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We didn’t.

Maybe we need to shut down these faux advocates next year. I’ll add that to my “to do” list.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • MF

    and what about your ‘naughty & nice’ list? is anyone keeping score?

  • So many travel company problems stem from those adhesion contracts. Let’s all hope that populism remains the focus of the 2016 political scene.

  • David___1

    “How can anyone think this policy is customer-friendly, and where can I buy what they’re smoking?” Colorado. You can buy it in Colorado.

  • David___1

    “It’s clear that corporations have lost their moral compass. It’s clear that they will do whatever they can to increase their shareholder value, even if it means lying, cheating and stealing.”
    I’d feel more comfortable if you added the word SOME: “some corporations have lost…”. You wouldn’t have that column “The Good News Guy” if your broad, sweeping statement were true. There are still many companies who understand that “customer service” is a way of life, not a slogan. So this condemnation goes a bit far.

  • AJPeabody

    Wait! There’s More!

    Almost every terms and conditions I see these days now includes a binding arbitration clause and forbids class actions. You have no rights except the right not to do anything that has terms and conditions.

  • Bill

    How about a most ridiculous consumer complaints list… just to even up the field

  • LostInMidwest

    I have to admit that I am sometimes left without hope when I read what people write in comments and defend behavior that, to me, is so obviously appalling.

    Sometimes, it is not even about “fake advocates”, it is almost like people yearn for punishment with the excuse of “it would cost too much otherwise”; all the while having zero data points to support the theory of higher cost. Prime example is the second biggest purchase most of us normal people will ever make after purchasing the house – buying a car. The industry model where somebody picks for you your “choices” and then you better be happy when you spend just about $33,000 (average new car transaction) on a compromise and not exactly what you want is defended so ferociously by people who should know better (car enthusiasts) that nothing then really surprises me anymore.

    Ultimately, people will get what they deserve. Just like the guys on car forums, who believe that their knowledge about the industry and the product makes them better off than average Joe, get ultimately screwed by the system of limited choices and compromises that favors importers and car dealers and punishes consumers, so are our “travel savvy” industry lovers. They just don’t know it – just like the car guys.

    When I see what my Italian colleagues working for the same company spend on air travel and hotels when traveling in Europe and compare it with what we spend here, it makes me want to puke. The only positive thing for me is that it is not my money that I spend for travels here. However, it certainly sets my future choices when I will be using my own money to travel – or NOT travel at all as the case might be.

    I will take my money where consumer is protected much better and where most establishments associated with travel cannot afford to lose one customer, let alone 10,000 or more like they do here. Most hotels in Europe are family owned. You think Marriott (for example) cares as much about a bad review on Trip Advisor as a place owned by a family? Marriott can afford to lose maybe a 1,000 customers without even knowing it on the bottom line while family owned place might close as a consequence of 5-6 consistently bad reviews. Talk about voting with one’s wallet …

  • LonnieC

    “The industry model where somebody picks for you your “choices” and then
    you better be happy when you spend just about $33,000 (average new car
    transaction) on a compromise and not exactly what you want….”

    I’m not sure what you are referring to in the quoted language. If I go into a car dealership and they show me a car that doesn’t meet every single one of my requirements, can’t I just walk out? How am I forced to buy what I don’t want? There are many dealers and many brands of cars – I can choose. Isn’t this much different than the airlines, which have pretty much exclusively locked up certain routes and leave me no choice?

  • Mel LeCompte Jr.

    I’m a big fan of balance — for example, I love both Bill O’Reilly and NPR.

    With consumer issues, I love both this site and Consumerist, and I read both daily. But I also love to read, just to see things from the other side.

  • LostInMidwest

    The number of permutations is hugely restricted by:

    a) Government. Our Government wants to test every possible permutation of chassis, engine, transmission and type of traction. Instead of testing chassis (think sedan, station wagon and coupe for example like last generation of Cadillac CTS) for crash worthiness and engine for emissions, they want $2+ million for each permutation to be tested. That is how Europeans can choose 10 different engines for a given car while we get 4 if extraordinarily lucky. Also, this is how Europeans can buy, for example, BMW 3 series with 3.0 liter engine with manual transmission as a sedan – even though maybe only 1,000 will be sold in the whole lifetime of the model. Here, you do not get a choice because money Government wants to allow BMW to sell unpopular model is greater than profit generated by 1,000 vehicles sold. Sheep keep bleating how “market has made a choice” while, in reality, Government made that choice for you.

    b) Importers – a.k.a. branches of car manufacturers responsible for marketing of that brand in U.S. Staying with BMW as an example, by restricting possible colors and stand-alone options, they can negotiate better price with the factory. For example, you cannot get a coupe without a moonroof – even though factory makes them all day long.

    c) Dealers. The model here sees at least 85% of the cars bought the same day, off the dealer’s lot. Basically, you will buy what somebody else chose for you (and what they want to sell), not necessarily what you want to buy. There is a huge difference between lavishly stocked dealer’s lot with 50 cars of a given model in many colors in many trim levels and 50,000 possible combinations when ordering a car a la carte with 7-10 engines available, all of them with either manual, automatic or double-clutch transmission available, most of them with possible AWD together with primary driven wheels and most of the options uncoupled from “packages” so you do not end up with ventilated seats in leather just because you like a good stereo.

    If you want to get a glimpse on how Europeans buy even pedestrian hatchbacks like Fiesta or Focus (for example), visit Ford’s German Web page or try to configure a fictitious Porsche 911 on Porsche’s U.S. page. Yes, Germans can option $20,000 cars in even more combinations than you can $100,000 Porsche.

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