Does Priceline pre-check the travel insurance box “for your convenience”?

Joel Peterson says it does — or at least did — when he booked a hotel room through Priceline in February. He made a name-your-own-price bid, which he says was accepted, along with an unwanted trip insurance policy.

Pre-checking, or forcing travelers to “opt out” of a purchase, is a controversial e-commerce practice that drives customers away. It is, however, extremely profitable to the company doing it.

None of that matters to Peterson, who just wanted his money back. Here’s what happened to him:

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I’m not real sure when the box popped up that I was supposed to uncheck. But as soon as I saw the e-mail invoice I called Priceline to have them refund the charge for the insurance, as I did not want the insurance.

They told me that I would have to call the insurance company. I did, to no avail. So, I called Priceline back and demanded to speak to a supervisor after the first person told me that the charge was non-refundable. The next person told me the same thing and would not refund my money for the insurance.

Then something happened.

A few days before our trip Priceline called and said that the hotel we had reserved, and had already paid for, was full and they would have to move us to a different one. We had to accept the other hotel, and to be fair to Priceline the other hotel was nice too.

After this call, I called them back and requested a refund for the trip insurance again, with the same result.

Peterson decided to contact the Minnesota state attorney general. He filled out a complaint form. Two letters later, Priceline refunded the insurance charge.

I asked Priceline: Do you pre-check that insurance box?

“Absolutely not,” a spokesman told me. “And I just went through the bid process so you can see for yourself how we handle it. You’ll see the box is blank.” (Picture above.)

But even if Priceline was pre-checking back in February, when Peterson made this reservation — what’s so wrong about that?

For the answer, I turn to Shel Horowitz, an ethical marketing expert.

When you sneak things into people’s shopping cart, you’re making a mistake on the moral level, of course — but also on the practical level, because this could easily turn into first a PR disaster and then an expensive legal case.

Plus of course it absolutely eliminates the possibility of turning a one-time customer into a loyal fan, even an evangelist for you.

Priceline is doing the right thing by asking its customers if they want travel insurance — not assuming they do.