Are companies baiting deadbeat customers into new purchases?

If you think corporate America doesn’t like losing its credit card disputes to its customers, you don’t know the half of it.

Andy Cockerham’s story — if it’s true — will send shivers down your spine. I still can hardly believe it happened.

Cockerham says he booked a Priceline car rental recently and, like many travelers, he had second thoughts.

“My dates changed,” he says.

He tried to cancel, but as you probably know, some of Priceline’s reservations are nonrefundable. So Cockerham disputed the charge on his credit card — and he won.

Case closed? Not exactly.

Priceline’s promotional offers kept coming, and he decided to make a second reservation with the help of the Negotiator. This one was through Avis in Tampa.

But when he arrived, Cockerham discovered his prepaid rental had been canceled. Who did it? Priceline, said an Avis representative. He called Chase, his credit card, and asked for help again. They said they could do nothing to help him.

“I never got the car,” he says, “I paid $483.”

OK, so to recap: Cockerham made what appeared to be a nonrefundable reservation, canceled and disputed the charge, which he probably shouldn’t have done. After all, nonrefundable means nonrefundable. (Except when it doesn’t.)

But then he made a second reservation through Priceline and instead of honoring it, Priceline canceled the reservation and kept his money. It probably shouldn’t have done that.

I asked Priceline for its side of the story. It says part of his tale checked out. He did, indeed, rent a nonrefundable car. He canceled and then disputed his purchase. But it has no record of a second reservation and insists it won the dispute. A representative says it contacted Avis on his behalf and it refunded the $483, which is great news for Cockerham.

But here’s a serious question: Should a company be able to bait you into a new purchase after it lost a previous dispute and then refuse to honor the new purchase, pocketing your money?

I have to admit, there are parts of Cockerham’s account that I’m unsure of. If he prevailed once in a credit card dispute, why wouldn’t Chase help him a second time? Also, would Priceline’s actions violate a merchant agreement with American Express, Visa or MasterCard? I’m told that some of these agreements specifically say you can’t take a customer to court or call a collection agency if a dispute doesn’t go your way, although I’ve never seen an agreement that spells it out.

And even if it could do this, why would it?

Take a few steps back, though, and the “why” comes into clear focus. This isn’t a Priceline issue or even a travel issue. It suggests a frayed relationship between consumers and corporations in the 21st century. We have become little more than revenue opportunities to big companies and it really doesn’t matter how they get our money, or even if they should get it — they will get it one way or another.

Maybe this Priceline dustup is just one big misunderstanding. I certainly hope so. But there is a deeper truth we all can see. Even if Priceline isn’t sticking it to Cockerham, we know a company like Priceline wouldn’t hesitate to stick it to someone like Cockerham. And that’s what troubles us.

I worry that the line between right and wrong is blurred and that only winning matters. And that, my friends, has nothing to do with capitalism or the free market — and it has everything to do with evil intent and greed.

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