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Customer disservice 

Please hold while corporate bullies rampage the New Economy

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EarthLink very well could provide the best Internet service in the country, as J.D. Power and Associates claims. But what does that say about the entire industry?

Here's another, more disturbing question: If you aren't an asshole to your customers, will you survive as a business?

Banja says the meaner you are, the better off the company's bottom line will be. "The corporate world is now all about chewing them up and spitting them out," he says. "So compassion and support and the old kinds of human comforts and human sensibilities that maybe our parents' generation and especially our grandparents' generation just took for granted, kind of are eroded in our society."

Besides decency, only weak laws and the threat of punishment keep businesses from screwing us over at every turn. The bad news is that there's little else to prevent the scams -- both legal and illegal -- that companies perpetrate these days.

Ultimately, there really isn't much recourse other than the Better Business Bureau and a few anemic public agencies like the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs, and the Consumer Affairs branch of the Georgia Public Service Commission. Neither the bureau nor the public agencies have the legal teeth to force companies to do right by their customers, and they can't prosecute or penalize companies when those companies are accused of rip offs.

When the Better Business Bureau hears from a consumer who has had a run-in with a company, it notifies that company about the complaint. The company typically responds by saying it's working with the customer, saying it already has resolved the issue or claiming there is no resolution to be found.

Some companies completely ignore the Better Business Bureau.

The state attorney general's office can prosecute companies for defrauding customers, but it usually goes after the big scams like fake Policemen's Ball charities and Ponzi schemes.

The Federal Communication Commission handles complaints dealing with telephone and Internet service provider issues. But even its hands are tied because of a lack of resources.

"At the federal level, typically no agency can help you out as an individual," says Tom Garman, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech University and author of over 20 books on rip offs and consumer protection.

"What you have here is a national cop in Washington, D.C., and we have maybe five large companies doing all this cramming and slamming, and no telling how many little companies. So, people complain to federal government -- 3,000 to 4,000 a month or even more -- and the FCC chases down the companies. They write a check to the federal government but the money doesn't typically go back out to the wronged consumers.

"And on the state level, they typically do have the legal authority to go after the bad guys. But what if it's just people duped out of $2 on their phone bill? [State governments] don't bother to cut a check for that."

The sad part, Garman says, is that there are no laws that make it illegal for companies to overbill or to continue charging customers for accounts that are supposed to be canceled.

"There's so many things that happen to consumers that you and I would say, 'Hey! That's thievery, that's terrible, there must be a law against that,'" Garman says. "Well, there's not. They go on and on and on, and there's very little negative consequences for the companies.

"It's a nasty world out there. You absolutely have to be a cynic today. If you are not, you are going to get ripped off again and again."

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