Friday, April 23, 2010

Crying wolf and 
legalised theft

Recently, we bought a new family car. The car is great but the process was surrounded by numerous dodgy ways to part us with our money.

Several car loans, for example, came with hidden fees. 
Car dealers would offer a reduced interest rate to get your business and then, at the time of setting up the finance, inform you there is a set-up and closing cost to the loan. 
Fees in one case were equivalent to 20% of the total amount of interest one would finally pay. In other words, the discount was not real – simply redistributed.

Insurance is seemingly another way to fleece the customer. 
I could not believe the number of insurance policies thrown at us: tyre insurance, gap cover and sickness payment indemnity. 
Of course, insurance is necessary when buying a car, but all the additional products and the relentless attempts to flog them left me queasy. I think someone even tried to sell me insurance to insure my insurance.

But the insurance rip-off extends well beyond car dealerships. The extended warranty is the cream of the con crop in the retail sector, especially in the UK and Ireland. 
Extended warranties promise repair and sometimes replacement cover in the event of an unexpected breakdown of electrical goods after the normal one-year warranty expires. About £900-million worth of extended warranties are sold to consumers in the UK each year, according to Which magazine.

However, Which also concludes, after detailed investigation, that most of these insurances are worthless. It found that, in some cases, the extended warranty premiums cost over 50% of the value of the original products, some of which had a 97% reliability rate. Many of these electrical goods were also dropping in price and, in two to three years, a new product would often cost the same as or less than the insurance premium paid out.

And who can forget cheap airline scams advertising low-priced flights that exclude taxes, costs for paying with a credit card, additional fees if you do not check in online, not to mention charges for bags and seats? 
Ryanair is even considering charging for the use of onboard toilets.

Then, of course, there is the swine flu swindle. Some £11,3-billion was spent on the pandemic worldwide. The UK alone overstocked 30-million doses of the vaccine and spent £150-million. It now emerges countries that spent considerably less have similar infection rates.

Many now claim the pharmaceuticals companies duped the World Health Organisation (WHO) about the extent of the risk in order to make money. The European Council is investigating the matter. The WHO refutes claims that it was influenced and the drugs companies assert they responded effectively to an impending threat.

Two facts, however, are indisputable. Firstly, swine flu made some people very rich, or at least richer. And, secondly, public confidence in professional institutions has been severely undermined.

How can anyone take the scientific profession seriously after it cried wolf in relation to swine flu, bird flu, mad cow disease, holes in the ozone layer and the millennium bug, all of which largely came to zilch? 
How can one trust insurance companies when their profits outstrip payouts so obscenely?

But then again HIV threats turned out to be correct, and climate change scares are already proving accurate. 
If you lived in New Orleans in 2005 and failed to renew your household insurance, you would be blaming yourself, not wealthy insurance companies, right now.

The problem, however, is that making an informed decision about buying insurance or following professional advice is impos-sible when the process is constantly surrounded by a cacophony of truth and lies, good and bad science, informed and self-interest-driven guidance, as well as ruthless businesspeople and a constant barrage of advertisers aggressively selling us what we do not need. 
In this context, the issue is not about crying wolf, but spotting the wolf, in the first place.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, April 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 23 April 2010.