I might as well have said, “The crow flies at midnight.”
It felt that cloak-and-dagger.
“Can I help you, sir?” asked the manager.
“Hi. I just want to cancel my membership.”
She frowned, nodded, walked behind the counter, grabbed a coupon and wrote on the back of it, handed it to me and immediately walked away.
I looked in my hand and there it was. The first step on my long journey out of The Stupid Tax.
Financial expert Dave Ramsey has some great stories of how we’ve all made some silly decisions that end up costing us lots and lots of money.
My Stupid Tax story began over a year ago when I was picking up a number of DVDs for a project. I needed to get short clips of some classic films and couldn’t find what I needed at the library or the local Blockbusters (which may have been my last trip into a local Blockbusters since they’re now as common as Burger Chef in our neighborhood).
I stopped at the local FYE store (which used to be the great record store, Harmony House–seen below with The Romantics for those readers in the Detroit area).
I got a little nostalgic as I wandered the aisles, my brain time-morphing the Blue-Ray displays into rows and rows of LPs.
When I was ready to pay for the DVDs, the trap was sprung.
“Would you like to become a “Backstage Pass” member and save immediately on these DVDs?”
My knee almost popped up reflexively as I censored the ”Hell, No!” into a smiling “No thanks.”
I’d had too many experiences in my teenage years being convinced by the slick salesmen at Highland Appliance that I really ought to invest another $30-$100 in the five year extended warranty for my new speakers, equalizer, turntable, tuner, perhaps even power cables–I was that gullible with too much liquid cash in my hand from my paper route. But I was a wise consumer at fifteen. Who knows? Maybe those $150 speakers would suddenly fall apart in four years and eleven months. Perhaps that extra $100 is a good idea.
(Above: The corpse of the original Highland Appliance. Likely cause-of-death due to extended warranty over-exposure.)
The stupid tax.
But this time, I was 47. And immediately after my “No thanks” the salesperson started in on her routine with the option that no shiny salesman at Highland Appliance ever offered me in the dark ages before the internet.
“You can cancel online at any time in the next thirty days for no charge.”
I just smiled and shook my head. I knew my amnesiac self well enough by now to realize I’d forget.
“You can even cancel right when you get home.”
I’d give her one better. I’d get my giant discount for the four DVDs and cancel right in the parking lot in three minutes on my smartphone! Ha!
I walked to my car with the same smug smile that she was probably giving me through the window.
No luck on the smartphone. The site listed on one of the colorful pamphlets that accompanied my new “VIP” status didn’t seem to work on the phone. Oh well. I’d try again right when I got in the house. And I did. I was able to get to the site, but couldnt’ find a single link to cancel my account. I tried the phone number and the offices were closed on the weekend. I’d try again on Monday after work.
Sure I would.
Nearly a year later, we were driving by FYE and I remembered. But I hated to ask the question. Maybe FYE was kind and had cancelled my account due to inactivity. Maybe some kind corporate overlord said, “Say, let’s save that Walsh guy some money since he’s not using our VIP Backstage pass options.” That had to have been what happened.
“Err…do we have any charge on the credit card under FYE?”
“Oh yeah. It’s about $12 per month. Is that one of your website hosting bills?” my too-trusting wife asked me.
I paused, looking for a quick exit in the 50 mph vehicle. ”Umm, no. That’s…umm…for that store we just passed.”
I’d paid an extra over $100 for those four DVDs.
Embarrassed, I tried to find the paperwork and it was nowhere. (Do they have auto-dissolving paper like they do in Get Smart?) I went to the FYE.com website and tried to log-in with my usual e-mail and fourteen possible passwords I always use. They replied back that I was not a member.
Skip Get Smart. This was a Twilight Zone episode. $100 surely made me a member by now–right?
On the site of another Harmony House location, in the “new” section of the Oakland Mall (built in 1978) I was killing some time with my son when I decided that today was the day I would escape Rod Serling’s probable wrap-up to my story:
“Kevin Walsh thought he was being clever. He thought he’d save a couple coins. He thought he’d outsmart the system. He thought wrong. Instead, he finds himself running in circles, chasing his tail in the land of — the stupid tax.”
I took the cryptic phone number, sat on the comfy mall-bench just outside the store and called.
“Hello, is this Mr. Walsh?” came the voice from across the Pacific.
“What can I do for you and your VIP membership today, Mr. Walsh?”
So I did exist in their universe! ”I’d like to cancel my membership.”
“Certainly sir, but are you aware of [fill in thousands of benefits I missed, including travel discounts over the last year, but I was still eligible for if I would only change my mind].”
“No thanks. I want to cancel right now.”
“Certainly sir, but may I just say [fill-in a $40 gift card that I can apply to any family member that I would like to include in the VIP family].”
I had to interrupt him. I certainly wasn’t going to share this experience with any family member. No one deserved that–and I’d never get another birthday present.
“Stop. I just want to cancel right now.”
“Certainly sir. I understand. I want to thank you for your loyalty and if you reconsider…”
“Excuse me!” I shouted, causing three shoppers to look my way, startled, at the crazy man. ”I need to cancel this minute. And I want to point out [fill-in Kevin whining about his stupidity but blaming it on their company’s questionable behaviors].
There was a long pause as the guy probably finished his Solitaire game or switched me off the speaker-phone that his co-workers were laughing at.
“Sir. Are you ready? I’m going to give you your cancellation number. Here it is…”
“Wait. I’m in a mall and don’t have anything to write with. Can you send me an email with this information?”
“It’s against our policy.”
“Really? That’s weird. Can I get the confirmation sent to me via U.S. Mail?”
“No sir. That’s against our policy.”
“Let me talk to your manager right now!” I huffed. By this time, all the shoppers had given me a wide berth.
Five minutes of music later, I spoke with the manager.
“Sir. I’m sorry for any inconvenience. I want to let you know that your cancellation is effective immediately and that you will receive a letter confirming this information in 7-10 business days.”
“Why can’t you e-mail me the information?”
“That’s against our policy.”
“It’s against our policy.”
I could almost hear the Twilight Zone theme song beginning.
“Never mind. Can I have your name?”
“Because I find this entire situation frustrating and pathetic and figured I’d write a blog about it and at least get the facts right.”
“My name is Sharon.”
“What is your title, Sharon?”
“Your job title. What is your job title?”
“What do you supervise?” Besides crazy calls like mine, I thought.
“Sir? Is there anything else I can help you with?”
I had to say it. ”Are you aware that there is no link on your website to turn off your membership?”
“Sir, it’s right there on our website—www.FYEVIP.com”
“Wait? It’s not www.fye.com?”
“No sir. Our website is FYEVIP.com.”
“But the FYE logo is on the FYE.com website. Isn’t that you?”
“Not for the VIP “Backstage Pass” members.”
“But how would I know about…?” I whined. I might have as well have stomped my feet, crying “That’s not fair!:
Far, far away, to the background of an entire call-center chuckling, Rod Serling and Dave Ramsey say in unison…
“The Stupid Tax.”