You Need This Book
four seconds, an unsuspecting American consumer is bamboozled, cheated,
conned, deceived, defrauded, double-crossed, duped, fleeced, fooled,
hoaxed, hoodwinked, phished, ripped-off, robbed, scammed,
shafted, stung, swindled, taken in, or tricked— more than seven million
customers taken advantage of every year by an unscrupulous, uncaring or
unavailable company, corporation or creep.
Any way you look at it,
that’s a lot of people getting screwed out of a lot of money. Of course,
I’m not telling you anything new. If you hadn’t experienced it for
yourself, you probably wouldn’t be reading this book. The harsh reality
is that most of us have been victimized more than a few times.
This is no “write them a
nice letter and see if they’ll be nice back” kind of how-to book. This
is a take charge, “I’m going to get my money back,” book for people who
are tired of getting screwed!
That being said,
Unscrewed: The Consumer’s Guide to Getting What You Paid For is
not an attack guide or revenge manual. It does not recommend
personal attacks or destructive methods. At no time are you going to
have to yell, threaten, or lie. On the contrary, the opening chapters
focus on understanding the nature of the customer-business relationship
and how to leverage it to your advantage. Our goal is to level the
playing field and create a simple, obvious business equation that will
result in the obstinate company doing what’s right.
The techniques are all
legal and, when used according to the Unscrewed Plan,
virtually guarantee a positive result. They focus on recovering what is
fairly due, rather than just trying to get even or prove “rightness.”
The first three chapters
of this book, you’ll learn why you’re getting screwed, and by whom. If
you’re getting screwed right now and need instant help, skip ahead to
Chapter 4 – The Unscrewed Solution. You can come back later and
learn the reasons behind your pain.
In this book,
Unscrewed refers to small vises that medieval torturers used to
crush the thumbs of their victims. They would twist the vise screw into
the top of the finger. Turn by turn, a steel pin would be driven further
and further into the top of the finger nail, eventually piercing it, and
creating excruciating pain. (The kind of pain one experiences when on
voicemail hold for thirty minutes listening to that inane music.)
All of our various names
for getting screwed remind me of the Inuit tribes of the Arctic, who
have more than two-dozen words for snow. Their numerous names for the
white stuff come from the fact that it is a familiar part of their daily
lives. What does it mean for us that we’ve got as many names for being
cheated as the Inuit have for snow? It means that we are more
familiar with being taken advantage of than we should be.
Why are we so
Not all companies are
crooked, but some are.
Not all mega-corporations
are disinterested in the individual consumer, but that is the case with
Not all problems can be
blamed on a free-enterprise system that promotes an atmosphere of
make–the-sale-at-any-cost, though some can.
All of these are factors,
but still only part of the customer disservice equation. There are
several other significant reasons why we’re being victimized more often
now than ever before.
First of all, the number
of businesses that we deal with on a daily basis has grown
exponentially. A hundred years ago, the average household dealt with
only a few companies: the local market, the seed company, maybe a
doctor. Think of all the companies and vendors you deal with today:
Auto Dealer And Manufacturer
Online Vendors And Services
Cell Phone Company
Real Estate Agent
Clubs (Health, Business, Civic)
Credit Card Company
That’s not even a
complete list. I know you can think of more.
All those personal
business relationships mean that you have that many more opportunities
for mistakes, misunderstandings, and mischief. The mathematical
probabilities favor it. If every one of the two dozen companies you deal
with commits just one mistake or misdeed per year—then you’re going to
be dealing with a situation that needs to be Unscrewed about
every two weeks.
The second reason
consumers are being victimized more often is that the bottom-line
economic pressures on companies are greater now than ever before.
Globalization, online shopping and mega-outlets have changed the retail
business landscape. As second-world and third-world nations enter the
multinational economy, companies are facing a greater number of
competitors than ever before. In a do-or-die battle to cut costs, many
companies have slashed customer service departments, replaced them with
technological obstructions and created customer service policies that
are actually a disservice to their customers.
The third reason is that
today, unlike a century ago, most of the businesses you deal with are
not local. Companies that used to be based in your community— your phone
company, cable company, mortgage company, and even your dry cleaner—are
now often part of a national chain, removing any sense of loyalty to
Finally, your day is
already full, and your ability to get timely satisfaction for a problem
is being constantly eroded. It’s at the point where you, like many
consumers, just decide it isn’t worth it—leaving millions of unearned
dollars per year in the hands of corporations and individuals that
didn’t earn it. To you, it’s a loss. They call it “unearned profit.”
In short, you’re not
imagining that you’re getting screwed more often. You are!
Why I Wrote This Book
During my dozen years
reporting for television and radio, I often heard from people about how
they were being taken advantage of, or not being listened to, by
inscrutable companies. The complaints ranged from small— a call on their
telephone bill they know they didn’t make —to large, a mortgage company
threatening foreclosure even though the mortgage check had cleared the
I learned that, today,
the traditional ways of getting companies to listen to
complaints—calling or writing—fall on deaf ears. Even threats of going
to court, or the state attorney general, are often ignored. Why? Because
the decision-makers in those companies know that you’re not really going
to do it, particularly over a couple of hundred dollars, sloppy service
or a botched paint job. Your adversaries are counting on the fact that
those options are too expensive, time consuming and complex for most of
After I left journalism
and started several businesses of my own, I was amazed by the number of
companies I dealt with that failed to fulfill their promises or
contractual obligations. When I challenged them—I was often ignored,
brushed off, or in some other manner told to go away. Even threatening
to withhold my business didn’t faze the big guys—the credit card
company, phone company or bank.
I went through the normal
routines of writing letters, phoning, cajoling, being the nice guy,
being the bad guy, pleading mercy, and threatening court—almost always
to no effect. I couldn’t understand why companies would treat me as if
they didn’t care if I ever came back. I’d always heard that “the
customer was always right.” That maxim was clearly out-of-date.
There had to be a better
way to get their attention. I started to research customer service
warrantees and guarantees. I studied the historical relationship between
businesses and their customers. I talked with customer service insiders
to get some insight into why things are the way they are today, as
compared to years gone by. Those investigations, and one incident in
particular that I share later in this introduction, led me to develop
The Unscrewed Solution.
In this book, you will
learn a set of sometimes unorthodox, but very effective, methods of
dealing with intractable companies, corporations, or crooks. Most of
them can be accomplished in an afternoon, some in just minutes.
Solution has nothing to do with mailing letters, begging for
mercy or going to court. I often learned the hard way— through failure—
what not to do. I share several of those stories in later chapters. I’ve
been able to refine the techniques with the selection of just the right
words, manner and message—so that I am now pleased to say that it’s been
several years since I’ve lost a consumer battle.
My promise to you is
that—if you follow the plan— you will walk away satisfied from the great
majority of situations where otherwise you may have been taken advantage
of or ignored.
As I mentioned earlier,
more than what I heard from other consumers or learned from my own
unfortunate experiences inspired this book. In particular, there was one
personal episode in the early 1990’s that opened my eyes to a simple
principle that would eventually become the foundation of The
Unscrewed True Story:
The Unscrupulous Car Dealer
When I was a young
reporter, earning just enough to get by in the high-rent lifestyle of
Honolulu, I had finally managed to scrape together the down payment on a
new car. I got up one Saturday morning and headed out to Auto Row. I
shopped around and found a very functional four-door sedan. Happy as a
Kaneohe clam, an hour or so later, I drove away in my new car. It was
very functional and ran well.
However, two days after I
bought the car, I noticed an ad in the local newspaper. (It was a few
days old because I’d been busy.) In the ad, the dealership where I
bought my car was advertising a discount of $1500 for any car purchased
over the weekend. I’d been able to get the guy to take off $300 and toss
in some floor mats, but it looked like he’d forgotten to mention the
I called up the
dealership. The Sales Manager told me that “there is nothing we can do.
The contract is signed and the loan approved. I wish we could, but we
I replied, “What do you
mean? You advertised the special. The salesman should have told me about
it? It’s just not fair.”
“That’s our policy. I’m
“It’s a bad policy,” I
said, for lack of any other words, and hung up the phone.
I was livid. I’d just
been screwed out of $1200, less the cost of a couple of floor mats.
Something had to be
I steamed and fumed for
several hours. I thought I’d take them to court, but wasn’t sure how,
and wasn’t really sure if I had a case. I wanted to call some government
agency in charge of fairness in advertising, but I wasn’t sure that the
dealer was required to tell me about the ad. The problem was, while the
situation was patently unfair, it probably wasn’t illegal. I paced my
small apartment for another hour or two until I was hit with an idea.
Since money was apparently the only thing that really mattered, I would
simply make it more expensive to ignore me, than to give me what I
I sat down at my computer
and typed out a few words in large letters. Then I printed up a couple
dozen copies of my creation, stuck them in a manila folder and drove to
the dealership. It had been only forty-eight hours since I purchased my
new car, but as soon as I drove onto the lot I could tell that the word
had been spread that I was a “problem” customer.
Instead of the cheery
salesperson meeting me at the glass double doors, the Sales Manager
appeared and told me somewhat tersely, “Mr. Burley, as I told you on the
phone, there’s nothing we can do. All the paperwork has been sent in.”
I stood my ground, looked
him in the eye and asked if we could go to his office. He stared back
somewhat quizzically, though agreed to my request. We walked to his
office. He sat down behind his chipped cherry veneer desk and I took a
chair on the other side.
(Note: For legal
reasons, and the fact that I don’t want someone’s angry mother showing
up on my doorstep, the names have been changed of individuals or
companies mentioned in most of the Unscrewed True Stories.)
“Mr. Smith”, I said. “I’m
here to ask you one last time for you to do what is right. You
advertised the $1500 discount, and I should have received it. Nowhere in
the advertisement did it say that I had to bring in a coupon, mention
the ad or anything like that. Therefore, you owe me $1200.”
“That’s not the way we
see it at Akamai Motors. As I said on the phone, it’s our internal
policy not to revise contracts after they’ve been signed.” He looked
“Mr. Smith,” I replied.
“Your internal policy has very little to do with me or my circumstances.
We are talking about what is right, and speaking of rights, I am
prepared to exercise mine.”
Mr. Smith’s eyebrows rose
up in a kind of “Scooby Doo” expression. “What do you mean by that? Are
you going to take us to court? If that’s what you’re saying, then this
discussion has to stop right here.”
“No, I’m not talking
about court. I’m talking about the first amendment.”
He gave me more of the
Scooby Doo eyebrows.
“I’m still confused.” He
I put the manila folder
in the center of the desk so that the pages would be facing him. I
opened it to reveal a flyer, printed in red and black, which read:
Akamai Motors Lies To Its
advertised a car at one price and then sold it
to me for
$1200 more. For details, please call,
Burley at 808-555-5555
“What do you intend to do
with those?” He asked, now paying much more attention.
“Mr. Smith,” I said
coolly, even though my hands were sweaty and shaking. “At this point, it
doesn’t really matter to me whether I get my money back or not. I am
going to exercise my first amendment right to stand on that public
sidewalk out in front of your dealership. I’ll hand one of these to
anybody walking onto your lot, even if they haven’t already seen the
picket sign I’ll be carrying with the same message.”
Mr. Smith was speechless.
The Scooby Doo eyebrows were gone. He looked more like a deer in the
headlights of an oncoming car.
I continued, “I’ll bet
that, in just a handful of Saturdays, I can convince a couple of dozen
people to shop elsewhere. It could end up that, by not paying what’s due
me, you lose ten times that much in future business. It won’t put any
cash in my pocket, but I’ll feel a lot better about things. What do you
Mr. Smith pushed back
from the desk. “Give me just a minute,” he said, stood up and left the
room. I sat in his office, reading the plaques on the wall, until he
returned. He sat down behind the desk, and smiled at me.
“Ron, I was wrong. I
double-checked with our General Manager and he says that we should have
honored the advertisement all along, whether you knew about it or not.
Please accept my apology for the misunderstanding. I just try to follow
policy, and sometimes the wires get crossed.”
I smiled back. “Thank you
Mr. Smith. I’m glad we straightened that out. When can I get my check?”
“Bookkeeping is taking
care of it right now, if you can wait a few minutes.”
“Certainly,” I said. I
walked out of the dealership a half hour later holding a check for
$1200. They threw in the floor mats. I left the flyers on Mr. Smith’s
Driving to the bank to
deposit the check, I thought to myself. No letter writing. No court
threats. I have a check and didn’t have to stand on any sidewalks. There
could be something more to this…
© 2007 - Random House Publishing