A Sucker, that is.
On our recent trip to America, we were deceived in various ways three times by enterprising Americans. Each one is worthy of closer analysis.
The first one I’ll call the plausible panhandler. A tall, black lady, smartly dressed, immediately offered to guide us in the right direction less than 10′ from the exit doors of the LAX Airport arrivals hall. Offering no more information than what we had already been given by a Virgin rep as we transitioned from airside (Purple bus stop 200 yards on your right) she floweringly and eloquently expressed it in a friendly and lively manner, seamlessly segueing into a spiel about collecting for a Los Angeles Mission that worked with homeless children, all currency accepted, receipts given. Knowing that we had been somewhat lined up but being polite Brits we reluctantly handed over a note (£10 if my memory serves me) and we were immediately given a receipt, or rather a printed card with the Mission details. On reflection, if she was a member of staff connected to the Airport in some way, the airport wouldn’t have approved of a sideline in chugging (charity mugging). If she wasn’t, then the airport wouldn’t have approved of her operating as a disguised chugger either. Whether she was chugging or simply panhandling, her verbose description of the purple bus stop certainly earned her £1 for entertainment value.
The second I’ll call the employee scammer. Pier 39 at San Francisco is a very entertaining collection of shops, attractions and street theatre, the best free entertainment of all being the resident sea lions honking nearby. There is a small 4D theatre near the end that had three 3D movies with added effects (moving chairs, mist, bubbles etc. hence the 4D). The movies are shown in sequence during the day and over the box office, countdown clocks showed the time to the desired feature. One of the three features was Spongebob Squarepants (a favourite of David’s) and it was only a few minutes away.
Now this show was fairly expensive for what it was ($12.95?) and we debated whether to get triple show offers or just David going in as he was gagging to do it and we knew that we probably had discount coupons back in the hotel room. Anyway, we decided to all three go on for the single show. On offering my Visa travellers debit card (Post office Dollar version) the counter clerk asked if we could possibly pay cash instead, as the credit card reader was playing up. I did so, he gave me three tickets, and in we went.
Now whilst we were waiting inside, I glanced down at the tickets we had been given, then noticing something odd, took a closer look. The top one was indeed for Spongebob Squareparts dated and timed for that showing, but the other two were a little more dog eared and were actually for other movies at earlier times. This appeared to be a scam where a third of the money goes to the business but the other two thirds gets re-distributed. (When the tickets were collected indoors they were simply pocketed rather than torn, after a cursory glance at them that suggested the guy inside may have been in on the scam as well).
Now I didn’t lose out personally on that one, but it did annoy me that they were ripping their Bosses off and it is hard to believe that fairly obvious (practically blatant) dishonesty would not come unstuck sooner or later. I imagine that the credit card reader worked fine, it was just a bit tricky for the ticket clerk to embezzle some of the proceeds when cash was not involved. Similarly, giving dodgy tickets to someone who is obviously a native english speaker is risky. What if I’d been a Cop?
(I’m reminded of a holiday I took to Greece back in 1988 during my transition from the Telecoms industry to the entertainment technology (cottage) industry. I visited a number of archaeology sites in walking distance of the Parthenon and at each one, I exchanged my Drachmas for a rather pleasant souvenir ticket with a coloured image of the treasures within. The last site I visited, however, was slightly different. A wrinkled old Greek man in the kiosk gave me an extremely non-pristine ticket in exchange for my money. Then, when I had finished looking round, he tried to blag it back off me on my way out!)
The third piece of stitching up was of the Corporate variety. Virgin holidays have a partnership with Dollar car hire which I personally feel that they should review as if my experience was typical it involves deception in so many small ways that I can comfortably call them swindlers. We had booked car hire for 11 days, one way rental, drop-off at the Sheraton Fishermans Wharf, SF. We were staying in the nearby Holiday Inn and last time we went to SF, the car stayed in the Hotel garage from the evening we arrived to the day we drove to the airport. As we had been made aware that the hotel charged $40 dollars a day for parking (now actually $41 plus tax) we saw little need to pay so much just to be able to drive to the airport. We pre-paid for something called the Platinum package, all of the death by a thousand cuts that makes sure that you are fully covered for every eventuality.
Whilst flying over, I’d dreamily suggested that an open top convertible would be great for the big drive we needed to do from San Diego up to San Francisco. It wasn’t a very practical suggestion, of course, because small convertables tend to have small luggage space and we had two large suitcases. Last time a Chrysler Neon with two of us and one case had been fine, but now there were three of us, although our “Frequent Virgin” status entitled us to a (minor) updrade. Anyway, on arrival at Dollar at their large off-airport depot, we were given the usual hard sell of paying for an upgrade. We were already a bit grumpy at that point because we had already queued at the counter with the large Virgin sign to be told we had to go to the other main counter which had a large queue (which had got even larger whilst we waited wrongly in the wrong queue). Anyway, we were spun a line about how the car we were allocated didn’t have a trunk so our luggage would be visible (a red herring of course, our luggage would be in the hotel room most of the time). The pictures of the various cars didn’t really indicate what they were like and we hadn’t heard of any of the models. Previously, we have generally just refused the hard sell then found we had a bigger car allocated anyway, as there is a certain amount of pot luck involved. Anyway, after him extolling the benefits of the next class up, I asked him what it would cost us. $9.99 a day, he said with a straight face. Knowing we would have two days with extensive driving, I decided that $110 bucks was probably reasonable for a bit of comfort. Of course, I forgot the cardinal rule of much of North America- the price you see is rarely the price you pay, unless the item is exempt from sales tax. (That probably only applies to Ice cream and Churros).
We then enquired about dropping off the car- would it be OK to terminate the hire one day early if we made good time to SF? Sure, no problem at all. What time would the office close? Airports are 24 hours, city Hotel ones close at round about 10:30pm, he advised. Bizarrely, he let us choose any car we wanted out of two nominated zones outside, and after picking something the size of a Range Rover (with three rows of seats, but the back row folded to form the boot bit) we were ready for the off. Just as I was about to pull off, the car chimed and put on the service light, which was annoying as you expect hire car companies to be on top of service intervals, but there again, most cars start reminding you of this a couple of thousand miles before it is actually due and we couldn’t be bothered to pick and repack another car. Another grumble was the lack of an operating manual in the glovebox, there were numerous dashboard controls which we had no idea what they actually did and had to work them out the hard way, or just not bother with them.
Anyway, the car was fine for the first ten days of the holiday, but after we had set off from San Diego for our long drive to San Francisco, the car chimed again and the engine icon lit orange. Having checked all the levels, we decided to detour slightly to a Dollar office we had noticed opposite our hotel in Anaheim. The guys there owned up that they couldn’t actually do anything for us because they were actually only a concession, but the light was likely to just mean the service was required and we only needed to worry if the icon flashed and it triple-chimed. If we were still concerned though, the office at LAX airport would change the car, or otherwise they highlighed the roadside assistance phone number.
Pressing on, we eventually arrived up in San francisco, but when we found the Dollar office there, it transpired that it closed at 5pm and they wouldn’t accept car drop-offs out of hours. As the parking was even more expensive there and we didn’t want to have to mess about to fit in with free on-street parking (meter hours were 7pm to 7am) we found the cheapest overnight car park nearby, still a substantial $28.
On returning the car in the morning, I was extremely miffed to find that my $9.99 a day charge totalled more than $280 dollars. It seems that they wanted to charge me 11 days of breakdown cover/personal protection at $11.44 a day, more than what the car was costing me, along with some minor taxes here and there. Anyway, I declared them to be charlatans and I’ll take it up with the holiday company first to see if it is a misunderstanding, a miscalculation or simply a legalised swindle.
I see no reason to willingly patrionise Dollar car rental again, along with KPMG and Capital One, my current short list of Companies who have pissed me off enough to stay on my boycott list.
Update: Now I have the bill in front of me, here were the “extras”
State Tax 9.25% $18.68
Tourism Surc 2.5% $2.75
apconrecfee 11.11% $26.19
Upgrade 11 days@ 9.99 $109.89
prsnlprotpla 11 days@ 5.45 $59.95
Roadsafe 11 days@ 5.99 $65.89
TOTAL CHARGES $283.35.