Yesterdays passing of PJ, an employee of the now defunct “Oktober Guitars” in Maryland, brought up a lot of talk in the forum about how we spend our time here on Earth. PJ wasn’t a member here yet, but I have no doubt that he would’ve loved it, because he was just like us.

His story was tragic, and when I told it, it made everyone sad… but that wasn’t the reaction that I was going for. How do you write about death, while inspiring your audience to feel good and be happy? I don’t know… but I do believe that is how we should respond, and certainly what PJ would’ve wanted.

Many of us are career Heavy Metal musicians, so we’re no strangers to aggressive lyrics about tragedy and bad luck… As such, you’d think that we’d be more prepared for them when they occur… But the odd thing is; no matter how smart I’ve ever felt, or how prepared I’ve ever been.. I never seem to see the light when things are dark.

If you’re like me, then you hate the generic, cliche BS that people throw at you when you’re in trouble (and they’re not). But since it’s unavoidable, find a way break the cycle and be better.

While talking with Rattbones yesterday, I was throwing a lot that generic advice out there myself. I think that it’s instinct to want to help others, but I believe that the line is drawn exactly after that sentence. Yes you may want to help, but simply saying “I’m sorry for your loss”, well that’s just not helping at all.

The outcome isn’t what matters in life… it’s how you handle the situation that matters. PJ has passed, that’s the outcome… How I handle it is how you will judge me. So what good is it if I mourn him for the day, and then simply go back about my business on the following?

We all aspire to leave a big impact on the world, so I can’t imagine that I’d be doing PJ justice by being plain. This is my opportunity to find happiness in sadness, and all that’s required is for me to care enough to try.

PJ left a lot behind that can bring others joy for the rest of their lives. He especially loved to build and play guitars, and since we live for music, we’re enamored by his collection. No doubt that would make PJ grin from ear to ear.

Through his guitars, we can make PJ’s spirit echo on, and to me, that’s a genuine gesture to his family, as well as a refreshing perspective on making the best of the worst.

Most of us cherish a few inanimate objects… maybe a little more than we should, but it’s a tough world, so you have to adore what gets you through the day. If that’s a guitar, then so be it.

Music has a massive impact on the world, and we are the proud few whom realize that making music is the greatest feeling of all. Our instruments are our companions through life, so we protect them just as we do our families. As a result, you can’t help but wonder what will become of them when you pass on.

I’ve often thought about this over the years, and until PJ passed, I just assumed that family would get them, but that got me thinking… That means my guitar will likely wind up forgotten in a dark, attic or basement… or worse yet… a nameless piece on the wall in a pawn shop.

That is definitely not what I want.

Going back and forth with Tony from Oktober yesterday, I realized that what would really make me happy, is being able to put a smile on the face of someone who would otherwise not be able to smile. That’s the person who’ll cherish my guitar, and never forget who I was or what I did for them.

In this situation, I’m fortunate enough to be the person in need of a smile. And since one of PJ’s guitars is on it’s way to me from his family, even though he’s gone, he’s going to do something incredible for someone who will never forget it.

I will love this guitar like PJ did, and every time that I see or hear it, I’ll be inspired by its ability to make beautiful music… Every time that I show it off to other musicians, I’ll tell the story of PJ… And now that I’ve written this, whoever inherits it from me will know that it’s far more than a mere pile of wood and parts.

So whenever you see one of PJ’s guitars and you hear the story of that goes along with it, don’t be sad, and whatever you do, don’t pass on any generic condolences to me. Honor the men who made it and those before you who played it, by making the world a better place with it.

Help whoever you can, whenever you can, and be grateful for what you have. Never forget the sacrifices that others make so that you can have what you do, and do your best to give some one less fortunate a chance that they never would’ve had otherwise.

I adore this bass… and with PJ’s passing, it has found its way to my hands. My life is now better… and I intend to make a lot of people smile with it… Starting with PJ.

Have you given me a gift card lately? If so, chances are pretty good that I love you… Nevertheless… Please don’t do it anymore, because gift cards are the Devil.

To be specific, gift cards are the ninja’s of the market place… They strike so precise, that you don’t even realize your ass was just kicked. They’re the matured and refined version of shady business, and we just can’t get enough of ’em.

I discovered the fraudulent process way back in the mid 90’s. Back then, phones were frequently “refilled” using “cards”, which could be purchased in various time blocks. So you bought a 60 minute card, entered the code, and you could use your phone for 60 minutes.

It was a relatively easy process, so of course the billionaire companies that run the world, couldn’t wait to sink their greedy claws into it… Leaving us with the confusing, misleading, remnants of honest business… The Gift Card.

This is how I discovered it.

I bought a $25 card, which gave me 60 minutes of talk time, and I called and activated it. I later made a phone call for a few minutes. A few days later, I went to use the card again, and it didn’t work.

I called the company and told them about the problem that I was having, and they explained the following; The $25 card, had a $10 one-time activation fee, and if you used it during off-peak-hours, then they charged you 3 times the normal rate. Now there was only a few dollars left on the card, so unless I recharged it, it was worthless…

Well who in their right mind would recharge a deceptive card like that?

When I got home, I whipped out the magnifying glass, and sure enough, this was written on the back of the card, in hieroglyphics, upside down, and under a scratch off.

So I threw it away in 1995… Along with 2 million other consumers, but that $2 is still mine, and it’s sitting in a bank somewhere collecting interest… For the bank!

Turn the clock ahead 10 years… Verizon gives you a discounted cell phone with your plan, and when you buy it, there’s a mail in rebate. You go home, cut the UPC off the box (so that now you can’t return the phone anymore), and then you mail it off to Verizon… Along with a DNA sample, proof of citizenship, and a picture of your wife in the shower.

Three months later, Verizon sent you a $50 Visa Gift Card (if you were lucky), and you can just call this Game Over.

Their experiment was a massive success for them, and the businesses of the world followed their lead at an alarming rate.

Right off the bat, anyone who didn’t follow Verizon’s stringent eligibility process, was shot down in flames… So they probably made a good chunk-o-coin right there, but that’s not where the big bucks came from.

For those of us whom actually followed the instructions to the letter (which as I recall were only slightly less difficult than escaping Hell with your soul intact), we got a $50 Visa Gift Card!

Immediately upon receiving the gift card, you find your life becoming complicated. You have to carry it with you at all times, there’s no easy way of tracking the balance, not all places accept them, and some stores can’t run the cards unless you tell them the exact balance.

For those whom ever even use them… Just like with the phone card… you get down to $2 or $3 and you throw the card in your junk drawer.

Which brings us to modern day Gift Cards…

Now we live in gift-card-Utopia. Everyone gives them, everyone wants them, and everyone loves them. You might think that the store on the card is issuing it, but you’re probably wrong… It’s typically issued by a bank.

Why is the “hype” to use them so great? Because now your money is sitting in their bank, earning interest for them… and when you throw that card in the junk draw with only $1.75 on it… They’ll continue to profit off of you, for the remainder of eternity.

You might be thinking “that doesn’t sound very profitable for them”, but if you’ve read my other stories, then you know… That thought process in itself is part of the scam. Like I said… The Ninja’s of the market place!

No one’s going to complain about losing $1.75, and when they’re joined by 20 Million other consumers… The bank is sitting on the beach in Hawaii, drinking a Frozen Margarita, while you’re back at the stew factory taking meat in the can.

BTW, this is also how Credit Repair Services work too, and it’s why they’ve become so incredibly popular. They combine all of your debt, take a lump sum from you on the 1st of the month, and then pay all of your creditors on the 15th. Now all your damn money is sitting in their bank for two weeks a month, times millions of customers.

So what can you do… As for credit repair services… any creditor that you have trouble with, offers services for their customers in need. Sit down with your bills, call them one at a time, and do it yourself. If you got yourself into a mess, you’ll feel better if you get yourself out of it.

As for Gift Cards; Tell your family and friends about this story, and tell them not to buy you gift cards. That’ll cut most of it down right there. If you do get a gift card, take it to the store ASAP, and buy something that costs more than the cards value. That way, the card is spent, and you can light it on fire and send it back to Hell where it belongs.

Chapter Three – The final part in our Consumer Awareness Series 

Most of us have already heard the used-car-sales pitch about the little old lady, who only drove the car to church on Sundays. If so, then you might fancy yourself an old pro at spotting fraud… But I guarantee you that you’re not.

Okay, so maybe you can spot a lie, but how are you at forensic, psychological marketing  and magic tricks? Not too good? Well you better get good, because that’s what you’re up against.

By design, deception is much more difficult to catch today. Specialty stores are almost gone, and “Big-Box” stores have taken over… So why does that matter?

Because if you go to a tool store and buy three wrenches, you’re more likely to catch a pricing error, than if you go to Walmart and load two carts with wrenches, deli meats, work boots, HBA, home goods, back-to-school supplies, and pet goldfish.

I can remember the first time that I became fully aware of strategic marketing and the deceptive sales tricks that were taking place in open sight. 

The Big Box Scamola

I was wandering around Target and I came across their video game section. They were broken down into two categories; Arcade Classics and New Releases. Classics were $20 (and in a bin), New Releases were $70 (and locked in a case).

I saw a hot title in the classic bin, so I threw it in the cart and went about my business… I went through the checkout, got my total, and it sounded a bit high. I checked the receipt a few times, found out that the game wasn’t $20, it was $70! There was a growing-impatient-crowd in line behind me, so I felt pressured to buy it anyway.

When I later reflected on what had occurred, it struck me…

“Everyone in here is probably buying at least 20 items and piling them into the cart. Then they get up to the register; there are 25 registers, but only 3 of them are open. The lines are long, so everyone is forced to wait, made impatient, and desperate to get out of the store”.

Most people never realize that they just got ripped off, and only a few of the ones who do, would ever be inclined to do anything about it”.

Every time that I returned to the store, I checked for the same trick, and I found it every time… So I started looking for it everywhere else, and I found it everywhere else.

Whenever standing in line at Home Depot; I found that all of the impulse items were strategically priced below $5. I’d pick out the coolest item that I could find, but it never seemed to have a price on it. Naturally, I’d assume that it was similarly priced to the items around it. But when I’d run it through checkout, and it was always priced 2-3 times higher.

Customers are always on their toes when they’re buying a big ticket item, but they completely let their guard down when they’re buying trinkets, and that’s what the sellers are banking on.

You’re not going to get ripped off on a $300 TV, you’re more likely to get tricked out of a buck. Why? Because when I sell you a $300 TV; I have to design a TV, build it, package it, ship it, store it, inventory it, advertise it, sell it, ring it up, and put it in your car. That’s an investment, which returns a very small profit in a competitive market…

But if I trick you out of a buck, that’s a pure profit.

Consider the fact that most consumers wouldn’t waste their time arguing over a buck, and that 5,000 customers a day visit the Big-Box stores. If you took $1 from half of them, that would be $75,000 profit each month.

To put things into perspective, a store would have to sell about 7,000 TV’s to make the same money.

The Shipping and Handling Shamu

Watching an infomercial one night, they went on and on about how their product was the Be-All-End-All, and included a satisfaction guarantee. Then they announced…

“And if you act now, we’ll throw in a second one for FREE! (Just pay separate processing).”

Now I’m thinking to myself… How could it be? How can they give stuff away… and how can they guarantee junk, which will just wind up getting returned?

First, they price it so low that most people won’t bother to return it.

Second, since the majority of the profit is in the separate processing, shipping, and handling, the seller still profits big by the few who go through the agg of returning it.

The “Would you like to Donate” Dickover

One of my all time favorite scams is the sympathy scam.

Most consumers see this one regularly, but they never question it, because the topics are so taboo, that an ethics violation seems unfathomable.

I see it on Facebook every day… A tug-on-your-heart-string tale of cancer, abuse, suicide, animal cruelty… Inevitably followed by the phrase…

I’d like to see how many of my friends will post this, but I know that they won’t. So for those of you that are my TRUE friends, please share this and then type “Done”.

It’s impossible to believe that anyone would use such devastating topics in a scam… But do you really think that someone who’s lacking any ethics, has a line that they won’t cross?

When shopping at Pet Smart one day…

After standing in line with an 80lb bag of cat food for 5 minutes,
I get up to the “single-open-register”. The cashier asks me “would you like to donate $5 to save animals that will be killed if you don’t?”.

I look behind me at the other customers, who are all giving me the beady-eyed “You better do it jack-ass-or-else” look. So I do… And then I wonder, what the Hell, how can this be acceptable?

I started noticing that a lot of other stores were pulling the same stunt, so I sat down and figured it out.

The next time that I returned the store, I get up to the cashier, and she asks the same question. This time I say “NOPE!”. I then turned to the line behind me and said…

“Why would I make a donation through the store, and allow them to get the credit for my money? If I decide to donate, I’ll do it on my own”.

This time, instead of giving me the stink eye… the crowd was enlightened. The store is using your fear of embarrassment by asking you this question when you’re on center stage. Turn the tables on them and enlighten the crowd to the scam at hand.

These stores collect your money, and then write a deductible check to charity at the end of the year for 3 Million dollars. They get treated like royalty… You get sand kicked in your face.

The Unobtainable Warranty Woes

TOOLS!

One of my uncontrollable passions in life. I was always a Bosch and Dewalt man, but years ago, a buddy tells me… Buy Ridgid brand tools, because they give you a lifetime warranty.

Set in my ways and loyal to the core… I have a hard time making the leap, but I finally do, and I’m a pretty happy customer as a result.

But I get home and discover that I have to go through a fairly involved registration process to validate the warranty… It takes a while to do it, and then a month to confirm it, and then the confirmation never comes.

Ever the diligent consumer, I follow up, repeatedly, and after a few weeks, I reach someone at TTi Headquarters. TTi… or Techtronic Industries, is the company that owns;

  • Ridgid Tools
  • Milwaukee Tools
  • Ryobi
  • Hoover
  • Dirt Devil
  • Homelite
  • Oreck…

I explain to them that my registration never works, and they fix them for me, so I’m a happy customer again.

As with most Tradesmen, because I’m so fanatical about brand loyalty, I sell all of my other tools, and I replace them with Ridgid Brand.

In fact, I even go so far as to “not buy” a tool unless Ridgid makes it, and I become the company’s staunchest walking advertisement.

After buying over 100 tools, the registration process never works as it should, which requires me to email them after every single purchase, and then spend weeks tracking the registration. 

Four years later, one of my TTi tools breaks and I need to get it replaced. I figure that my hardcore loyalty has probably earned me some serious cred with them by now, so I’m excited to call up and get my warranty service.

When I do, they ask for a receipt, which is understandable, however…

I explain to the woman, I buy 200 tools every year, and shop at Home Depot twice a week. Your request will require me to sort through thousands of receipts in order to replace a $30 tool.

TTi could’ve cared less, and they found nothing unusual about having an essentially unobtainable warranty… Why essentially? Because if you buy a hammer and then carry the receipt in your pocket, every day for the rest of your life… Then you’re covered.

If I was a Consumer Protection Investigator, and I had an intimate and loyal relationship with this company… and they’re ignoring me, how are they going to treat you?

I escalated my concerns through the company, and I was shunned at every turn. The reps were rude, short, and unconcerned about what I was going through… So I went online and found their Chief Executive Director, Joseph Galli.

His Bio read like St Jude, so I figured that he’d flip when he found out how poorly I was treated. I confidently sent him a certified letter and I awaited his response, but it never came.

For all of my effort, loyalty, and dedication, they didn’t even feel that I’d earned a response.

But in the end… They need me, and I don’t need them.

I started doing some research, and TTI’s own employees post horror stories about their ethics and tactics, so now I’m and educated consumer.

I know what they own, so I know what to avoid now, and most importantly… whether it be on the internet, or during the classes that I teach to the trade unions, I spread the word.

This is your only defense against a corporation.

Todays market is a heartless place. We shop every day, and we’re forced to put faith in merchants, based on the hope that they’ll honor us when we need service, as we did them when they needed our money.

Do your homework… Take names, business cards, pictures… Protect yourself… Expect the worst… Stick to your guns…

Instead of using your $800 PC to hang out on Facebook looking at fart jokes, use it to spread the word about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

If you don’t do your part, then don’t complain when no one else does either.

Chapter Two  – The 2nd part in our Consumer Awareness Series

When the big gas crunch hit, fuel in this area went up to almost $5 a gallon. As a result, I was frequently asked; “where can I buy the cheapest gas?”. My response was always the same…

Why would you want cheap gas?

I understand wanting a bargain, but at what point does bargain hunting become counter effective? At this point.

Thanks to the craft brew movement, it costs $6 for a beer, which no one complains about, but charge $4 to get to work, and we’re ready to start burning crosses on the lawn.

30 years ago: College was optional, jobs were everywhere, and yet no one had money to drink.

Today: College is mandatory, there are no jobs, and yet the bars are filled with kids drinking $6 beer from a tap.

So what data can we collect from this? Well to start off, what consumers say and what they do, are two different things, and if you think that your empty threats are causing the merchants to shake in their boots, then think again.

We live in a statistic age… You think it’s a Godsend, but it’s the Devil in disguise.

Thanks to Twitter, Snap Chat, Google, and Facebook… (You know, the billion-dollar companies that no one finds suspicious are free) merchants know exactly what you’re up to… and they know it better than you do. I guarantee it.

So stand on your soap box and slam your fist to palm as you rage against the machine! $5 a gallon and you wont pay it! Just remember, thanks to “free apps”, I know that you’re full of crap… and more importantly, so does the government, and so do the manufacturers.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that when fuel was more expensive than it had ever been in history, the number one selling vehicles in America, were giant, gas-guzzling SUV’s.

This sent everyone on a frantic search for discount fuel… and as I mentioned in Chapter One of this series, the industry responded accordingly.

You want cheap fuel, you got it!

So now, rather than continuing to patronize your neighbors Hess Station (as you had been for the last decade, and as your parents did before you), all of the sudden it makes sense to drive 15 miles away, to start buying fuel from guy that looks like he’s probably got dynamite taped to his underwear.

Good plan!

Let’s recap:

  • Thanks to “bend-over” economics, a family car costs $35k.
  • You’re fueling said family car from a questionable source.
  • You drive an extra 15 miles to save 75 cents.
  • The staunchest advocates for this madness are your wife and daughter, both of whom have no problem paying $6 for a double shot, caramel swirl latte, with almond milk, and then peeing it out 30 minutes later.

And the whole country runs with the ball… WTF indeed.

Now, here’s the truth.

  • Octane… The most misunderstood label on any product. Simply put, high octane is good. If a car gets 14 miles to the gallon, requires one annual tune-up, and has a motor life of 190K miles, you can expect it to get two more miles to the gallon, need no annual tune-up, and have a motor life of 240k miles if you run high octane fuel.
  • Most cars have a 12-gallon gas tank, so if cheap gas is $1.75 and good gas is $2.00, then you’re paying an extra $3 a week to protect the thing that’s getting you to work and paying your mortgage… Or in layman’s terms, 10% of what the average 15-year-old girl spends at Starbucks every week.
  • Cars are all computerized now. The computer constantly monitors your car, and it automatically adjusts for performance, economy, and health, as needed. When a fault is detected, the computer waits for the same condition to occur several more cycles, before it compensates for it. So if you switch fuel indiscriminately, your computer will never fine tune your car.
  • Cars are easily capable of getting well more than 50 MPG. Ask any mechanic, and they’ll verify that statement. So why don’t they? Well, because “fear” drives the market place. Talk of war and shortages make consumers quickly disregard sensible buying. But the number one reason that cars get poor mileage is…. We’re stupid enough to allow it.
  • Perhaps most importantly… all failures give notice. If your car holds five quarts of oil, and six have leaked onto the driveway, what should you expect? So If you feel like a dirty whore as you’re sneaking into the unscrupulous part of town to save $3 on gas, then don’t be shocked when the wheels fall off your car.

Find gas that you like, from a station that you like, and go there every time, regardless of what fuel costs.

They’ll have business, so they’ll stay in business. Your computer will automatically adjust for it in order to maximize performance, and best of all, if you ever have an issue, you’ll know where the fuel came from. Plus… since you’ll be a familiar face to the station, they’ll likely help you resolve it.

This wraps up awareness in the series. Stay tuned for deception!

 

Chapter One

Over the last few weeks, my shopping exploits have left me frequently frustrated, and at times, downright wicked and evil.

As an expert in Consumer Affairs, I understand better than anyone what I’m entitled to, and how to get it when it’s not there… But even with all my knowledge and experience, I was ill-equipped for what I was facing.

Whenever I run into problems like this, my first thought is always; “If I’m having this kind of trouble, what chance would the average consumer have?”. I know a lot of smart people, but I’ve never met anyone whom understands the depth of deception in todays market place.

Thanks to the internet… deception has the high-ground on the battlefield, leaving us defeated before we even get to face our foe (I emphasize this, because at this point, it’s likely that you don’t even know who you’re up against). How can you survive? Arm yourself with the tools to detect, understand, and resolve this unique circumstance.

Everyone is a consumer; whether you’re buying gas, a guitar, or a sandwich, this is what you need to know.

First off… a little history on how you found yourself facing uphill at an unbeatable opponent. 

Walmart didn’t put Mom and Pop out of business… You did. Lol… and I’ll explain why I had nothing to do with it later.

When the corner hardware store had great tools and expert support, customers complained about price. Merchants and manufacturers took this data and they applied it to the very first marketing tactics that we encountered. Obviously, if the number one complaint is high prices, then whomever offers the lowest prices will get all the business.

The problem was; when store A lowered its prices, then store B countered, but when the winner had all the customers, their prices were so low that they were unable to make a profit.

Once you’re selling a wrench that cost $2 to make, for $2… Then what?

Enter Foreign Manufacturing…

Back in the 70’s people hated foreign car companies, but I’ll tell you a little secret… Chevrolet was already foreign by then. However, they were slick about it… They only went to Canada, because they figured that Americans wouldn’t catch on, so long as cars were still being made on the same continent.

Why would a Michigan company go to Canada to work? Because Americans wanted cheap cars, and they wanted them cheaper than Americans could build them for. At this point, I should probably define “Made in America”.

In that example; Chevrolet’s were “Manufactured” in Canada, but they were “Assembled” in America, which from an economic stance is opposite of how I’d prefer it, but that’s another story.

Made in America is a very slippery play-on-words, and perhaps you’ve seen it in the newest audio equipment advertising?

“Dreamt of in America, Designed in Canada, Engineered in Japan, Manufactured in China, Assembled in Taiwan, Painted in Indonesia, Packaged in Mexico, and then branded and sold and priced in California (that’s because CEO’s like their desks in America)”.

Now back to our Mom and Pop hardware shop…

The customer still wants a $2 wrench, but there are none in America, so the store gets them from China and we’re back on track. Or are we?

Well now, the American brands lost all their business, so what did they do? They fired their workers, bought their wrenches from China, put their name on them, and we’re all caught up again.

But what just happened?

It was a simple story and explanation, but there was more to it than meets the eye. In that instance, we let go of the reins and began our distant trek from the “good old days”.

Craftsman Tools, RCA, Zenith, Maytag… and all but the most loyal American Manufacturers followed suit… It was at that moment that commerce stopped being about “getting what you paid for” and became all about “paying for what you thought that you were getting”.

American manufacturing jobs… which were what 2/3 of the country had at the time, disappeared in order to make room for the unskilled youth of America and their low salary demands.

Enter the age of the warranty and marketing…

Our Great Grandfathers always bought Craftsman tools because they had a lifetime warranty, so right away, foreign manufacturers started giving lifetime warranties on their wrenches. But how could they do this when they were so inferior? Simple… who cares?

When your product is mass produced in a cave, by a guy who makes 14 cents a day, lifetime replacements are just what the doctor ordered.

So let me break it down…

1975: Craftsman manufactures a quality wrench; it cost $1.75 to make, and they sell it for $2, which nets them a $.25 profit. In doing so, they’re able to employ dozens-of thousands of Americans and pay them decent wages so that they can live well and support their families.

2018: Craftsman buys its wrenches from a generic foreign wrench manufacturer for $.25 a wrench. It sells them for $4 a wrench, which nets them a $3.75 profit. They employ a few hundred part-time people to market it all… and trust me, you don’t want to know who pays Americans to live now.

Oh… You do? Or should I say… You do.

So….

I told you that I had nothing to do with getting us into this mess… and that’s because I put my money where my mouth is.

I don’t shop bargains. I determine what I want, I find the best price that I can, and I purchase it. That frequently includes paying more for it, in order to buy it from a company that offers better service, or that simply has a better business model.

I avoid internet commerce at all costs, and unless there is no alternative, I don’t patronize Walmart, Target, Home Depot, or the likes. No matter what, I always let merchants know how fortunate that they are to have my business, and above all else… I take the time to educate my community.

Now you know where we are and how we got here. In Chapter Two, I’ll tell you who’s at the top of the naughty list and what you can do about it when it happens to you.