Let’s Trash Deceptive Junk Fees

My contact lenses are crazy expensive. So when I’m about to run out, I do some comparison shopping to get the best deal on an online order.

Like any normal consumer, I click first on the lowest price. When I did that this morning, I got an offer for $135.98 for a three-month supply. Pricey, but tolerable.

I went through the tedium of entering my prescription, eye doctor’s name, credit card number, and address. And that’s when I finally got to the actual price: $262.41 — a whopping 93 percent more than the original offer.

Boy, did I feel like a sucker. And I’m guessing you can relate.

These kinds of undisclosed, surprise charges are a classic example of the “junk fees” that are now everywhere, deceiving consumers into paying more for banking and internet services, concerts and movies, rental cars and apartments, and more.

A Consumer Reports survey found that 85 percent of Americans have experienced such fees in the past two years. The cost of all this swindling? Tens of billions of dollars a year. Junk fees also make it hard for businesses that are honest and transparent about their costs to compete against the cheaters.

President Joe Biden is determined to put junk fees where they belong — in the trash.

He recently announced that the Federal Trade Commission plans to force companies to disclose the total price of goods and services up front. Violators would face big fines and have to refund consumers.

This is a big deal. Of course, fans of consumer deception in the banking, travel, and auto industries could file lawsuits to try to block the plan. But if the Commission prevails, it will mean no hidden fees — and more money in ordinary Americans’ pockets.

This new plan builds on the administration’s progress to date in reducing junk fees in certain industries, particularly financial services.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has reduced banking junk fees, like overdraft charges, by $5.5 billion annually. They’ve also extracted $140 million in consumer refunds from companies that charged illegal junk fees for things like fake paper bank account statements or worthless add-on products for auto loans.

The Bureau is now working to eliminate fees on basic information services, like providing account balances, and making it easier for consumers to switch banks.

I first heard about President Biden’s contempt for junk fees when I watched his State of the Union address this year. When he lashed out about surprise resort fees at “hotels that aren’t even resorts,” it really resonated.

My husband and I had spent a weekend at a crowded Miami rental on a busy street, several blocks from the beach. We’d picked that hotel for our budget vacation because their advertised rate seemed like a decent deal. That was before we found out about the $36 per night “resort fee.”

Nobody likes to be taken for a sucker. But for too long, businesses have been able to get away with using junk fees to profit off deception, making suckers of most of us. The administration’s crackdown will help turn the tables, giving a leg up to honest businesses and hard-working consumers.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.