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The Long Way Home

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a scoundrel as a disreputable person. I’ve encountered these unsavory characters more times than I care to admit.

The worst are the ones with a reputable facade; if the current situation is reality, they are everywhere. Today, let’s look at the biggest of them.

The Bohunk took over our finances more than a decade ago. She’s much better at getting bills paid on time than I ever was. Plus, her eagle eyes, which always find my faults, are exceptional at finding the “errors” made by hospitals, clinics, and credit card companies.

In recent years, credit card companies like Capital One, Discover, and Care Credit have tried unsuccessfully to scam us for extra dol-lars with interest errors and weird fees.

If the so-called errors they’ve made and corrected after Becky called them out happened once in a blue moon, they could be excused. But errors with fair regularity lead me to conclude that the scoundrels in charge recognize that they could boost income and profits off of those without the Bohunk’s eagle eye and willingness to sit on the phone forever to speak to a human.

I don’t know the percentage of Americans scrutinizing their credit card bills, but let’s say 50% for S and Gs. If the other 50% end up paying for those so-called “errors” each month, you’re talking about real money.

Sitting in my ivory office tower in the early 90s, long before email and the World Wide Web, I received a letter sealed in an Air Mail envelope (remember those?) with some kind of foreign postage. The letter, on onionskin paper, offered to make me a millionaire if I’d let a Nigerian prince park ten million in my bank account. A coup was impending, and he needed to move his wealth to a friend like me.

Tempting as the thought was, I contacted the Minnesota Attorney General about it. I wasn’t the only sucker the wealthy prince sought. If he sent thousands of letters and only a handful produced a friend for the prince, the return on his postage expense would be huge.

Today’s unsavory scam operators use the same principle: the Internet, email, and phone callers. They hit many targets and hope to get some that fall for the grift.

It must be working, or it wouldn’t still be going on. Credit card companies and other unsavory billers have adopted a similar strategy: make many errors, happily correct those that are called out, and collect on the rest—pure profit.

I know inflation is a big deal. I remember the Carter years, and now, being on a relatively fixed income, I see what inflation is doing. But I also see how we’re being exploited to ensure the large corporations that dominate markets today make record profits.

Insurance giants, including health care, home, and auto insurance, are booking top-notch profits. Banks and retailers are doing exceptionally well, too. Megachurch pastors live in million-dollar houses, drive expensive cars, and even have private airplanes.

Have you seen what the oil companies are throwing down?

Let’s go back to the credit card companies for a bit. Businesses pay a fee so that you may use a debit or credit card to make a purchase. Most of us couldn’t consume without those three-inch pieces of plastic with the EMV chip.

The fees for processing your payment have always been a cost of doing business for the company you’re trading with, so you’ve been paying them all along. As retailers, restau­rants, and other service providers have looked for ways to manage costs, many add a 3% to 5% processing fee to your card purchase. That may be more than they paid for processing when it was a cost of doing business, but since they have to listen to people like me bitching about the separate charges, I suppose a premi­um is due.

Some businesses here in Cook County that process many card transactions aren’t charging extra processing fees. Of course, they’re still paying them—many thousands of dollars worth. But at least they know it’s a cost of do­ing business, and they aren’t making custom­ers like me think they’re scoundrels.

Steve Fernlund
Steve Fernlund
Typically these “about me” pages include a list of academic achievements (I have none) and positions held (I have had many, but who really cares about those?) So, in the words of the late Admiral James Stockwell, “Who am I? Why am I here?” I’m well into my seventh decade on this blue planet we call home. I’m a pretty successful husband, father, and grandfather, at least in my humble opinion. My progeny may disagree. We have four children and five grandchildren. I spent most of my professional life in the freight business. At the tender age of 40, early retirement beckoned and we moved to Grand Marais. A year after we got here, we bought and operated the Cook County News Herald, a weekly newspaper in Grand Marais. A sharp learning curve for a dumb freight broker to become a newspaper editor and publisher. By 1999 the News Herald was an acquisition target for a rapidly consolidating media market. We sold our businesses and “retired” again, buying a winter retreat in Nevada. In the fall of 2016, we returned to Grand Marais and bought a house from old friends of ours on the ridge overlooking Lake Superior. They were able to move closer to family and their Mexico winter home. And we came home to what we say is our last house. I’m a strong believer in the value of local newspapers--both online and those you can wrap a fish in. I write a weekly column and a couple of feature stories for the Northshore Journal. I’m most interested in writing about the everyday lives of local people and reporting on issues of importance to them.
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