12 Ways the Tech Industry Is Screwing You (and How to Fight Back)

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You can't install the apps you want on your smartphone. You can't play the movies you bought on your PC. You can't even walk into a store without getting upsold, enrolled, restocked, and recalled. Welcome to the world of tech in 2010, where your phone doesn't work--and companies tell you that "you're holding it wrong."

Just because you venture into the tech marketplace with a credit card in your hand doesn't mean you deserve to get screwed. Check out these 12 ways that the tech industry is pulling a fast one on you--and learn how to fight back.

Ridiculous Restocking Fees

Bought a laptop and realized it wasn't for you? No problem, you can return it within 30 days--that'll be $150, please.

Restocking fees are an easy way for vendors to make a tidy profit from a consumer's buying misstep. The rationale for such fees may be to discourage cheapskates who have no intention of keeping a device from buying it, using it for a short time--say, for the length of a vacation--and then returning it; but the practical result is that you can get slapped with a fee ranging from 10 percent to 25 percent of the purchase price just for the privilege of returning a gadget you're not happy with.

For example, Best Buy charges 10 percent for iPhone returns; 15 percent for opened laptops, projectors, digital cameras/camcorders, and GPS systems; and 25 percent for any special-ordered item. Amazon.com, Sears, and Newegg all charge a 15 percent restocking fee for computers and electronics, though each vendor's specific rules vary--for example, Sears charges only if the returned item doesn't include the original packaging, whereas Newegg dings you for anything you return after opening it.

Take the restocking fees into consideration before you buy. It's illegal in some states to charge a restocking fee without notifying you in advance, but the notification could be buried in the return policy on the back of your receipt, so ask a salesperson before you swipe your credit card. You might discover that the $5 you save by buying a product from a particular vendor could be negated by the $50 it charges as a restocking fee. Buying a gift? Get a gift card if there's any chance that the recipient might want to return the item you're tempted to choose.

Tracking-Cookie Surveillance

Here's a dirty little secret about the Internet: Though you may not pay a dime to use Facebook, search on Google, or watch YouTube videos, you pay in other ways. Every profile update, search query, or viewed video is an opportunity for these sites to bombard you with more advertising--and the more information the advertisers have about you, the more effective their targeting can be. Thanks to the tracking cookies embedded in almost all Web ads, advertisers know which Websites you're visiting, too.

Cookies can do useful things, such as saving your log-in and password information for certain Websites. But the banner ads you see everywhere are probably also sticking you with tracking cookies that report back to the advertising agency every time you go to a Website the agency advertises on. The resulting data doesn't contain your name or any personally identifiable information, but you probably don't want advertisers building up a history of your Web activity anyway.

Your browser can block these third-party cookies, though the option is not enabled by default. Here's how to activate blocking:

Internet Explorer: Choose Internet Options in the Tools menu, click the Privacy tab, and click the Advanced button. Check the Override automatic cookie handling box, and choose Block under the 'Third-party Cookies' heading.

Google Chrome: Click the wrench icon in the upper-right corner, choose Options, click the Under the Hood tab, and click Content settings. From there, click Cookies and check Block all third-party cookies without exception. To remove any cookies that have been following you around, click the Show cookies and other site data button.

Firefox: Choose Options from the Tools menu, and click the Privacy tab. From here, choose Use custom settings for history from the drop-down menu at the top, and uncheck Accept third-party cookies. Then click the Show cookies button to remove the ones you don't want to keep.

Safari: Third-party cookie blocking should be on by default. If it isn't, click the gear icon in the upper-right corner, choose Preferences, click the Security tab, and under 'Accept cookies' choose Only from sites I visit.

Charge Cramming on Cell Phone Bills

These days it seems as though you can't install a new app or sign up for a new Website without someone demanding your credit card number or cell phone number--even if the app or service is supposed to be free. You may not know this, but that information is all the site need to start sneaking charges into your monthly bill, hoping you won't notice. The practice, called "cramming," has been around for ages, but it's enjoying a resurgence on our credit card/cell phone bills because many consumers don't check every line.

The easy solution is not to sign up for this stuff. "Free" services have no business recording your credit card or cell phone number, so any such request should immediately raise your suspicions. If you must provide a credit card number, your bank or card company may be able to help out with a temporary number that can be used only once--Bank of America has ShopSafe, Citibank has Virtual Account Numbers, and Discover offers Secure Online Account Numbers, for starters.

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