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

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Convoluted Cell-Phone Pricing Plans

Rollover minutes, unlimited nights and weekends, free mobile-to-mobile connections--cell phone companies work overtime to ensure that we get the most for our money. Except that none of the big ones will let me pick a plan that fits my particular needs, which means that I currently have 2000 rollover minutes (with about 200 or so expiring every month) despite being on the lowest-tier plan possible.

My situation is by no means the worst one around. At PCWorld, we hear about consumers who are sold 4G service without a 4G phone (or the other way around), or get hit with overage charges on their formerly unlimited data plans, or endure other sales shenanigans.

You can reduce your cell-phone expenses by checking your carrier's bill regularly. Not only will you notice bogus charges right away--rather than after several months of losses--but you can also monitor how well your plan complements your usage level. For example, if you're getting billed for hundreds of text messages but have leftover minutes at the end of each month, you could save money by downgrading your calling plan and adding unlimited texting. Also, you don't have to be family to get a family plan, so you and your buddies might be able to save some cash if you pitch in together.

Another option is to switch providers. AT&T and Verizon typically have the hottest phones and the least flexible plans, so you may be able to find a lower-cost plan from Sprint or T-Mobile instead. Some T-Mobile plans charge you $20 per month less if you have your own phone or buy an unsubsidized one, and those savings add up. If you don't travel much, you might consider a lower-tier local provider that offers cheaper rates (but much less coverage).

Of course, if you're under contract, you can't switch without incurring an early termination fee that could amount to hundreds of dollars. But if you're lucky, someone is looking for exactly the plan you have. Check Craigslist, as well as services like CellTradeUSA, for people who might be willing to swap contracts with you and save you from the dreaded ETF. You might even find that your new cell provider is willing to credit you the amount of the ETF when you make the jump, to sweeten the pot.

Overpriced Build-to-Order PC Upgrades

Remember the first time you customized a build-to-order PC on a manufacturer's Website? It felt great--until you realized that the vendor was gouging you on the upgrades. Since then, you've learned to mentally add a few hundred dollars to the advertised purchase prices you see because you know that at the listed prices the machines won't have the specs you want.

Don't waste your money! If you took the $200 you'd spend for an extra 4GB RAM and the $150 you'd earmark for upgrading from a 250GB hard drive to a 500GB model, you could get better parts and still have enough left to start saving for your next PC purchase--or throw a spiffy graphics card in there, too. Start with our handy-dandy "The Perfect PC: Don't Buy It, Build It" to get an idea of how much parts cost and how to swap them out yourself.

Of course, some upgrades simply aren't worth doing yourself. But the biggest markups tend to show up on RAM, hard drives, and graphics cards--parts that are pretty easy to install. Processors are a slightly different story: You'll have to do some comparison shopping to make sure that performing a DIY upgrade is worth your while. With laptops, another important consideration is the restricted room you have to work with; before you press the Buy button, check your specific model to see whether you can easily upgrade the RAM and hard drive yourself.

Intentionally Complicated Rebate Policies

Everyone hates rebates. They take forever, are subject to rejection if you fail to follow the arcane instructions to the letter, and often show up in the annoying form of a Visa gift card. No one wants a $13.20 gift card.

If you find a rebate deal that you simply can't pass up, you might want to pursue it through RebateRemedy. You'll still have to fill the the vendor's forms out (plus an extra form for RebateRemedy), but the service claims that it will send you the money in a few days. In return, it charges you $2.50 plus 20 to 30 percent of the rebate value. Considering that these rebates can take over six months to get to you, it's an appealing proposition.

Poorly Publicized Product Recalls

It's inevitable. Sooner or later, even your favorite tech company will produce a lemon--and when it does, you might not find out about it. Companies are legally obligated to notify consumers when they recall a faulty product, but it's easy for owners of the product to miss the official announcement. Their contact info might have changed since they registered the product two years earlier, or the company's e-mail notification might have gotten stuck in their spam filter.

Such recalls occur fairly frequently (more than half of the laptops I've owned in my lifetime have been involved in some kind of recall), and they often involve parts that could catch fire or explode (batteries, for example), so you'd think that the manufacturers would do more to get in touch with the products' owners than mass-mail an e-mail message or a postcard. Somehow, I usually find out about a recall only when I take my machine in for a warranty replacement of some other part.

You don't have to wait for your battery to explode to find out about a product recall, however. Follow the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission via Twitter (@OnSafety) or through its Website (the CPSC even has an RSS feed and a podcast!), and you'll know the moment a recall is announced.

Illegal Price Gouging

Every now and then we see companies getting busted for "price fixing" in connection with products ranging from LCDs to RAM. Two recent suspects are Apple and Amazon in the e-book market--in early August, Connecticut's attorney general Richard Blumenthal sent a letter to both companies warning them that the "most favored nation" agreements they've set up with book publishers aren't, well, legal (via WalletPop).

Basically, the "most favored nation" clause at issue is an agreement between the book publisher and the vendor (Amazon/Apple) that the publisher will sell the books to the vendor at the best price it will offer to anyone; so if it subsequently offers a different vendor a lower price, it must extend that offer to Amazon and Apple as well.

The practical consequence of this deal is that neither Amazon nor Apple have to discount its prices to compete with one another, and the publisher doesn't have to worry about discounting its books because they will remain at the same price for all of the publisher's vendor partners. Of course, it also means that the prices consumers have to pay aren't subject to normal market forces like competition and supply and demand.

Unfortunately, there's not much you can do about it. You can buy used goods, since the manufacturers don't make any money when people resell used products, but you still end up paying inflated prices because the "price floors" established by backdoor deals between wholesalers and retailers raise the cost of those products on the used market, too. After all, if you paid $150 for a price-fixed LCD, you're not going to want to sell it for $40 a year later--even if that's what it should cost.

You're Holding It Wrong

Companies these days act as if they're entitled to take your money and tell you exactly how to use your gadgets. Well, at least one company does. But if a business won't cater to your needs, don't give it your money. Or at least enjoy a little joke at its expense with an Antenna-Aid or End Call sticker.

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