Sucheta Dalal :The Twelve Duds of Christmas
Sucheta Dalal

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The Twelve Duds of Christmas  

December 25, 2006

We dimly recall that many years ago, as we snoozed through a Medieval Literature course, the learned professor held forth at great length about the partridge in a pear tree being one of the favorite dirty jokes of the Middle Ages. It was, he insisted, a methaphor for ... oh, never mind.

Unfortunately, the notion that consumers can rely on companies to deliver reliable, high-quality products and to make things right when defects crop up is becoming about as realistic as the Middle Ages belief that a wealthy consumer could buy his way into Heaven.

Be that as it may, we trust that your true love has not sent you any of the items on our 12 Duds of Christmas list.

A word about the Duds: A few weeks ago, our Mark Huffman skillfully enumerated the Top Ten Scams of 2006. The Duds, by contrast, are not scams -- they're real products and services, but they're so marred by defects, sloth and greed as to be next to (or even worse than) useless. In most cases, the supplier has the resources to do better but simply chooses not to.

1. Microsoft's Xbox 360
Like most Microsoft products, it shuts down unexpectedly, especially when running "Dead Rising." No, there's no Blue Screen of Death so familiar to users of various Windows versions but there are the Three Red Lights of Death, not to mention over-heating problems that can cause real, not virtual, meltdowns.

At a time when the likes of Google are running circles around Microsoft's efforts to discover what this new Internet thing is all about, it's especially self-destructive for Microsoft to ignore, stiff-arm and demean its customers by refusing to recognize and deal with these defects.

2. Any Kind of Ford
Ford has done just about everything it can think of to keep the shiny side up. It's shuffled its executives, revised its marketing plans, closed plants, fired workers, issued countless press releases. In fact, it's done everything except take care of the customers who have supported it for lo these many years.

Check out Joe Benton's Ford Lemon Line-Up for a complete recitation of such horrors as the spark-plug-spitting engines, the highly flammable F150, the lock-up prone Focus and, of course, the epic saga of the Windstar head gaskets, a legend that has outlived the Windstar.

3. Martha Stewart and Her Tables
Put simply, the glass tops explode, suddenly and without warning. Martha sniffs that she has nothing to do with manufacturing the tables and simply puts her name on them, apparently surmising that this gives her the right to brazenly ignore the plight of those whose decks and sunrooms are covered with tiny bits of glass.

Kmart and the manufacturer, JRA Furniture, have also gone their merry way, inviting consumers to eat their dust. So far, we know of only one -- count them, one -- consumer who has received any kind of restitution. No doubt this was an oversight. We expect Martha will see that it doesn't happen again.

4. AOL
For years, the nation has watched breathlessly as AOL lurched from crisis to crisis, or so the daily press apparently believes. We find it quite amazing that so little attention is paid to such decades-old AOL games as ignoring cancellation requests, double-billing consumers, slipping in all kinds of unauthorized charges and generally treating customers' bank accounts like a slush fund set aside for AOL's use.

When Mary Cheney was named AOL's Vice President for Consumer Advocacy, skeptics said it was a political pay-off to keep the feds off AOL's trail but we said, no, it's just a talented family. Look at Mary's sister, Elizabeth. She got her job as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State all on her own without anyone even considering her father's position. Didn't she?

5. Girls Gone Wild
Unlike the children it exploits, GGW wasn't born yesterday. It has carefully studied the behavior of Internet pioneer AOL, learning how to continue billing customers long after they have served their notice of cancellation. While the company has largely gotten by with its rather questionable sales practices, its principals are at last being prosecuted for their sexual exploitation of minors.

We must admit we don't lose a lot of sleep worrying about consumers who've been taken in. They are, after all, enabling and supporting child pornography.

6. Maytag Washing Machines
Forget the scrub-a-dub routine, these things are more like cars than appliances. The transmissions go out, the control panels fail and, like a Suburban with a bad catalytic converter, they smell bad, thanks to the mold that tends to build up on the door. Oh, did we mention they tie your clothes in knots?

Maytag settled a class action lawsuit last year but consumers say they're still being hung out to dry -- some didn't hear about the settlement in time to get in on it and others encountered the same defects after the settlement period had spun itself dry.

7. Whirlpool Water Heaters
There's really nothing wrong with the Whirlpool Flame Lock gas water heater unless you like to take hot showers and have gotten into the habit of using hot water on the rare occasions when your Maytag washer is in working order. The Flame Lock, sold exclusively by Lowes, has a fatal flaw that would put Hamlet to shame: its thermocouple fails repeatedly and is difficult and expensive to replace. After the first few such episodes, most folks just give up and buy a new water heater, presumably not a Whirlpool.

By the way, as Santa may not have noticed, Maytag and Whirlpool are now one and the same. So angry Maytag customers should think twice before storming over to the Whirlpool aisle, and vice versa.

8. Canon Cameras
Millions of Canon cameras are affilicted with a flaw that can cause the lens to lock up as it zooms in and out, rendering the camera useless. The company knows all about it and has even alerted Asian customers to the defect, and has fixed some Asian cameras under warranty.

But in the U.S., the company stiff-arms and ignores customers and used a high-powered legal team to derail a class action lawsuit that could have brought at least some relief to American consumers.

9. MySpace
Rupert Murdoch knew when he bought MySpace that there was a danger that child molesters and sexual predators could use the site to target teens and young adults like Taylor Behl, the Virginia Commonwealth University student kidnapped and murdered, allegedly by a man she met on MySpace.

Belatedly, the site has started putting together a database of known sexual predators who will be excluded from membership but it has not taken the more effective, though more expensive, step of using human moderators to keep an eye on what happens in its space.

We understand online publishers' desire to minimize and even eliminate human editing of their sites' content but running unmoderated free-for-alls is not publishing. It's pandering, profiteering ... or something even worse.

10. Kevin Trudeau
When they drafted the First Amendment, the founding fathers knew it would be misused and, sure enough, they were right. When the feds banned Kevin Trudeau from making any more infomercials for his coral calcium products, Kevin did what any red-blooded American would do. He wrote a book and began infomercials hawking the book, an activity protected under the First Amendment.

Hey, at least his gets his money the old-fashioned way, by appealing to consumers too lazy to investigate what they're buying. Unlike AOL, he doesn't simply take it without even asking.

11. People Who Oppose Irradiation
The general belief is that hamburgers and French fries will kill you, and maybe they will if you stuff yourself with them for a few decades. But one good dose of E. coli or other food-borne bacteria will kill you pretty much immediately, as recent problems with spinach, lettuce and other normally healthful foods demonstrate. Beyond the widely-publicized national and regional outbreaks are many isolated poisonings that sicken thousands and kill hundreds each year.

There's a simple solution to this and it's called irradiation -- a sterilization process that kills harmful bacteria and leaves no residue. The opposition to this innocuous procedure, already in use in Mexico and other advanced countries, is even worse than the wrath of offended Prius owners. It's reminiscent of the fear of witches. We'd say it's time to grow up, get real and start zapping food that's shipped across state lines to be consumed far from the fields where it was grown. We can't all go back to growing our own food, now can we?

12. NutriSystem
Then there's food that comes in big boxes. Anyone who's been in the military already knows what this stuff tastes like but it comes as news to those who order pre-packed meals from NutriSystem and other heavily promoted weight-loss programs. We hear from many consumers who complain the food's too salty, too bland and just too much like cardboard. Truth is, eating right is easy.

There are a few simple words: fish, fresh fruits, vegetables. Add to that the words baked, broiled, not fried, add a half-hour walk each day and you're on the path to losing weight, improving your health and reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

You don't have to have food shipped in boxes from across the country or pay big bucks to someone you saw on TV late one night. Need help? Ask your doctor to recommend a Registered Dietitian -- an R.D., for short. They are nutrition scientists who can work with you to design an individual diet that works for you.

Swans a'swimming

Well, that's it. No lords a'leaping or ladies dancing, but you get the idea. It's not just the fly-by-night scam artists who will take your money and leave you nothing in return. Big respectable companies will do the same and there's very little likelihood anyone will do anything about it.

The answer? Well, it's to be vigilant, like the three wise men; assertive, like all good consumers; and, to complain loud and long when someone does you wrong. Send us your complaints in 2007. We'll publicize them, share them with the media, make them available to consumer attorneys and public prosecutors.

As they say, knowledge is power. Happy New Year!

By James R. Hood

December 25, 2006

-- Sucheta Dalal