SOMETIMES THE BUYER 
NEEDS A LITTLE HELP

   This is kind of a sad story, the kind that might shake your faith in human nature. It's not about pain, or disease, or death, or anything on that level. It's just about money, the root of many evils in this world.
    I know this will come as a shock to many, but here it is: There are people out there who want to rip you off. They have no qualms about overcharging you for their goods or services.
   Technically, they're not criminals. They're just greedy, and they'll do whatever they can to take that extra dollar out of your pocket.
   Obviously, we all know this. The Wells Fargo fiasco was reminder enough. There's just been so much talk about deregulation that it makes me wonder if some people have much more faith in human nature than I do.
   I started giving this a lot of thought the other day when I rented a car in Palm Springs. I was there for business and a little pleasure, and I needed a car for six days. And since I had to carry some people and luggage around, I needed a big one.
   "No reservation?" said the man at the counter, his eyes lighting up. "Let me see what we've got."
   I usually make reservations, but I never got around to it. I just walked up to the shortest line and took my chances that they'd have something available. And with all the choices of car rental companies, they'd have to be competitive.
   "I've got an SUV you can have for $100 per day," he said after scanning his computer.
    I hadn't rented a big car in quite some time, but that seemed ridiculous, and I told him so. He replied that he could talk to his manager and see if he could cut me a deal.
    "I can give it to you for $75 per day," he said, acting as though he'd done me a monumental favor. "With taxes, it's $540 for the six days. Would you like to take it?"
   I looked around at the other counters, all of which had huge lines. I didn't have time to shop around, and he knew it. Reluctantly, I told him I'd take it.
    As he took my credit card and driver's license, it dawned on me that I could go on my iPhone and check prices. I went on Expedia.com and within seconds had offers for an SUV in Palm Springs for $30 per day. FROM THE SAME COMPANY.
   "Let's see what I can do," he said, a little sheepishly, after I informed him he was ripping me off. "I've got one here I can give you for $140 for six days."
   If I hadn't checked my iPhone, I would have been charged an extra $400. I wondered how many people without reservations had been ripped off by this guy.
    The car rental story was a culmination of other examples in the last couple of months. A fire sprinkler bid for one of my retail stores: $10,000. A second bid: $2,300. New signage for a new store: $17,000. A second bid: $7,400. A retaining wall at our house to hold back a sliding hillside: $75,000. A second bid: $26,000.
    Who are these people with these exorbitant bids? They are people who are basically saying we don't need the work, but if you're naive enough not to get a competitive bid, we'll be happy to rip you off.
   I don't think that's right. If they don't need the work, don't bid for the job. But for some, that's not their nature. A windfall from some unsuspecting and uninformed customer is all good. That's free enterprise. Let the buyer beware.
   Please don't misunderstand. I'm not suggesting the government regulate car rental prices or construction bids or anything of the sort. I'm fine with "let the buyer beware" on a small scale. What I'm suggesting is that the same thing happens on a larger scale (for sake of argument, let's say at financial institutions) because some people are always looking to make the quick buck, consequences be damned. And that's where, in my opinion, we need help.
   But enough of that. Back to the car rental. "There's a survey on customer service inside your packet," he said as he handed me the keys. "Fill it out and you get 10 percent off your next rental."
   I checked the packet when I got in the car. No survey included. What a surprise.
 

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