Do you hate hidden hotel, housing, airline, ticketing, banking, and other corporate fees? Do you want Congress to do something about them? In this episode, learn about the wide range of unreasonable fees being reported to Congress during hearings and examine what proposals could have bipartisan support.
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July 26, 2023
Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection
- Michelle A. Henry, Attorney General, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
- Lindsey Siegel, Director of Housing Advocacy, Atlanta Legal Aid Society
- Brian Johnson, Manager Director, Patomak Global Partners
Michelle Henry: In the consumer finance space, we recently filed a multi-state lawsuit against Mariner Finance, a Wall Street private equity-owned installment lender. Our lawsuit alleges that Mariner charged consumers junk fees for hidden add-on products that consumers either did not know about or did not agree to buy. These hidden add-on products, such as credit insurance and auto clubs, are typically low- or no-value products. Consumers left Mariner believing that they had entered into an agreement to borrow and repay over time a certain amount of money. In reality, because of these hidden junk fees, Mariner added hundreds to thousands of dollars to the total amount a consumer owed. The cost of the junk fees is staggering. For a random sample of loans originated in Pennsylvania in December of 2020, Mariner charged each consumer an average of $1,085 in junk fees for an average of $3,394 in cash borrowed.
Michelle Henry: We also had a significant junk fee settlement in 2018 with Wells Fargo. This settlement stemmed from Wells charging its auto finance customers millions in junk fees. Despite evidence that many customers already had the required car insurance, Wells improperly charged more than 2 million accounts for force-placed insurance. To resolve the multi-state action, Wells agreed to pay states $575 million.
Michelle Henry: In 2021, we announced the landmark junk fee settlement with Marriott International. For many years, travelers had been misled by the published rates offered by hotels for a night stay, only later to be hit with the mandatory resort fees when they were checking in. Thanks to our settlement, Marriott now has a policy in place to be upfront and transparent in the disclosure of mandatory fees, including resort fees, as part of the total price of a hotel stay, allowing consumers to compare total costs for hotels and find the one that is the best fit for them. Marriott was the first hotel chain to formally commit to the upfront disclosure of resort fees as part of the initial advertised price. We hope others will follow.
Michelle Henry: In the end, what we are fighting here for is basic fairness and transparency. When consumers are shopping online or in person, they deserve to understand what a loan, a house, or a vacation will cost and exactly what key terms they’re agreeing to. At the same time, all businesses deserve to compete on an even playing field, where the price is the price with no hidden surprise fees.
Lindsey Siegel: My name is Lindsay Siegel and I’m the Director of Housing Advocacy at Atlanta Legal Aid, which provides free civil legal services to families with low incomes in the metro Atlanta area. Today, I will focus on the rental housing market and how predatory and hidden rental fees gouge families living in poverty and make their rent even more unaffordable than it already is. Miss Dixon is a single mother who found an online listing for an apartment in the fall of 2020. The advertisement said it rented for $1,400 per month. It did not list any other monthly fees she would be required to pay. She applied and paid $525 through the landlord’s online portal, which covered her $50 application fee, a $175 moving fee, and a $300 screening fee, all of which were non-refundable. She was not able to see the lease or the apartment she’d be renting, but she knew if she did not pay sight unseen she would lose the apartment. And when her application was approved a few weeks later, the landlord charged her another $200 approval fee. She finally received and signed a copy of her lease just two days before she was slated to move in. It was 50 pages long and contained to eight different addenda. She had expected to pay her rent and for water. She didn’t expect to be responsible for a package locker fee, a trash removal fee, a separate valet trash fee, a pest control fee, a technology package fee, an insurance fee, and a credit reporting fee. When the fees added up, $83 had been tacked on to her monthly rent. And to make matters worse, Miss Dixon’s landlord did not accept the rent by cash, check, or money order. When she paid through the landlord’s online portal she was charged another $72-per-payment convenience fee. The low income renters Atlanta Legal Aid represents have an extreme power imbalance with their landlords. The high demand for rental housing, especially at the more affordable end of the market, makes some landlords believe they can easily get away with unfair and deceptive lease terms and rental practices. The bait and switch Miss Dixon experienced where the landlord advertise the rent as one price only to raise it much higher with junk fees after she had spent hundreds of dollars up front is a far too common practice of many investor landlords in the Atlanta area. Low income renters like Miss Dixon become trapped. She couldn’t afford to walk away from a predatory lease two days before she was supposed to move in, even if she realized it would be unaffordable. Of particular concern are the use of high application fees. They often far exceed the cost of running a report, and most renters have to pay them several times before finding a home to rent. We’ve heard reports that some institutional landlords even collect application fees after they’ve found a renter for an available home.
Brian Johnson: The focus of the President’s initiative has been on applying political pressure to companies to induce them to change their fee disclosure practices. In the process, the White House and supporting agencies have dismissed broad categories of fees as junk without ever providing any consistent definition of the term, which has created uncertainty as to which fees can be assessed by institutions without undue reputational or regulatory risk.
Brian Johnson: The CFPB has been the most enthusiastic among regulators in heeding the President’s call, indiscriminately attacking a growing list of common financial service fees, no matter that they are lawful and fully disclosed.
Brian Johnson: The agency has publicly hectored companies about deposit account fees and used the implied threat of investigation to induce such companies to abandon these legal fees. Further, in addressing other fees, the CFPB appears appears to have violated its own regulations and laws governing how agencies proffer rules by disguising interpretive rules as policy statements in bulletins and issuing circulars that function as legislative rules. In another instance, under the guise of interpretation, the CFPB read a word into a statute to achieve its desired policy outcome. In still another, the agency treats the rulemaking process as a foregone conclusion, acting as though a still proposed rule has already taken effect, signaling that the agency has no interest in considering public comments, establishing an adequate evidentiary basis to support its conclusions, or considering potential changes to improve the rule. These examples demonstrate an abuse of power and the agency’s disregard for process and the limits placed on it. Moreover, the CFPB’s behavior subverts the authority of Congress to oversee the agency and legislate the legality of fees in our financial marketplace. Simply put, it’s not playing by the rules.
Lindsey Siegel: So I think the federal government does have a role to play. The CFPB could create best practices, investigate junk fees further — especially those being charged for tenant screening reports — could bring enforcement actions against debt collectors that engage in collection practices that violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in their collection of rental debt especially includes collection of junk fees. And certainly, you know, HUD could further study and address the disproportionate impact of these practices on renters and rental applicants of color.
Lindsey Siegel: Tenants living in Atlanta have a very hard time finding a rental, finding a home, that’s not owned by a corporate landlord at this point. They have bought up many properties in the Atlanta area and they always seem to be working in lockstep so that once one institutional landlord is charging a certain kind of fee then another one tends to charge it as well. Just one example of this is the proliferation of landlords charging for insurance fees, and often tenants will think that these are renters insurance because they’re often called renter’s insurance. But it’s not like traditional renter’s insurance that protects the renter and their property if it’s destroyed. What it does is protect the landlord and doesn’t really provide a benefit to tenants at all. And we’ve seen that proliferate with investor landlords in particular.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC): I can’t imagine any reasonable member of Congress not saying, “I want the person to know what their financial obligation is when they sign an instrument, not after they read page 10 in the fine print.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC): I’m less caught up in whether or not a trash collection fee is appropriate or not, and more caught up in, does that renter know at the point in time they’re signing a lease what they’re expected to pay every month?
Michelle Henry: We often see things bleed over state lines and boundaries, as you are well aware, and so it’s important that we work together to enforce these matters.
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA): How often do these kinds of cases cross state lines? And would having federal standards against these types of hidden fees make these cases easier to bring? Michelle Henry: Almost always. And I think that’s critical. Where we have been most successful is joining with our fellow states, other attorneys general, partnering with them, and including the CFPB. In December of 2020, the CFPB, with all 50 states and the District of Columbia, filed enforcement action against Nationstar mortgage, again for deceptive practices, for not being transparent when they were servicing borrowers mortgages, and as a result of that joint effort we were able to obtain a settlement of $73 million and brought aid to 40,000 borrowers.
Michelle Henry: You know, the reality is a lot of times consumers get misled. So they start, they’re looking on the internet, they’re trying to do due diligence and look for the best price, whether it’s for a hotel, a vacation, and they’re in there examining it, and they get led to a certain area of a certain website thinking that’s the best price. And they go down this rabbit hole where they have no idea at the end of it that the price they thought they were going to pay for a hotel stay with their family is actually far larger because of fees that they weren’t prepared, were not properly advised of, and at that point, they’re so far in or they never discover it. So no, I don’t think they understand exactly what to be aware of. We’re trying to do our best to educate but far more work needs to be done, and I applaud this committee for working on it.
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA): If more federal agencies had the authority to address these hidden fees, how would that affect your office’s capacity? Michelle Henry: It would help tremendously. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA): Thank you so very much.
Michelle Henry: If history is any lesson, we know that they can’t be trusted to act in the best interest of consumers on their own. Look, they’re in the business of making money for their shareholders and we need robust consumer protection rules and enforcement to ensure that.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC): So what we’re talking about here is not the “what,” it’s the “how.” And I for one do not think that the regulator’s who have demonstrated pushing the boundaries of their authority, giving them more authority is a good idea if we’re coming up with a real bipartisan sustainable solution.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC): The problem we have here too, when we transfer power out of Congress to another branch, yes, that changes every four years or so. So you may be thrilled with a regulatory regimen that comes out from the CFBP today, but because of the way they behaved, it’d be one of the first things I would work to repeal if the administration changed and withdraw it.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC): I’d like to submit for the record a letter from the Consumer Bankers Association on the subject.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC): Mr. Johnson, can you talk about the effect of the method that the CFPB is using to go after this and the impact that it can have, the negative implications that has? Is the CFPB’s tendency to name and shame business institutions to avoid certain practices or adopt new ones effective regulation? They’re not really thinking through the full impact and all the potential unintended consequences. Can you think of any example under this current leadership of the CFPB where they have taken that into consideration? Can you speak a little bit about the efforts and the length the CFPB goes in an effort to avoid judicial review and skirt the APA process?
June 8, 2023
Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation: Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security
- Sally Greenberg, Chief Executive Officer, National Consumers League
- Vicki G. Morwitz, Bruce Greenwald Professor of Business, Marketing Division, Columbia Business School
- Todd J. Zywicki, George Mason University Foundation Professor of Law, Antonin Scalia School of Law, George Mason University
21:35 Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO): Simply put, these are fees that are disclosed to a consumer midway through or at the end of a transaction, or they’re fees that serve no tangible purpose for a consumer, like a processing fee, and that they are mandatory or unavoidable.
28:00 Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN): The way I look at this issue, and the way many Tennesseans look at it, is this is another way for the FTC, the CFPB, DoT, and all these regulators to clamp down on businesses and try to micro manage businesses.
30:42 Dr. Vicki Morwitz: My co-authors and I define partition pricing as a strategy where firms decide to divide a product’s price into two or more mandatory parts, a base price for the main product and one or more mandatory surcharges, rather than charging a single all-inclusive price. For example, many hotels have a mandatory fee on top of the daily room rate. These are sometimes called resort fees, or facility fees, or destination fees and can range from $20 to over $50 a night. And many rental car agencies assess several mandatory fees on top of the daily rental rate, such as concession recovery fees, customer facility fees, energy recovery fees, and vehicle licensing fees.
31:20 Dr. Vicki Morwitz: In general, what research on partition pricing has shown is that when firms separate out mandatory surcharges consumers tend to underestimate the total price they’ll have to pay and they’re often more likely to complete the purchase.
31:50 Dr. Vicki Morwitz: With drip pricing, firms advertise only part of our products’ price upfront and reveal other charges later, as shoppers go through the buying process. Drip fees can be mandatory or can be for optional items, but for today’s testimony I’ll focus on the dripping of mandatory surcharges. Drip pricing is commonly used in industries like the cable TV and the ticketing industries. When a consumer shops for a TV-Internet bundle from a cable television provider, they may first see an attractive base price offer for the bundle, but later learn there are also broadcast TV fees, set top box fees, regional sports fees, and TV connection fees that raise the price considerably. And a consumer shopping for a ticket for a live event, like a concert, a play, or a baseball game, typically first sees the price for different seats in the venue. After selecting a seat, as the consumer clicks through more webpages, they may come to learn there’s also a mandatory booking fee, ticketing fee, venue fee, and delivery fee, even when the tickets are delivered electronically. Eventually, they see a total price that may be much higher than the first price they saw and they may be under time pressure to complete the purchase, as there might be a countdown clock that indicates they have to complete their purchase in just a few minutes. Or they may be told there’s only two seats left at that price.
33:00 Dr. Vicki Morwitz: What research has shown is that when surcharges are dripped, consumers end up being more likely to buy a product that appears cheaper upfront based only on the base price, but that’s more expensive and total given the drip fees. Consumers also tend to buy more expensive products than they otherwise would, such as a seat closer to the stage for a live event.
35:00 Dr. Vicki Morwitz: These policies will benefit consumers if they require that upfront stated prices must be all-inclusive. In other words, all mandatory fees must be included in the total price and that the total price should be seen upfront. This is what academic research suggests will be most beneficial to consumers.
39:20 Dr. Todd Zywicki: Everybody knows bags fly free on Southwest, everybody knows bags don’t fly free on the legacy airlines, everybody knows there’s going to be a fee for for bags on the other airlines and the like. Maybe there’s ways you can disclose it, but nobody’s fooled at this point.
42:45 Sally Greenberg: If consumers hate junk fees so much, why do companies large and small increasingly impose them? The answer is, unsurprisingly, because they are a substantial profit center.
43:20 Sally Greenberg: Late payment fees charged by banks and credit cards cost American families an estimated $12 billion annually. These fees, which can be as much as $41 for each Late Fee Payment, far exceed the cost to the issuer for processing and do little to deter future delinquent payments.
43:40 Sally Greenberg: Airlines are also poster children for junk fees. Globally, revenue from junk fees, ancillary fees in airline speak, brought in $102.8 billion in 2022. To put this in perspective, junk fees last year made up 15% of global airline revenues, compared to 6% only 10 years ago.
44:00 Sally Greenberg: Anyone who buys tickets to a concert or sporting event is well acquainted with the myriad fees. They’re added at the end of the ticket buying process. We have the example that you showed, Senator Hickenlooper. Primary and secondary market ticketing companies charge service fees, order processing fees, delivery fees and other charges that increased ticket prices on average 27% for the primary market and 31% for the secondary market.
45:05 Sally Greenberg: Junk fees themselves are anti-competitive. They make comparing prices more difficult, distorting well functioning marketplaces. Honest entrepreneurs who invest in their businesses, innovate, and strive to create better value for their customers lose business. Action to address the consumer and competitive harm created by junk fees is urgently needed.
45:30 Sally Greenberg: First, we would urge you to support S. 916. It’s the Junk Fee Prevention Act, which would require some of the worst abusers of junk fees to display the full price of services upfront, and they would bar excessive fees and ensure transparency. Second, we ask that Congress restore the FTC’s ability to obtain strong financial penalties from wrongdoers. The Supreme Court, in 2021, overturned AMG Capital Management v. FTC, wiping out a critical enforcement tool for the commission. S. 4145, which is the Consumer Protection Remedies Act, would restore that ability to impose monetary relief to the commission. And finally, Congress must not allow businesses that trap consumers with unfair and deceptive fees to escape accountability through fine print in their contracts. To that end, we’re proud to support S. 1376, the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act, which would prohibit pre-dispute arbitration agreements from being enforceable if they require arbitration in employment, consumer, antitrust, or civil rights disputes
44:35 Sally Greenberg: Renters, for example, tend to have lower incomes than those who own their homes. These consumers are also some of the most preyed upon by abusive junk fees. A 2022 survey conducted by Consumer and Housing Advocates found that 89% of landlords imposed some rental application fees[[ clare, 8/7/2023 2:09 PM couldn’t find this specific survey]], nearly as many renters paid excessive late fees and they also get hit with utility, administrative, convenience, insurance, and notice fees.
51:30 Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN): I’m not hearing from Tennesseans about junk fees. They’re just not talking about. They are talking about real economic harm. And I think for some it’s been kind of perplexing that we would focus on this issue. I even had one Tennessean say, “Well, what exactly is a junk fee? And what are the economic harms that come to people for fees for discretionary services?”
53:20 Dr. Todd Zywicki: I can’t see any reason why people who pay their credit cards on time should have to subsidize people who pay their credit cards late. The evidence is clear on this from the Grodzicki study that if you reduce late fees, more people pay late. The Massoud study makes clear that if you reduce late fees, everybody ends up paying higher interest rates and, and lower income and higher risk borrowers get less access to credit. So most of what we see in the market is efficient. It prevents cross consumer subsidies and a lot of these things that are labeled as junk fees are actually just efficient multi-part pricing.
1:00:30 Dr. Vicki Morwitz: When a larger firm, or really any firm, uses hidden fees or surcharges, it doesn’t only hurt consumers, but it hurts well intentioned, honest competitors like many of our country’s small businesses that you’re talking about. So when a larger firm makes salient a lower base price and only puts in small print or only reveals at the end of the shopping process that there are additional mandatory fees, their product offerings may appear, at least at first, to be cheaper than those of say a small business, an honest competitor who uses all inclusive prices, whose prices at least at first then, will appear more expensive, even if they’re actually cheaper in total when the hidden fees of the large firm are added in. Now, research shows this is going to lead consumers to be more likely to even first consider the products and services of the larger firm who uses hidden surcharges because their products seem cheaper. In other words, their supposed low prices draw consumers in. But then having first consider their products consumers will also be more likely to stick with that firm and ultimately purchase their products, even when they’re more expensive in total with the fees. So these hidden fees, they don’t only hurt consumers by leading them to make purchases that are against their own self interest, but it also hurts honest competitors who are using transparent pricing practices.
1:04:10 Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN): One area of this high excessive fees is ticketing. We had the hearing earlier this year with the president of Live Nation/ Ticketmaster, and other witnesses and as you are aware, the facts are quite startling. It’s being reviewed by the Justice Department, including 90% monopoly on ticketing for major NFL, NHL events, 80% for major arena events, and 70% monopoly when it comes to all ticketing. In addition to that, Ticketmaster now owns a number of venues and also locks in a number of other venues that they don’t own with their services for in excess of seven years, which is a subject of a bill that Senator Blumenthal and I have introduced, because this locking in makes for even less competition. And then finally, Live Nation promotes the act. So it’s like a three cornered monopoly.
1:12:30 Sally Greenberg: Yes, you may know that you have a baggage fee, but there are many people who are older, who have disabilities, who may have children with them; they cannot be carrying their bags onto the airplane. So they are forced to eat the cost of a $35 fee, something that used to be free before, and has jammed our airplanes full of luggage up top, creating hazards for flight attendants as well.
1:13:55 Sally Greenberg: We certainly support the Good Jobs for Airports Act. I think many consumers had no idea that a lot of these workers were not making minimum wage[[ clare, 8/7/2023 2:08 PM couldn’t find a source for this.]], were relying on tips. And many people who use the wheelchairs and the curbside baggage services did not know that people were living on tip wages and many people don’t tip, as some of us who’ve been tipped workers know. Tipping is very up and down and certainly not a reliable source of income. So yes, we very much appreciate that legislation and it’s long overdue.
1:21:20 Dr. Todd Zywicki: Junk fees is a meaningless term, but it’s worse than meaningless. It’s actually pernicious, which is that by sort of using this blanket conclusory label, it obscures the complexity of this, the difference between trip pricing, risk based pricing, multipart pricing, partition pricing, and that sort of thing, and it kind of sweeps into one bucket things that are legitimate, things that are aren’t, things that might be partially legitimate. And now it’s even got more confusing because if you look at the FTC rule, for example, on auto dealers, they take things like nitrogen filled tires, they charge more money for a claim that’s a junk fee. The problem with that is not that it’s a separate price for nitrogen filled tires. The problem, if there’s a problem, is that nitrogen filled tires are garbage, right? There’s nothing there. It doesn’t matter whether it’s disclosed separately or bundled in the price if it’s a worthless product. And so when we talk about junk fees, we can end up confusing ourselves, lumping in things because we want to just apply this label to it, whereas I think it’d be much better to understand risk based pricing. What are things where they’re pricing for something that you get no value from? What are the things where they’re pricing things simply to extract wealth from consumers and the like?