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Rant: Fee for paying in cash is just wrong

"Your money is no good here" used to be a positive sign.

It meant someone else was buying dinner. The drink was on the house. Put your wallet away, we've got this covered.

It was a sign of friendship, respect, appreciation.

Not anymore.

Now it's one more way for corporations to pad the bottom line.

Not long ago, a Georgia woman went to an AT&T Wireless store to pay her cell phone bill. According to Bob Sullivan's MSNBC.com blog, when she handed the clerk her bill and cash, she was told there was a $2 surcharge. "I was told that it was a courtesy to take cash," she said.

She was told she was lucky; the fee was about to increase to $5.

Are you kidding me?

A spokesman for AT&T told Sullivan the fee helps keep costs down (actually, it seems to raise revenue) and: "We want our associates to spend their time helping customers as they are thinking about their wireless plans or looking at phones."

Sounds like AT&T Wireless wants to get its money's worth from its employees, and from us. But AT&T isn't alone. Others are charging customers to use cash.

The dollar is taking a beating around the world, but I never expected it to happen at home.

In Visa's "Life Takes Visa" ad campaign, one commercial shows a deli running with production-line smoothness because everyone pays with a Visa check card. When an unsuspecting soul uses cash, the line screeches to a halt as food and drinks crash to the ground. The clerk sneers.

She begrudgingly takes the dolt's money, and the line returns to its precash precision. The voice-over tells us: "Because money shouldn't slow you down. Life takes faster money. Life takes Visa."

I remember laughing. I'm not laughing anymore.

Apple stopped taking cash for iPhones last fall. The company said it was trying to discourage people who were reselling iPhones, presumably after "unlocking" the technology that limited owners to AT&T service.

Looks like Apple wanted to keep an eye on its customers. Maybe 1984 wasn't fiction. Maybe George Orwell was smarter than we thought.

U.S. corporations have found all sorts of ways to add fees. Banks are particularly creative. Some have charged a fee just to talk to a teller. Others have pay-to-pay fees, charging customers extra to pay a credit card bill by phone. Congress is looking into banking fees.

Ticketmaster has always charged a convenience fee to buy tickets. At first, that seemed logical. Ticketmaster used to save us the time, trouble and cost of driving to the box office. Not anymore. With the Internet, it's the theaters and sports teams that enjoy the convenience, saving the cost of running their own Web site to sell tickets. We still pay for the convenience.

Some gas stations used to charged less per gallon if you used cash. You don't see that much anymore.

A dollar doesn't buy what it used to. But it hasn't just lost value, it's lost respect.

It's surprising that U.S. merchants who used to scoff at the idea of accepting Canadian money are happy to accept not only loonies from north of the border, but also euros.

It's demoralizing when Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, hardly friends of the United States, lobby oil-producing countries to drop the dollar as the standard used to set the price of oil and some members agree.

But it's just wrong for U.S. companies to charge us extra to use cash.

If I were an AT&T Wireless customer, I'd head to a bank, get the appropriate amount of nickels and pennies to pay my bill, go to a store and spill the coins on the counter. Then I would write a check to cover the surcharge.

I'd tell the "associate" I wanted to get my money's worth.

If there is any justice, a bank would charge the store a fee for rerolling the coins.

Time staff writer Kyle Kreiger writes an occasional rant about the little aggravations in life. E-mail him at kreiger@sptimes.com.

Rant: Fee for paying in cash is just wrong 05/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 28, 2008 11:24am]

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