How to detect hidden fees in a hidden cost economy

This week I served as a panelist with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and several state partners on a webinar that highlighted the top types of fraud targeting Tennesseans. During the webinar a participant asked about newer fees that some auto dealers have added to the purchase price since supply issues have created auto shortages.

As part of her response, the FTC’s Southeast Regional Director Anna Burns shared that there have been recent cases about added fees. She noted that FTC’s primary focus is on whether the fees have been disclosed conspicuously so purchasers can make an informed decision.

This addition of fees, especially as we face several economic challenges is not unique to the auto industry – with the rising prices of gas and seemingly everything else, restaurants, travel companies, rideshares, and other businesses are tacking on new fees to the basic costs of their services. Businesses are feeling inflation impacts just as the rest of us are, and some are adding fees to help them survive. But as FTC shared, consumers should be aware of what fees businesses are adding up front.

BBB recommends the following tips to help you spot “hidden fees” and avoid them when possible:

– Don’t rely on the promoted price. More businesses are implementing “drip pricing,” where additional fees are added as you move through the buying process. Before you head to the store or click the checkout button, find out what fees, if any, will apply to your purchase. Be wary of low advertised prices because you may discover expensive cleaning fees, facility fees, administrative fees, fuel surcharges, kitchen appreciation fees, noncash adjustments, and more.

– Comparison shop with fees in mind. Fees make comparison shopping more of a challenge. Be ready to do a little research before you buy. Shop around, considering each business’s fees as you calculate the total cost of any purchase. While Harvard Business School found that shoppers typically continue with a purchase – even if they are unhappy with the additional hidden fees, if you think fees are too high, keep shopping around to see if you can find a better price for an equivalent service or product .

– Consider paying with cash to avoid fees. Rising credit card swipe fees are forcing many retailers to add a noncash surcharge or increase it for consumers purchasing goods or services with a credit or debit card. Avoid these fees by paying cash if you can, but only if you have done your research and confirmed you’re working with a trustworthy company.

– Complain about hidden fees. Consumer Reports found that 64% of consumers who complained about a hidden or unexpected fee successfully had the fee taken off a bill or refunded. If you get hit with a surprise charge as you check out, try speaking up tactfully and politely.

– Watch out for cramming. Cramming is the illegal act of adding unauthorized service charges without your knowledge or approval. Less-than-scrupulous companies add small charges to your bill and describe them with generic terms, such as “service fee,” “voicemail,” or “other fees.” Learn more about cramming in this BBB Tip.

– Review your monthly bills. Take a few minutes to review your statements each month and check for new or unexpected fees. If you feel that it has not been disclosed properly, address this with the company. Make sure you’ve included any legitimate fees into your monthly budget.

For more information

You can learn more about how to spot and avoid hidden fees when traveling by reading the BBB Tip: Avoid hidden fees when booking your next trip. You can also read more from BBB’s tips on keeping costs down during inflation.

If you feel a hidden fee is particularly unscrupulous, report it to your State Attorney General or the Federal Trade Commission. If you spot a fee scam, report it at

You can check out companies with BBB at or call your BBB at 423-266-6144.

Michele Mason is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga


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