After what feels like a decade, 2016 is mercifully over, but before we can move forward into the brave new year it’s time to bring the recycling bin over toward our locker and purge the bulging Trapper Keeper we’ve been cramming stories into for the last 12 months.
The six of us here at Consumerist somehow managed to crank out nearly 5,500 stories in 2016, so we thought it would be nice to look back at those articles that got the most attention from our loyal readers.
1. Dissecting Your Bills
This year’s most popular Consumerist story was our series of in-depth looks at cable and internet bills from Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, Verizon FiOS, DirecTV, Dish, and AT&T U-Verse, culminating in this story where we showed how all cable and satellite companies are nickel-and-diming their customers through set-top box fees, maintenance fees, and most controversially through “Broadcast TV” and “Regional Sports” fees to help cable companies recoup the money they spend on access to freely available over-the-air stations and for local sports networks (that they sometimes have an ownership stake in).
In the months since the bill stories ran, we’ve seen add-on fees become the subject of a lawsuit from a Charter/Time Warner Cable customer who doesn’t want any money; just for the industry to admit that it is using add-on fees as hidden price hikes. Meanwhile, Comcast continues to increase these fees while not including them in the rates they advertise to customers.
These cable bill stories also came at a time when the FCC tried — and appears to have failed, dismally — to reform the multibillion-dollar set-top box market that is controlled almost exclusively by pay-TV providers. Before the Commission gave up on its efforts — which will likely be scuttled entirely under the incoming Trump administration — the cable industry had spent millions of dollars on an astroturfing campaign to paint set-top box reform as some sort of danger to smaller broadcast companies, falsely claiming that makers of the new boxes would be able to rearrange channel listings to relegate niche-market stations to some dismal corner of the guide.
2. CVS & Target: An Imperfect Pair
Image courtesy of Mike Mozart
In 2015, CVS made a $1.9 billion deal with Target to take over the retailer’s in-store pharmacy business, but it was in 2016 that Target customers say they began to see that this arrangement was not for the better.
This August we took an in-depth look at the many ways that CVS had damaged Target’s relationship with its pharmacy customers, from CVS’s decision to do away with the beloved ClearRX prescription bottles that had been a signature of Target’s pharmacy (and which CVS refuses to bring back), to the replacement pharmacists, to problems with prescription discount cards, to the quality of the actual medications being dispensed.
“I like shopping at Target, and now I have no built-in reason to go there every month,” one former Target pharmacy fan told Consumerist at the time. “Sad for them too, because I never, ever walked out of there with just a prescription bag. I probably spent anywhere from $25 to $75 every time I went in to get my refill.”
3. One Expensive Ambulance Ride
Image courtesy of Wade Morgen
Following up on one of our top stories from 2015, explaining why emergency room visits are increasingly resulting in surprise medical bills, this year we looked at another huge emergency cost that patients can do little to prevent: Ambulance rides.
As we found out while working on this story, even when if you know for sure that your hospital and doctor are part of your insurance network, you may still end up riding to that hospital in an ambulance that is out-of-network, leaving you with potentially huge bills after your insurance pays only a small amount of the total invoice.
“Insurance covered less than half the cost of ambulance travel, leaving $1,600 above the deductible,” one woman in Texas told us about her ambulance bill. “The insurance paid at what they considered reasonable and customary.”
One woman in Pennsylvania says she was stuck with a significant ambulance bill after a car crash because her injuries were minor and she was able to be treated without going to the hospital.
“Medicare said they would cover the cost only if I had gone to the hospital,” Lisa tells Consumerist. “My secondary insurance stated the same thing. They said that’s just the way it is, that’s their rule. They have guidelines that they follow and that’s one of them, ‘Too bad so sad.’”
4. Bizarre Booze Laws
Image courtesy of Zeetz Jones
Maybe in your state, you’re free to pull up to the drive-thru liquor store, or you can buy beer, wine, scotch, and gin in the same store where you buy a Hatchimal and an Adam Sandler DVD. Not in these states, where local restrictions on the sale of spirits and suds can sometimes seem downright Kafkaesque.
There’s Indiana, where “happy hour” deals are against the law, no cold beer at the grocery store, and where you can’t even buy warm beer at the store on Sundays.
Or Colorado, where grocery stores can’t sell full-strength liquor, wine, or beer, and where liquor stores are forbidden from selling food (other than “cocktail garnish”).
And don’t forget the controversial Texas law that forbids public companies with more than 35 shareholders from selling hard liquor in the state. Walmart is currently suing to overturn that ban, claiming it unfairly discriminates against corporations.
5. Amazon’s Plague Of Fake Reviews
You may already be savvy enough to take Amazon reviews — and any crowdsourced reviews — with a grain of salt, but when we investigated complaints about reviewers heaping praise on products they couldn’t possibly have tried, we saw that Amazon was either deliberately ignoring red flags, or was not enforcing its own rules about “compensated” reviews (i.e., reviews where the customer got the product for free or at a discount).
We found reviewers who somehow managed to post as many as 950 product reviews in a single month on Amazon, almost exclusively for items obtained through third-party marketing firms that provide free or cheap items in exchange for “honest” reviews.
One reviewer, “Andrea,” cranked out more than 200 5-star reviews in a single week, many of them for cellphone cases. She must have a menagerie of cellphones at her disposal, as her reviews covered cases for at least 14 different devices, including some that hadn’t even come to market yet.
In October, Amazon decided to change its policy on compensated reviews. Now, only customers who are part of Amazon’s own Vine reviews program are permitted to write up feedback for items they received on the cheap. Of course, some argue that this only stops the fakers from disclosing that they were compensated.
6. The Toys, They Are Listening
Isn’t it neat how toys today can have conversations with your kids? No, you’re right; it’s kinda creepy, but beyond the “ick” factor is the fact that some of these toy makers may be violating federal regulations regarding privacy and children.
Recently released research indicates that toys like the My Friend Cayla doll and the i-Que Intelligent Robot may be collecting audio recordings and personal information of children without providing proper parental notification or obtaining consent.
What’s more, the audio records collected by these toys is being sent to a company that can use the data it collects to improve the voice-recognition tools it sells to the military and law enforcement agencies.
“When a toy collects personal information about a child, families have a right to know, and they need to have meaningful choices to decide how their kids’ data is used,” explained our colleague Katie McInnis from Consumers Union, one of several advocacy groups to petition the Federal Trade Commission to investigate these devices.
7. Unforgettable Brand Disasters
While some long-gone brands and products are regarded with nostalgia, the 17 disasters on our list from June are largely considered huge embarrassments for the companies that thought they’d made the next big thing.
Those of us old enough to remember may have hazy memories of wondering what in the world Coke II was, or how awful Crystal Pepsi tastes (even as Pepsi tries to bring it back as some sort of ironic throwback).
Less well-known are inexplicable attempts to use a well-established brand to sell something utterly unrelated, like Bic underwear and hosiery, Colgate dinner entrees, and Frito-Lay Lemonade.
8. GMO Labels Crushed
Regardless of your personal feelings about genetically modified foods, the fact is that an overwhelming number of American consumers at least want to know if the food they buy has GMO ingredients.
Yet, just as Vermont’s law requiring a simple one-line GMO disclosure went into effect, and as a number of food and beverage giants — like PepsiCo, Mars, General Mills, and Campbell Soup — were beginning to offer this information, Congress rushed through a law that bars states from requiring these labels, and which may (but probably won’t) eventually replace them with scannable barcodes.
9. Tying Up Loose Ends
Image courtesy of Clarity
Coping with the death of a loved one is often a devastating emotional and psychological process, and for those tasked with tying up the loose ends of a late friend or family member, it probably doesn’t help when you’ve got to repeatedly explain to a seemingly endless string of customer service reps why they can’t speak to the account holder.
That’s why we spoke to experts about the best way to handle the grim, but necessary, business of closing out accounts for late loved ones — and how you can be better prepared so that the process isn’t as byzantine when you eventually have to face this sad reality.
10. The Continuing Saga Of Val & David v. Goliath
Image courtesy of SarahMcGowen
For two years now, we’ve been telling you about the long-running legal battle between a California couple — Val and David — and one of the nation’s largest law firms. In 2010, the nursing home where Val’s mom was residing filed a nuisance defamation lawsuit against the couple for simply copying their mother’s legal aid attorney on an email. That complaint was quickly thrown out, but courts have repeatedly stymied Val and David’s efforts to hold the law firm that filed the lawsuit accountable for its allegedly frivolous actions.
In this latest story, we look at the timeline of the case to see how the law firm appears to have cooked up the defamation allegation long before any alleged defamation even occurred.
In a companion piece, we do our best to explain SLAPPS (lawsuits filed solely to stifle free speech) and to show the various ways SLAPP cases are being dealt with at the state and federal level.
More Popular Headlines From 2016
11. What’s Going Wrong With Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Exchanges — And What You Can Do
12. Tap Or Scan Here To Pay: Know Your Mobile Payment Apps
13. Candle Company Creates Hills Snack Bar Scent, Entire Mid-Atlantic Freaks Out
14. Court Rules That Police Can Force You To Tell Them Your Phone’s Passcode
15. 7 “Health” Products From The Past That Would Never Make It Onto Shelves Today
16. Comcast Admits It Incorrectly Debited $1,775 From Account, Tells Me To Sort It Out With Bank
17. 6 Things You Should Know About Heather Bresch, The CEO Behind EpiPen Price Hike
18. DOJ Sues To Shut Down Liberty Tax Franchisee For Giving People Fake Jobs Based On Their Hobbies
19. Comcast Workers Don’t Seem To Care That Their Truck May Have Caused Half-Dozen Accidents
20. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Points Disaster: A Cautionary Tale
21. 6 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding Whether To Try ‘DirecTV Now’
22. Customers Accuse Comcast Of Using “Broadcast TV” & “Regional Sports” Fees To Illegally Hike Rates
23. Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Owners Report Phone Exchange Program Not Going So Well
24. Why Has My New Chevy Truck Been Sitting In A Toledo Rail Station For Two Months?
25. Do Not Set The Date On Your iPhone To Jan. 1, 1970
26. John Oliver Buys $15M In Medical Debt, Then Forgives It
27. Customer Sues Charter, Time Warner Cable Over “Broadcast TV” Fees; Doesn’t Seek Monetary Damages
28. Labor Group: High-Pressure Sales Goals Led T-Mobile Workers To Add Services Customers Didn’t Want
29. Can A Cashier Make Me Read My 3-Digit Credit Card Code In Front Of Other Shoppers?
30. Vermont’s GMO Labeling Law Is Now In Effect. Here Are The Labels The Senate Is Trying To Get Rid Of
31. “Dancing Baby” YouTube Lawsuit May Go Before Supreme Court
32. 12 Fictional Products And Companies That Exist In Real Life
33. Will Costco’s Switch From American Express To Visa Affect My Credit?
34. Debt Collector Gets Out Of Lawsuit… By Buying The Lawsuit Out From Under The Plaintiff
35. 5 Times The Cable Industry Embarrassed Itself During Today’s Senate Hearing
36. More Customers Say Kay Jewelers Swapped Out Their Diamonds For Fake Or Worse Ones
37. Does Cord-Cutting Always Automatically Save You Money?
38. Former ITT Tech Students Talk About School’s High-Pressure Sales Tactics, Underwhelming Classes
39. Listen To A U.S. Senator Try To Get Bogus $8 “Protection” Fee Removed From Cable Bill
40. Why Did American Airlines Make Me Move My Child’s Safety Seat So Someone Could Recline?
41. From Healthcare To Financial Protection: How Will The Trump White House Affect Consumers?
42. What Is Zombie Debt, And Why Won’t It Just Stay Dead?
43. Samsung Galaxy S7 Owners Say Camera Glass Shatters Unexpectedly
44. The Bankruptcy Of A Company You’ve Probably Never Heard Of Could Make Christmas More Expensive
45.Trilogy Of Set-Top Terror: Cable Box Horror Stories From Consumerist Readers
46. Did Net Neutrality Kill Broadband Investment Like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon Said It Would?
47. Walmart Ordered To Pay $31 Million For Retaliating Against Pharmacist Whistleblower
48. From Cash Registers To Escalators To Shopping Carts: 11 Important Firsts In Bricks-And-Mortar Retail History
49. Why Is Comcast Interrupting My Web-Browsing To Upsell Me On A New Modem?
50. Comcast, AT&T Lobbyists Help Kill Community Broadband Expansion In Tennessee
Source: Consumer Reviews