Beware Website Rental Car Scams for Foreign Travelers in Canada and Mexico

Merida   I’m not a rookie traveler. I’ve been on the road, literally all of my life. My dad’s job would pack us out all over the American West, where I was born and partially raised, in motels and kitchenettes from Billings to Fargo to Rangely and Denver, Cheyenne and Laramie, and every place in between, where there was a pumping station or tank farm that his job as a field auditor with an oil company required him to hit. In my work United Airlines sent me a “thank you” note for more than a million miles, and I logged another million or so with the rest of the airlines over the years. I’ve driven all over Canada and Mexico and tested the road in a bunch of other countries as well. Sadly, none of this protects anyone from rental car rip-offs.

When you land in the Cancun airport, as my family did at midday on Christmas Eve, you are greeted by a wildly efficient industrial tourism machine. Vast crowds are deplaning from multiple gates and a small army of custom agents processes the horde in amazing speed, disgorging you from the doors into a maze of rental car booths. You get to your chosen company, purchased at an amazing bargain of $15 per day online, and are walked out to a scrum of white vans lined up and moving in a seemingly endless conveyor belt of people, baggage, and rolling stock until you are deposited at your rental company, one among many.

We felt lucky to find only a short line and four or five agents working. I had seen a post the day before from Cancun of an hour and a half wait, so standing in the warm, Yucatan air, it all seemed a good omen. And, then we heard the crying, gnashing of teeth, and rending of clothes all around us as the agents of the company explained the exorbitant, rip-off costs of additional insurance that they were claiming was mandatory. Insurance cards were being shown. Purchases via American Express cards were being touted. It was a horror, for some worse than for others, as charges for liability and collusion were being routinely added on to every car contract and people, friends and families, were stepping away to caucus and see if they could come up with the money or fathom a way around it.

The agents all pretended empathy and mouthed words of apology, since this was a common and usual scam for them. To avoid the charges a customer would have to provide a copy of their insurance policy from the United States covering both liability and collision insurance. They would also have to provide a letter that specifically mentioned Mexico (and I’ll add Canada, but I haven’t gotten to that yet). If they don’t have it with them, they have to have it emailed or faxed while they are waiting. Even if they have it, they would have to put $6000 on their credit card and another deposit that was too painful for me to hear clearly, because any accident would mean a repair in full on their credit card, and they could work out the refund with their company in the states. Or, they could pay about $35 USD a day extra and drive away. Purchasing separate liability insurance in Mexico, at least from what I can now tell, seems to be legally required, but that’s worth checking.

As you can tell, I listened carefully while waiting in line and occasionally queried my fellow travelers as they angrily interrogated the agents, but when our turn came, I was already a beaten man, and simply shrugged at the price with my family in waiting, signed, paid, and went on my way on my vacation. Why? Because I had been through the same hurt dance at a rental car office in Toronto only three months before at 1230 AM in the morning, where a similar premium was also required by a cheapo online deal someone had found for the ACORN Canada training and staff meeting where I was tasked with picking up the rental.

This scam seems broadly popular across North America, and a minute’s research indicated it was popular in the United Kingdom as well. Like any scam, there’s a kernel of truth in the shell of the lie. It isn’t hard to imagine why rental car companies, even reputable ones, try to transfer the problems of an accident to the customer. It is also possible to reasonably understand why countries, like Mexico, might require purchase of some kind of liability in-country. I’ve had to do that driving my own truck into Mexico at the border, and have watched them put a sticker on my window indicating I paid to bring the car into the country. But, the bait-and-switch is inexcusable, since the websites allege they are giving you the total price, and, if these charges were legitimate, why not disclose them on the front end?

See the world, my friends, but caveat emptor all the way!

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Visiting with Buffalo Community and Housing Organizations

Buffalo   No small part of the Buffalo comeback has to be because of the work of community organizations in the city, and ACORN Canada’s staff was fortunate to get some time with both Voice Buffalo, a Gamaliel affiliate in Western New York, and the community-based housing organization, PUSH Buffalo.

Michael Okinczyc, the executive director of both Voice Buffalo and NOAH, the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope, a 25 minutes of drive away, but as he pointed out later their transportation campaign has been trying to improve the fact that it takes more than two hours on public transit for lower income, car-less families to make it from Buffalo to Niagara. Overall their organization involves over 80 different organizations, largely churches in the area. Besides transit they have also been deeply involved in campaigns focused on criminal justice and the lopsided levels of incarceration for minorities. Education has also been a focus in working to block charter schools with the American Federation of Teachers and deal with the diverse needs of Buffalo’s vibrant immigrant community due to what was described as rust belt resettlement programs.

Michael Okinczyc from Voice

There were interesting exchanges about the differing methodologies between faith-based work and ACORN’s membership-based community organizing model. Michael described the way they organized a church with twenty of more one-on-one’s until, quoting the words of Gamaliel founder, Greg Galluzzo, “they could smell the church,” meaning they could understand the parishoner’s issues and concerns. He was asked how a charitable organization, as a 501c3, was able to effectively pressure and lobby office holders, and Michael told how Voice used its larger accountability meetings and tried to walk a line of bipartisan pressure.

We visited the West Side-based People United for Sustainable Housing, better known as PUSH-Buffalo, which has deeply rooted itself in the area since 2005. PUSH Buffalo defines itself on the axis of community organizing as an affiliate of the newly formed Peoples’ Action and formerly National Peoples’ Action, and co-founder Aaron Bartley, also described the organization to us as ACORN-like in the sense of having a dues-paying membership of several hundred paying about $30 per year, while mentioning that he had organized with ACORN in Brooklyn years ago. The deeper mission of the organization is forging a new rust belt city model combining a community membership base with a development program for sustainable, green homes, rental units, and community-determined utilization of formerly vacant space or deteriorating properties as parks, community centers, and social enterprises. The community base has given them not only legitimacy outside the West Side and accountability inside, but a strike force for the half-dozen direct actions they desire in advocating and winning support, services, and investment in the community.

Julia White of PUSH Buffalo meets and shows ACORN organizers their community park on their tour

In the fresh snow, we trudged along with PUSH Buffalo’s Julia White on their Green Zone tour where they had constructed top of the line demonstration projects including green roofs, solar powered heating systems, green houses, and the like. PUSH Buffalo has also rehabbed several building with rental units for lower income families. The organization has acquired some fifty vacant lots on the West Side. We visited a park they had rebuilt with community input and the City of Buffalo Park System that included a huge, state of the art soccer field, pavilion, and play equipment. None of this is gentrification on the West Side, but even in the snow, we could tell the difference their development projects had made.

Community groups have definitely been moving Buffalo forward both with their voice and their push.

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Labor and Community Collaborations Digging in to Fight Forward in Buffalo

Graphic from Open Buffalo

Buffalo    Richard Lipsitz, the head of the Western New York Area Labor Federation of the AFL-CIO, sits at an interesting cross section. With the call to revive manufacturing he notes that his area may have less manufacturing jobs than it did, but, interestingly, he argues that the overall economy in metropolitan Buffalo has about the same percentage of manufacturing jobs as it ever did, between 15 and 20%. A headline in the morning paper bolstered his case as General Motors announced a several hundred million dollar investment into improving and expanding its plants, once feared on the list for mothballing. Visiting with the staff of ACORN Canada at our Year End/ Year Begin meeting, he made the case that there would be resistance to turning back the clock and that labor was deeply debating the issues.

At the same time, Lipsitz was balancing on a slender beam. He argued for patience. He argued for finding a way to pull all of the pieces together. He admitted that some unions would salute revival of pipelines and all would support more infrastructure investment, but it couldn’t divide labor. He was clear that Governor Cuomo’s investments in the Buffalo area were also a key reason for low employment and a rising population, fueled partially by immigrants, in a rare rust-belt comeback. The expansion of the medical corridor and its 26,000 jobs made a huge difference. On his tightrope wire, he wanted to commit labor to the fight, but didn’t want any high winds blowing with dissident movements or factional fights. He had no patience for the Working Families Party in New York, but was open to Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution being part of efforts to move the Democratic Party left. He was categorical in advocating that the only way forward for the Democratic Party was a headlong commitment to being more progressive.

We also met Franchelle Hart, the executive director of an interesting formation called Open Buffalo, the product of a funding competition run by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations that had been won by Puerto Rico, San Diego, and Buffalo. Open Buffalo describes itself as “…a Community Movement for Social and Economic Justice” and “… a civic initiative to make major, long-term improvements in justice and equity in the City of Buffalo.” They are committed to building civic capacity in the areas of restorative justice, leadership development, arts, and innovation. That was the top-line of her remarks, but what clearly moved her most personally were efforts to force the police to be more sensitive to the community, especially African-Americans, “without a Ferguson,” as she argued, although she seemed skeptical from the work thus far that that might be possible.

Open Buffalo had also supported a campaign to win inclusionary zoning in the city opening a dialogue with the ACORN Canada organizers, who are involved in a number of campaigns in different communities on this issue. Hart reported without satisfaction that they had at least gotten a commitment for a study. Some of the Vancouver organizers comforted her that that was farther than some of their campaigns had gotten.

The Trump Era, as she called it already, was much on everyone’s minds. Lipsitz was clear in the commitment to resist, and Open Buffalo was still digging in to fight forward, so both offered the beginnings of a consensus for the future.

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Is Labor Day for Workers or Politicians?

highlight-img2Berlin   Every four years Labor Day marks the official beginning of the “real” campaign for President in the United States. Of course these campaigns are endless and began years and years before for most candidates, like a Hillary Clinton. Even Mr. Surprise Candidate, Donald Trump, has been hard at it for at least a year now. Both candidates had their big-bodied planes in Ohio on the same tarmac on Labor Day. Reporters could run back and forth between the planes. Candidates could nod in each others’ direction and note how important Ohio is as a battleground state. Democrats could show up at some of the few remaining Labor Day parades, marches, picnics, or whatever we might call them and genuflect to what’s left of the remaining power of labor unions, much of which is in fact on the goal line stand defense of politics and elections.

It is worth wondering if Labor Day really exists anymore to celebrate workers and their unions or just an easy access bridge for politicians to have their photo ops with workers, and then move on to more fundraisers and other touchstones of micro-targeting. It goes without saying for most people Labor Day is more the mark of the end of summer and perhaps the beginning of school sessions, and a last chance at a 3-day holiday in the long stretch until Thanksgiving. What’s labor got to do with it?

Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada’s head organizer forwarded me this piece she had gotten commemorating Labor Day, and it’s worth sharing:

In 1894, it [Labor Day] became a national holiday in Canada. The Canadian government was seeking to accommodate the Labour Movement after the rise of the Knights of Labor and the strengthening of unions in the 1880s. Shortly after, the American government followed suit, wanting in particular to offer a counterpoint to May Day, which commemorated the state violence against the 1886 Haymarket demonstrators. The contrast remains between the North American Labour Day holiday and May Day, which is Labour’s day elsewhere. While May Day stands for the international struggle against capitalism, Labour Day signifies the accommodation of workers within the capitalist system. Canada and the U.S. are the only countries where Labour Day rather than May Day celebrates the achievements of workers.

Accommodations are much, much different than achievements, especially with the disappearance of any social contract between labor and management involving an equal sharing of the benefits of work and wealth. When Labor Day becomes little more than a showcase and access point for politicians, that’s an even further dilution of the critical content of the day.

We have to hang on to it of course. At least we have one day that we can still try to claim as our own, since almost every other day of the year seems to celebrate business and the rich for all of us, and perhaps especially for politicians.

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Leaders Taking Charge in Rapidly Growing ACORN Canada

ACORN Canada leaders national board meeting in Ottawa

ACORN Canada leaders national board meeting in Ottawa

Toronto    Pushing thirteen years old, ACORN Canada is like a teenager going through a growth spurt, making it exciting to hear the passion and discussion of the ACORN board as they debated new directions, campaigns, and other initiatives. It was a time of transition with new leaders coming on board in full strength for the first time from Nova Scotia, new delegates elected from Ottawa and British Columbia and summer plans that could expand the organization into Winnipeg and Calgary in the western states for the first time. Yippee, kayay, here we come!

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The reports from the testimony made throughout the country via Skype teleconferencing to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on our demands for “internet for all” were, believe it or not, moving. And, they moved the head of the CRTC, who was honest enough to say so himself. The new delegate from Ottawa repeated the testimony that brought tears to her eyes, when one of the members had told the story of her 7-year old coming to her and asking if he could be sent to a foster home. A foster home, what in the world?!? The child said, if he were able to live with another family, then he could get a tablet and connect to the internet. Her face turned red as she told the story, and tears came to her eyes. Were the rest of us not so jaded, we all would have been weeping – such a sad, terrible, true story. We’re going to win something, but we may not win all we need to make sure 7-year olds never say this again, but we won’t stop until that day!

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There was also an exciting discussion, as I listened carefully, about the need for a national housing policy in Canada. Yes, inclusionary zoning and landlord licensing were huge issues everywhere, but the leadership wanted to figure out a way to double down, to increase security for tenants, to open up opportunities for home ownership, and to dramatically increase the pool of affordable housing. The discussion was so animated that lunch was late and the queue for more points to be made saw everyone around the board table throwing out suggestions. I was excited when the board passed a motion to investigate, research and move forward on finally doing what it took to win a community reinvestment act in Canada along the lines available in the United States for almost forty years. As importantly, the board unanimously demanded in the same motion that banks fully disclose not only their lending statistics for home mortgages but also for smaller consumer loans. Movement in this direction seemed natural since the refusal to by banks to lend small sums was forcing our members into fringe banking outfits like our payday lending nemesis of long standing.

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So sure, there were internal decisions made that were necessary to keep the big wheels rolling: officers elected or re-elected, a decision on the location of the 2017 national convention, and clarification, given the growth of the board, on different rules and best practices for all levels of governance. There was discussion of a huge summer program which will pace student organizer-trainees in new cities and provinces as well as Ontario and British Columbia. Mainly, though even as the reports were given and the leaders analyzed the progress in the last year, there was a spirit and a conviction that the organization was taking off and the members – and the country itself – hadn’t seen anything yet!

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Please enjoy Eric Clapton’s Catch the Blues. Thanks to KABF.

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The Paradox and Problem of Payday Lending

A customer enters a Payroll Advance location in Cincinnati. (Al Behrman / AP)

A customer enters a Payroll Advance location in Cincinnati. (Al Behrman / AP)

New Orleans  Here’s an irony that is stark, yet impossible to really appreciate or enjoy. The Atlantic billed its most recent issue as “The Money Report.” The cover article was built around the premise that almost half of the American people have trouble coming up with $400, when there is a financial bump in their road. There was another article called “Loan Shark, Inc.” which was a probing and somewhat sympathetic article about the payday lending industry that mentioned that the average payday loan is $350, about the same number repeatedly cited in “The Shame of the Middle Class,” yet of all the tales of woe from its author, there was no mention of his ever going so low as walking through the doors of a storefront payday lender or the portals of one online.

Without a word of warning or explanation, it was assumed that clearly payday lenders were all about exploited lower income families, not the presumptuous middle class. The real line of demarcation they were unwilling to draw is that even if half of the middle class finds themselves in dire straits from time to time, it’s not catastrophic since they still have other informal places to go with family and friends or selling assets or reducing their footprint, while the poor are forced into predatory fringe financing once there is no place else they can go.

In the classic dilemma of neoliberalism, the payday lending article worried around the issue of alternatives between the devil and the deep blue sea. The polarity was presented as either payday lenders or worse, loan sharks, shysters, and gangsters. The role of government was limited only to regulation, and regulation was presented as problematic because when government stepped up to protect consumers from predatory practices, the marginal and inefficient payday lending industry shut its doors. In the USA New York and other states were given as examples of the industry fleeing when interest rates were reduced, and rather than applause there was handwringing. In Canada, where ACORN has been a dog on a bone chasing predatory lenders for over a dozen years, a 30% limit on interest rates in Quebec saw the payday people fleeing like rats on a sinking ship. ACORN has backed caps, though not that low, and industry record sharing that prevents multiple loans to one customer in the same period, as well as restrictive zoning limits in our neighborhoods among other reforms. ACORN also backs postal banking which The Atlantic gives short shrift.

Their best recommendation comes from what they admit are “more-modest reforms” in Colorado in 2010 that were achieved “by reducing the permissible fees, extending the minimum term of a loan to six months, and requiring that a loan be repayable over time, instead of coming due all at once.” Half the payday lending operations closed, but the ones that stayed open ended up with more than the average 500 annual customers and borrowers paid “42 percent less in fees,” and defaulted less “with no reduction in access to credit.” One hand clapping, I guess.

The author was right to understand that the real problem for families is desperately needing $350 with no other alternatives. Why are we wringing our hands about a predatory industry rather than stepping up and understanding that this is a collective responsibility? These are the kinds of problems that emergency assistance grants in welfare offices used to try to meet. The absence of a continued public response makes these private problems, increases hardship and inequality, locks people in a debt trap, and has led to the creation and growth of an industry where competition is irrelevant, inefficiency is rampant, and even reformers wring their hands and settle for sorry solutions.

Public welfare is exactly that, faring well for the public. When are we going to stop embracing the 19th century and start building the 21st?

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