Don't be such a sucker

The bad guys of British business are out to get you, writes David Cox, but you can hit them where it

Hanging on while call-centres prepare to respond to our valued inquiries in their own good time is surely one of the joys of modern life. Nice classical music soothes nerves usually still jangling from a battering by inane keypad option commands. But this enforced cultural refreshment does not come cheap.

To summon up your Vivaldi concerto, you usually have to dial an 0870 number.

In your innocence, you may have imagined such calls to be free, like their 0800 equivalents. Not so. Whenever you dial 0870, you pay, and usually well over the odds. An ordinary landline call generally costs 3p a minute in daytime, but an 0870 landline call will probably cost you 7.5p a minute.

Don't even think of using your mobile. The money is usually split between the phone company and the company you're calling, so businesses actually profit from the failings which force you to phone them.

Corporate telephone trickery doesn't stop there. Computer suppliers that no longer bother to provide manuals capitalise on their own negligence by inviting customers to dial helplines charging perhaps £1 a minute. What look like one-off payments for ringtone downloads turn out to be ongoing rental fees.

Once you've hung up your phone, British business has plenty of other ways to rip you off. When you open a savings account, you may not appreciate that the interest rate you're offered includes an "introductory bonus", which will swiftly be withdrawn once the friendly financial institution involved has you safely in its clutches. Take out an apparently low-rate mortgage and any benefit may be clawed back through a surreptitious "arrangement fee" which could run into thousands of pounds.

Seductively cheap printers turn out to require exorbitantly priced but short-lived cartridges. Apparently affordable lighting systems rely on bulbs that are equally costly and ephemeral. After- sales service proves so difficult to obtain that you give in and repurchase malfunctioning products.

Spare parts are often withdrawn, mak-ing serviceable equipment prematurely obsolete. Unnecessarily upgraded software forces you to replace peripherals still in the prime of life.

Restaurants lure you inside with special offers that turn out to be unavailable, and try to trick you into tipping when they've already charged you for service. Cinemas insist on making you pay for reservations that you need to cancel. Train companies bleed you dry if you can't book decades in advance, while utilities shake you down with "confusion pricing". Batteries are not included; DVD players come without scart leads. Loyal customers are punished with extortionate store-card interest rates.

Scams like these aren't illegal; they're just sharp practice. Yet they still cheat us out of billions of pounds a year. Together, they amount to a stealth tax, imposed on us all by business, that is at least as unsavoury as any of Gordon Brown's. By forcing us to be permanently on our guard they add to our overall weariness and generally sour the atmosphere.

They also fuel seething resentment of a corporate sector that otherwise tries desperately to persuade us it always puts customers first. So why does business treat us all so shabbily?

You might assume that the answer lies in the perhaps inevitable rapacity of faceless global conglomerates. However, giant multinationals aren't the only culprits: small local traders and not-for-profit businesses can prove just as sneaky. The introductory bonus scam is worked not just by the banks, but also by mutually owned building societies, thus in effect cheating their own owners. Now why would they do that?

When asked, they explain that they have to keep up with competitors who are playing the same game. Well, if the market is the cause of all our woes, we can use the market to fight back. Cheats only prosper when suckers let them.

Some businesses do at least try to play fair. For example, the Nationwide Building Society makes a point of avoiding dodgy ploys such as the introductory bonus. If we seek out and reward the righteous with our custom, we can help them prevail over their less scrupulous rivals.

Equally, we can chastise evildoers. Making complaints, switching accounts and reporting abuses to regulators can be tiresome and time-consuming. Yet the satisfaction of revenge justly inflicted can make the effort worthwhile. There's room, too, for harassment and sabotage. The website www.saynoto0870.com will help you foil the phone sharks. To sort out the utilities, try www.money-off.co.uk. For hot tips on the latest rip-offs, read The Stupid Company, a report just published by the National Consumer Council at www.ncc.org.uk.

Enlist family and friends in a struggle worthy of their doughtiest endeavours. The bad guys of British business may be bigger than us, but there are more of us than there are of them, and we can make them mend their ways if we want to enough.