Back at my Midwestern high school, state law mandated that students could not graduate without having taken a course called consumer seminar. Though a wholly informative course, after college and graduate school, I can’t really remember much about the course or what we learned. I know that I took it during summer school after my junior year of high school and that we spent our last day in class watching this (awesome) movie called “Breaking Away” as a reward for making it through the course. I know that the teacher’s daughter worked in advertising and had written a famous sports jingle, but that’s about all I remember about that class.

Not too long after high school, you find yourself making actual decisions without the benefit of all the information. You sign things because you are either too busy or too visually impaired or too impatient to make out the mouseprint. Sometimes you simply don’t know how to advocate for yourself. You meekly pay your bills, buy your groceries and submit to what companies describe as external pricing pressures. Once in a while you pop open the newspaper to find that a desperate and strung-out consumer has written to a columnist about how her phone company or credit card misbilled her and could the reporter please advise her on what to do? Sometimes the reporter does oblige, and after the whole sordid tale is in print, the PR people usually start looking into this. Things tend to get resolved when bad publicity is at stake.

In my mind, Nick Denton’s Consumerist is a gift to all the people out there who are unaware of how they are being taken by businesses big and small on a daily basis. Consider what editor Ben Popken has done for consumers in the last week alone. For instance, I was not aware, but requiring a minimum on credit card purchases ia a violation of a merchant’s agreement with Visa. Of course the stores that do this are usually tiny Mom and Pop operations and though I’m not a supporter of pushing back on Mom and Pop stores, I like knowing that they can’t require me to submit to a minimum purchase amount or force me to use cash. (Consumerist’s original tipster on the matter, Stephen, says that he doesn’t like to use cash because “Cash is dirty, not easily replensiable [sic], and slow.” He makes a good point; cash is dirty. Who knows where it’s been?)

Consumers are often taken for fools, by customer service reps at large companies, the cell phone companies, tax preparers and even the ever innocent seeming Mom and Pop who run the local ice cream store. This month alone, Consumerist has informed prospective e-filers that we should watch out for H & R Block scams and additionally pointed us to an insightful piece on what isn’t so charitable about the new AMEX red card.

Now whether or not the information on this site actually changes how the business-consumer relationship works is only slightly relevant. Personally, I like being armed with a good amount of information. Steve and Amy, of Steve and Amy’s Ice Cream Parlor, were forced to acknowledge that requiring minimum purchases was a violation of their contract with Visa. They (albeit grudgingly) put up a sign that requested that consumers consider using Visa only for purchases over $10. Armed with this bit of knowledge, the last time I met the minimum at the tiny convenience store around the corner, I informed the cashier that he was in breach of his contract with Visa. And despite the fact that my statement was met by excessive laughter on his part and a rather dismissive hand wave by him, I, for one, felt satisfied knowing that I had not and would not be taken for a fool again.

A few other excellent posts:

Microsoft’s Fingerprint Reader Does Passwords, Not Security

Southwest Launches Corporate Blog, But Where’s the CS?

The $3000 Tape Dispenser