Lent has arrived

Part of the wisdom of Catholicism is the opportunity the Church extends to the People of God to deepen their faith through the mechanism of the liturgical year.  Lent has returned, and at Ash Wednesday, we are challenged to resist Lent’s derogation into the merely routine, and to grow in faith and in wisdom despite the repetition of years. 

Lent, properly understood, is hard.  It requires humility — a genuine conversion of heart and a movement away from self-centeredness.  It requires fortitude — a willingness to complete the journey despite the fear and the guilt that accuse us along the path.  It requires courage — a stoutness of spirit that forces us to look past the demons standing jealous guard over our desires.  It requries joy — a sense of grateful wonder that we who are imperfect may nevertheless obtain the gift of redemption.

Lent is a season of penance, when people reflect on their sinfulness and how sin separates man from man and man from God.  Lent is a season of hope, in that through the suffering of the One, the many might have eternal life.  Above all, Lent is a season of preparation, that we might be ready for that day when we are called to account for our lives.

May your own Lenten observance find you humble, steadfast, and joyful as you prepare for the mysteries of the Triduum and Easter.

Buyer, beware

I admit it: I do a lot of Internet-related transactions.  I purchase and sell things on eBay; I buy products from Web-based merchants; I purchase subscriptions for online services.  And I usually don’t have too much trouble.

But last week was different.  In the space of two days, I was hit with three unexpected transactions totalling almost $150.  I was fortunate that one of them — an $80 charge for annual anti-virus and firewall subscription renewal — could be canceled and a full refund applied.  But the others, which were site subscriptions, refused to issue even a partial credit despite that we were only a day or two into the billing period.

Here’s the problem, as I see it.  There are a lot of Web merchants that promise instant gratification — just put in your credit-card number and off you go.  This is not inherently problematic.  However, a distressingly large number of companies seem designed to screw the consumer through fine print.  Unless you read the end-user license agreement line-by-line, for example, you might not know the extent of rights you’re surrendering.  Like the right to cancel with the same simplicity with which you enrolled.

It is conceded that consumers have a duty to be aware and informed; I don’t generally believe that people are morons who need to be shielded from their own stupidity.  But there is a fine line between “prudence” and “paranoia,” and it seems that people increasingly must act like paranoiacs to achieve the protections usually afforded by simple prudence.

I believe it is unethical for merchants that offer instant-on capability to refuse to provide instant-off capability as well.  If I can subscribe in 10 seconds, I should’t be required to call a long-distance number to hear a sales pitch before I can have an account canceled or an automatic billing cycle terminated.  And if I forget to call, or if I call the day charges hit, I shouldn’t be liable for a full monthly service charge, either — merchants are not entitled to get something for nothing any more than consumers are.

Likewise, I should have the right to directly select whether a service will automatically rebill my credit card without having to comb through the EULA or terms-of-service agreement — especially when the hit is not insignificant and occurs months or even a year after the original transaction.

And don’t get me started on “bundled” billing.

I suspect consumers are taking it in the shorts through this kind of dishonest business practice.  How many Web-savvy customers get slapped with occasional charges for services they forgot to cancel?  How many people have thrown their telephone against the wall because some arrogant “customer service” representative quoted from a 10-page TOS agreement when explaining why he won’t grant a refund?

As a matter of preference, I do not like governmental intervention into the marketplace.  But this may be a situation where my ox has been sufficiently gored that I’m increasingly willing to make an exception so that predatory online merchants can be brought under control.