trevor brookins

Trevor Brookins

*Question: what do automatic tipping in certain restaurants, personal seat licenses, YMCA membership, gym memberships, and activation charges in general have in common? Answer: they are all forms of extortion.

Extortion is the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through coercion. By this definition the practice of businesses to bundle a charge based on services they are already providing would mean that extortion has become the new normal.

When I signed up for a gym membership recently I was hit with a fee to start my membership. To be clear, this was a one-time fee because I was becoming a member that was separate from the monthly cost of exercising in their establishment. Quite honestly something didn’t sit quite right with me then but I hadn’t figured it out at that point. Now I have. It is downright nonsense that the gym would charge me for the privilege of charging me.

A high school classmate of mine recently noticed that in some restaurants (I have noticed this in Chili’s) you can pay on a tablet that is left at your table and can read your credit/debit card. After swiping he was surprised that they ask you to tip based on the calculation of the bill after tax. In other words the restaurant is asking patrons to pay not based on the value of the service they provided but on the that value pulus what the government is charging. Again this is nonsense. In this caseyou might say that restaurant workers deserve the extra money. I might agree with you in some cases but not all. And that should certainly be left up to the people who ate, not assumed by the restaurant.

I recently have been looking into buying a membership at my local YMCA for my daughter to get swimming lessons. Imagine my disappointment to find that the YMCA is engaging in this same type of overcharging customers. Some YMCA memberships require that you pay a “joiner” fee which is separate from the annual cost of the membership which is separate from the cost of the swimming class I might sign her up for. Something is wrong with this picture.

When a business owner is asked to pay money to a group of tough guys for the privilege of staying in business, the practice is recognized as the extortion that it is. When a business engages in the same behavior and victimizes customers, no one sees it as a problem.

I wrote about a form of this when the New York Giants and Jets initiated personal seat licenses (paying a separate fee for the right to spend more money on season tickets) when they rebuilt the Meadowlands football stadium.  I admit that I wasn’t nearly as adamant about this issue then because I am not a person who bought season tickets. You might accuse me of only caring about this because it now affects me. You’d be right, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. It simply means that I needed this to hit a bit closer to home before I saw the problem. I’m not proud off this but still – that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

I’m not under the illusion that this will change anytime soon. So long as people are willing to pay these extra fees (or aren’t diligently checking to make sure that they aren’t paying extra fees) businesses will continue to add them in.

But I, for one, am willing to start this fight. Who’s with me?

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.