Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Q & A with Ben Popken, Editor, The Consumerist

April 18, 2007

In 2005, a man living in Budapest named László Szily started a Web site called Tékozló Homár ("Wasteful Lobster" in Hungarian) about shopping.

Inspired by the conversation it started online, Szily's friend, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, decided to add a title to his Soho-based blog network that would empower consumers. Denton launched The Consumerist that same year.

Ben Popken has been editing The Consumerist since February 2006. At one time, he was an aspiring copywriter, and was putting together an ad portfolio. Could he ever write copy knowing what he knows now? “It might be a little hard for me to fit in to that—you’re lying to everybody!” he jokes, as we sit in Brooklyn, eating burgers not far from where he lives.

How can people avoid getting ripped off?

The first thing you want to do is research, research, research. That’s your best friend. One of the ways you can protect yourself is by conducting your transactions over credit card because you’re afforded a lot of protections in the event of a disagreement. The other way is when problems do happen, go directly, go right back to the source and complain.
I think kind of a general stance of being proactive about your situation can go a long way, both after a problem and before a problem, because say there’s a sales agent and maybe he’s looking for a weakness in whatever general way. [If] he sees that you seem pretty aware and alert and you know what you’re doing, and you’re asking questions, [then] maybe he won’t take advantage of you. You know what I’m saying? People, even unconsciously will try to do stuff.

Are there any consumer issues, locally, that Consumerist is particularly concerned about?

There’s one—IDT Energy. What they are is an energy resaler. Con Ed encourages using these companies. However, this one company, IDT Energy, is going to peoples’ doors and saying, “Hi, I’m with Con Ed. I need you to sign this so you can save money on your bill.” So, they’re misrepresenting themselves. [You] can save money. It’s just false advertising. That’s the central problem. They came to my door. It was great—I’ve been writing about these guys, and all of a sudden, one shows up [at] my door. And after he left, [laughing] I called the cops on him.

What are some newer scams going on in New York?

Well, a huge scam that’s going on right now in a lot of the boroughs is a form of identity theft where you go to a cell phone store, and you have to like give them all your info so they can do a credit check on you. But then, they’re using the info to sign up their friends for free cell phones using your information. They’re selling it to other places.

Speaking of phones, who’s the best provider out there?

A lot of people don’t like Verizon, but I think it’s a pretty good deal. Of the major carriers, we receive the fewest complaints about T-Mobile, and they’re said to have pretty good customer service. So, I don’t know whether that’s Catherine Zeta Jones’ influence…

Of the rip-offs reported to you, which one has been the most costly to your readers?

Buying a car, especially used cars with a trade-in. You can get really screwed on the financing, and there’s all these games they can play. We had a great post a few weeks ago that was written by a previous used car salesman. And he broke down all the different ways—there was this one thing he called “the four-square.” It’s this sheet, and you put the used value, and the interest, and what’s gonna be the deposit, and how much you’re gonna get for the car. And they use it like a three-card monte system to confuse you and rip you off.

Also banks, they invent all these different kinds of fees. And the problem is—a fee should be to recover a cost. It shouldn’t be, “Let’s make up some rules that are gonna trip you up, because that could be [an] income stream for us.” That’s just dishonest.

Ever been pressured by a business you wrote about?

We did have a case with a Wal-Mart PR rep who met me for drinks [at the Brooklyn Inn] last spring. His first question is, “We’re all off the record, right?” And—I haven’t seen the sunlight in weeks, I’m not trained in journalism or anything—so I’m like, “Uh, yeah whatever,” not knowing that it’s kind of a big deal.

And so then his second question is, “Well, what can we do to get you to stop writing about our companies?”

Did you ever write about it on the site?

I didn’t talk about that meeting. And then the guy, Mike Krempasky, would sometimes e-mail me.

And one time, I saw in our traffic stats that they were using this like corporate-grade blog monitoring software to see what we were saying. And so I kind of made fun of that. And then, he sent this kind of jabby e-mail. And I sent it back to him. He was being kind of a bitch.

Then, I got interviewed by this guy who hates Wal-Mart and I felt like telling him the story. It was a small podcast.

And then, after that came out, Mike came back and he said some more bitchy stuff. And I was like, “You know what? Fuck this. F this disclosure agreement. I gotta come clean,” Cause I didn’t feel comfortable, not telling my readers that I had had this meeting with him.

—Matt Elzweig

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