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Caught in the opt-out trap

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  • Pre-checked box on airline's Web site cost customer for insurance she didn't want
  • Her refund requests to the airline and insurance company went unanswered
  • Troubleshooter contacted both companies and the airline refunded the money
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By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- When Angela Gross buys a ticket through Frontier Airlines' Web site, it tacks on an extra $10.95 for travel insurance. How did it manage to do that? By having a checked box on the booking screen that she had to opt out of. Now Frontier is balking at a refund.

Q: I have a question about travel insurance that I bought online when I booked airline tickets. Actually, I didn't mean to buy the insurance. I was on the Frontier Airlines Web site, and there was a little box that was automatically checked that indicated I wanted to pay an extra $10.95 for travel insurance.

It was a lot like one of those pre-checked boxes that sign you up for sales campaign e-mails from a company. Only this time, I had to pay for it. The box was hard to see and the purchase didn't show up until after I bought the ticket.

Frontier says it can't help me, and that I have to go through the travel insurance company for a refund. The insurance company, AIG Travel Guard, hasn't responded to any of my requests. I don't think it should be a default setting to purchase travel insurance, and I want my money back. Can you help me?

-- Angela Gross, Englewood, Colorado

A: Frontier shouldn't have charged you for insurance you didn't want. The airline engaged in something I call unethical pre-checking -- signing you up for a service you didn't want.

The least it could do is offer a fast refund. Instead, it punted to AIG Travel Guard. Needless to say, AIG should have quickly refunded your money, too. Instead, it stalled.

What's the world coming to?

When both companies balked at a refund, you should have written a brief, polite e-mail to both companies requesting a refund. To underscore your seriousness, why not copy the Transportation Department and the insurance commission for the state in which you live? Since those agencies track the number of complaints they get about companies, they'll be particularly interested in what you have to say.

If that doesn't work, try escalating your complaint to an executive. E-mail works best. At Frontier, e-mail addresses are formatted as follows: first initial last name (no space)@flyfrontier.com; at AIG, it's firstname.lastname@aig.com. I'm giving you the conventions because the names of executives can change, but e-mail address formats generally don't.

Pre-checking a box is frowned upon in the online community. The more accepted practice is to opt in to a service or purchase -- in other words, checking the box if you want to buy insurance. I asked both companies for a response.

AIG spokesman Dan McGinnity said you should be able to get a full refund for your policy and that his company has no control over the way in which its products are sold by a third party. "We do offer a full refund for clients who decide they do not want the travel insurance protection, as long as they contact us prior to their trip," he said. A small percentage of Frontier's customers -- less than half of 1 percent -- have asked for their money back.

Steve Snyder, a spokesman for Frontier, said the airline should have offered you a full and immediate refund when you phoned, but defended the practice of pre-checking. "Quite frankly," he told me, "we are selling a product that we believe in." He noted that travel insurance covers items that typically cause people to change their flights, "and we think $10.95 insurance is a better deal than a $150 change fee plus fare difference."

Since your query, Frontier "made some changes" to its site to make the opt-out box as obvious as possible, according to Snyder. While I applaud that, I think there's one more change that ought to be made: to allow passengers to opt in -- not out.

Frontier refunded you $10.95.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

Copyright 2009 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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