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7 Rip-offs You Need to Know About

From "germ-fighting" household cleaners to college textbooks, buyer beware.

Rip-offs, known by economists as “market inefficiencies,” are cases in which the price of something has little to do with its actual value. They are particularly common in industries where oligopolistic conditions dominate, which has been increasingly common since deregulation fever hit Washington. In today's marketplace, the consumer is often a sheep to be shorn. Here are seven common products where the buyer must beware.

1. College textbooks are a blatant rip-off.

As if kids trying to get an education don’t face enough financial hurdles, the textbook industry has found a way to soak them on every class. A $200 biology book? A couple of Benjamins for a math text that doesn’t even come with binding? That’s the new normal.

The National Association of College Stores reports that the average college student ends up paying about $655 for textbooks and supplies annually. That’s down a bit from $702 four years ago, but it’s still a big wad of cash.

All told, there’s been an 812 percent increase in the price of college textbooks since 1978. No, you didn’t misread that number. And you thought healthcare was going up!

Although speaking of healthcare, a student trying to pass a class is kind of like a patient trying to make it through surgery. You’re hardly a “consumer” who can shop for the best “products.” You do what your doctor or professor says. Don’t want to buy the book? Then you will not be passing the class.

You may recall buying used books in college or sharing and saving some money that way. But greedy textbook companies have found a way around that. They’ve rigged up access codes in new books that the student must use in order to do things associated with the class, like take an online quiz or turn in a homework assignment. The code can only be used one time, so the book loses a great deal of its usefulness after the semester.

Another trick the industry plays is to pump out new edititions of exisiting books even when they aren’t justified. Or “bundling” various kinds of additional products, like special software, with the book. Kickbacks for professors who use certain textbooks—also known as bribes—have been widely reported.

The problem has gotten so bad that legislators are trying to come up with various ways to address it. California has committed to underwriting 50 textbooks for common undergraduate courses, which students worldwide will eventually be able to download for free via the California Digital Library.

2. Don’t fall for mattresses scams.

Are icky little bugs filling up your bed? Oprah did a show on it. The Wall Street Journal warns that "the average mattress will double its weight in 10 years as a result of being filled with dead dust mites and their detritus.”


Cecil Adams over at Straight Dope looked up the claims, and found that scientists don’t buy it: "It's nonsense," said mite authority Larry Arlian, professor of biological sciences, microbiology, and immunology at Wright State University. "I don't know where that originated. They're not that prolific."

Most people aren’t even allergic to dust mites, and there are ways of countering them, like putting impervious covers on mattresses and pillows, that don’t require shelling out thousands of dollars. The dust mite fear-mongering is just another way to get you to go shopping for something you may not need.

A mattress is a pretty boring product, so marketers and salespeople have to figure out all kinds of strategies to get you to replace them. They’ve thought long and hard about adding bells and whistles like extravagant covers, sleep numbers, and anti-bacterial green tea foam to justify high prices. You can easily spend several grand on a mattress.