Episode 712: I Want My Money Back : Planet Money Three stories of people getting their money back — or trying to. From a hospital, a scammer, and the ever-exciting global bond market.
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Episode 712: I Want My Money Back

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Episode 712: I Want My Money Back

Episode 712: I Want My Money Back

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Here's a thing I learned this week. There are people whose job is to stand in line at clothing stores, not to buy clothes but to return them. I talked to somebody yesterday whose job used to be returning clothes by the van load.

Can you introduce yourself?

SHANNON DUPONT: Yes. My name is Shannon DuPont and I am a costume coordinator for TV and film here in New York City.

GOLDSTEIN: Shannon told me how the returning thing works. One of the projects she worked on was the movie "Sisters" and in that movie there was this big party scene with a lot of what you'd expect, including the guy who sticks his head through a wall.


BOBBY MOYNIHAN: (As Alex) Say hello to my little friend.


MOYNIHAN: (As Alex) Let's get this party started (laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: He comes out from the wall. He's wearing this blue button-front shirt with some kind of - I don't know. There's maybe little anchors or little dots. He's got plaid Bermuda shorts - basically a vibe that says preppy party guy. And Shannon says someone on the crew of the movie picked out this costume for it.

DUPONT: But to get to that costume, you maybe have to have on average, like, five to seven options for them to try on.

GOLDSTEIN: So that means somebody like Shannon has to go out to stores, to J.Crew or wherever, and buy a bunch of, say, Bermuda shorts, you know, some a little shorter, some a little longer. Maybe a pair is blue, another pair is pink, whatever. Then they take them back to where the actor is, he tries on the different shorts, they pick the one pair he's going to wear in the movie and the rest Shannon has to go back and return them. And remember, she has to return clothes not just for this guy but for most of the people in the movie. And she does this in one movie and one show after another.

And how much of your life has been spent returning clothes?

DUPONT: For a year of my life, my job was to be a person who returned clothes, so you do the math.

GOLDSTEIN: I mean, have you returned a million dollars' worth of clothes in your life by this point?

DUPONT: Maybe. I mean, it's a lot.

GOLDSTEIN: Hundreds of thousands.

DUPONT: Hundreds of thousands, no doubt.

GOLDSTEIN: The people working at the stores know about this system. They know what Shannon and the other people from the TV and movie studios are doing, and some of them don't like it. Like, at this one jean store...

DUPONT: The manager there, if you walked in, he would spot you from the back room wherever he was. And he just somehow, like, it would be two pairs of pants. I don't know how he knew, but he would know that you were a studio person and, like, he would come in, pack up your return and say, your studio, get out.

GOLDSTEIN: But Shannon said that manager was actually an exception. For the most part, even when the stores know, she says, they don't really care that much.

DUPONT: I have had returns - they'll be like, this is too much. And I'll take out one item and I'll say, is this, OK? Like - and they'll be like, OK, cool. You know, like, if you're really...

GOLDSTEIN: It works?

DUPONT: Yeah, yeah, if they're like, this is too much stuff, and I'll be like, I'm so sorry. This is for my boss. I'm here to do this for her. I'm her assistant. Can I make the return less? Will you take this amount? And willing to negotiate and work with them and level with them really works out.

GOLDSTEIN: Shannon has moved up. She now has people who work for her who do the returns. And she says returning clothes for a living changed the way she felt about returning clothes for herself, returning clothes she just bought in her personal life. Before she was in the industry, that was something she tried not to do. It felt like this big deal, you know, like, making the whole engine of commerce run in reverse. If she did return clothes, she'd have some whole story ready about why she was doing it. But now, she says, she thinks getting your money back is just a natural part of doing business.


GOLDSTEIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Today's show is actually three separate stories about getting your money back or at least trying to get your money back from a scammer, a hospital and the global bond market.


MOYNIHAN: (As Alex) Let's get this party started (laughter).


GOLDSTEIN: Our first story today is from Alex.


GOLDSTEIN: Welcome, Alex.

GOLDMARK: (Laughter) Jacob.

GOLDSTEIN: What do you got?

GOLDMARK: I got a story about scammers...

GOLDSTEIN: And specifically, right, it's about actually getting your money back from a scammer.

GOLDMARK: Right, and it starts with a phone call on a typical Thursday.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, it was Thursday, and I was about to see 10 clients in a row. I'm a therapist.

GOLDMARK: We're not going to use this woman's name because she's worried this story could hurt her business. So when she picks up the phone, there is a woman on the other end, all stern and official-sounding, who says I'm with the IRS. You owe back taxes. The police are on their way to arrest you right now for tax evasion unless you make a payment today.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And I'm like what? What are you talking about? Like, this is the first I have - what are you saying?

GOLDMARK: She thinks she filed all her taxes properly, but she also thinks her husband did the final paperwork. Maybe he messed something up. And just then as she's trying to figure it out, another call on the other line comes through. The caller ID says 911. It's a man saying he's a police officer. He's on his way ready to arrest her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So I'm all by myself and I'm like - I'm picturing, oh, my God, I'm going to go to jail and this is going to be really hard on my kids and - so I'm thinking, well, if I can just make this payment, I don't have to go to jail. If I can do this without going to jail that's much better.

GOLDMARK: The fake IRS agent calls herself Eva (ph). She gives very specific instructions. Eva says, go to an ATM and take out some cash. Then you have to take a cab to a very specific wire transfer company, MoneyGram.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So I literally, like - she says to me, you have to stay on the phone with me the entire time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The therapist does as she's told. She goes to the MoneyGram branch, wires the money, walks out, shaken and relieved.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And all of a sudden, Eva gets back on the phone and she says, I'm sorry. I have really bad news for you. The transfer didn't go through. And I'm like, what? What are you saying? Like, how is that even possible? It went through. I have a receipt.

GOLDMARK: MoneyGram had stopped her transfer because it looked suspicious. And right here we get a whole window into the world of wire transfer scams. So many people are sending real money to fake IRS agents that money transfer companies have come up with a whole system to deal with it. So when the therapist goes back into MoneyGram and she says to the clerk the payment didn't go through, I want to send it again, the clerk says hold on, makes a call and passes over a phone.

And now, here's where our therapist's day turns from terrifying to disorienting. She's now holding two phones, the fake IRS agents on the cellphone in one hand and someone from MoneyGram in a second phone in her other hand. MoneyGram gave us a recording of that call.


ERIC: My name is Eric from MoneyGram, and I will be...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Eric from MoneyGram?

ERIC: Yes, my name is Eric, madame, yes.

GOLDMARK: He says, can I ask, who are you sending this money to?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They are attorneys.

ERIC: And do you know them in person, madame?


ERIC: I have a bad feelings about it - feeling about it, madame.

GOLDMARK: I have a bad feeling about this, he says.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. You know what? Can you - can you hold on for one moment because I need to just be sure that I'm doing the right thing, so - one moment.

ERIC: Are you sure, madame? Please think about it.

GOLDMARK: She now turns to the cellphone in her other hand to talk to the scammers. She tells them what MoneyGram says and then comes back to.



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Eric from MoneyGram asks more questions, gently.


ERIC: And they tell you that if you don't pay this fee that then you will go to jail. Is that right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, I'm going to be arrested instantly. I got a call from 911.

ERIC: Actually, you are being a victim of a scam. Are you aware of it?


GOLDMARK: He switches from questions to statements. Those people are fake, he says. He says it multiple times, and for a while, she listens, two phones in two hands, unsure what's real.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What do I do? I mean, what do I do? I'm terrified that I'm going to be...

ERIC: No, don't worry, nothing happen, madame.

GOLDMARK: She listens to Eric. She hangs up the phone with the scammers. It's over. She's going to get her money back. The whole call takes nine minutes. Shaking it off takes days, and looking back, she says, it was like she was in a trance or a spell. And she is amazed at how hard it was to snap out of it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When I had the two phones in my hand, I was thinking it's almost like which reality do I prefer? And I prefer the reality where they're saving me and my money is somewhere and I'm going to get it back and I'm not being arrested. It was - but it was like this flip in my head right at that moment.

GOLDMARK: A voice on the phone cracked her typical Thursday, twisted her reality, and then another voice on another phone brought it back. MoneyGram says they refund tens of millions of dollars a month from scams like this. I got a hold of Eric from MoneyGram, the voice on the phone that brought her back. He works at a call center in Poland. And he says he can get 20 calls like this a day, all kinds of scams. Sometimes it takes 30 minutes for the customers to snap out of it, and sometimes they don't listen to Eric at all. They just keep trying to send the money over and over again.


GOLDSTEIN: Hello, Jess Jiang.

JESS JIANG, BYLINE: Hi, Jacob Goldstein.

GOLDSTEIN: You have a hospital story for us. I love the economics of health care.

JIANG: You do not.

GOLDSTEIN: I do. I really do.

JIANG: Two years ago, Joe Thomsho (ph) was painting the ceiling of his bedroom. He was on a ladder.

JOE THOMSHO: All of a sudden my arm started getting, like, numb and real painful.

JIANG: He went to the ER, saw doctor after doctor, but months later, the pain was still bad.

THOMSHO: Physical therapy helped some, but it still stayed there and didn't go away.

JIANG: After a year, Joe and his doctors decided the solution was spinal surgery. He says he looked on his insurance's website to check the cost - $500. He figured, OK, I'll do this. He went to Geisinger Medical Center near his home in Pennsylvania, and the surgery went well, but a couple months later...

THOMSHO: The bill came through and there was my deductible and then there was the - there was another co-pay of a thousand dollars on there. And it's like, what's this extra thousand dollars on here for?

JIANG: His portion of the bill was three times what he expected. A lot of patients can relate to this. Fighting back is exhausting and feels like a waste of time. But Joe had another option, something really powerful - an email address of the CEO of Geisinger. So one day, he sat down and wrote a long, rambling email.

What was your feeling when you hit send?

THOMSHO: I was - I was nervous when I sent it. Just - I've never done something like this before. And I guess I was that angry that it's like, I'm doing it, sick and tired of all the B.S.

DAVID FEINBERG: I'm reading the email and I felt bad for him. You know, he put himself out there by writing and he put a lot of thought into it. And he wasn't asking for money. He was just complaining.

JIANG: This is Dr. David Feinberg, the CEO of Geisinger Health System, with over a dozen different hospitals. He read Joe's email, checked up with Joe's medical team, and he found out technically Geisinger did everything right. But Dr. Feinberg says something still felt wrong.

FEINBERG: I mean, it's like going to Starbucks and you get the latte and you don't like it. And the barista sips it and says, no we made it right. The temperature's right. The foam is right. You have to drink it. And that's what we were doing. That's just not a way to care for somebody. So I - that's what I was trying to get at.

JIANG: In the end, Geisinger decided to waive that thousand dollars. Joe felt vindicated.

THOMSHO: I was happy because it's like, I went up against big business and the little guy came out ahead for a change.

JIANG: Joe's case changed how Geisinger handles patients. Their aim now is to treat them like normal customers. When they're unhappy, give them a refund. After six months, they've given back almost $100,000.

Do you know how many complaints are denied?

FEINBERG: Zero. This is - there's no evaluation on the complaint.

JIANG: So really no questions asked?

FEINBERG: Well, we ask your name and address to send you the money.

LEAH BINDER: They're a little crazy to be doing it, but it works for them.

JIANG: Leah Binder runs Leapfrog, a nonprofit that focuses on hospital quality. She says offering refunds is smart business. It keeps people coming back, just like at a regular store.

BINDER: So what Geisinger seems to have done is said, well, you know what? Why don't we play by the same rules everyone else plays by? And so let's offer what any retailer would offer.

JIANG: Dr. Feinberg says health care is getting more competitive. And as patients shop around more, hospitals will need new ways to stand out.

FEINBERG: I don't want to be the best in health care. I want us to be the best. To be good in health care patient satisfaction makes you, like, you know, we're as good as the DMV. It makes you kind of the cream of crap.

JIANG: Dr. Feinberg is aiming higher.


GOLDSTEIN: For a long time, it felt like we lived in a world of limits.

JIANG: You can't travel faster than the speed of light.

GOLDSTEIN: You cannot eat a tablespoon of cinnamon all at once.

JIANG: I have tried it, and it is impossible.

GOLDSTEIN: Also you cannot have an interest rate below zero because that would mean I lend you money and you promise to give me back less than I loaned you.

JIANG: But if your economy is pretty grim for years and years, it turns out you can have an interest rate below zero.

GOLDSTEIN: Last part of the show today - negative interest rates.

JIANG: Negative interest rates.

GOLDSTEIN: This is this very strange, kind of unsettling phenomenon that started with central banks in Europe and Japan. They were doing the central bank thing. They were lowering interest rates because they wanted people to borrow and spend more to get the economy going. The economy didn't really get going. They got to zero.

JIANG: And they said let's just keep going.

GOLDSTEIN: Let's keep going down. Let's go negative. And today, in a lot of countries, in Switzerland and Germany and France and Japan, interest rates on government bonds are negative. So you lend money to the government and, say, a year later, you get back less than you started with.

JIANG: For example, say I buy a bond today for a hundred dollars. A year from now, the government will give me $99 back. That's an interest rate of negative 1 percent. Who hears this pitch, you will lose money, and says I'm in? Who buys these?

GOLDSTEIN: Rick Rieder, the head of global fixed income at BlackRock.

Do you own any bonds that are paying negative interest rates?

RICK RIEDER: Yes, yes is the answer.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) I feel like that was about to be yes but or something.

RIEDER: Yeah - so yes, yes but is exactly right.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, but he doesn't like it. Yes, but it doesn't feel right.

RIEDER: It's - it just feels surreal and it feels - it feels that it's not natural buying negative yielding bonds.

GOLDSTEIN: It's not natural, but people are doing it anyways. And this is a bad sign because, clearly, people with money, they want to make more money. They want to invest in things that are going to grow. But in a lot of the world right now, people don't see opportunities to do that. They're scared to risk their money, to bet on some strong economic recovery, so they're buying bonds with negative interest rates because they're worried that if they invest in something else, something riskier, they could lose even more.

JIANG: You might say, OK. Why not just stick your money in the bank instead of buying a bond that will lose you money?

GOLDSTEIN: And the answer is, in a lot of places, if you have a lot of money, you have to pay a fee to keep that money in the bank.

JIANG: So clearly you have an option there. You could just take your money out of the bank. You could just go to cash.

GOLDSTEIN: I was talking about this with Joe Gagnon. He's an economist at the Peterson Institute. He's thought a lot about this stuff, used to work at the Federal Reserve. And I was asking him, why do negative interest rates even work? I mean, why doesn't everybody just use cash?

JOE GAGNON: They're - I don't know. Who the hell would buy a Swiss government bond at negative rate when there's cash out there that you can hold? I don't know.

JIANG: He said, for example, Switzerland makes it really easy to hold a lot of cash because they print money in these really large bills.

GAGNON: You know, Switzerland has a thousand franc note that's almost - that's equal to a thousand dollars. In one briefcase in Switzerland, you can put $10 million.

GOLDSTEIN: So I got in touch with Zurich Insurance, a Swiss company that owns some of these negative interest rate bonds, talked with someone there named Guy Miller. And I asked him Joe Gagnon's briefcase question.

Why not just get a bunch of money and stick it in a vault?

GUY MILLER: Because I think, you know, the issue with that is that that doesn't come cost free. You have to - you have to have some kind of insurance or some kind of guard over that. And given the amount of money you're talking about, you know, volume-wise, it takes up - you know, it could take up a fair amount of room.

GOLDSTEIN: Zurich Insurance is this gigantic company. They have billions or hundreds of billions of dollars, so even at $10 million per briefcase, that's a big vault, you know? You got to have the - you got to have the big door, that wheel thing...

JIANG: A guard to protect it all.

GOLDSTEIN: You got to pay the guard. So this costs money too, right? This is - essentially you're losing money there, too. But even so, this vault thing is actually something companies might start doing. Just this year, a big German insurance company said it was doing an experiment. They pulled 10 million euros out of the bank and stuck it in a vault.

JIANG: This negative interest rate world might seem like some strange blip, something that will just go away. But maybe we just live in a negative interest rate world now. Just this week, Germany sold 10-year bonds with negative interest rates. And in the last few months, people have been getting even more eager to buy bonds with negative rates.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. Rick Rieder, the yes but guy from BlackRock, the surreal guy, he told me that earlier this year, he bought 10-year Japanese bonds with negative yields. And since he bought them, he said, demand has gone up. In fact, demand for those bonds is now so high that he could turn around today and sell them for a profit. He didn't want to tell me the details, but you can think of it this way. It's like he bought a bond for $100 with the promise of getting paid back $99. Today, people want to buy that same bond for $101.


JIANG: If you have a good story about getting your money back or trying to get your money back, record a voice memo and email it to us. We're at planetmoney@npr.org. We're looking for stories that are about a minute or less.

GOLDSTEIN: The something else to listen to part today comes from the excellent Sam Sanders.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hey, y'all. Sam Sanders here, campaign reporter with NPR News, here to tell you that the NPR POLITICS PODCAST has you covered for the biggest two weeks of this election year so far. Skip the cable news hangover and listen to our daily episodes from the Republican and Democratic conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia; every day at both conventions. It all starts July 19. Subscribe to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST at npr.org/podcast or on the NPR One app.

SANDERS: Our show today was produced by Nick Fountain and Sally Helm.

JIANG: I'm Jess Jiang.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening.

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