How to Spot Hidden Charges

A woman claims she was given a service charge on top of the tip she already paid.

By NBC Connecticut Troubleshooter Sabina Kuriakose
|  Wednesday, May 2, 2012  |  Updated 7:11 AM EDT
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When you get good service, you leave a nice tip.  But what if your bill includes an automatic gratuity charge?  Is that a tip, or a hidden fee?  NBC CT Troubleshooters spoke with a woman who thought she was getting a great deal, but was left wondering what she really signed up for.

When you get good service, you leave a nice tip. But what if your bill includes an automatic gratuity charge? Is that a tip, or a hidden fee? NBC CT Troubleshooters spoke with a woman who thought she was getting a great deal, but was left wondering what she really signed up for.

We all know that being a mom is a full-time job, so when April Brunelle got the rare chance to treat herself to a day of pampering, she jumped at it.

"I thought it was a really good deal. I mean, normally, you're going to pay over $100 for a massage itself,” April said.

April and her sister found that deal on Travelzoo.com, a discount voucher website. The site promised a 50-minute massage, body polish and scalp treatment, all for just $99 at Mohegan Sun’s Elemis Spa.  For April, it was a no-brainer.

"I was like, yeah, why not?" she said.

April’s sister was the first to redeem the voucher. She soon learned there was a catch.

"She called me and gave me a heads up saying, ‘Watch out, they're going to tack on money,’" recalled April.

April’s sister said she paid a generous tip and tax, but was slapped with a 20 percent service charge.  April showed us the receipt to prove it. She paid the gratuity, tax and a $47 service charge.

But according to that voucher from Travelzoo.com for the spa, no additional payment is required beyond tax and gratuity. 

So the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters went undercover to find out where those fees came from.

Our hidden camera video shows a sign that clearly states an automatic 20 percent service charge will be added to all services. When April made her reservation, she said Elemis employees told her over the phone that the service fee was separate from the tip. But an official with Steiner Leisure, the company that owns the spa, tells NBC Connecticut that fee is supposed to be the gratuity.  And it turns out customers are under no obligation to pay the charge, or they can pay a smaller tip if they feel the service was inadequate.

Bruce Pine, the VP of Spa Operations, told us he didn’t think this was a news story.  We disagreed.  He did say the company will take a look at how they explain the charge to customers.

"It's kind of an industry standard. Not all but some restaurants will add the gratuity on automatically,” Nicole Griffin, of the Connecticut Restaurants Association, said.

An automatic tip is common at restaurants. Many tack on gratuities for large groups, usually at 17 percent to 18 percent.

"When we book parties for seven or more people, we inform them of our gratuities,” said James O’Shea of West Street Grill in Litchfield.

O’Shea said the added fee is something he makes clear to customers when they book a table. He said the automatic gratuity protects his employees.

“There are cheap people out there who don't tip. I really dislike the notion of cheap people who can well afford to tip people, and beating a server out of a few dollars--it's shameful,” he said.

But sometimes, there’s a communication breakdown. 

Diners should be aware they can challenge an automatic gratuity with management.

In April’s experience, she felt the whole process at the spa was misleading. 

After NBC Connecticut spoke to Steiner Leisure’s representative, the company called us back to say they’ve waived the service charge for April and refunded it to her sister. 

And what about that sign informing customers of the “automatic service charge”?

The company said it’s reviewing the language on it.

"If you're going to give someone a deal, give them a deal. Don't give them a deal and then tack on stuff to it,” April said.

She’s since filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

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