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WATCHING FOR FRAUD CAN BE A FULL-TIME JOB

Every time you think it's safe to go out in the marketplace, somebody discovers the beast of a new consumer fraud or price-gouging scheme lurking in the bushes, ready to pounce.

In the increasingly deregulated market, merely not getting soaked with exorbitant air fares, phone charges or bank fees requires a level of consumer vigilance that is the equivalent, in time and aggravation, of a part-time job. And if you get run over by a truck, you have to consider whether your competitive HMO will consider this a legitimate reason to engage the services of an emergency room. Otherwise, you're stuck with a huge bill.

Now the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs has ripped the lid off a scheme to defraud the lettuce-eating population of the city. It seems 40 percent of the city's ubiquitous salad bars were including the weight of plastic containers and charging for them at the same rate they set for their vegetables, pasta, meat and seafood.

I laughed real hard when I read that, in a city where so much of government operates indifferently, the salad police had found the time, attention span and stealth to blow the whistle on short-weighting that amounted to a mere seven-hundredths of a pound per salad. After all, the containers cost something. I'd always assumed I was paying for the weight of the plastic and the rubber band that held it closed.

But then it was explained to me that this particular fraud results in overcharges of about $50 a year for a consumer who eats only two salads a week. Some people I know eat five or six. Besides, it's against New York State law to include containers in the weight of a salad. The cashiers are supposed to deduct 0.07 pounds for a large container and 0.04 pounds for a small one. So I finally worked myself into a fit of consumer rage, tinged with gratitude for the municipal authorities who'd given me one less rip-off to worry about. The department issued 32 violations and slapped fines of up to $300 on the offending salad kingpins, with warnings that repeat offenders will pay $600.

Now if the Department of Consumer Affairs will just send someone around to scrutinize my telephone bill and tell me if I'm being ripped off. Then I'll know whether I should get on the phone and spend a couple of hours shopping around for the best long-distance service. They can also help me decide who I should buy my electricity from, which is, frankly, one choice I've not been dying to make.

The great Milton Friedman, apostle of free markets, would tell us these annoyances are all part of the flowering of choice. Still, I'd like to see an econometric model that factors in, at an hourly rate, the additional time people must spend to keep from getting ripped off in a theoretically more competitive marketplace.

While we must be grateful for at least minimal regulation of the salad industry, the benefits of deregulation of industries like airlines, trucking, telecommunications and banking are demonstrable. Prices, when you manage to get the best ones, are lower. Service is occasionally better. Airline food is scarce, and seat configurations in coach sections are so cramped they come close to violating the Geneva Convention's rules for transport of prisoners of war. But airline safety has improved dramatically, contrary to warnings that cost pressures on deregulated carriers would cause them to crash more often. And isn't getting there unhurt what we're really paying for?

Yes, we must live with the deregulated market. But learning to love it the way Friedman does is something else.

Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

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