Earlier this month, millions of Americans filed their income tax returns, but so many continue to pay an additional "stupidity" tax, not to the government, but to tech companies that take advantage of consumer laziness and computer illiteracy. You may think that you're smart paying that blue shirt to scan your computer for viruses, but he's laughing at you on his way to the bank. Avoid the digital dunce cap by steering clear of these common technology rip-offs.
If you failed first grade math and get all your technology advice from washed up wrestlers, rent-to-own stores like Rent-a-Center and Aarons are here to take your money, all of it. You can rent a "worry-free" $349 notebook for around $25 a week and pay a mere $1,299 for itover the course of 12 months. But hey, if Hulk Hogan says it's a good deal, it must be one, "brother!"
'Speed Up My PC' Services
In between commercials for lubricated catheters and pawn brokerages that buy your old jewelry, you'll see ads for software that promises to speed up your computer. What they don't say on air is that, after these programs perform a free scan in which they ALWAYS find some errors, they charge you a hefty fee to "fix" your computer.
Don't fall for this flagrant fear-mongering. If your computer seems too slow, there are a number of steps you can take to speed it up on your own, including removing unnecessary programs from the startup list, uninstalling unnecessary software and tweaking your system settings. More: Speed Your PC -- 34 Tips, Apps and Gear
Extra DVD Backups of Downloadable Software
You wouldn't take a $10 bill out of your pocket, blow your nose into it, run it through a shredder and then set it on fire for good measure, would you?
If you are willing to pay extra for an optical disc copy of software you are already buying and downloading online, you'd be better off destroying that currency in spectacular fashion, because a bonfire made out of snot-filled cash confetti would at least be interesting to watch. You have to have either the intelligence or the patience of an ADHD flea if you can't be bothered to make your own second copy of a file you just downloaded.
Protection Rackets . . . er, Plans
Whether you're buying a $1,000 notebook or a $10 USB key, retailers always want to sell you protection plans that promise to extend your warranty and give you better service.
Everyone from the blue shirts to the cashier to the security guard by the door will try to scare you into paying $100 to $400 extra to safeguard that $450 notebook, but you'd have to have be dumber than a piece of rotting wood to fall for their tactics. First of all, these plans rarely protect you from anything except having too much money. In most cases, the fine print shows that you have to pay a huge deductible for service, the service you really need isn't actually covered or that you don't actually get an identical replacement for lost / destroyed gadgets. Second, let's face the facts here. You're better off taking the gamble that your gadget will break after its warranty ends than shelling out guaranteed money today for an extended warranty that probably won't help you in the unlikely event that you ever need it. If your gadget dies in year two or three, consider it a message from the electronics gods that it is time for something new. More: 6 Ways Tech Companies Treat You Like a Sucker
Perhaps your friends don't have the guts to tell you this so I will. Nobody wants to hear the Macarena while waiting for you to pick up the phone. Ringback tones may be priced at only a couple of dollars each, but those charges add up quickly as 10 ringback tones cost as much as something truly valuable, a whole month of unlimited texting.
Even worse, these embarrassing tones will cost you the respect of your friends and colleagues. While you're at it, why don't you leave an outgoing voicemail message for your callers with the voice of Clint Eastwood saying "Go ahead. Make my day?" Hilarity is sure to ensue.
Paying Geek Squad for Computer Maintenance
Most healthy, able-bodied people wouldn't pay a nurse with a bad case of the shakes to brush their teeth for them. So why on earth would someone with a sound mind and two working hands pay retail support techs to do simple computer maintenance that anyone with an IQ above 30 can do for himself?
Best Buy's Geek Squad support business charges $99 to burn 9.4GB of data to DVD for you; Staples EasyTech team charges $30 to install a piece of software for you; and Office Depot's Tech Depot department charges $99 to install Windows for you. Even Snooki can do all these things. Okay, maybe not. But you can.
Renting a Router From Your Broadband Provider
If you want to set up a wireless home network, you have a smart choice and a stupid choice. You can act like a capable adult and spend $30 to $100 on a router you can keep forever or you can pay a monthly Wi-Fi tithe to the cable company.
Believe it or not, major ISPs like Time Warner charge as much as $6 a month to rent you a router under what they call "Wi-Fi Service." If you're dumb enough to fall for this scam, maybe you only deserve a single Ethernet-connected computer.
Exorbitant International Data Fees
When you travel to Europe, U.S. carriers are expecting you to get so high on absinthe that you won't notice what they're charging you for roaming. Even with a discount international data plan, AT&T charges you $25 for just 50MB of data with $1 per MB overage fee. And 50MB is not enough for even a day of serious emailing.
So, by the time you come home, you'll have spent enough to buy Ralph De La Vega a new porch for his summer home. The smart way to avoid these stupid fees is to either buy a local SIM card or rent a Wi-Fi hotspot with unlimited data from XCom Global for $15 a day and tether your phone to that.
Subsidized 3G/4G Tablets
There's nothing like the feeling of getting a bargain, even if the bargain exists only in your single-core, 600-MHz cerebellum. Wireless carriers are counting on your short-sightedness and inability to multiply by 24 when they try to sell you a mildly discounted tablet in exchange for you signing a two year broadband contract with them. Take, for example, the Samsung Galaxy Tab that Verizon is selling for $429.99 with a two year contract that costs at least $30 a month.
That's $949 over the life of the contract, during which time you'll probably decide that the tablet is too outdated to use and stick it in a drawer. Meanwhile, the same slate is available for just $448 in a Wi-Fi-only version you can use with your phone's hotspot ability or the routers at home and work. But you can't beat the feeling of saving $20 today. Can you, genius?
Paid People Finders (aka MyLife.com)
You've seen the gripping commercials on late-night TV. "Seven people are searching for you. Who could they be," the narrator intones. Could it be your former boss, looking to hire you back? How about your ex, seeking to rekindle an old flame? For a small monthly fee, services like MyLife.com promise to help you find out.
First of all, if your former friends are searching for you but haven't found you through Google, they're too dumb to live, let alone hang out with. And if they found you, but didn't contact you, we call that "stalking." If you think you need a paid social network to reconnect with people from your past, I've got a bank account in Nigeria that I need your help with.
Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and infrastructure of LAPTOP's web site. With a reputation as the staff's biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP's custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek's Geek column here every other week or follow Avram on twitter.