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SEAN P. MURPHY | THE FINE PRINT

The Globe’s new consumer columnist is open for business

Associated Press/File

By Globe Staff 

You’re pumping gas and day-dreaming on a summer day. Suddenly, you are jolted back to reality by the sensation of gasoline cascading down your hand. You quickly jam the nozzle back in, but you’re soaked. The attendant blames you, something about the nozzle not clicking off unless it’s in all the way. When you protest, he cuts you off and reminds you: It’s a self-service gas station.

What the heck?

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You do your homework and open a flexible spending account to take advantage of a law meant to save ordinary folks a few bucks on medical and dental expenses. But when you try to spend it at the doctor’s office, the receptionist says, sorry, you have a zero balance — even though you had $1,000 in the account last time you checked.

What the heck?

The subject line of the e-mail is “legal notice of settlement of class action.” What catches your eye is something about being “entitled” to $10 for some past behavior by Staples. Is it really worth pursuing? You read on. The explanation is mind-numbing. Turns out you can collect only if you bought a Staples Rewards-eligible product along with a non-Rewards-eligible product in the same transaction; that you used an item-specific coupon on the non-Rewards eligible product; and you were negatively affected by Staples’ pro rata coupon accounting.

What the heck?

You are the consumer. I am the Globe’s new consumer advocate. I came to the Globe as a reporter in 1987, and I’ve covered everything from the Charles Stuart murder case to the Big Dig to some rather unsavory examples of public malfeasance. During my early years at the Globe, I picked up a law degree, going to night classes.

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My friends say I can be a little fussy in my dealings, sometimes standing on principle at the expense of time and effort.

Now, I’ll work for you. Part of what I hope to do is to explain. For example, how does a flexible spending account work? How do I open one? What are the advantages? Are there hidden costs? What can go wrong?

But I will also advocate for you when you feel you’ve been wronged in a business transaction with a retailer, an insurer, a lender, a lawyer, or others.

Exactly how this column will unfold depends largely on you, the reader. Will I act on every tip I receive? Will I write about every topic suggested? Probably not, but I’ll read and consider all of your queries. I’m looking for topics of interest to a wide swath of Globe readers, young and old, sophisticated consumers and neophytes.

I’ll read the fine print on your behalf. I’ll make the extra calls you can’t get to. I’ll demand answers (nicely, I hope).

We can learn together, about lowering utility costs (cable bills too high, anyone?), avoiding scams and rip-offs, hunting down the best values.

It’s about being treated decently.

About that gasoline spill. It happened last year at a BJ’s station. It wasn’t my fault, and I resented being blamed. I decided to demand compensation. It took some doing, but I eventually got a cascade of offers. First, a free tank of gas, then a $100 gift card, and finally $200 cash. I politely rejected them all.

BJ’s said it could go no higher. That’s when I went to small claims court and filled out a complaint form — conspicuously naming BJ’s. I e-mailed it to them, saying I would file it if necessary. A settlement offer of $300 followed, and I accepted.

About the flexible spending account. My employer takes pretax dollars from my paycheck and deposits it in an account overseen by a national FSA benefits management company. The money — up to $2,500 a year — can be used for copays, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket expenses not covered by medical and dental insurers. And because I pay no income tax on it, I have about 20 percent more money to cover these expenses.

It took more than a little time on the phone, but I finally realized why my account had been zeroed out. My dentist submitted a claim to my dental insurer, but the insurance codes weren’t precisely correct, so my insurer rejected the claim. But before my dentist could resubmit the claim with corrected codes, my FSA benefits manager concluded I would have to pay the bill myself and sent me the money.

And about Staples. I filed my claim. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Sean P Murphy can be reached at sean.murphy@globe.com
or at 617-929-7849 Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.