Got Ripped. And Got My Money Back
Before you get excited, I did not get my money back from Priceline directly. But read on and maybe you can use some of what I learned online and from lawyers.
I had used Priceline 4 times before to purchase airfare to Brazil without any problems. This last time I went through the usual process of entering my travel options and submitting my bid. I did this several times and never "won a bid" or found a suitable counter-offer.
By the way, this "counter-offer" system was more insistent and obscure than what my previous experiences had been, but I reasoned it was because that I was searching for a very specific price and Priceline was tryng to "help" me find a ticket. I found it profoundly irritating that their "counter-offers" were mixed in with the "bidding" process and did not know if it was poor design or an underhanded ploy to push people into accepting their "counter-offers".
In any case, I gave up trying to find my ticket through them but found out, a day later, that they had charged me for one of the so called "counter-offers"! The automated messages said I had accepted their counter-offer (even though it was double the amount of any of my bid attempts) and my credit card had been successfully charged. A call to their number reached only a recorded message that stated I had to wait (one or two days- I don't remember) before being able to speak to someone directly (even though my credit card had been charged immediately). When I finally managed to reach someone, the conversation was a script that I heard from every single employee/spokesperson I eventually contacted at Priceline. It all boiled down to: "Priceline does not offer refunds for any reason whatsoever; The policy is clearly explained; The system makes no errors, You included your signature (s.I.c. my initials)".
They ignored any reasoning and read (almost varbatim) from some manual. I found on the web a listing of names, numbers and addresses for officials at the company and called and sent certified mail with arguments. I never received any response from the letters and the "VPs" I spoke to read from the same script.
I started a Better Business Bureau case against them (they had been kicked out of the Better Business Bureau at the time). TO support my case, I only had evidence on my side, such as screen prints of many of my bids (gleaned from the browser history - this was all done in the 2 days following the beginning of this mess-) showing the amount of my bids and the discrepancy between what I was willing to pay and what they charged me, as well as the dates that eventually were sold. Priceline answered the Better Business Bureau inquiry with the same (!) words that had been read to me so many times in my conversations, regarding policy, acceptance and my initials. I sent them certified mail requests for their file logs of all transactions in my account so I could study in support of my case (I am a computer engineer), but never got any response.
At the same time I placed a dispute with my credit card company and spoke to practicing lawyers friends of mine. The path was: File a complaint with the Better Business Bureau (done) , file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (done), file a charge dispute with the credit card company (done) and, eventually, file small claims suit against Priceline.
I eventually got refunded by my credit card company, let the BBB complaint lapse and never heard from the FTC. To this day I do not know if they simply paid Priceline and took the hit, or going against the bank's laywers would have been counter productive to Priceline. But these are the main concepts I learned and which you should take into consideration:
1 - DO NOT USE PRICELINE. This is my personal advice, based on my personal experience with them. Do not even think about seeing what kind of offers they might have as you have to register your credit card information and you have little control of when you might be charged.
2 - Priceline is NOT in partnership with airlines. Your "bid" (now you will understand why I placed so many quotes in my report) is not a "bid". Priceline is a broker who purchases tickets in bulk, at a discount, from the airlines. They know exactly how much it cost them and how much they want. They overbook flights, so they can refuse a refund and there is someone else with the same ticket as you.
All this information was obtained by speaking to airline officials, something I did not tell you I tried to do as well. Apparently, at least the people I spoke to at American Airlines tell me they get many calls with similar stories as mine, but since they did not sell the ticket, there is nothing they can do.
3 - Their "we found a partner willing to sell you a ticket for $$$ counter-offer" is a blatant LIE. It is their ticket. There are no "partners". That is the amount they want.
4 - NEVER, EVER admit to the possibility that you clicked on any accept button or agreed to anything in any way. I am sure I never did that, but every person I related this information to suggested that I probably hit the "accept" button by mistake, which, it's important to note, DOES NOT MATTER to Priceline. I learned this from other reports in the internet.
This was, perhaps, the most irritating part of the story. This attitude that people have that corporations are highly moral and wouldn't try to cheat me out of my money or that their system malfunctioned. The only bad people are not shady characters lurking in the fringes of society!!!!
My lawyer friends told me that I was to NEVER even remotely consider the possibility of having made a mistake, even in friendly conversations with Priceline (when I was trying to convince them to do the right thing). They most certainly claim to have no glitches in their system (I even joked that their IT staff should work for the NSA, they were so perfect) and tried their damnest hardest to get me to admit to the possibility that I might have clicked on the "accept" button. If the case goes to court, they would have to provide me tons of technical reports regarding the stability and operability problems they might have had in the past, but if I ever said: "maybe I clicked on it. Your page is so confusing.." would be the same as having a smoking gun and blood all over me at the scene of a murder.
5 - RECORD your conversations. In my state, you are allowed to record conversations as long as one of the parties (yourself) is aware of it. DON'T tell them you are recording the conversation because that will be entered in their database and you will not be able to get any incriminatory or contradicting statements in conversations after that (if you even manage to speak to another human being at all). A suction cup microphone from Radio Shack costs $14.99 and you only bring out the recordings if things have to go to legal court.
6 - KEEP A PAPER TRAIL. I treat every financial transaction as if it is going to go bad. I know I have missed many good opportunities (things that were really good deals and I wanted them) because I could not find a way to satisfactory prove the agreement -should it not work out-. But since I cannot remember what these good deals are and the Priceline experience seems to be burned in my brain, I rather miss out on some immediate satisfaction over going through a mess llike that (it's all about risk hedging. I just bought DIgital Camera that might not hava a warranty -it was a display model- but I am willing to loose the purchase money if the camera fails, the company does not honor the warranty, and I cannot easily argue my money back >>it was purchased on the manager's word that I would not have problems, should the camera malfunction<<).
7 - START A TIMELINE. As soon as problems arise, fire up your word processing app and put in dates, names, supporting evidence (voice recordings, copies of letters, web page screen captures), and summaries. Things are imprinted on your brain when it happens, but after a week, it can get hard or impossible to organize what happen with whom and when. This way you have a mcuh clearer picture and are able to articulate yourself better (another reason why I think the Priceline a**holes kept redding from the script. I am serious! They sounded like bad actors...).
So I am sorry that you got to this page because you got screwed by Priceline. I hope this information helps you. Please also publish your unpleasant experience with them and forward my case to anyone you think might end up hurt by this company's practices.
Best of Luck!
p.s. - In case you wondered, the bids I was offering were between U$700 and U$1200 for a trip starting in November or Mid-December, lasting into February or March. The ticket "I bought" was U$3150.00, leaving December 26 and returning January 12.