"Extended warranty? How can I lose?"
— Homer Simpson
A few weeks back, I found out that a utility company — let's just call it a purveyor of methane — is offering something like insurance to customers. It's called "Interior Gas Line Coverage," which entitles the customer to the services of "a local, licensed contractor" if something goes wrong with the customer's gas pipes.
I know, some of you are wondering, "What could go wrong with my interior gas lines?"
Well, the simple answer is: probably nothing. Anybody with the brains and savvy of a novice Cub Scout (Tiger Cub, age 7) should know that even a tiny leak in a gas pipe will release mercaptan, a noxious funk that the gas company puts into the gas on purpose, so people will smell it and shut off the gas before something blows up. If you've never smelled mercaptan, I'll describe the odor for you: It's like a mix of rotten eggs, dead crawl-space possums, a million dead cicadas and a close-up dog fart. It's a smell that'll make people jump out of a moving car.
The faithful Scout should know that when mercaptan's in the air, nobody should monkey with the light switches, light up a smoke or use a phone. It would be smart, though, to grab a good-size adjustable wrench and turn the gas off at the meter, which is outside and belongs to the gas company, not you.
But hey, why go to the trouble of learning simple Cub Scout and homeowner skills? For a lousy $4.49 a month, the purveyor of methane will have operators standing by to dispatch the usual van full of Tilt-A-Whirl greasers, elephant-dung shovelers and squirrel-brain eaters directly to your house, so they can get inside your basement or crawl space, where the gas pipes are your responsibility.
Sure, $4.49 a month isn't much. It's just $53.88 a year from each of the methane purveyor's million or so customers. Just a little more than $54 million a year out of customers' pockets, so those customers can rest easy knowing the fix-it temps will take care of all the gas-pipe problems.
Beware the term, "local licensed contractor." It doesn't mean, "a busload of laid-off rocket geniuses from Huntsville, pulling a trailer full of fancy tools." It means, "people sent by people you don't know."
Back in 2000, a water company in New Jersey offered "LeakGuard," a type of underground-pipe insurance that covered pipe failure between the curb and the water meter. That service cost a customer about $54 a year. That adds up to nearly 10 million bucks if all of the 180,000 customers of the company sign up. For cryin' out loud, a homeowner ought to be able to shut off his own water and keep it shut off until a plumber shows up.
And don't you know, Bell Atlantic had its "Guardian Plan." For two bucks a month, they offered to diagnose and repair folks' telephone wires. Just about any knucklehead with a pair of wire cutters and a handful of wire nuts ought to be able to keep his phone lines intact.
Lately, I've been annoyed by a vendor who calls about once a week. She talks non-stop, like a politician, and she tells me that I need to buy insurance that will cover my home appliances — the furnaces, the air conditioners, the refrigerator, the stove and such. After I listen to her for a minute or so, I interrupt and explain to her that I can find my own defects and I can call people who've been working on my house — and the stuff in my house — for years. So she needn't call back. If my house were burning, flooding, crumbling and spewing demons at the same time, I wouldn't want a faraway operator to send a van full of wannabe franchisees to my front door.
If you have a vendor twisting your arm to buy useless insurance — insurance to cover events that most likely will never happen — I recommend that you do one or all of the following: Once a month, drop your four or five dollars of "I can't believe I almost fell for that bullshift" money into an envelope, then donate it to the worthy cause of your choice. Or send the money to a good dog rescue organization.
Or, if it suits you, there's nothing wrong with dropping a duffel bag full of cash onto my front porch. I'll take it in and hide it from the charlatans.