ATM charge of the day, Holiday Inn edition

By Felix Salmon
January 15, 2012
Paul Volcker likes to say that the only worthwhile financial innovation of the past 20 years has been the ATM. So I suppose it was only a matter of time before that, too, was rendered evil.

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Paul Volcker likes to say that the only worthwhile financial innovation of the past 20 years has been the ATM. So I suppose it was only a matter of time before that, too, was rendered evil.

Here, courtesy of Peter Eavis, is how the ATM at the Holiday Inn in Orlando now works — it doesn’t just charge $3 per withdrawal, but rather the higher of $3 or 3%.

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I’ve never heard of anything like this before, although a bit of Googling turns up one page, aimed at ATM owners, saying that “Adult Entertainment clubs” frequently charge a percentage at their ATMs, and that although anybody going down this path “risks losing some transactions”, on the other hand it’s superior to simply capping the maximum withdrawal amount at some low level.

On the web, innovations are frequently found first on porn sites, and then work their way slowly into the mainstream; it seems the same thing is happening here, with strip-club innovations turning up at the Holiday Inn.

ATM operators were forced to display this screen by Sec 205.16 of Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the act which dismantled Glass-Steagal. There’s nothing in the act which caps fees at all, and neither is there anything which prevents ATM operators from charging their surcharge as a percentage rather than a fixed amount. Is this something the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can look at, now that it has power over non-banks as well as banks? If not, I fear we’ll be seeing more and more of these ever-increasing ATM fees.

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Comments
44 comments so far

At this point it’s cheaper to buy currency in London and bring it with me than it is to withdraw it in most ATMs in the US. I have a currency card denominated in dollars that doesn’t itself charge for withdrawals, but finding a non-charging ATM is hard.

Posted by BarryKelly | Report as abusive

Isn’t this more an issue of the competitiveness of the market, as opposed to the price of the transaction?

This seems to be a tax on convenience. Thankfully transactions are moving away from cash for most people. Including the vast majority of people at the HI. In this case the CFPB can suck it.

Posted by Bill.D | Report as abusive

Evil? Why? Greedheaded, yes, but who expects to find an ATM in a hotel lobby (or rather, why should anyone expect that)?

I’m old enough to remember a time before ATMs, so I’m well aware of how much more convenient they’ve made daily financial life. But spare me the tears for people who can’t be bothered to think ahead more than a nanosecond to plan their cash needs, and then are irate when someone is willing to provide the service they need RIGHT THEN AND THERE, but wants to get paid for it. This is not like the issue of payday lending: there’s no reason to think that the users of such ATMs are in any way underserved by other financial institutions, and the cost, as you observe, are completely transparent.

Posted by FosterBoondog | Report as abusive

You want to regulate ATM fees. Why not also cap the price of a cup of coffee? Imagine those poor consumers who walk into a Starbucks, order in a daze, and find themselves facing a $4 charge for a simple cup-o-Joe? The horrors!!!

Transparency is good. Display the fees prominently on the ATM and give a warning screen before you complete the transaction. But aside from that, why is it necessary for the government to interfere? Access to a convenient ATM is not a basic human right. There is a competitive market, with dozens of banks and ATM networks — and some banks that are even willing to cover foreign ATM fees. Anybody who cares to avoid ATM fees can easily find a way to do so.

So once again, why interfere?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

On the flip side, McDonald’s in some locations now advertises their ATM fees on the exterior, apparently to draw people inside to use their ATMs. (It has worked at least once; I went into a McDonald’s to use the advertised ATM at the advertised rate.)

It is obviously correct that a percentage is more consumer-friendly than capping transaction size at the level where the percentage instead kicks in; if you weren’t accustomed to a pure per-transaction fee, you would, I assume, find it a bit bizzare that you pay the same fee regardless of how little or much you take out. Perhaps consumer preference for simplicity makes such a fee structure appropriate, or perhaps it doesn’t.

Enforce rules that allow competition to work better, and let competition work, if not well, at least better than narrow-minded regulation.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

@TFF for the win. Very well said, TFF.

Posted by KidDynamite | Report as abusive

Have I been out of touch? Isn’t Holiday Inn’s ownership of the ATM the big story? The ATM at my local convenience store is owned by the bank, and others have been owned by servicers that place them, like pop machines.

As far as the percentage fee goes, that’s what the credit cards I know about have routinely been doing for foreign currency transactions– a percentage of the transaction with a floor like $3. A percentage makes little intrinsic sense to me, btw, at least if the actual cost of providing something is supposed to have any bearing, because the cost of using the machine and network for any transaction should be about the same regardless of amount, so I can’t agree with dWj on this.

What seems new with international ATMs just this last time is that my bank now has an additional flat conversion fee, in addition to its 1% transaction cut. And the bank that owns the Canadian ATM also charged its own fee for the first time, despite being on an international payment network (Plus, I think).

If you ask me, it’s just another case of seeking to maximize return on every conceivable interchange, made much easier by modern accounting and by the notion that there’s no such thing as a normal cost of doing business.

Posted by Altoid | Report as abusive

I love all the comments about this just being how a competitive marketplace works.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Club_good

Since apparently I’m the only person here who has taken Econ 101, please, everyone, take a step back and remember that your pretty little micro assumptions start to break down when a good is nonrivalrous. Jesus.

Posted by WHS | Report as abusive

WHS, perhaps you should step out of your ivory tower and look at the real world instead? ATM fees are easy to avoid. Don’t even look at privately owned ATMs (such as in that Holiday Inn). You **KNOW** that they have large fees tacked on to the cost of the interchange, because volume on them is so low. I don’t know if I have ever seen somebody actually using one of them!

Besides, if you believe ATMs are “artificially scarce”, you must be living in a different world than I am. I pass three banks (each with multiple ATMs) as well as two or three convenience stores (each with a private ATM) on a five minute walk to the train. They aren’t all free (for me), but I only need one.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

And people wonder why Republicans don’t support the CFPB… “That price seems high! Call the government!”

Posted by right | Report as abusive

Just wait until this turns up on your cell phone. Just to pay somebody.

Posted by ComradeAnon | Report as abusive

TFF: ATM services are “artificially scarce” because scarcity doesn’t reflect increased consumption, but the efforts of ATM operators to limit access. In this way, ATMs are very, very different than the cups of coffee you referenced in your original comment. Your point — that ATMs are everywhere — actually supports what I’m saying. If all coffee became free overnight, we’d quickly use up all the coffee; if all ATMs became free overnight, we wouldn’t use up all the ATMs. The market doesn’t raise prices on ATM services to account for higher demand and consumption; it raises prices because the architecture of ATMs allows it to raise prices. It’s rent extraction.

Your second comment is pretty rich, though. Singing paeans to market competition and then throwing lame “ivory tower” insults at me? Where do you think theories about the desirability of competition even come from? Sorry, bud, but we’re both reading from the same book — I’ve just read a little more closely than you.

Posted by WHS | Report as abusive

The “charge whichever is higher” idea — $3 or 3 percent — indicates that the ATM operator seeks not just to cover the costs of its convenience, but to get as much profit as it can. At least, it appears that way to me. There is nothing wrong as far as I can tell with charging for a service, but there is a point at which the customer feels that the bank or Holiday Inn is trying to gouge him. That creates resentment that lingers and grows. While you can’t necessarily ascribe X amount of resentment to Y effect on a balance sheet, you can say that enough money grabbing on the part of any seller of a service will hurt that seller one day… and the perception of doing so will hurt just as badly. For that reason, this new system strikes me as a losing proposition for the ATM operator, whether it be the bank or the Holiday Inn.

Posted by bobbymacReuters | Report as abusive

WHS, you are the one focusing on the importance of competition. I mentioned the word once, and not prominently. Not sure what “book” you think I’m reading from? But I’ll agree that you’ve probably read it more closely than I have.

I’m coming from a very practical perspective. I bank with a small community bank, that shares in a network with other small community banks in my area. If I need cash, there are three convenient ATMs in areas that I frequent that I know are free. I would have at least as many options if I banked with BoA or another one of the larger banks in the area.

When traveling, I pick up a couple hundred dollars before I leave. When traveling to Canada, I pay a convenience fee of a couple dollars for the cash I need. Either way, most of my spending goes through credit cards.

If anybody is paying more than $20/year in ATM fees, they either lack the imagination to avoid them or they feel the convenience is worth the fees. In neither case do I feel particular sympathy for their situation.

Also, you write, “If all coffee became free overnight, we’d quickly use up all the coffee.” Yet if coffee became free, we would see every Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks go out of business. People could still brew it at home, saving a few pennies over their current cost, but I wouldn’t be surprised if overall coffee consumption were to FALL in this hypothetical situation.

Similarly, if all ATMs became free overnight, you would have far fewer alternatives available. The Holiday Inn wouldn’t even have one in the lobby. Banks wouldn’t permit non-customers to use their ATMs at all. ATM usage would ultimately fall… So maybe it isn’t as different as you pretend?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Hm, perhaps I should summarize?

IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, VOTE WITH YOUR FEET!!!

Really, we need to see more of this! It baffles me why people put up with price gouging, and that only encourages companies (BoA, Verizon) to do even more of it.

Practice price-sensitive shopping and you’ll put the price-gougers out of business. In most cases, that is more effective than regulation.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

TFF: Competition is at the center of your argument. When you say that people have lots of other ATM options, what you’re describing is competition. If we were talking about an ordinary good, competition would be sufficient to keep prices at a socially optimum level, which is why we don’t want the government meddling with the price of coffee. But in a competitive market for a nonrivalrous good, prices shouldn’t rise unless the price of providing the good goes up, and the cost of ATMs almost certainly hasn’t risen. So why are prices going up? A far more likely explanation is that ATM owners actually aren’t competing to the degree that anecdotal evidence has led you to believe; instead, they have a partial monopoly over the provision of banking services in particular locations, and as monopolists are wont to do, have raised prices beyond what would be optimal. Judging from the exorbitant fees described in Felix’s post, FAR beyond the optimum. It’s a textbook case for government regulation.

Posted by WHS | Report as abusive

I think it’s important to note that if you what you were saying was true — that high prices don’t matter to people in the real world because people would find cheaper ways to obtain the same service — then we wouldn’t actually see these high prices in the first place. Holiday Inn and other ATM providers would be pricing themselves right out of the market.

Posted by WHS | Report as abusive

WHS, I’m with TFF on this. The “architecture” of the ATM doesn’t allow the operators to raise prices, only the laziness or illiteracy of consumers does in this case. People do not have to use ATMs in a hotel, just like they don’t have to use hotel room phones to make $1.50/minute local calls, or use hotel internet access at $15/day, because they have cell phones and, some times, cell phones with 3G/4G hotspot/tethering or modems. And if they have their own internet connectivity with them, they also don’t have to pay $15 for movies on the hotel TV set.

It’s great that Felix has pointed out the greed of the Holiday Inn chain, but greed doesn’t always need to be met with a new law (see BofA debit card fees and Verizon’s attempt to charge people a fee to pay their bills.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

“partial monopoly over the provision of banking services in particular locations”

Depends on your definition of “location”. If you define it as a specific building, then you have a point. If you define it as a neighborhood, you don’t. Of course, Starbucks has a monopoly on coffee within their shop.

“So why are prices going up?”

Felix’ example notwithstanding, I haven’t noticed that they are — I still have ample opportunity to avoid ATM fees entirely. But then, I’m going with the most practical definition of pricing: the cost that a price-conscious consumer would pay.

“that high prices don’t matter to people in the real world because people would find cheaper ways to obtain the same service”

I responded to this already, when I wrote “or they feel the convenience is worth the fees”. If somebody feels the convenience of that ATM is worth $6.60, then I’m not going to stand in their way. I might think they are an idiot, but people do all kinds of idiotic things.

If somebody doesn’t feel that having an ATM in their hotel room is worth $6.60, and is willing to walk down the block to a free ATM, then presumably they will choose to do so.

I would feel differently if having access to an ATM without leaving the building were a basic human right, but isn’t that a stretch?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

KenG_CA: The problem isn’t greed, it’s Holiday Inn and other ATM providers taking advantage of a partial monopoly to price-gouge. (They do the same thing with phone and internet.) It’s a market failure. Like all market failures, it imposes costs on the wider economy — probably significant costs, given the ubiquity of ATMs and the necessity of convenient access to cash.

Posted by WHS | Report as abusive

Who uses cash anymore? It’s so 20th century. ATMs will bite the dust, slowly but surely.

Posted by MyLord | Report as abusive

WHS, defining the size of the local market is arbitrary, but if you reduce it small enough (to one building) then there is nothing to compare it with. You’re calling it a market failure, but there is no market, as a market typically implies multiple sellers. If you restrict the ATM market to just the ATMs available in the hotel, there’s only going to be one ATM, and no market.

In a nearby shopping mall, there is a privately owned ATM, they charge more than bank ATMs, several of which are within a couple blocks. Is that a partial monopoly? Or are they just selling convenience?

If the Holiday Inn didn’t allow people to pay with cash obtained from somebody else’s ATM, then that is a different story. But the only people who are going to pay the exorbitant fee are those who don’t want to go elsewhere, or don’t care.

Price gouging is greed. Whether its because of a partial monopoly or indifference of consumers, it’s still greed.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

It’s a free market price. Customers can pay for convenience or just drive down the street to a bank owned ATM. Or they can decide not to stay at a Holiday Inn again.
I suspect that the fee is set by the franchisee of this particular Holiday Inn, who undoubtedly gets a high “rent” from the company which operates the ATM.
It would be interesting to hear the reaction of Holiday Inn Corporate when this is pointed out to them.

Posted by Paul78704 | Report as abusive

Look, I see two possible explanations for high ATM prices.

Possibility A: the prices reflect some sort of competitive market equilibrium, and are therefore socially optimal.

Possibility B: the prices are a product of some sort of monopoly, and are therefore likely higher than is socially optimal.

Now, I’m assuming the marginal cost of providing each additional unit of ATM service is pretty close to zero. (It’s not actually zero, of course, but since there are lots of ATM locations, there aren’t long waits to use ATMs, and there aren’t massive cash shortages, I think the assumption is fair.) If that’s the case, it’s very hard to see how prices could rise in a competitive environment. Changes in demand shouldn’t affect the equilibrium price of using an ATM, since the supply curve is essentially flat. And there’s no reason to think the fixed price of providing ATM services has risen.

But we know that prices are quite high and are in fact, in some cases, rising. As a result, Possibility A starts to look a bit far-fetched. Possibility B, monopoly pricing, looks like the more plausible explanation for ATM fees.

We can argue all day about why that is, of course. (I myself think people tend to wildly overstate the availability of ATMs. Oh sure, if you’re in a city, you can realistically expect that a half-dozen ATMs are within a few blocks of you. But where? Oftentimes the only realistic option is to use whatever machine you’ve happened upon. And not everyone is so fortunate as to live in dense urban areas.)

Posted by WHS | Report as abusive

WHS, possibility C: the seller doesn’t care about market share, only about gross margin for a limited number of sales. Because they have to pay X $ for each replenishment of the ATM (I’m guessing they just don’t let the clerks re-fill them), they want as much revenue from each re-stocking of cash. If the machine holds $10,000, and they can get an average of 3% but only dispense $10K in cash, that is better than getting 1.5% on $20K of cash, because they don’t have to pay for two fill-ups. I don’t know the exact numbers here, I am just trying to illustrate that not every company is driven by market share (as they shouldn’t be).

I don’t think the Holiday Inn is trying to compete with other ATMs in the area (btw, it’s in Orlando, a big city, so it’s likely there ARE other options nearby), but rather just looking to squeeze as much cash out of their guests as possible. They are providing a convenience, and some of their customers who, after filling up on sugar and fat-laden fast food at the area’s amusement parks, just don’t have the energy to go elsewhere, and will pay them the 3%. I’d rather have a law preventing companies from selling that poison masquerading as food than a limit on ATM fees. (now that’s a tangent).

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

In a practical sense, it seems to me that there’s something like monopoly pricing going on. If you’re in a Holiday Inn lobby, chances are you’re either 1) there overnight and don’t know the area even if you did rent a car so you don’t know where the other ATMs are, or 2) there to go into the restaurant or bar– probably the bar because you can more easily use plastic in the restaurant– and are with a group of people so you’re not going to go searching for free ATMs. Either way, there’s a time penalty to be considered too.

In both cases, the opportunity cost of trying to find an affiliated ATM (and there’s no guarantee an affiliated one won’t charge you, btw– they’ve started doing that) is very high, due to either unfamiliarity with the area or for social reasons.

There are, it seems to me, two ways to look at this. One is to say I’m paying a fee for the convenience of avoiding an unfamiliarity tax or social embarrassment. The other is to say that someone has recognized my predicament(s) and is taxing me for it. When they happen to me, I certainly feel these kinds of things are the second of these, and that “convenience fee” is an industry coinage for extracting that tax. I don’t really see much difference between this and paying extra for taking luggage on a plane. But maybe that’s just me.

Posted by Altoid | Report as abusive

this must be the top 1% of the population 3% or $3.00 and no problem; this should tell suppliers and providers that if you want to pay on-line why not add a fee; would 5% or $5.00 be accepatable to you one percenters…
greed is gold according to some of these responders…

Posted by chapapet | Report as abusive

Nah, I think you captured the gist of it well, Altoid. (Does the government regulate luggage fees?) Holiday Inn will charge you for anything and everything, much like the airlines, telephone companies, and large banks.

Still think the best solution is to modify your behavior to refuse these fees (or to fly other hotels). Enough of that and they will disappear.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

KenG_CA: I don’t want to be a pedant here, but it’s worth pointing out that you’re literally just describing how monopoly pricing works. You say Holiday Inn doesn’t care about market share, but its control over the local market is exactly why it can get away with charging 3% instead of 1.5%. Under more competitive conditions, it would make less money if it jacked up the price.

Posted by WHS | Report as abusive

WHS, I’ve never before seen the term “monopoly” applied to a business with direct (and cheaper) competitors right down the street. Being the only provider in your building is different from being the only provider in your market, even if that building is as large and unfriendly as a Holiday Inn. Try demanding a 10% surcharge and see how many people bite? There are limits to what they can charge for convenience.

Moreover, it isn’t precisely accurate to suggest that the significant competition is between the Holiday Inn ATM and the banks down the street. The Holiday Inn *itself* is in competition with other hotel chains. Surcharges like these ought to (in theory) drive customers away. If you design your business in a way that is inconvenient for your customers, and then charge them heavily for remedying that inconvenience, then your customers will leave. Right?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

WHS, if there was a bank ATM right outside the door of the Holiday Inn, I would bet people would still use the more expensive one inside it. Do they have a monopoly because they don’t let somebody else their ATM in the hotel?

By your definition of monopoly pricing, Apple is also a monopoly, because they price their products as if they don’t care about market share, and have the highest margins in their industry. Should they be regulated?

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

I’ve always thought that Holiday Inn was a sleeze outfit ever since they evicted my Wife and myself on a Christmas Eve in Portland Oregon , altho we had reservations, because we had a 2 inch pet bird with us. Very dangerous and messy you know.

Never again.

RCF

Posted by Woodstock2 | Report as abusive

ATM service is a high fixed cost / low marginal cost service, so the fact that the marginal cost of each cash withdrawal is close to $0 is rather irrelevant. There’s the need to earn a return on the fixed capital cost of the machine and the cost of the monthly phone/internet connection for the machine, plus the semi-variable cost of restocking that Ken_G mentions. The marginal cost of a transaction is near zero, but the average cost of a transaction for the owner of a machine is well above zero.

The situation is similar to airlines, where the marginal cost to the airline of putting one more passenger on a plane is close to zero. Unaffiliated ATM’s seem to have addressed pricing in a similar way to airlines, with premium pricing for convenience to certain less price-sensitive customers (those buying an airline ticket at the last minute, those using an ATM in a hotel lobby or strip club) and lower prices in other parts of the market (advance purchase airline fares, ATM’s in higher traffic locations).

I do think that setting ATM fees so high is a short-sighted decision by the owner of this Holiday Inn. If the hotel loses even a little bit of repeat business because customers use the ATM and are upset by the high fee, this lost hotel business could easily outweigh the profit from the ATM.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

A hotel or a convenience store provide this service. They have the right to charge a fee OR not charge a fee. You, as a consumer, have the right use the service or determine that it is not a fair price and not use the service. It’s pretty simple.

Posted by tougar | Report as abusive

Why isn’t anyone challenging Felix’s assertion that innovations are first found on porn sites, and where is his source? : ) That’s really the story.

Posted by jrg | Report as abusive

TFF – serious question: which banks waive foreign ATM fees? I travel a lot and that could be quite useful.

Posted by amateurediteur | Report as abusive

Is $3 fair? That would be a pretty standard fee, anyway. So take out $100 if you really have to and find another ATM a bit later.

Posted by amateurediteur | Report as abusive

amateurediteur, mine does (for long-time customers) and I’ve heard advertisements in the area for another (but forget which). Both are smaller banks, however, which is likely why they feel the need to bribe their customers in this way. My bank also belongs to a network of smaller banks which charge no ATM fees within network.

Sorry I can’t offer you a more useful answer, but if you shop around you may find one?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

That’s ridiculous! I’m from India, supposedly underbanked, primitive, backward.. The Reserve Bank of India a year or so back mandated that every bank account holder has five transactions in a month FREE. Yes, FREE. Every Month. And the icing on the cake is that the Free transactions are available on the ATM network of other banks. In the bank where one has the account, ALL transactions are free. ALL ! No limit to the number of transactions.. And any transactions in excess of five in other banks’ ATMs are charged a Flat Fee of Rs. 30/-, which works out to 60 cents per transaction or so.
3% is horrible..

Please shut your jaw..

Posted by HemantFromIndia | Report as abusive

Well, interesting that a 3% fee incurred voluntarily (which I would never pay if any other viable option was available)seems to generate more heat than a 35% income tax rate.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

Hamant – India is underbanked, primitive and backward, and price controls have a lot to do with that. Nothing to brag about.

Please be civil.

Posted by amateurediteur | Report as abusive

@amateurediteur : If being underbanked means not having to be extorted/sold crappy mortgage Ninja loans/bailing out the TBTFs, I would happily take my HDFC Bank anyday, and you can enjoy your BoA privileged services. In any case, it’s a free market. Despite the costs associated with servicing ATMs, banks are lining up to offer their services. Two years back, there were only two ATMs around a mile from my home. Today there are five within 300 metres.
Seriously speaking, Indian banking system is truly competitive domestically, and the only thing lacking is international scale of operations. Indian financial system is far more consumer oriented than western ones. I get 9% on my One Year deposits, with 0.5% extra for senior citizens.. Mutual funds investments are available on a No Entry Load. Yes ZERO Entry Load on ALL Equity Funds. I can do all these things online without stepping out. You need to update your idea about India. You don’t get 7% GDP growth without doing some things well. Consumer is truly king here. We have among the lowest telecom call rates, for instance. As low as 30 paise per minute. That would convert to something like around 167 minutes of talktime for One Dollar.. Plus number portability, i.e., I can take my cell number and move to any other operator if I don’t like the services of my present Telecom service provider. Not married to one company like Verizon without any exit…

Coming back to this post..
You might have become used to it, but to me, 3% ATM charge sounds like an abominable ripoff !

Posted by HemantFromIndia | Report as abusive

@Hermant, I’m glad that India is finally coming into the 20th century. You do realize that all of the “features” you mention are available here as well? And have been for years? Free online banking, free ATMs, mutual funds with no entry load, no-limit calling plans, number portability, etc…

Pretty much the only thing we DON’T have in the US is the high growth rate (and the high inflation and interest rates that come with it). But the biggest reason for that is the disparity in the standard of living. India has far more room to grow.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

P.S. I agree that a 3% ATM charge sounds like a ripoff. Doesn’t bother me if somebody else wants to pay it, though. Part of living in a wealthy country is that many people (most people?) have more money than they know what to do with (even if they subsequently complain that they don’t have enough). It is incredible the waste that is built into our daily habits!

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive
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