Like the errant spy satellite zapped from the sky, defense contractor Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC) may find itself in a similar situation.

The Northrop Grumman management, board of directors, and 401(k) investment committee have been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed on behalf of current and former employees. The plaintiffs are alleging that Northrop's 401(k) plan charged excessive fees and offered inappropriate investment choices. Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT), Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT), and Boeing (NYSE: BA) are among other Fortune 500 companies facing similar litigation.

These stories are about much more than just what mutual funds will show up on your retirement plan menu. The common thread in all of these lawsuits is the pricing strategy of the 401(k) industry, with many plan providers seeking profits at the expense of participants.

In many cases, employees are saddled with high annual costs which are not only hidden from them but incurred without any benefit to them or their beneficiaries. The practice of revenue sharing among plan providers and employer-sponsors has been referred to as financial subterfuge by at least one analyst, allowing the industry to camouflage costs.

The lawsuits are similar, but each has its own quirks. For instance, according to the lawsuit against Northrop Grumman, employees were charged active management fees for funds that actually sought only to match broad market indices. These so-called "shadow index" funds are far more costly than actual index funds.

It may be old news that 401(k) fees are high. Just don't forget that whether the market goes up or down, you're the one who gets stuck with the bill.

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Fool contributor Buz Livingston, CFP, lives in sunny Florida and appreciates your feedback. He owns none of the stocks mentioned in this story, and his company has a low-cost 401(k) plan.