The Checkout

Archive: January 2006

Check These Out

Here are some interesting stories from the past few days: Business Class: Are Consumers Willing to Pay More for Extras? (Washington Post) Consummate Consumer: A Private Eye on the Paper Trail (Washington Post) Paying Through the Nose (Washington Post) Gift-Card Fees, Rules Draw Legislative, Consumer Attention (Marketwatch) First Years Liquid-Filled Teethers Recalled...

By Stacey Garfinkle | January 31, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

A Bitter Fee to Swallow

Let me be blunt. I hate all these extra fees added in bills these days: those daily resort fees at hotels for services that should be provided in the first place; those added extras to the phone bill which, in total, can be as much as the basic phone service costs and those car rental add-ons too aggravating to even write about! You've seen them, too. You've paid them. And I'm sure you hate them as much as I do. And just when you think you've seen them all, there's always another fee to be found. I spotted a doozy...

By | January 30, 2006; 11:00 AM ET | Comments (25)

Another Urban Legend--With a Lesson

Another urban legend hit my e-mail box this past week--and probably yours as well since I've gotten several. This one warns of a new credit card scam and, in theory, has good advice that we've heard before: Never give out any financial information to anyone who calls you unsolicited, no matter how official the person may sound or how much information he may have about you. But other than that, Visa and MasterCard officials say the story in the e-mail is not true; they know of no specific person who's been scammed according to the story outlined in the e-mail....

By | January 27, 2006; 8:00 AM ET | Comments (6)

FTC Fines ChoicePoint Over Data Breach

The Federal Trade Commission said Thursday that data warehouser ChoicePoint Inc. will pay $15 million to settle charges that its security and record-handling procedures violated consumers' privacy rights and federal laws. Read More...

By Stacey Garfinkle | January 26, 2006; 11:50 AM ET | Comments (0)

Frequent Flier Mile Hassles

Within the past week I've received three complaints about Capital One's new rewards policy for its cardholders. Two of my colleagues and a reader say the company has significantly cut their mileage benefits; the reader said his values were cut in half. Here's his complaint: "I have accumulated 180,000 points, which under my agreement was worth 2 round-trip tickets to Australia valued at 85,000 each up to a max of $1,700 each." Now, he says, "the new, improved plan" will require 340,000 points for the same tickets, or double the points he previously needed. Here's another complaint from my colleague...

By | January 26, 2006; 10:40 AM ET | Comments (41)

No Surprise Here: Identity Theft Tops FTC Complaints

Once again, identity theft tops the list as the most complained about consumer fraud, according to a just released study by the Federal Trade Commission. Of the 686,683 complaints received by the agency in 2005, 37 percent, or 255,565 were about identity theft. Last year, the agency received 246,847 identity-theft complaints, or about 38 percent of the total 653,040 complaints. Second on the list: Internet auctions, accounting for 12 percent of the complaints, followed by foreign money offers (8 percent). Internet-related complaints account for 46 percent of all fraud complaints. Particularly troubling: Internet fraud complaints with "wire transfer" as the...

By | January 25, 2006; 12:42 PM ET | Comments (3)

Free Medical Services? NO, NO, NO

Last week, it was Colorado that was issuing an alert alert about a recent scam that has hit the state and probably several others. Then, it was the state of Washington--which also warns there have been reports of the same scam in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. And now add Maryland to the list. Here's how the scam works: A telemarketer claiming to be from the state's "Department of Health" calls and offers vouchers for up to $1,000 in free medical services. The caller usually has the consumer's name, adddress, date of birth and name of the consumer's bank--making the...

By | January 25, 2006; 11:49 AM ET | Comments (7)

Will Higher Gas Prices Mean Lower Car Insurance?

If higher gasoline prices have prompted you to change your driving habits--making you use the bus or subway to commute to work or getting you to substantially reduce your driving around town--you may be able to trim your insurance rates. The Consumer Federation of America is urging consumers who drive less to contact their insurance companies; these drivers could trim their insurance cost by five to 10 percent a year. "Most insurers include miles driven and how the car is used as major factors in determining rates, so if consumers have altered their driving habits, they may qualify for immediate...

By | January 25, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Check Out Your Credit Report

It's been more than a year now since the government started rolling out a program giving consumers free annual credit reports from each of the three major credit bureaus. Residents in the West coast were the first to have access to their reports, and finally last September, East coast residents--and everyone in between--were able to check their credit history annually. The credit reports were mandated by Congress three years ago to reduce the incidence of identity theft. By checking your credit history regularly, you should be able to spot any suspicious activity, such as a new credit card account that...

By | January 24, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (8)

Help Me Help You Continued

Some of you have been posting in the comments on the previous "Help Me Help You" entry. Definitely keep them coming. And if you have stories to share and tips to pass along, please e-mail them to me at thecheckout@washpost.com. Also, here's an interesting story for the day: Retailers' Receipts Promote Feedback, Give Discounts (Arizona Republic)...

By Stacey Garfinkle | January 23, 2006; 2:30 PM ET | Comments (5)

Ameriquest Settlement

Federal and state law-enforcement officials today announced a $325 million settlement today with Ameriquest Mortgage Co., the nation's biggest home lender to people with bad credit. The settlement ends a two-year investigation by all 50 state attorneys general, banking regulators and local prosecutors into allegations that Ameriquest deceived consumers to sell mortgages, using high-presure sales tactics to meet employee sales quotas. In addition to paying $295 million in consumer redress and $30 million in legal fees, the company has agreed to change some of its business practices and accept outside monitors who will observe the company's operations to make...

By | January 23, 2006; 4:00 AM ET | Comments (46)

An Urban Myth That Will Not Die

It is the e-mail that will never die. About every two months, I get a panicked e-mail from a friend telling me that cell phone numbers are about to be released to telemarketers. Soon my cell will start ringing off the hook with unwanted solicitations on my mobile phone--and my precious limited cell phone minutes will be eaten up! The letters started reappearing in my e-mail box again recently--even though telemarketing to cell phones is prohibited by law. So let me reiterate, this is an urban myth. If you're concerned, you can always register your cell-phone number on the government's...

By | January 19, 2006; 2:30 PM ET | Comments (14)

Fisher-Price Musical Chair Recalled

Fisher-Price, in coordination with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, has recalled more than 600,000 musical chairs intended for children ages one to three. According to the CPSC news release, a child can get stuck between the back of the seat and side table of the chair. The recalled Laugh & Learn Musical Learning Chair is a plastic blue chair with four green plastic legs and a side table with a purple base and white top. It is about 17 inches high and the table holds a clock, book and lamp. The seat back features a smiley face and the...

By Stacey Garfinkle | January 18, 2006; 3:13 PM ET | Comments (2)

The Latest Salvo Against Junk Food

The campaign against junk food climbs to a new level today as two consumer activist groups--both highly critical of advertising aimed at kids--begin legal proceedings against Kellogg and Viacom, the owner of children's cable TV network Nickelodeon. The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood have sent both companies letters notifying them of the groups' intention to file suit in Massachusetts to get the companies to stop advertising junk foods on shows where 15 percent of the audience is younger than 8 years old. The letters are required under the state's consumer protection...

By | January 18, 2006; 1:10 PM ET | Comments (53)

Netflix Settlement on Hold

A proposed class-action settlement involving Netflix customers may be rewritten in response to complaints that the agreement does little for consumers while rewarding the company and the lawyers who filed the suit. A hearing over the $4 million settlement that had been scheduled in California Superior Court on Tuesday was postponed for a month while both sides review more than 50 objections to the proposed settlement. Here's the full story and a link to my earlier item on one of the objections....

By Stacey Garfinkle | January 18, 2006; 8:10 AM ET | Comments (2)

Good News About Customer Service

When most of us talk about customer service, it's usually to complain, to say how poorly we've been treated. But this tale from a reader in Ohio shows how well customer service can work. The story from LDS, as he wants to be called, also illustrates a vital lesson to consumers: It never hurts to ask for a discount. (Of course this also raises questions about medical billing practices and the discounts some insured with one particular company get while others are forced to pay full price--but we'll save that discussion for another day). So thanks to LDS for sending...

By | January 18, 2006; 7:42 AM ET | Comments (5)

Bankruptcy Confusion

The new bankruptcy law, passed just three months ago, has created a lot of confusion. Meanwhile, a lot of age-old myths about bankruptcy continue. For example, there's the perception that bankruptcy will give consumers a chance to start over with their credit. That is not necessarily the case--bankruptcy stays on a credit report for seven to 10 years--impacting a consumer's credit profile. That, in turn, can lead to higher interest rates and perhaps even some difficulties in getting a job. Another myth: All debts can be discharged in bankruptcy. The truth: Certain debts such as child support, student loans and...

By | January 17, 2006; 6:45 AM ET | Comments (5)

Pint-Sized Sodas, Big-Number Calories

Went to the movies this weekend at a Loews Cineplex theater and was delighted to see a promotion for a child's popcorn and soda. What a great idea! But wait, look at the size of that soda! That doesn' t look kid-sized to me. In fact, the cup was for 16-ounces of soda. That's 33 percent more than the 12-ounce soda that comes with McDonald's Happy Meals. To put it nutritionally, that's 150 calories and 40 grams of sugar compared to 110 calories and 29 grams of sugar. That may not sound like a big difference, but as my waistline...

By | January 16, 2006; 8:00 AM ET | Comments (3)

A Bogus E-mail Solicitation for the Sago Mine Survivor

We should all know by now. With every disaster comes a scam. So we shouldn't be surprised about this latest consumer alert involving the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia. Federal and state law enforcement officials are warning about a fake e-mail purporting to seek donations for the single survivor, Randal McCloy Jr. The e-mail claims to be from Dr. Lawrence Roberts, who is one of the main physicians in charge of McCloy. The e-mail describes McCloy's condition and seeks donations for his treatment. This e-mail is a hoax, law enforcement officials say. And there will probably be others. So...

By | January 13, 2006; 12:15 PM ET | Comments (0)

Beware of Fake Cashier Checks

A cashier's check used to be a sure thing. No longer. There's a raft of scams involving fake cashier's checks and Arizona’s Attorney General Terry Goddard has issued an alert after several of his state residents recieved bogus cashier’s checks ranging from $3,000 to $6,000. In some cases, the checks were accompanied by letters notifying recipients they had won a lottery or sweepstakes; the "winners" were supposed to deposit the checks into their accounts and then wire a lesser amount outside the country to collect their prize. In another case, the recipient sold an item over the Internet; the buyer...

By | January 13, 2006; 6:59 AM ET | Comments (12)

Most Credit Counseling Firms Lose Tax Exempt Status

Two years of audits into credit-counseling organizations led to revocations of the tax-exempt status of more than 30 groups. The audits were prompted by hundreds of consumer complaints of deceptive business practices, including high fees, high-pressure tactics and inadequate educational services. For more information, read today's story...

By Stacey Garfinkle | January 13, 2006; 6:55 AM ET | Comments (1)

How Did Your Online Shopping Experience Rate?

If you shopped online over the holidays and had a good experience at Netflix, Amazon, LL Bean and QVC, you were not alone. These were the top scoring online retailers in a customer satisfaction survey by ForeSee Results, a Website satisfaction survey development company. But ForeSee noted that customers were not as satisfied with these retailers as they had been just a few months earlier, a sign that consumer's expections were not met during the holidays. In fact, only one online retailer, Buy.com, posted a gain in customer satisfaction since the spring, ForeSee said. (Click here to register with Foresee...

By | January 12, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (8)

Test Your ID Theft Smarts

Your identity has been stolen--what should you do? If the stolen information includes your driver's license or other government-issued ID, all you need to do is create a facsimile using a recent color photo. True or False? If someone has stolen information about your financial accounts, it's best to wait several weeks to see what they do with it before taking action. True or False? One of the best ways to protect your identity is using online passwords only you would know like your mother's maiden name or the last four digits of your Social Secuirty number. True or False....

By | January 11, 2006; 8:55 AM ET | Comments (6)

Limited Warranties--Really, Truly

In case you missed this news item that my colleague, Jeff Turrentine, wrote in the last week's Home section, check out the latest news on appliance manufacturers. What Turrentine noted is that major appliance manufacturers have quietly started trimming their warranty programs on refrigerators, dishwashers, dryers, etc. Instead of offering the traditional two-to-five year coverage for parts and labor, some companies will start offering only one-year warranties. So, if you're in the market for a major appliance anytime soon, make sure you know the product's warranty details. If it's really short, it may finally be time to consider buying an...

By | January 11, 2006; 7:30 AM ET | Comments (0)

Vitamins and Organic Food

Be wary of super cheap multivitamins that are for sale in dollar stores and other super discounters. That's the conclusion of the latest Consumer Reports after the magazine tested 18 multivitamin brands from such stores as The Dollar Store, Family Dollar and Big Lots. The magazine tested for vitamin/mineral content and dissolvability to determine if the pills break down fast enough to be absorbed. Its results: Nearly half of the 18 tested brands failed to contain the labeled amount of at least one nutrient and several did not dissolve adequately. Over the years, the magazine has tested major multivitamin brands...

By | January 10, 2006; 9:30 AM ET | Comments (13)

AmeriDebt Founder Settles Deception Charges

Andris Pukke, who was once called the "poster child" for bad credit counseling, has settled two lawsuits that accused him and his firms, AmeriDebt and DebtWorks, with deceiving financially strapped consumers into paying high fees and then using that money for expensive homes, vacations and cars. (Read the full story) The settlement calls for Pukke's assets, including his multimillion dollar homes in California and Florida, to be sold and up to $35 million be placed in a special fund to be refunded to the 300,000 former AmeriDebt customers. The settlement of the two cases--one by the Federal Trade Commission, the...

By | January 10, 2006; 8:00 AM ET | Comments (1)

Help Me Help You

One primary goal of this blog is to provide you information that will save you, the consumer, from scams. Two stories have run in the past two days that are must-reads. What others have you seen? Please post them in the comments area. I'll put this item in the categories box on the side of the blog so that you can add to it over time and will post similar call-outs as a reminder regularly. Online Orders Never Arrived From Amazon Seller (Seattle Times) Double Trouble: Beware Phone Bills That Charge You Twice (Washington Post)...

By | January 9, 2006; 12:51 PM ET | Comments (14)

Netflix Settlement Falls Under Attack

The national public interest law firm Trial Lawyers for Public Justice has long been taking aim at what it considers unfair class-action settlements, filing objections to the settlements it believes offer lots of money to the plaintiff attorneys but very liittle--usually coupons with relatively small monetary value--to consumers. The group's latest target is a proposed class-action settlement involving Netflix customers. The law firm Trial Lawyers for Public Justice has posted this graphical representation of the Netflix settlement on its Web site. The national class-action lawsuit, filed in September 2004, alleged that Netflix misled consumers by failing to deliver DVDs as...

By | January 9, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (16)

The Story on Store Credit Cards

Reader Marc R. from McLean warns shoppers to be leery of the store promotions that offer an immediate 10 percent discount to shoppers who sign up for a store credit card on the spot. Looking for savings, Marc naturally took advantage of such an offer from Macy's. But a few weeks later, he was surprised when he received a store-branded Visa card--not a private-label card that could only be used at the store--with a $10,000 line of credit. Since he had more credit cards than he needed, including one from Visa, he called to cancel and get what he wanted...

By | January 6, 2006; 8:00 AM ET | Comments (14)

Good and Bad One-Stop Service

Recently, a water bottle leaked all over my gear and I didn't realize until too late that my cell phone was soaked and totally kaput. So it was off to the cell phone store—where I got hit with the reality of customer service-both good and bad. I had to first visit the technical support desk where a clerk kindly let me know that my phone was beyond repair. So I had to wait (of course!) for the next sales agent who checked my account and told me I could only buy a new phone at full price because my contract...

By | January 5, 2006; 9:29 AM ET | Comments (37)

Olestra Attack

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken the first step in a legal battle against Frito-Lay, accusing the company of deceptively marketing its "light" potato chips. The consumer advocacy group says the chips are made with Olestra, a controversial fat substitute that causes diarrhea, stomach cramps and other unappetizing symptoms. Since 1998, when Frito-Lay first introduced Olestra to its chip lines (which were first labeled WOW!, then renamed to light in 2004), CSPI has been loudly warning consumers about the potential side effects of Olestra. Initially, the Food and Drug Administration required food makers to post warning...

By | January 4, 2006; 2:45 PM ET | Comments (15)

Meet Consumer Champion #1

Boston software entrepreneur Paul English is my kind of hero. And he'll probably be yours as well--as soon as you discover his Web site which helps consumers avoid voice-mail hell. His handy list gives directions on how to quickly find a real live person when calling a company--without having to punch in your account number, Zip code, etc. Need to talk to someone about your Citicard? Just dial the listed number and then punch 0 repeatedly. If it's someone at JC Penney, dial the 800 number, then press zero twice and ignore the error message. English said he launched...

By | January 4, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (4)

Coming Soon to a Grocery Store Near You

More organic choices started showing up in the supermarket aisles in 20055, including products from such mainstream brands as Ragu, Orville Redenbacher and Ocean Spray. That trend will continue in 2006 along with more whole grains in soups, pretzels and even cakes! Expect lots more dark chocolate products as well. (YEAH!) And yes, there'll even be more organic chocolate. Also showing up: More details on food labels, as new federal rules are requiring food makers to start posting the amount of trans fat on their products. Food companies also must specify if any of their products contain one of eight...

By | January 4, 2006; 9:50 AM ET | Comments (1)

Feeling Blue about Flyi

Anyone who ever flew on Flyi has got to be feeling down about the airline's demise. It's not just the low fares that made it attractive--but also the customer-service attitude--one that showed the airline cared and had a sense of humor to boot. And anyone who still has tickets on Flyi has got to be feeling even bluer than the airline's bold blue colors. Because it's unclear whether they will get their fares refunded. Oh, yes, under federal law, other airlines are required to honor tickets from a bankrupt airline--but passengers must fly standby and pay a $50 fee each...

By | January 3, 2006; 11:43 AM ET | Comments (6)

Ticket Buyers Beware

I went to order movie tickets online the other day--and almost fell for one of those promotional offers that would have cost me a lot of money, far more than the $10 discount I thought I was getting on my next ticket purchase. So this is a ticket-buyer beware notice: Be careful on what you click! The promotion was on Fandango. Who wouldn't want to save $10? Of course, I clicked yes. It was only when I was finalizing my ticket purchase that I learned the $10 coupon came with strings--costly ones. By accepting the coupon, I would be...

By | January 3, 2006; 10:30 AM ET | Comments (1)

Welcome to The Checkout

Welcome to The Checkout, washingtonpost.com's new consumer blog. I'm Caroline Mayer, your Checkout attendant. I'm also known as The Post's consumer reporter. (Click here to read my recent stories) I've been reporting on consumer issues almost my entire career, covering all sorts of subjects, including transportation, telecommunications, advertising, marketing (especially products to kids), product safety, food, real estate, credit and bankruptcy. I love it -- and hate it. I love it because it's great to help people, whether by giving advice or uncovering pernicious scams. I hate it because the scams are never-ending and too many people are getting...

By | January 2, 2006; 4:00 PM ET | Comments (33)

 

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