The Checkout

Archive: February 2006

Some Surprising Findings About Identity Theft

True or False? Internet use increases the risk of identity theft. True or False? Consumers bear the brunt of financial losses from ID fraud. True or False? Seniors are the most frequent target of ID fraudsters. All are false, according to a recent survey by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy and Research, a consulting firm for the financial services industry. The survey of 5,000 Americans is full of a number of surprising findings that challenge many of the assumptions we all have about identity theft. First off, most of the compromised data is not taken through the Internet....

By | February 28, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Paying Taxes with Plastic May Not Be Rewarding

This tax season, credit-card issuers want to make it rewarding for people to pay their taxes by just saying "charge it." Many are offering extra miles or cash back rewards for every tax dollar paid by plastic. This may sound tempting, but IndexCreditCards.com--a Web site that offers credit card news and information-- says don't do it. The reason: Unlike stores, which usually pay the 2-3% transaction fee on every purchase made with plastic, the IRS doesn't absorb that cost. You do--and that could cost way more than any rewards you may receive. IndexCreditCards.com does the math: Say you owe $4,000...

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

Lead in Lunchboxes Update

The Center for Environmental Health is continuing to post victories in its battle to eliminate lead in children's products, especially lunchboxes. Last week, the California public-interest group announced it had reached an agreement with InGEAR, the nation's third-leading lunchbox and cooler manufacturer. InGEAR has agreed to set a strict standard for reducing lead in all of its vinyl lunchboxes and coolers to below 200 parts-per-million (ppm). It also agreed to stop using polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl) plastic in the interior of lunchboxes since PVC often contains high lead levels. InGEAR, which sells its lunchboxes at Kmart, WalMart, Sears and...

By | February 24, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Social Security Scam

You know the saying: There's a sucker born every minute. Well, there certainly seems to be an e-mail scam born every minute as well. Here's the latest scam, disclosed by the Social Security Administration: E-mails that appear to come from the agency are sent to "Dear Social Security Number and Card Owner" with the message, "someone illegally is using your Social Security number and assuming your identity." Readers are directed to a Web site that looks like Social Security's. E-mail recipients are then asked to confirm their identities by entering their Social Security numbers and bank information. Credit card data,...

By | February 23, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (8)

Why Do Automakers Make Life So Difficult?

It should have been so simple to fix. At least that's what I thought when the light bulb to my rear turn signal stopped working. But alas, it wasn't. I've got a VW Beetle convertible (yes I know, it's not a car known for its reliability but it's cute--and if you know me, you'd know it is just my size; I'm only five feet). There didn't seem to be any way to get to the bulb to change it--not even by going through the cramped trunk. I checked my owner's manual and sure enough--here's what it says: "It is becoming...

By | February 22, 2006; 8:50 AM ET | Comments (26)

E-Tailers Beat Bricks and Mortar in Customer Satisfaction

When it comes to customer satisfaction, online retailers beat the traditional brick-and-mortar stores, hands-down. In fact, customer satisfaction with e-tailers is nearly 12 percent higher than the overall retail industry. That's just one of the many findings being released today by University of Michigan business school in its latest quarterly study of how thousands of customers rank their experiences with about 200 companies. Every quarter, the American Customer Satisfaction Index focuses on different segments of the economy. This quarter it's retailers, finance and insurance and e-commerce. Here are some of the key findings: By far the sector with the greatest...

By | February 21, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (5)

Catching Up

In case any of you missed a couple of important stories done by my colleagues, here are two stories you may want to check out. Did you know that the red meat you reach for in ther supermarket may have been spiked with carbon monoxide to make it look more appealing? Rick Weiss explored the controversy in Monday's paper. Did you also know that some car rental companies are adding one more fee to their already long list of extra charges? Keith Alexander in his "Business Class" column notes that Budget Rent a Car is imposing an additional $9.50 charge...

By | February 21, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Gift Cards Update

Gift card issuers that do not clearly and conspicuously disclose fees or expiration dates may be engaged in deceptive marketing, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission has told Congress. Read More...

By Stacey Garfinkle | February 18, 2006; 2:30 PM ET | Comments (0)

Bank Gift Cards Come Wrapped With Limits

Visa likes to say that "finding the perfect gift just got easier" with its gift card. But recipients of those cards -- or similar ones issued by MasterCard or American Express -- are discovering that using them presents unexpected difficulties. Read More For more tips on buying gift cards, check out the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Alert. I'll be live at 1 p.m. today to chat about this, problem packaging, identity theft insurance and other consumer topics....

By Stacey Garfinkle | February 17, 2006; 7:26 AM ET | Comments (4)

Check These Stories Out

The Post ran two consumer stories today that you shouldn't miss. First, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is voting today on a rule that would restrict consumers from seeking damages under state laws governing faulty products in the case of mattresses that catch fire, the most recent rule changes undertaken by several agencies. Second, the federal government yesterday issued an official definition of whole-grain foods. The long-awaited nutritional guidance is designed to help consumers sort through a confusing -- and sometimes misleading -- array of foods that purport to contain whole grains but often do not. 2 p.m. Update: Also...

By Stacey Garfinkle | February 16, 2006; 2:00 PM ET | Comments (2)

Do You Need ID Theft Insurance?

It's not surprising that the increase in identity theft has also given a boost to identity-theft insurance. After all, it can be very expensive and extremely time-consuming to restore your good name and credit once your personal information has been used by another person to commit fraud. But is identity-theft insurance a good deal? The National Association of Insurance Commissioners raises some key questions you should ask--and, of course, answer--before signing up for a policy that typically costs between $25 and $50 a year. The association of state insurance regulatory officials notes that ID theft insurance doesn't protect you from...

By | February 16, 2006; 9:50 AM ET | Comments (24)

A First to the Government for its New Web Site

You know the old saying: Never believe someone who says he/she is from the government and here to help. Well we may all have to revise that point of view, thanks to the federal government's new search engine. FirstGov.gov really does help. It's an incredibly easy-to-use and helpful Web site that can direct you to the appropriate agency to file complaints, obtain a form, get some sort of arcane statistic or consumer advice. It connects you to federal and state government sites. There is so much information on it, you could spend hours researching questions you never even thought you...

By | February 15, 2006; 7:51 AM ET | Comments (0)

Opting Out of Unsolicited Credit Card Offers

Stuck at home in the snow on Sunday, I decided to follow my own advice and check out one of my credit reports. I followed the normal process, visiting the Web site where people can get a free report from each of the three major credit bureaus annually. All went smoothly and, fortunately, there were no unpleasant surprises. However, I have to admit that each time I download one of my credit reports, I'm always stunned by how many companies have contacted a credit bureau seeking information about me--"prescreening" my credit history to see if I qualify for a new...

By | February 14, 2006; 5:48 AM ET | Comments (0)

Apple Sued Over iPod Nano

Apple Computer has been sued in California by a consumer watchdog group that claims the company's popular iPod Nano's screen scratches so badly that it becomes unreadable. The group, the Foundation for the Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, also says Apple is refusing to give refunds, and is forcing consumers to pay a $25 fee to get a replacement that should be free under Apple's warranty. Apple spokesman Steve Dowling declined to respond to the San Francisco Chronicle, saying the company doesn't comment on pending litigation. Read the full story....

By Stacey Garfinkle | February 13, 2006; 12:50 PM ET | Comments (33)

Problem Packaging Part Two

I have received so many e-mails about the problem packaging item I wrote last week that I clearly struck a nerve (only figuratively, I hope). I want to share many of these comments, so I will post them below. But first, I also want to thank the reader who thoughtfully posted a news story about Netflix to my entry last Friday about electronic e-mails. The news story points out Netflix's definition of a good customer isn't necessarily a consumer's definition. In other words, the more DVDs you rent from Netflix a month, the lower you go on the company's priority...

By | February 13, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

You Can Always Send Me Flowers Or Chocolate

Beware of electronic valentines. It's certainly tempting to open any e-mails from any "secret admirer," but cybersecurity officials are warning that these messages may be anything but love notes. Instead, they could contain a nasty surprise from a cyber scam artist--an e-mail virus or spyware that can capture enough vital information to gain access to your financial accounts. Cyber scamsters will prey on your curiosity, so there definitely will be some attempts to take advantage of Valentine's Day, said Purdue University's chief information security office Michael Carr. "It's human nature and exactly what the bad guy is counting on." So...

By | February 10, 2006; 7:38 AM ET | Comments (0)

Consumer Champion #1 Launches New Web Site

A month ago, I named Boston software entrepreneur Paul English as Consumer Champion #1. The reason: On his own, he developed a "cheat sheet" to help consumers avoid voice-mail hell after he got fed up trying to find live customer service agents at several different companies. Well, his cheat sheet was so successful -- it got more than 1 million hits in January -- that his server kept crashing. So he had to close down his site. But the good news is that with the help of 16 volunteers, he has just opened a new Web site, running on five...

By | February 9, 2006; 10:51 AM ET | Comments (0)

Two Important Recalls

The Consumer Product Safety Commission today announced two very important recalls, one involving 5.6 million fans that are fire hazards; the other a crib that resulted in the death of a 19-month-old baby. The Aspen 3 in 1 crib (which bears a Graco logo) was recalled by the CPSC in December 2005. At that time, the company had reported 14 reports of problems, after the wooden mattress supports came loose. That allowed a portion of the mattress to fall, posing a suffocation hazard to infants who can slide down and become entrapped between the unsupported mattress and the end of...

By | February 8, 2006; 3:06 PM ET | Comments (0)

When Is a Sale Not a Sale?

Okay, will someone please explain to me the ads the promote a one-day sale, when the sale is really two days--or more? Take Macy's ad for its "ONE DAY SALE" today. "Savings and Values Storewide 25%-80% Off on Thousands of Items Throughout the Store." But wait, the sale actually started yesterday. Of course, yesterday's sale was a "preview day" so maybe it didn't really count as part of the "one-day sale"--even though the store opens early on both days and the sale prices are good for both days. I know, I shouldn't complain when stores are willing to run discounts...

By | February 8, 2006; 8:53 AM ET | Comments (0)

Did You Use a Bank Gift Card?

I'd like to hear about your gift card experiences, especially about the bank gift cards (from Visa, MasterCard and American Express). Please e-mail me at thecheckout@washpost.com to tell me about your experiences, good or bad. Thanks....

By | February 7, 2006; 1:30 PM ET | Comments (0)

Problem Packaging

So how many scars do you have from opening up those hard plastic shells that seem to surround almost everything we buy these days, whether it's toothbrushes, electronic gear or toys? I've got quite a few. I've also had my share of messes when I've tried to open some of those cereal and chips bags as well. Well, the latest issue of Consumer Reports is handing out "Oyster Awards" for America's hardest-to open packages. (Consumer Reports requires payment to read this.) The winner is the hard-plastic clamshell around Uniden's digital cordless phone set. It took 9 minutes, 22 seconds to...

By | February 7, 2006; 9:20 AM ET | Comments (18)

Should the 30-Year-Old Guidelines Governing Kids Marketing Be Revised?

How vigorous should the advertising industry be in policing itself, particularly when it comes to promotions aimed at children? That's the question that will be at the heart of the debate soon to be underway by a new task force just named to review the industry's 30-year-old self-regulatory guidelines on children's advertising. To lead the review, the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) has tapped a longtime Washingtonian attorney, Joan Z. (Jodie) Bernstein, who headed the Federal Trade Commission's consumer protection division during the Clinton administration. The broad review comes two months after a prestigious national science panel called on the...

By | February 6, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Beware of Enticing Offers to Fix Your Credit Report

"The credit you always dreamed of." "If we fail to remove any negative credit from your reports, we'll give you a refund plus $100." "80 percent of the derogatory information is deleted off your credit report within...three months." The offers to repair a person' credit are tempting--so much so that 2 million Americans fall for them every year. And they shouldn't. Year after year, law enforcement officials warn consumers to steer clear of credit-repair shops that promise to remove negative information from credit reports, even accurate information. And they did so again yesterday as federal and state officials announced a...

By | February 3, 2006; 8:40 AM ET | Comments (0)

Now's Your Chance to Sound Off on Air Fare Pricing

Ever tempted to buy those low $89 fares to California, Vegas or Florida, only to book the ticket and discover that the fare is significantly more thanks to all the added government fees and taxes? Well those extra fees could get worse if the Department of Transportation grants an industry request for a separate fuel surcharge. Such an extra fee is now barred by current rules, which were adopted 21 years ago. DOT is seeking comment on whether it should amend its airline advertising policy. It wants to know if it should: 1. Keep the rules as they are, letting...

By | February 2, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

An Unsettling Subscriber Glitch

A scary slip-up indeed. The Boston Globe today sent a message to its subscribers about what it calls "an unfortunate event" that happened over the weekend. The event: Confidential credit and bank account information of Globe and Telegram & Gazette (of Worcester, Mass.) was inadvertently disclosed on the back of slips used to label bundles of the Sunday Telegram. The records of about 240,000 customers may have been released. The Globe said it was notifying the four major credit card companies, contacting the banks of its subscribers and mailing notices to affected customers. Meanwhile, it warned its readers to monitor...

By | February 1, 2006; 1:06 PM ET | Comments (0)

Leading the Fight Against Lead

The California public-interest group, the Center for Environmental Health, has been on a mission for the past three years: to get rid of lead in products made for children. Slowly but steadily, the group is succeeding. Last week, the center announced a settlement with 71 major retailers--including Target, Kmart, Macy's, Nordstroms, Claires, Sears, Toys R Us and Disney--that will result in the reformulation of children's jewelry to reduce lead to trace amounts. The settlement does not include the nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, and it is only binding in California. But the center said it expects most, if not all, the...

By | February 1, 2006; 10:15 AM ET | Comments (0)

 

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