The Checkout

Archive: March 2006

Major Toy Recall of Magnetix

The Consumer Product Safety Commission today announced a major recall of all Magnetix magnetic building sets because the tiny magnets inside the plastic building pieces and rods can fall out and be VERY hazardous, especially to young children who like to swallow small parts. If more than one magnet is swallowed, the magnets can attract to each other and cause intestinal perforation or blockage, which can be fatal. The agency said it knows of 34 incidents involving the small magnets, including one death and four serious injuiries. A 20-month-old boy died after he swallowed magnets that twisted his small intestine...

By | March 31, 2006; 11:09 AM ET | Comments (36)

A Traveling Tip for Credit Card Users

If you're traveling abroad this spring or summer, you should think about the credit card you plan to use. Almost all charge fees for overseas credit card purchases, but these international transaction fees vary widely among credit-card issuers, according to a recent survey by IndexCreditCards.com http://www.indexcreditcards.com, an online clearinghouse of credit-card data. The Web site says Visa and MasterCard charge a 1% processing fee on international transactions and most card-issuing banks add their own fees on top of that. But some don't. IndexCreditCards says Capital One imposes no fee -- and also eats up the 1% Visa or MasterCard fee....

By | March 30, 2006; 7:01 AM ET | Comments (18)

Slamming, Spamming, Phishing, and Now Spoofing

For those of you who live and die by caller ID--answering only the numbers or names you recognize--be forewarned: That number or name on the machine may be fake. State and federal government officials are starting to investigate a practice called "spoofing" that allows callers to conceal their identity over the phone. Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist has launched a probe into spoofing, sending out three investigative subpoenas to get information about some of the Web sites that sell spoofing services. Here's what some of the Web sites say: "Log in at Tricktel and make 100 percent anonymous prank calls."...

By | March 29, 2006; 8:31 AM ET | Comments (22)

Attention Car Shoppers

When it comes to buying a car, Edmunds.com is a popular Web site to get the process started. There are car reviews, up-to-date price information (for both the car you want to buy and the one you're trying to sell), current deals and even price quotes from local dealers. There's also a lot of advice, including two 10-step programs: one for buying a car, the other for selling. And if you have the time, you should make sure you read the long tale by one of its reporters who went undercover to work in two car dealerships, one a high-pressure...

By | March 28, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (2)

In Case You Missed It

My colleague Don Oldenburg wrote a terrific piece over the weekend on cars that were flooded in last year's hurricanes hitting the secondhand market. Before you buy a used car, be sure to read this....

By | March 27, 2006; 2:31 PM ET | Comments (0)

The 411 on 411

Dialing 411 to get information, especially long-distance numbers, is no cheap thrill these days. Over the years, the system has become more automated--and expensive. It now costs $2.49 per non-local query for AT&T and Sprint customers, $3.49 for Verizon (which now includes former MCI customers). In 1996, that charge was 95 cents, according to the Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), which monitors long-distance calling charges. However, there are some free alternatives you may want to consider. First, there are a variety of helpful sites on the Web, including AT&T's anywho.com, switchboard.com, and Verizon's Superpages. But these are only helpful...

By | March 27, 2006; 7:45 AM ET | Comments (0)

SEC Targets Free Lunch Scams

Here's some more consumer news, from Laurence Arnold and Elizabeth Hester of Bloomberg News: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is cracking down on hard-sell investment seminars that seek to lure senior citizens with the promise of a free lunch. SEC Chairman Christopher Cox said the agency is scrutinizing brokers and advisers who conduct meetings over free meals at "fancy hotels and restaurants." The effort will begin in Florida in the coming weeks, Cox said today at a conference in Washington hosted by the Consumer Federation of America. "If we find that instead of a legitimate sales seminar and a...

By | March 24, 2006; 3:37 PM ET | Comments (2)

The Latest Bankruptcy Stats

This just in: Bankruptcy filings in 2005 hit record highs, with nearly 2.1 million filings for debt protection, up 30 percent from 2004. This is really no surprise. After all, a new bankruptcy law took effect in mid-October making it harder for consumers to completely wipe out their debts. As a result there was a last minute surge of bankruptcy petitions in October; more than 630,00 petitions were filed that month, nearly a third of the entire year's total. For more details and numbers, visit the Web site full of bankruptcy statistics from the U.S. Courts....

By | March 24, 2006; 12:31 PM ET | Comments (3)

Update on Bracelet Recall

Yesterday's recall of 300,000 charm bracelets by Reebok, after the lead-poisoning death of a 4-year-old, was one of three recalls announced Thursday by the Consumer Product Safety Commission that involved metal jewelry because of lead poisoning risks. Over the past three years, the CPSC has announced 13 recalls of metal jewelry, involving 162 million pieces. And more are likely as the agency continues to enforce its voluntary guidelines, issued a year ago, limiting lead in children's jewelry to no more than 600 parts per million in any component. "This isn't the last lead jewelry recall you will see," said CPSC...

By | March 24, 2006; 12:03 PM ET | Comments (10)

Child's Death Prompts Recall

Reebok is recalling about 300,000 heart-shaped charm bracelets after a 4-year-old died from lead poisoning after swallowing a piece of the jewelry, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported in a news release today. The news release also has a photo of the bracelet. Here's an AP story on the recall as well. And check back tomorrow, when I'll have a fuller story and more information....

By | March 23, 2006; 1:19 PM ET | Comments (5)

A Personal Way to Fight Global Warming?

Performance reviews. Reliability ratings. Government crash and rollover test findings. Fuel-mileage data. Car shoppers sort through all sorts of information before they make the big leap. Now, Resources For the Future suggests buyers also should consider carbon-dioxide emissions. Katherine N. Probst, a senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, has devised an easy-to-read window label so shoppers can easily determine if that car they want is a big polluter. The colorful labels would help consumers make the link between fuel economy and global warming, Probst said. So a blue "Best" label would go to the Chevrolet Malibu, Dodge...

By | March 23, 2006; 12:00 PM ET | Comments (7)

Netflix Settlement Update

This is just in from Michale Liedtke, AP's business writer who attended today's San Francisco court hearing on the proposed Netflix settlement: "A judge on Wednesday delayed approval of a proposed class-action settlement that would require Netflix Inc. to offer a free month of DVD rentals to resolve a lawsuit that prompted the popular online service to acknowledge it gives preferential treatment to its most profitable customers. "San Francisco Superior Court Judge Thomas Mellon Jr. indicated he needed more time to figure out how much he will reduce the fees of two San Francisco lawyers representing the interests of...

By | March 22, 2006; 9:18 PM ET | Comments (1)

A New Netflix Settlement

A proposed class-action settlement involving Netflix customers has been rewritten to address complaints that the agreement did little for consumers while rewarding the company and lawyers who filed the suit. The new version of the settlement, which is scheduled to be reviewed by a California Superior Court judge at a hearing today, still gives the plaintiff's' attorneys more than $2 million. However the chief complaint about the previous settlement -- that it would have resulted in Netflix customers paying higher monthy fees -- has been resolved. As a result, most objections to the settlement have been dropped, including those filed...

By | March 22, 2006; 11:09 AM ET | Comments (4)

States Halt Time's Automatic Subscription Renewals

Time after time, I've gotten complaints from readers who said they were billed for subscription renewals they didn't order. And many of the complaints were about Time Inc., which owns Time, Sports Illustrated, People, Fortune and a raft of other magazines. Yesterday, 23 of the nation's attorneys general cracked down on these automatic renewals. Time will pay $4.3 million to consumers and another $4.5 million to cover the costs of the investigation. More than 100,000 consumers -- about 3,400 in Maryland and 4,400 in Virginia--will be eligible for refunds on subscriptions that were automatically renewed between January 1998 and May...

By | March 22, 2006; 10:49 AM ET | Comments (0)

Extra Airline Fees Take Off

In one of my very first postings on this blog, I included a prediction by airline expert Terry Trippler: Just as we now pay extra for services that were once free (gift-wrapped purchases, furniture delivery, gas pumped by an attendant), Tripper said we will soon be paying added fees for what we now consider part of the standard air fare. Among other things, Trippler said airlines would start charging extra for advanced seat assignments, especially desirable ones that have more room, such as aisle seats on an emergency row or bulkhead. Well, it's less than three months later and Trippler's...

By | March 21, 2006; 11:54 AM ET | Comments (16)

The Growing Baby Video Market

How young is too young to watch TV? Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children under 2 should not watch TV, there's a growing baby-video business. Baby Einstein, for instance, sold $200 million of baby-media products last year. And next month Sesame Street is launching a new DVD series for babies and toddlers, the first time the reknowned children's media firm has targeted its marketing efforts on children under 2. The companies say the products are all educational, but many psyschologists and pediatricians, including T. Berry Brazelton, say there's no evidence these are good for babies; in fact,...

By | March 21, 2006; 10:14 AM ET | Comments (1)

Geico's Risk Criteria Challenged

Auto insurer Geico uses drivers' levels of education and occupations in setting insurance rates, according to an internal company memo cited by both the Consumer Federation of America and a competitor. As a result, CFA argued, blue-collar workers with relatively low levels of education sometimes are charged almost twice as much as better-educated professionals, based on those criteria. "No single criterion is ever used to determine a customer's rate," Geico said in a statement late yesterday. "Persons of all educational levels and occupations are offered insurance at our best rate based on a variety of criteria. Income or race based...

By Stacey Garfinkle | March 21, 2006; 8:56 AM ET | Comments (16)

Disaster Marketing

I received an interesting solicitation this week from my mortgage company, making it clear that there are a lot of companies still trying to take advantage of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The solicitation was for Disaster Mortgage Protection in case my home was ever devastated by fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, etc. etc. For $25.96 a month, this insurance would pay my monthly mortgage payment for up to 2 years if a disaster forced me from my house for more than 48 hours. It also would help pay the balance of my mortgage if my home is completely uninhabitable (up...

By | March 20, 2006; 11:29 AM ET | Comments (0)

How To Stop Having Your Credit Data Shared

Last week, I highlighted a column by Ken Harney in which he uncovered a practice by some lenders and credit bureaus that lets them share your private information without you knowing about it. As he explained it: If you apply for a loan, you may suddenly start receiving offers from competing lenders because they (or firms acting on their behalf) have paid the credit bureaus for a special alert when consumers apply for a mortgage. I've learned more about the practice since then because many of you asked how you could make sure your data isn't shared. First, I learned...

By | March 17, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (2)

A Movable Shredding Party

If you're concerned about identity theft and shredder safety (see my earlier story), then consider the free community-shredding taking place this Saturday at 1100 H St NW (in the parking lot where the old Convention Center used to be). Shred-It trucks will be accepting documents for shredding from 8 a.m. to noon. The event is being co-hosted by Mercantile Potomac Bank. I wonder if these shredding events will become the urban, 21st century equivalent to barn raisings....

By | March 16, 2006; 2:15 PM ET | Comments (0)

A Free Consumer Guide That's Good and True!

Need to know your liability if your debit card is stolen? (Answer: $50--but only if you report the loss promptly. It can be much greater if you don't.) Or how much an airline will pay you if your luggage is lost? (The maximum is $1,250 per passenger). These answers plus tons more very useful consumer information is contained in the government's 2006 Consumer Action Handbook. Only 158 pages, it's full of tips and lists of who to contact at companies, trade associations, federal agencies, state and local agencies and consumer groups. This handbook is issued annually and this year's is...

By | March 16, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (4)

Don't Miss This

My colleague, Brooke Masters, has posted a story you shouldn't miss: H&R Block, the nation's largest tax preparation service, defrauded hundreds of thousands of customers by encouraging them to invest their tax refunds in individual retirement accounts without disclosing that high fees meant most small investors would lose money, New York Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer alleged in a civil lawsuit Wednesday. H&R Block denied the charges, saying it has helped 590,000 clients begin saving for their future. The company said that 78 percent of its customers ended up ahead, once the tax savings involved in opening an IRA are...

By | March 15, 2006; 4:50 PM ET | Comments (7)

Credit Score Confusion

You can't get a loan today without a credit score -- a three-digit number that's based on your payment history, outstanding debt and the number and type of accounts. Most lenders use the FICO credit score, developed by Fair Isaac Corp. 17 years ago. But now, the nation's three largest credit bureaus have developed a competing system, which they say will make it easier for lenders to determine a consumer's credit risk. It also will reduce the large score variations that are common among the three bureaus: Equifax Inc., Experian and TransUnion. The three credit bureaus insist the new scoring...

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

Believe Your E-mail ... Or Not

How's this for a scary e-mail? My podmate received it recently from her wonderful mother-in-law, who likes to warn her family about all sorts of catastrophes "just in case." (Consider the warning she received just before a beach trip: Don't approach baby seals because they can grab you by the arm and crush you to death. And they weren't even going to a beach with seals!) Here's the latest "just in case" alert sent by the well-meaning mother-in-law: "Never, ever answer a cell phone while it is being CHARGED!! A few days ago, a person was recharging his cell phone...

By | March 14, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (23)

No-Show Fees

A colleague recently complained when she was charged $35 for missing her hair appointment. As she explained it, there had been a mix-up in appointment times, and after she realized she missed hers, she called to see if she could come in later that same day to get her hair cut. It was then that she learned that she had already been charged (her credit card number was on file from previous visits) and would still have to pay for her missed appointment, even if she came later that day for a cut that would cost an additional $35. I'm...

By | March 13, 2006; 7:50 AM ET | Comments (55)

When Free Shipping May Not Be Free

Anyone obsessed with shoes (and that's almost every woman I know) says there are two sure places to find and buy shoes: Nordstrom, of course, and Zappos, an online Web site with a huge selection and promises of free shipping and returns. It was that free-shipping promise that prompted me to turn to Zappos after a disappointing outing at Nordstrom. First I encountered a couple of rude clerks (at Nordstrom!?); then I learned the store didn't have the right size in stock. A clerk finally found the right size at another store but said it would cost me $5 to...

By | March 10, 2006; 7:01 AM ET | Comments (0)

Shredders Put Kids and Pets At Risk

Worries of identity theft has driven millions of Americans to buy document-shredding machines. Now, safety officials and pediatricians are warning they can be hazardous, particularly to children and pets. Read more in my story about this in today's Post....

By Stacey Garfinkle | March 9, 2006; 7:03 AM ET | Comments (5)

Scams, Scams and More Scams

It's not like I'm trying to write about scams. Really. But I can't help it. At least once a day I get a call or e-mail with another scam alert. Here are two recent alerts worth sharing. Unlike many scams I've written about, these do not involve the Internet. The first alert--about mystery shoppers--comes from Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe. Beebe says many such offers are bogus on their face. Sure, the promise of getting paid to shop is alluring, but Beebe said, the reality is far less glamorous. "Most mystery-shopping jobs pay little, if any, money, involve a lot...

By | March 8, 2006; 10:25 AM ET | Comments (13)

Yogurt's Hidden Dangers--Part 2

Wow! Who would have thought my short (pun intended) item about height-challenged grocery shopping would have prompted such an outpouring of comments and e-mails. A lot of you told me I was silly, wasting my time and should get over it and move on to bigger (no pun intended) stuff. But even more of you thanked me for talking about a problem that plagues you--and me--almost every day. Yes, I know there are a lot more serious issues out there (as one reader told me, people are dying of cancer and viruses), but this blog is about consumer topics, things...

By | March 7, 2006; 9:10 AM ET | Comments (14)

Identity Theft Study Revisited

Some consumer advocates who specialize in privacy issues have written to complain about a blog item last week on a new identity theft study done by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy and Research, a consulting firm for the financial services industry. Their complaints centered on the statement: "Almost half of all identity theft is perpetrated by someone the victim knows: friends, neighbors, family members, in-home employees, etc." Beth Givens, Director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, said that statement "is only half correct." According to Givens: "The survey found that only 36% of victims...

By | March 7, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (5)

The Baby Walker March to Safety

Gary Smith is a well-known pediatric emergency medicine doctor, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children's Hospital in Ohio. He is also chairman of the Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention of the American Academy of Pediatrics. So, when he talks, a lot of people listen. Today, he's talking, as his Center issues a study showing a dramatic reduction in injuries from baby walkers. In 1990, there were about 21,000 injuries a year from baby walkers; in 2001, there were about 5,100 -- a 76 percent drop. The number has dropped even more since...

By | March 6, 2006; 11:00 AM ET | Comments (12)

Caution: Credit Bureaus May Be Sharing Your Loan Application

If you're in the market for a mortgage--and even if you're not-- you should make sure you read this column by Ken Harney in Saturday's Real Estate section. Harney has uncovered a practice by some lenders and credit bureaus that lets them share your private information without you knowing about it. How does it work? You apply for a loan and within 24 hours you may start receiving offers from competing lenders because they (or firms acting on their behalf) have paid the credit bureaus for a special alert when consumers apply for a mortgage. While some consumers may...

By | March 6, 2006; 10:30 AM ET | Comments (4)

Checks Enclosed With More Bills Ahead

You can't miss the message on the envelope from Chase. There it is in bold black letters: "Check Enclosed." Maybe it's my long lost rebate check! Nope. It's a promotion. I should have known--especially since I got two such offers in the same day. If I cashed the first check, I would automatically be enrolled in Chase's Fraud Detector, which would alert me to any suspicious activity on my account. I'd also get a special "fraud advisor" if I'm an identity-theft victim and could be reimbursed up to $25,000 for expenses incurred to correct my credit record. Of course, that...

By | March 3, 2006; 7:10 AM ET | Comments (0)

Yogurt's Hidden Dangers

On one of my latest trips to the grocery store, I fought with a yogurt container. The yogurt won. I have a cut and slight bruise under my right eye to prove it. I wouldn't normally share such humiliating stories, but my friends and family encouraged me to. Maybe they want to make me feel smaller than I already am (saying I'm five feet is just sort of stretching it). But they assure me that even though they are all taller, they've had similar frustrating supermarket experiences. I admit it. When it comes to grocery shopping, I'm height challenged. There...

By | March 2, 2006; 7:37 AM ET | Comments (0)

Annual Car Rankings:Japanese Models Get the Top Nod

Consumer Reports, which has lots of sway with American car shoppers, has given 10 Japanese brands the top honors in its annual, closely watched survey of Best and Worst Cars. As for reliability, nine of the top 10 are also Japanese, with Lexus heading the ratings, followed by Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Subaru. Mercury was the only American car on the top 10 list. The three least reliable models: Land Rover, Hummer and Porsche. The Consumer Report rankings come as another blow to the already trouble-plagued Detroit carmakers. For more details on the report and the industry, please read today's...

By | March 2, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (3)

A Blow to the 'Wal-Mart Shopping Spree' Scam

The Federal Trade Commission has obtained a temporary restraining order against a group of companies that have been running what's become infamously known as the "Wal-Mart Shopping Spree" scam. Here's how the scam worked: Consumers got telephone sales pitches offering gift cards -- usually $200 to $500, mostly from Wal-Mart, but also from Kmart, JCPenney, Macy's and other retailers. To receive the cards, the consumers were asked to first pay a shipping and handling fee ranging from $3.49 to $4.95. The callers wanted payments made through consumers bank accounts and demanded the account information over the phone. If a consumer...

By | March 1, 2006; 12:11 PM ET | Comments (0)

 

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