The Checkout

Archive: April 2006

Fly the Noisy Skies

Just when you think flying couldn't get any worse... I took a trip to New York last weekend, flying U.S. Airways Shuttle. All went pretty smoothly; the plane even left the gate before the scheduled departure time both coming and going--a real treat. So why am I complaining? On the way home, as I settled in for a short nap, I was brusquely awoken by a way too loud announcement, "Welcome to US Airways." "OK," I thought. "Just go back to sleep." But the announcement went on and on and on and on as the airline used its captive...

By | April 28, 2006; 6:30 AM ET | Comments (40)

True or False, These Tips Save Gas?

We've all heard the tips on how to save gas. And, as fuel prices continue to climb, we're hearing them almost daily on TV and radio: Don't drive aggressively. Drive at lower speeds. Use cruise control. Don't use air conditioning. Keep your tires properly inflated. Avoid excessive idling. So, which ones are true? Edmunds.com, a popular online Web site that has all sorts of car-buying and maintenance advice, put the tips to a test (many tests actually) to see if they can really, truly help you save gasoline. Some results may surprise you. For instance, tire pressure had no measurable...

By | April 27, 2006; 6:30 AM ET | Comments (31)

Verizon's Wrong Numbers

Takoma Park resident Charles Feinstein was stunned recently when he opened his Verizon cellphone bill and saw he owed $278.82, three times the $89.99, four-phone plan he had signed up for. Careful scrutiny of the bill yielded two exceptionally high charges for a 777 phone number for "National Access," something he had never heard of. One fee, for $41.85, was for 113 minutes; the other charge of $106.20 was for 236 minutes. Since the phone belonged to his son, Feinstein immediately questioned him, somewhat angrily he admits. But his son denied any knowledge of the calls. Besides, he was in...

By | April 26, 2006; 9:44 AM ET | Comments (57)

Medicare's Deadline Day

If you're on Medicare, you should be stressing about May 15 just as much as you do about tax day, maybe more. That's the deadline for signing up for the new Part D prescription drug coverage. Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran says if you procrastinate and fail to sign up by May 15--and you don't have creditable drug coverage elsewhere--you could be assessed a penalty, 1 percent more PER MONTH. As Curran explains it: People on Medicare who already have a separate prescription plan (through a retirement insurance plan, union or HMO) with coverage as good or better...

By | April 25, 2006; 6:30 AM ET | Comments (7)

Riled Up Over Resort Fees

My husband, Gary, has a long list of pet peeves. (Don't we all?) Here are just a few of them: * Bad cell-phone reception. * The difficulties of making travel reservations online. The hotel/airline/car rental company's computers invariably crash just after entering all the necessary information but before the reservation is final. * The promotional phrase "free gift." What's a gift if it's not free? * Commercials before movies. * Meaningless computerized phone messages, like "Your call is very important to us." Here's his comment on that: "How do they know why I'm calling? It might not be important to...

By | April 24, 2006; 7:50 AM ET | Comments (14)

Self-Checkout Blues

Timothy M. Breen of Wheaton recently wrote me to complain about the self-checkout aisles that have proliferated in many supermarkets. Here's his e-mail: "I was wondering what others thought about Giant Food's self-checkout aisles. My problem with them is that if one utilizes the self-checkout, all one is doing is adding to Giant's profit margin. If Giant was serious and transparent in their 'push' to have consumers utilize the self-checkouts, then Giant would include a 2-5% discount as an incentive." I asked Giant about Mr. Breen's e-mail and spokesman Jamie Miller said the self-checkouts were strictly for convenience, for people...

By | April 21, 2006; 7:23 AM ET | Comments (150)

The Not-So-Rewarding Credit Card

If you're using a credit-card that offers a cash-back award and you don't pay it off in full every month, you may want to consider whether the card's worth keeping. Why? Many of these cards have significantly boosted their interest rates in the past few months -- way more than other credit-cards, says Justin McHenry, research director for IndexCreditCards.com Credit Card Monitor, which tracks hundreds of credit cards. "For people who don't carry a balance," the interest rate hike won't be a concern, McHenry said. But for those who do, "what you get back in cash may not make up...

By | April 20, 2006; 6:48 AM ET | Comments (11)

Debt Collectors Seek to Auto-Dial Cellphones

Debt collectors are asking the Federal Communications Commission for permission to use automated dialers to call a debtor's cellphone about overdue bills, which the collectors were barred from doing in 2003. The FCC has said it would review the request and is seeking public comments which are due next month. Here's the full story from today's Post. What do you think? Should the FCC allow this? UPDATE: You can also file comments directly with the FCC; the docket number is CG Docket No. 02-278....

By | April 19, 2006; 8:49 AM ET | Comments (43)

Going, Going, Gone!

Now's your chance to win a solar-powered flashlight! Continuing its campaign to teach consumers about online safety with a big dose of humor and creativity, the Federal Trade Commission has a quiz to test your knowledge about using Internet auctions. Some of the questions are downright simple (for example "True or False: The term Internet auction refers to the sale of computers online." That's false, of course). But that, along with the solar-powered flashlight, will get you laughing while you learn such things as not to use a wire transfer to pay for items won in online auctions. In fact,...

By | April 18, 2006; 8:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

An End Run Around Class-Action Lawsuits

Alan Kaplinsky is one proud man. For years, the Philadelphia lawyer has been advising financial institutions, leading their defense in class-action lawsuits brought by consumers -- and, more importantly, designing ways to limit such suits by writing arbitration clauses into many credit-card agreements and banking contracts. These clauses, often found in the fine print, have met with mixed results in court, with some judges upholding them, some not. Now, Kaplinsky has found a way to one-up the courts, at least in Utah, where a new law specifically allows these clauses in all consumer loan contracts, including credit-card agreements. Over the...

By | April 17, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Travel Tips--and Fees

A $9.50 surcharge on rental cars driven fewer than 75 miles. A $2 fee to check bags at the curb outside the airport. A $2.50 to $5 fee to restock the mini-bar---plus the cost of the item. These are some of the added fees that you can find on your travel bill. Read about them--and other travel logistics--in a story in Sunday's Business Section by Keith Alexander. And when you're done, skip over to yesterday's Travel Section for tips on what to tip the maid, skycap and taxi driver....

By | April 17, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (1)

An Unpleasant Easter Surprise

It seems to happen around every Easter. A popular candy egg that contains a toy inside is found on store shelves. The only problem is the candy egg -- called Kinder Surprise -- has been banned by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The reason: The toy inside the egg is so small it poses a choking hazard to young children. Kinder Surprise toys are very popular abroad so they inevitably find their way here, especially in the spring. But the CPSC has just issued a safety alert, calling on retailers to remove the product from their shelves and directing...

By | April 14, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (19)

Making Companies Pay for Bad Service

How's this for a radical idea? If you can't quickly reach a customer-service representative, you should be compensated for your time and effort. Or this? You should get a credit on your next bill if the first customer-service rep doesn't have your records or can't solve your problem. Ditto, if you're billed incorrectly and have to call or e-mail the company to get the problem fixed. These are the key provisions in a Customer-Service Bill of Rights proposed by Ernan Roman, a New York consultant who has spent more than 30 years advising major companies on how to give customers...

By | April 13, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (44)

Ripped Up Over Credit

Rob Cockerham is a longtime blogger from Sacramento. On cockeyed.com, the 37-year-old digital printer/Web editor has a lot of fun, pulling pranks (such as putting phony menus in some TGIF restaurants) and conducting "science experiments" (dissecting a Hot Pocket). His specialty, though, is determining how much is inside a particular product. (A package of ramen, for example, has enough noodles to add up to 170 feet when each noodle is stretched out. I know you needed to know that.). Cockerham's curiosity knows no bounds, as he seems to test anything and everything. So, it's no surprise he decided to see...

By | April 12, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (22)

The Nasty Fine Print of "Terms & Conditions"

I don't know about you, but when I shop online, I'm usually in such a rush that I rarely read the e-tailer's "terms and conditions." That's a mistake. The latest edition of Consumer Reports (subscription required) explains why. Many e-tailers use their terms and conditions to trim many of the consumer protections we have taken for granted when dealing with a bricks-and-mortar store. For example, at a traditional store, there's usually an implied warranty that the product you buy will work properly and last a reasonable amount of time. But CR surveyed many e-tailers and found their terms and conditions...

By | April 11, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Testosterone and Internet Fraud

Are men bigger victims of Internet fraud than women or are they just more likely to report it? Those are certainly two questions that come to mind after reading a just-released government report on Internet crime. In its latest assessment of Internet crime, the federal Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) says men filed 64 percent of the 231,493 complaints submitted to government officials in 2005. What's more, on an average per-person basis, men lost $1.86 for every dollar lost by women. IC3's report on 2005 complaint data paints a disturbing picture of Internet fraud with complaints increasing by 11.6 percent...

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

The Highs and Lows of Airline Customer Service

Earlier this week, my colleague Keith Alexander wrote about the current attempts by United Airlines to improve its customer service in his Business Class column. As he noted, United has a long way to go, considering in February, it was the second-most complained about airline (after US Airways) at the Department of Transportation. Well I had the fortune (or was it misfortune?) to fly on United last week. This week, I flew on Jet Blue and even though one leg of that trip was late because of mechanical problems there is no question that Jet Blue wins my support. It's...

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

Hang Tight for Better Phone Holds

The next time you're on interminable phone hold, consider this: If you're hearing music--and you like the tune--the wait probably won't seem so bad. That's what two Georgia professors discovered in an experiment they conducted at a private company's call center where customers seek technical help. The results, just published in an article in "The Journal of Service Research," show that customers' satisfaction increased if they liked the music they heard while on hold. The music made the wait seem to go faster. Naveen Donthu, a Georgia State marketing professor, and Anita Whiting of Clayton State College say an important...

By | April 6, 2006; 10:28 AM ET | Comments (0)

Who's Preparing Your Taxes?

Did you hire someone to prepare your taxes for you this year? If so, don't miss my colleague Al Crenshaw's story today, Some Tax Preparers Don't Add Up. In a small study run by the Government Accountability Office, commercial tax preparers made errors, sometimes amounting to more than $1,000 in incorrect refunds and overpayments, in 100 percent of returns brought to them by a government agency seeking to test the accuracy of work done by large chain tax-preparation firms. The GAO does say that the study is small and can't be used to generalize the entire tax preparation industry. Even...

By | April 5, 2006; 8:02 AM ET | Comments (0)

Educate Yourself with Insure U

I don't know about you, but I think dealing with insurance issues--trying to select the right policy, whether it's life or health insurance, auto or home protection--is almost as enjoyable as filing my taxes. But the National Association of Insurance Commissioners is trying to make things a lot easier with its new educational Web site, Insure U. The Web site is jam-packed with information and tons of good tips. Better still, it's organized in such a way to make the education and decision-making process simpler and less daunting. First, you select your appropriate age group (young singles, young families, established...

By | April 4, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Spring Forward and Check Your Smoke Alarms

It's time to check your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. You should be doing this at least once a year and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission usually recommends you do so when you reset your clocks, either when we spring forward to Daylight Savings Time or in the fall, when we revert to standard time zones. So, if you didn't check these essential household protection devices over the weekend, take time to do so this week. Replace the batteries if you didn't in the fall and test them to make sure they are working. In fact, you should...

By | April 3, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

 

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