The Checkout

Archive: May 2006

Animal Attraction

My dog Bailey Anyone who knows my family knows we love dogs. By any measure--and then some--our dog, Bailey, is king of the house. We are his humble servants, particularly my husband who, by T-shirt count alone, is by far the Number One dog lover in our house. I don't think he has a single T-shirt without a dog's picture on it! So, it's no surprise that a friend gave him a subscription to Bark, "the modern dog culture magazine" whose slogan is "Dog is my co-pilot." It's a great magazine, that's been called the "The New Yorker of...

By | May 31, 2006; 5:31 AM ET | Comments (29)

Fuel Savings or Fuel Fraud?

Strange New Products is a blog that looks at the "weirdest, funniest, stupidest, and ingenious new products entering the marketplace." Last December, it posted an item about BioPerformance, a pill that you pop into your gas tank to improve fuel mileage and reduce emissions. As the blog noted, BioPerformance's makers called it a "revolutionary fuel saving product" that can improve fuel mileage 35 percent--or more. But Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has called the pill a fraud, saying it's made of naphthalene, basically the chemical found in mothballs. Not only is naphthalene toxic, but it could also decrease engine performance,...

By | May 30, 2006; 9:12 AM ET | Comments (45)

A Warning About Inflatable Pools

The weather's been so cool, it's hard to believe that Memorial Day--and the opening of swimming pools all over--is just a few days away. But as the summer heat approaches, it's once again time to issue a warning about those increasingly popular inflatable swimming pools now in many toy, hardware and mass-merchandise stores. Last weekend, Target was promoting a 15-foot diameter, 42-inch high pool for $328. "Ready for water in 30 minutes." Toys R Us was selling a 16-foot diameter pool for $199.99 The price alone makes these pools attractive. Then, there's the easy set up. With an air pump,...

By | May 26, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (17)

Watching Children Watch TV

One in three children between the age of 6 months and 6 years have a TV set in their bedrooms. And children who have TVs in their bedrooms spend an average 30 minutes more per day watching TV than those who don't. These are just two of the fascinating findings in the latest Media Family report issued by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation on Wednesday. The report's findings will certainly be used as fodder in the growing debate about how young a child should be allowed to watch TV. Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that babies under...

By | May 25, 2006; 7:39 AM ET | Comments (35)

Stamps: The Latest Place to Advertise

Advertising might soon be pushing the envelope. The http://www.usps.com/">U.S. Postal Service is allowing companies to create their own branded stamps for first-class mail. Instead of flags, you can expect to see a company logo; instead of photos of famous Americans, you might see pictures of your local real estate agent. It is a test, part of an effort to reverse the decline in first-class mailings. As USPS spokeswoman Joanne Veto said, "We want to make mail more interesting to consumers." The first company to buy in is Hewlett-Packard, which is using its corporate logo and pictures from its early days...

By | May 24, 2006; 12:02 PM ET | Comments (0)

"Free" May Just Be Another Word for "Fee"

We all know there's no such thing as a free lunch. But, clearly, many consumers still believe "free trial offers" and "free shopping sprees" are also free. Usually, they're not. In the past week, I've received two alerts that underscore this point. They involve consumers complaining about unauthorized charges on their phone bills, credit cards or bank accounts. Turns out those charges were probably incurred when the consumers signed up for those delicious, too-good-to-pass-up "free" offers. Case One: Florida's Attorney General Charlie Crist announced he is investigating a rash of phony $12.95 charges on telephone bills for an Internet shopping...

By | May 23, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (25)

Records of 26.5 Million Veterans Stolen

In what may be the largest security breach of personal data, the electronic records of 26.5 million U.S. veterans were stolen earlier this month from the home of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee. A file, containing the names, birthdates and Social Security numbers of living servicemen discharged since 1975 and some of their spouses were taken from the home of a career civil servant who had taken the data home with him. No financial or medical records were included in the data. Jim Nicholson, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs said the analyst was not authorized to take...

By | May 22, 2006; 3:10 PM ET | Comments (0)

Making Everyday Life A Complicated Situation

Here we are in an era where the ultimate marketing goal seems to be simplicity. There are an ever growing number of convenience foods to give us great meals with little work. There are all sorts of quick-cleaning products to give us a sparkling house with no elbow grease. And there's even a magazine to make life Real Simple. So why then do we insist on making life, or at least our language, so complicated? That thought struck me last weekend as I was sitting in an airport waiting for a delayed a flight. Over the loudspeaker, the gate attendant...

By | May 22, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (33)

A Witty Warning About Wireless

It sure seems cozy to sit down at a Starbucks, sip a latte and surf the Internet or catch up on e-mail, using the shop's wireless network. But the Federal Trade Commission is warning consumers that while these public "hot spots" are convenient, they are not necessarily secure, and your computer could be accessed by hackers. You should ask the proprietor what security measures are in place. Unless you can verify that there is effective security, you should probably assume that other people can access any information you see or send. So act accordingly! The FTC has lots of...

By | May 19, 2006; 6:45 AM ET | Comments (10)

Credit-Card Firms Key in Fight Against ID Theft

Credit-card companies do a good job of helping consumers resolve identity-theft problems once they occur. But they could reduce ID fraud even more if they gave consumers better tools to monitor their accounts and limit high-risk transactions, such as large cash advances or foreign transactions. That's the conclusion of a recent study by Javelin Strategy & Research, a research and consulting firm specializing in the financial services industry. Javelin cites a previous study that found that almost half of all ID theft cases are detected by consumers, one-third of the cases by banks. The rest are through third parties such...

By | May 18, 2006; 8:30 AM ET | Comments (30)

Credit Card Bills Due Faster Than You Think

I got my credit-card bill last week and was about to toss it on my pile of bills-to-pay. But for some mysterious reason, I happened to glance at the due date. Normally I don't know exactly when my bills are due. There's one exception: My Visa card from Chase -- and that's only because it's been due the 30th of every month for as long as I can remember. So I was stunned when I saw a new due date: the 25th, just 20 days after the current billing period closed. I went back and checked my old statements and...

By | May 17, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (83)

IRS Revoking Tax-Exempt Status of Credit Counseling Firms

The Internal Revenue Service is planning to revoke the tax-exempt status of every one of the 41 credit-counseling organizations on which it has completed an audit, saying many of these firms appeared to be primarily motivated by profit, not by helping debt-burdened consumers. IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson also said the agency had begun criminal investigations of some of the firms but declined to elaborate. Another 22 firms are still undergoing audits, part of a three-year-old crackdown on the credit-counseling industry that was sparked by hundreds of consumer complaints of deceptive business practices, including high fees, high-pressure tactics and inadequate...

By | May 16, 2006; 12:12 PM ET | Comments (0)

Nowadays, Customers Care About Value

What's most important to consumers these days? Value. That's the loud-and-clear message of the latest University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index. It's no surprise that Southwest is the favorite airline of consumers; it has long been so thanks to its low-fare, fun, can-do attitude. But what is surprising is T-Mobile's ranking: it joins Verizon at the top of the wireless firms this year; last year it was near the bottom. The reason, the index says, is that T-Mobile has focused its recent strategies around competitive pricing; as a result, consumers see "better value for the money." Consumer satisfaction for...

By | May 16, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Voucher Voodoo

"Fraud!" screamed the e-mail. The note was from a colleague who was ticked off about American Airline's voucher policy. Passengers get these vouchers -- for $100, $200 or whatever -- when they agree to be bumped from an overbooked flight or when the airline is feeling generous and wants to compensate for lost luggage, delayed flights or some other unpleasant experience. But as my colleague discovered, you can't use these vouchers online; you can only take advantage of the vouchers by making a reservation on the phone or in person. And since American charges $10 to make a reservation over...

By | May 15, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Meet Mr. Consumer

Edgar Dworsky calls himself "Mr. Consumer" and by many measures, that's a pretty good assessment. The former consumer-affairs television reporter and consumer-protection official (first for Boston, then Massachusetts) currently monitors the world of consumer news and outrage through two informative Web sites: ConsumerWorld.org and Mouseprint.org. Dworsky, 55, founded ConsumerWorld in 1996, the early days of the Internet, after he started to surf the Web and bookmarked any consumer-related item that caught his eye. "I had 600 links before I knew it, so I thought, 'Why not organize it and publish it.' " Today, the site has more than 2,000 links...

By | May 12, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (2)

Bitter Words Over a Sweet Ingredient

High fructose corn syrup--that's quite a high falutin name for something that's basically just a sweetener in sodas and lots of other food. And now the question is, is it "natural?" 7Up says it is. It just launched a new advertising campaign, saying there's a whole new reason to drink the Uncola: It's 100 percent natural." The Center for Science in the Public Interest disagrees. The advocacy group, which has fought for tighter food labeling requirements, reduced fat and sodium in processed foods and unveiled the high caloric count of movie popcorn and Chinese food, says that as long as...

By | May 11, 2006; 12:43 PM ET | Comments (40)

A Twist on Mother's Day E-Cards

Don't know what to get Mom for Mother's Day? Well the Federal Trade Commission has an idea: a special electronic greeting card with "something she can really use...tips from the FTC on keeping her personal information secure." This is the second year the agency is offering the card, which comes with soft, sweet piano music, fluttery butterflies and greeting-card poetry before getting to the tips: Protect your Social Security number, read your bills and bank statements, exercise doubt and report fraud. The e-card is part of an agency effort to both enlighten consumers and have fun. The FTC has also...

By | May 10, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (4)

Tech Non-Support

"Won't you please, please help me." Little did the Beatles know when they recorded those words more than 40 years ago, how appropriate they'd be today for consumers calling tech-support desks. But indeed, nearly half of the consumers who contact a computer company's free-tech support line don't get their problems solved. That's what Consumer Reports found in a just published survey (pay required) of more than 20,000 subscribers with computer trouble. Only 55 percent of those surveyed got the help they needed and had their problems solved. That's probably not a big surprise to many of you. "Free manufacturer support...

By | May 9, 2006; 9:15 AM ET | Comments (25)

Verizon's Big Disconnect

I'm not trying to bash Verizon. Really. But at least once a month I seem to be writing about some customer service or billing issue with the telecommunications giant. Maybe that's because Verizon is so large--or maybe it's because it doesn't know how to treat its customers. Or maybe both. The latest tale stems from my attempts to try to sign up for a new local and long-distance phone plan, Verizon Freedom Value, which Verizon keeps promoting in ads, bill inserts and mail solicitations. I called early on a Thursday morning to ask about it. Here's what happened: Call 1...

By | May 8, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (92)

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Hold Policies

If you carefully monitor your bank account or credit-card bill online, you may be spotting some surprising and disturbing fees--especially after buying gas. A colleague recently complained about an extra $1 charge she spotted the day after she filled her tank. The charge disappeared the next day. She was actually lucky. As gasoline tops $3 a gallon, there are reports that consumers are finding $50 to $80 holds on their bank accounts or credit cards after they buy gas, at least until the actual transaction is processed. For some consumers, those holds could result bounced checks or maxed credit limits....

By | May 5, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (28)

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

Recently, I've had a couple of shopping experiences that have made me wonder who's to blame for the rude store clerks we so like to complain about. Experience 1: I was in a long queue at the express checkout of my local supermarket. There were two express lines, and one got hung up as a shopper disputed a price. I was lucky; that non-moving line wasn't mine. My line crept forward and soon it was my turn. In the next line, though, there still remained a man who had been waiting long before I had gotten to the checkout. I...

By | May 4, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (145)

Say Bye to Sugary Soda in Schools

The beverage industry is scheduled to announce today that it is voluntarily removing high-calorie soft drinks from all schools. In an agreement to be announced by former president Bill Clinton, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and the head of the American Heart Association, the industry also will limit the amount of other sugary beverages, such as fruit drinks, in school vending machines. But diet soft drinks will continue to be sold in high schools that allow such products. The agreement calls for eliminating sales of sodas, diet sodas, sports drinks, juice drinks, apple juice or grape juice in elementary schools....

By | May 3, 2006; 2:45 AM ET | Comments (75)

Baby Video Firms Come Under Fire

A child-advocacy group whose mission is to limit marketing aimed at children yesterday asked the federal government to bar Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, two major baby-video companies, from promoting their products as educational and beneficial to child development. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, saying the two major baby-video companies should not be able to say their products inspire "logical thinking," foster "the development of your toddler's speech and language skills," or give "your child a jumpstart on learning." Read more of my story in today's Post. What do you think...

By | May 2, 2006; 7:43 AM ET | Comments (31)

Protect Yourself From Overdraft Protection

District writer Andrew Trotter admits he's not the most careful person when it comes to balancing a checkbook. After he bounced a couple of checks a year ago, his bank suggested he sign up for overdraft protection through a bank-issued credit-card. In his case, if there was not enough money in his account to cover a check, his credit card would automatically make a cash advance (rounded to the next $100) to his bank account. "I was encouraged to use this not just as a backstop but as a convenience so I could write checks without worrying about my balance...

By | May 1, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (42)

 

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