The Checkout

Archive: October 2006

In Search of First-Time Luxury Car Owners

Hi all. I'm in need of some reporting help. I know it can be ugly seeing how the sausage gets made, but bare with me. I wouldn't be bugging you if I wasn't getting desperate. I'm working on a story about the ins and outs of owning a luxury car and I'm looking to interview local, first-time luxury car owners. I have found umpteen local owners--lovely people all--who unfortunately are on luxury car no. 2 or 3 by now. The reason I'm looking for first-timers is because carmakers have of late been aggressively courting them by offering more "entry-level" luxury...

By Annys Shin | October 31, 2006; 1:51 PM ET | Comments (8)

Don't Hold Back

Blogs are all about feedback, right? So, today, I thought I'd ask for some. Each day, I post a rather book-reportish entry on a particular subject that catches my fancy or is in the news--sometimes to the exclusion of other consumer stories that might be circulating that day. There usually isn't enough consumer news to have a daily roundup of links, but at least once a week, I'm going to start posting one. That way, good stories -- and, more importantly, useful info -- doesn't get lost in the media shuffle. I encourage you all to tell me whether these...

By Annys Shin | October 31, 2006; 6:45 AM ET | Comments (7)

Are Underoos Evil?

I'm back from the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood Summit in Brookline, Mass., and I bring you this dispatch from the epic battle for the hearts and minds of American kids. I have to say, as someone who grew up with the commercial onslaught of the first blockbuster movies (Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., etc.), I registered the criticisms many of the speakers had about the influence of commercialism on children with a mixture of alarm and skepticism. ('Course I tend to have the same reaction to just about everything.) On the alarming end was the push toward creating programming for...

By Annys Shin | October 30, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (42)

Good News on Pill Pricing

A reader wrote in recently to complain that everything I write is negative, a common enough complaint about journalism. Well, today, I've got a bit of good news. Earlier this week, the Federal Trade Commission won a battle with two drug companies that were preventing the wider distribution of a cheaper, generic form of birth control pill. In 2001, Barr Laboratories filed an application with the FDA to release a generic form of Ovcon, a birth control pill made by Warner Chilcott. At a cost of about 30 percent less than the brand-name version, it was expected to take market...

By Annys Shin | October 27, 2006; 9:48 AM ET | Comments (32)

Compassionate But Confusing Labels

When I buy poultry, I always reach for the free-range variety. I often refer to it as "chicken with a college degree," because, in my imagination, that's ultimately where we're headed. We won't be satisfied until all the animals we kill and eat have led a long and fulfilling life. And in my daydream world that includes an education and a semester abroad in Paris. Despite my snarky nickname for it, I buy free-range poultry out of a combination of ethical considerations--and, well, baser ones. (I think they taste better.) But even with the best intensions, it's easy to be...

By Annys Shin | October 26, 2006; 7:40 AM ET | Comments (37)

Getting Schooled on Student Loans

Correction: In an earlier version of this item, I wrote that "Loan to Learn, in fact, has seen its share of the market grow to 18 percent of all student loans and to about 10 percent of all student aid awarded -- a total of $13.8 billion in 2004-2005." Thanks to Mark Kantrowitz of finaid.org, who pointed out that these figures actually refer to all private student loans, not just Loan to Learn. The item has been corrected. These days, getting angry seems to be part and parcel of earning a degree. And I'm not talking about student protests....

By Annys Shin | October 25, 2006; 10:15 AM ET | Comments (60)

What Your Cell Says About You

As cellphone users goes, I'm pretty old school. My phone--my third in five years--has a camera, it can access the Web and it has calendar. I'm sure it has other handy features, but I just stick to the basics: talking to people and sending the rare text message. When I'm done with a phone, I usually donate it without giving it a second thought. Lately, I had been thinking about moving up to a "smart phone" so I can have my contacts with me, check e-mail, surf the Web more easily, and maybe listen to some tunes on the way...

By Annys Shin | October 24, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Work From Home: Worker Beware

Rolando Galvez-Garcia and Kostadin Osvaldo Marte Tavarez had a pretty good little business going. They offered folks "BIG PAYCHECKS Within TWO WEEKS...If you Act NOW!" The job involved couldn't have been easier: stuffing envelopes at home. Galvez and Marte, working as Sun Ray Trading Inc. and SR & Associates Inc., claimed on Web sites and in spam to pay $10 plus postage cost for each envelope that was stuffed and mailed, and promised about $550 to $3,000 of income a week. What their victims quickly discovered, however, was that they were sending out solicitations for more of Galvez and Marte's...

By Annys Shin | October 23, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Back to the Stamp Line

When I lived in New York years ago, one of the most excruciating things about navigating the city was the token booth in the subway stations. This was in the early 1990s. If you found yourself without a token during rush hour, all you could do was stand in a line 20-deep to buy a token. It felt as if the minute you stepped underground, you left the late 20th century behind along with all of its technological advances. That all changed with the advent of the Metrocard and vending machines. Now, when I go to New York, the only...

By Annys Shin | October 20, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Tracking Outbreaks Five Days a Week

Last month's deadly E. coli outbreak in fresh bagged spinach is beginning to fade from public memory. Spinach is back on supermarket shelves and in salad bars, even as a team of about two dozen California state and federal investigators continue to work around the clock searching for the source of the outbreak. The all-out intensity of the effort is warranted given that the outbreak has sickened 200 people and killed at least three. It provides a contrast, however, to the system that is supposed to be the front line for detecting outbreaks of foodborne illness--an even bigger issue these...

By Annys Shin | October 19, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Just Try to Raise Your Voice

Companies that rely on call centers to interact with their customers, such as financial services firms or wireless carriers, think they have a fix for consumers sick of being trapped in soulless corporate phone trees: software that can detect when consumers are getting angry. The software collects and organizes those calls for higher ups to study later. You'd be surprised how many programmers it takes to recognize a four-letter word. NICE Systems, a Rutherford, N.J.-based company, spent tens of millions of dollars developing algorithms to build "emotion detection" software, which measures a customer's baseline of emotion in the first five...

By Annys Shin | October 18, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Pirates of the Caribbean Cauliflower...Argggh!

The Walt Disney Co. announced yesterday that from now on it would associate its characters and brand with foods that meet certain nutritional guidelines. The move is part of a larger effort by media, food, and beverage companies to do more to combat childhood obesity. The announcement doesn't necessarily mean no more Incredibles Super Sundaes. Disney will keep licensing indulgence foods such as birthday cakes. The company's goal is to limit the amount of such items to 15 percent of its licensed products. Disney got high marks from a few kids marketing critics. But most wondered whether the giant media...

By Annys Shin | October 17, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (21)

The Grinch's Name is Wal-Mart

Laura Walsh of Luray, Va., got a rude awakening last week during a regular shopping trip to Wal-Mart. While standing in line, she noticed a small sign that said the company was ending layaway, the plan that allowed shoppers to buy on hold until they could afford purchases. Walsh's first thought was: How will she and her husband afford to buy Christmas presents for their three children? Wal-Mart announced the decision to end layaway in mid-September. At the time, not many customers had advance warning, and Walsh is among the many dedicated Wal-Mart shoppers who are only just finding out...

By Annys Shin | October 16, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (121)

How Has Bankruptcy Law Affected You?

Next Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the bankruptcy law, which was designed to make it harder for debtors to get out of paying their creditors by filing for Chapter 7. First, a quick refresher, culled from my colleague Kathleen Day's April 15, 2005 account. The law did away with much of the discretion bankruptcy judges had in deciding who is eligible to file under Chapter 7 and who should be forced to file under Chapter 13. Under Chapter 7, you can wipe out substantial portions of debt. By contrast, Chapter 13 requires some repayment of obligations over several years....

By Annys Shin | October 13, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (17)

Designed to Confuse

Credit card companies don't talk down to you. Instead, they assume you can read at a 10th to 12th grade level or higher. But don't take it as a compliment. A Government Accounting Office study released yesterday listed the required reading level of credit card agreements as one of several ways in which the top six credit card issuers leave consumers in the dark about practices such as charging interest based on debt that has been paid off and punishing consumers for late payments with penalties of as much as $39 and higher interest rates. The study looked at credit...

By Annys Shin | October 12, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (33)

The Identity Theft Business

By now, most people have been frightened with statistics about the prevalence of identity theft. Or they have at least seen those Citibank commercials in which identity thieves, speaking through the mouths of their victims, wax on about the joys of their ill-gotten loot. You couldn't ask for a better marketing campaign for the cottage industry that has sprung up to protect consumers from identity snatchers. According to the New York Times, 10 million pay about $100 a year to protect their credit information. That adds up to a $1 billion industry. There are credit monitoring services, offered by the...

By Annys Shin | October 11, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (22)

Orbitz for Docs? Not Yet.

In a few weeks, employees at The Washington Post Co. get to sign up for health care for the following year. And like a lot of companies and the federal government, The Post has embraced "consumer-driven" health care to help keep health care costs down. Consumer-driven health care generally involves tax-sheltered accounts that consumers draw upon to pay for certain medical expenses. In some cases, consumers put money into the accounts. In other cases, employers kick in money as well. The idea is if consumers have to decide how to spend their health care dollars, they will spend more wisely....

By Annys Shin | October 10, 2006; 7:30 AM ET | Comments (15)

Total Recall

It's been a busy past few weeks, what with spinach, Sudafed, and trans fat in the news. In the meantime, there have been a few recalls I thought were worth noting. Orange Menace While the E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach was center stage, bottled carrot juice contaminated with botulism is suspected to have paralyzed a Florida woman and caused respiratory failure in three Georgia residents. Bolthouse Farms of Bakersfield, Calif., voluntarily recalled Bolthouse Farms 100% Carrot Juice, Earthbound Farm Organic Carrot Juice and President's Choice Organics 100% Pure Carrot Juice. All have use by dates up to Nov 11,...

By Annys Shin | October 9, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

What Really Happened to Your Luggage

So now we know what we suspected back in August is true: The volume of "mishandled baggage"--delayed, damaged, lost, or stolen bags--spiked 25 percent after the liquid ban took effect August 10. Transportation Security Administration officials banned passengers from carrying liquids and gels onto flights after British authorities uncovered a plot to explode planes flying from the U.K. to the U.S. using liquid explosives. TSA has since allowed travel-sized liquid and gel items tucked "comfortably" into a one-quart clear plastic bag. Back in the bad old days of August, however, banned items, such as shampoo, perfume, and toothpaste had to...

By Annys Shin | October 6, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (27)

The Salt Conspiracy

Too much salt is bad for you, right? This is what federal nutrition guidelines say. Not to mention the National Academy of Sciences and the American Heart Association. Too much sodium--more than 2,300 miligrams a day or a teaspoon of salt--can lead to high blood pressure, which can increase the risk for heart disease. But a few months ago, the Journal of the College of Nutrition published a supplement that contained articles questioning the scientific basis for this longstanding recommendation. It might not have made much of splash outside academia, but Integrity in Science Watch, a project of the consumer...

By Annys Shin | October 5, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Who's a Bandwidth Bandit?

I've spent the past few days talking to call center experts for an upcoming story and a standard refrain I keep hearing is that oftentimes, the things that drive consumers crazy the most are not the call center's fault, but bad practices by the company. David T. of Annandale, among others, appears to have stumbled across a case in point. About a year ago, he signed up for Verizon Wireless's "unlimited high-speed wireless Internet access" for $60 per month. Then, a month ago, David, a computer consultant who used the service to assist his database clients, was kicked off. When...

By Annys Shin | October 4, 2006; 6:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

You're Invited! To a Spam Party

Forget those Nigerian phishing scams. The Scots are coming! Amy Joyce, a colleague of mine here at The Post opened an Evite the other day to learn she had won 500,000 pounds in a Scottish lottery. Her "host" was one aptly named Steven Award. The location of the shindig: Scotland, UK. The date: Tuesday, Oct. 10, at noon. She was asked to supply her full name, ticket number, age, sex, occupation, address and telephone number. She also had to sign her name to the following: "I endorse that this email address is mine, and that I am the rightful winner...

By Annys Shin | October 3, 2006; 7:20 AM ET | Comments (0)

After the Spinach Outbreak

A couple of weeks ago, at the height of media focus on the E. coli outbreak in fresh bagged spinach, a state health department flack told me she couldn't wait for the day when she wouldn't have to say "bloody diarrhea" 100 times a day. (Bloody diarrhea is a symptom of E. coli infection.) She said she was going to be even more relieved not to have to answer yet another reporter query about whether Popeye would get have gotten sick. (Answer: No, because he ate canned spinach, which is cooked at a high enough temperature to kill E. coli.)...

By Annys Shin | October 2, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

 

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