The Checkout

Archive: November 2006

The Latest on Gift Cards

If you're like most Americans, chances are you likely will give and receive plastic in the coming weeks. Gift card sales are expected to total $24.8 billion this holiday season, a $6 billion increase over 2005, according to the National Retail Federation's fourth annual gift card survey, conducted by BIGresearch. Plus, the average consumer will spend more on gift cards than they did last year--$116.51 compared with $88.03 in 2005. We seem to be buying more gift cards despite the hassles that have emerged, such as expiration dates, so-called "dormancy fees" for not using the card, and not being able...

By Annys Shin | November 30, 2006; 8:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Botnets in Your Toaster Oven?

A few weeks back, I speculated that hackers won't be able to resist reaching inside "smart homes" of tomorrow and treating the owners to some tuna aspic just for kicks. So I was a little alarmed to pick up the New York Times on Sunday and see that security experts are already making ominous noises about just this prospect. (The prospect of hacking into smart homes, that is, not the prospect of eating aspic.) "It's the next frontier of risk," said Peter G. Neumann, a computer scientist who specializes in security issues at SRI International, a research institute in Menlo...

By Annys Shin | November 29, 2006; 10:30 AM ET | Comments (0)

Rent-A-Center Settles with California

Just before Thanksgiving, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced what normally would be good news: a multimillion dollar settlement with Rent-A-Center, the nation's largest rent-to-own business with more than 2,800 stores nationwide. California took the Plano, Texas-based company to court, alleging it had failed to disclose the true cost of its rent-to-own program to California consumers and that it engaged in deceptive marketing around its "Preferred Customer Club." For example, it told consumers they would get up to $500 in grocery discounts without mentioning that in order to obtain the maximum discount they have to pay RAC more than $100...

By Annys Shin | November 28, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (26)

Mailbag: No More Credit Card Checks; Tops in Bank Fees

Between accosting shoppers on Friday, zipping up and down I-95 to see family and eating gut-busting quantities of food, I found some time to catch up on some reader queries. I'm thinking holiday shopping is on everyone's mind, not to mention the specter of January's credit card bill, because most of the questions I've received lately revolve around spending money. Our first question takes us to a big box many of us will probably find ourselves in sometime during the next few weeks: Best Buy. During a recent trip, reader Harris Kern noticed the cashier didn't ask to see his...

By Annys Shin | November 27, 2006; 9:15 AM ET | Comments (45)

Magnets -- Not to be Toyed With

Yesterday, in the basement of a church on Capitol Hill, Alison Cassady of U.S. PIRG made her way through this year's assortment of dangerous toys highlighted in the group's latest "Trouble in Toyland" report. With a group of toddlers playing -- with safe toys of course -- a few feet away, Cassady emphasized that the vast majority of toys in the U.S. today are safe. The number of toy-related injuries has declined significantly from 255,100 in 2001 to 202,300 in 2005. There are always, however, toys that slip through the cracks and onto store shelve. Cassady found unsafe toys at...

By Annys Shin | November 23, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (5)

Spyware Installer Zango Up to Old Tricks

Earlier this month, pop-ad installer Zango agreed to pay $3 million in what many describe as a landmark settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over charges that it installed software on people's computers without their permission. According to the FTC, consumers have unwittingly downloaded Zango's software more than 70 million times, and as a result, have been subjected to more than 6.9 billion pop-up ads between 2002 and 2005. When consumers tried to rid themselves of the pop-ups, Zango deliberately made it difficult to identify, locate, and remove the adware. According to the FTC, Zango is supposed to be complying...

By Annys Shin | November 21, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (19)

Reporting Query: Miss Hecht's coupons?

This is an All Points Bulletin for former Hecht's coupon clippers. Now that Hecht's has morphed into Macy's, is anyone out there jonesing for those crazy Hecht's coupons that magically trimmed umpteen dollars off almost any purchase there? (I think I qualify, but I work here, so I'm no use to my colleague Ylan Mui.) I think the best part was even if you had somehow forgotten to clip the right coupon, the kind person at the cash register would have one there to scan in. Anyway, before I wax nostalgic too long, anyone else out there getting stiff hands...

By Annys Shin | November 20, 2006; 12:20 PM ET | Comments (11)

Give and Learn

The holidays are a peak time of year for charitable giving, whether it's buying tickets to one of the many charity dinners scheduled this time of year or dropping a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket at the mall. Would-be donors, however, have become more cautious about giving after hearing about one too many stories about charitable scams and plain old mismanagement. As my colleague Kathleen Day reported on Sunday, some folks are turning away from big charities such as the United Way and are choosing to give to smaller causes they vet themselves. In fact, the number of people...

By Annys Shin | November 20, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (10)

Plastic with Parental Controls

Two years ago, MasterCard introduced a Hello Kitty debit card targeted at girls ages 10 to 14. Now, it's offering the Allow Card, "a Prepaid MasterCard designed for Kids ... and the parents who love them!" So the Web site tells us. The card's target audience, by the way, are kids as young as 10, and as old as 19. According to the press release that came our way yesterday, it can do wonders such as help younguns "get a grasp of their allowance and finances, establish a better sense of trust with their parents and learn valuable life lessons,...

By Annys Shin | November 17, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Premiering Soon: Industrial Food Chain

The year 2006 will go down as a high watermark in our collective obsession with the industrial food chain. In the spring came the book release of The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's deconstruction of conventional and organic food. As late summer rolled around, we hunted for the source of the Great Spinach Outbreak in the epicenter of industrial produce production. Now autumn has brought us a choice of not one, but two movies that take us on a queasy field-to-fork ride. Fast Food Nation hits theaters tomorrow and Our Daily Bread premieres in the U.S. the following week. Fast Food...

By Annys Shin | November 16, 2006; 9:30 AM ET | Comments (0)

Kids Ad Cop Has a New Stick

So the long-awaited revised guidelines for children's advertising are finally here. It only took the advertising industry more than 30 years to write a full revision of the guidelines, which are used to make sure ads aimed at kids under age 12 are truthful, accurate and appropriate. The job of policing children's advertising falls to the Children's Advertising Review Unit, which, even though it was created by the ad industry, is run as part of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. It's a self-regulatory body. That means the industry sets the standards. Things were no different this time around. Representatives...

By Annys Shin | November 15, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Hidden Charges? Nothing Some Earbuds Can't Fix

A few weeks ago I found out I was eligible to benefit from a recently settled class action lawsuit. The suit alleged the cellphone service provider used deceptive advertising and got away with collecting hidden charges. I received two vouchers. I can sign up for only one choice on each voucher. Let's take a look at the goodies being offered, shall we? Voucher No. 1: * A $15 credit in return for renewing my contract for a year. * A $30 credit in return for renewing my contract for two years. * Continuing $3 service credits every three months beginning...

By Annys Shin | November 14, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (24)

Social Security Scam

Each year, in October, the Social Security Administration announces the cost-of-living increase for the following year for the nation's 49 million Social Security recipients. The COLA for 2007 was remarkable for two reasons: 1. It was smaller than the COLA for 2006. 2. It took phishers about three weeks to come up with a way of piggybacking on news of the benefit increase for their own nefarious purposes. The Social Security Administration has received several reports of an E-mail message making the rounds with the subject line "Cost-of-Living for 2007 update." Claiming to be from the Social Security Administration, the...

By Annys Shin | November 13, 2006; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (19)

So That's Where My Drugs Come From

Yesterday, a company I had never heard of before recalled 11 million bottles of acetaminophen because it found pieces of metal the size of a couple grains of salt in the pills. Nothing life threatening, mind you. But as with E. coli-tainted spinach, yesterday's recall taught me a lot about where many of the medicines and supplements I take come from. The substance in this case is generic painkiller sold under store brands at more than a hundred retailers nationwide such as CVS, Safeway, and Wal-Mart. The company that recalled the drug, Perrigo Co. of Allegan, Mich., makes just about...

By Annys Shin | November 10, 2006; 7:31 AM ET | Comments (50)

The Safeway Sandwich Snarl

A reader wrote in recently saying she wanted to hear more stories from average consumers. Lest you all think I'm here just to hog the spotlight, I will gladly oblige with today's tale of woe from Kate Schwarz of Fairfax. Now, I submit that the injustice Kate suffered isn't life threatening or even sinister. But it's an example of one of those everyday annoyances of modern life in which the internal bureaucratic workings of a business produce bizarre and nonsensical results for consumers that deserve to be chronicled somewhere, if only so we can commiserate. Kate, take it away. I...

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

You've Been SMiShed

The more I learn about smart phones, the less I understand how they got their name. A few weeks ago, my colleague Ellen Nakashima let us know that erasing personal information from cellphones and smart phones is not that easy and you can unwittingly leave behind a trove of data about yourself. Well, it looks like the handy devices are no longer immune from spammers and scammers either and are well on their way to giving whoever compiles the Oxford English Dictionary a headache by inspiring a new addition to the lexicon of cyber nuisances: SMiShing. The term was coined...

By Annys Shin | November 8, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Privacy Worries Here to Stay

After spending most of yesterday listening either in person or via phone to the Federal Trade Commission's three-day hearing on protecting consumers in the coming decade, I can report back that, from what I've heard so far, life in the future will not be much different than it is today. The dominant consumer protection concern that emerged from Day One of the gathering? Privacy. Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University and privacy expert, laid out the direction cyber fraud was heading. Identity theft isn't going to end. But there's a new wrinkle: "synthetic identity theft," where cyber thieves...

By Annys Shin | November 7, 2006; 7:15 AM ET | Comments (0)

Seeing the See Clearly Method for What It Is

Scammers become more and more technologically advanced with each passing day, or so it seems. Starting today, in fact, the Federal Trade Commission is holding a series of public hearings on "Protecting Consumers in the Next Tech Age." It's billed as a glimpse into the not-too-distant future, with panels devoted to how changes in products, marketing, and data security are likely to affect consumers. No matter how sophisticated we become as consumers, however, some scams survive all manner of technological change and find new victims generation after generation. A case in point: eye exercises to help correct impaired vision. Eight-six...

By Annys Shin | November 6, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Reader Mailbag

After nearly two months of writing the blog, I've started to get a steady stream of questions from readers. From now on, I'm going to dip into the mailbag once in a while and try to answer some of your questions. This week's mailbag had lots of inquiries related to the Great Spinach Outbreak, which we all know is a source of endless fascination for me, so I'll start with those. Dr. John Yanek wants to know why health officials aren't releasing the names of the four farms in Salinas Valley, which have been implicated in the outbreak as well...

By Annys Shin | November 3, 2006; 8:17 AM ET | Comments (0)

Up, Up, Up With Those Bank Fees

Death by a thousand cuts. That's sort of how bank fees feel. Two dollars here. Ten dollars there. It adds up...for banks, that is, which rely on fees for a bigger chunk of their bottom line. Sure you could avoid many of these fees if you always use your bank's ATM, never overdraw your account and maintain the required minimum balance. But banks count on the vagaries of life such as needing cash right when you're nowhere near an ATM for your bank, or an emergency expense that leads to a bounced check. And guess what? You're probably paying more...

By Annys Shin | November 2, 2006; 9:15 AM ET | Comments (57)

Just When You Thought Produce Was Safe Again...

When health officials talk about the Great Spinach Outbreak of 2006, they use the past tense. For me, though, it's far from over. I mean, for weeks, I've been following the exploits of the intrepid investigators as they've tromped through the spinach fields of Salinas Valley, picking up cattle feces, scooping up water samples and swabbing wild pigs. And just as they're getting close to finding the source of contamination....there's an outbreak of salmonella. Not just some run of the mill outbreak either. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is already aware of at least 170 people in 19...

By Annys Shin | November 1, 2006; 7:30 AM ET | Comments (9)

 

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