The Checkout

Archive: December 2006

Global Warming Ate My Insurance Policy

Allstate plans to stop offering property insurance in nearly a dozen counties along the Chesapeake Bay starting in February. The reason: the increased risk of hurricane damage due to rising ocean temperatures, possibly caused by global warming. According to the Baltimore Sun, Allstate is part of a growing number of insurance companies that are refusing to cover hurricane-prone areas. The trend started in Florida, which sustained millions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Andrew, and is now moving up to our neck of the woods. Nationwide Mutual Insurance decided to limit the amount of business it does in coastal areas...

By Annys Shin | December 22, 2006; 7:50 AM ET | Comments (0)

A Win for Phone Companies

Phone companies such as Verizon and AT&T have been chomping at the bit to bring you cable TV service, bundled, of course, with your local phone and high-speed Internet services. And the Federal Communications Commission obliged them yesterday, voting 3 to 2 to make it easier for them to get around pesky local governments that grant franchise agreements. The new rules approved by the commission will require local cable franchising authorities to act within 90 days on applications from companies such as Verizon and AT&T that have wires in place. The FCC's decision was a contentious one, with the vote...

By Annys Shin | December 21, 2006; 9:37 AM ET | Comments (0)

Return Stories

Our hard-working retail reporter Ylan Mui is working on a story about returns. If you have stories about travails at the return counter, please pass them on to her at muiy@washpost.com....

By Annys Shin | December 20, 2006; 12:02 PM ET | Comments (0)

Stealth Doesn't Pay

It's been a bad couple of days to be a spokesman for Sony. There were two fires to put out yesterday--both of which stemmed from attempts at being "slick," as the kids like to say, with consumers. Fire No. 1: Sony BMG--the music label that is a joint venture between Sony and Bertelsmann AG--said it would pay $1.5 million to settle lawsuits brought by the attorneys general of California and Texas over music CDs that installed anti-piracy software on consumers' computers without disclosing it. The software not only sent back information on what CDs consumers played, it also left computers...

By Annys Shin | December 20, 2006; 11:45 AM ET | Comments (0)

The Point of No Return

I admit it. I'm a serial returner. It's not that I can't make up my mind. In fact, by the time I reach the cashier, I've often gone through so much deliberation, I couldn't be more certain of the rightness of my purchase. But then I get home. What can I say? I'm a very remorseful shopper. The good thing about being a serial returner is that I pay more attention to what a store's return policy is before I buy anything there. The bad thing about being a serial returner is that at some point, apparently, my returning days...

By Annys Shin | December 19, 2006; 9:45 AM ET | Comments (32)

The Cost of Raising Baby

The guilt started about six months ago. Newly pregnant, I had gone to the store for prenatal vitamins. I found myself staring at one bottle for $8 and another that cost closer to $20. As far as I could tell, they had the same ingredients. Was the $20 one better? I wondered. Was I a bad mother if I bought the cheaper one? And is this how every baby-related spending decision was going to be from now on? Argh. The latter thought finally made me realize I had a long way to go so I had better save my money....

By Annys Shin | December 18, 2006; 9:23 AM ET | Comments (70)

Unlocking Your Phone Easier Said Than Done?

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a ruling saying consumers can unlock their cellphones and take them with them when they switch wireless companies. The decision was widely hailed as a win for consumers, who typically have to shell out for another device when they switch carriers. There was no real reason for it. Carriers did it simply to hang onto customers. So now that tyranny is over, right? Well, not so fast. It turns out it may not be so easy to unlock a phone after all. (I know. I'm being a real Debbie...

By Annys Shin | December 15, 2006; 9:45 AM ET | Comments (32)

Daddy, Why Is the Tree on Fire?

Every year, many consumers are alarmed when they buy holiday lights and see a warning label telling them the wire coating and cords contain lead. Holiday lights have had lead for awhile. The difference now is California's Proposition 65 requires any products sold in the state that contain cancer or birth defect-causing substances to carry such warnings. (Most appliance cords and faux Christmas trees are made with PVC that can contain lead.) What many people lose sight of, however, is that the bigger hazard associated with holiday lights is not lead but the potential for accidents, fire and electric shock....

By Annys Shin | December 14, 2006; 9:15 AM ET | Comments (18)

Credit Monitors: A False Sense of Security

Credit-monitoring services are not all they're cracked up to be, the New York Times reported yesterday. Credit monitoring has become a lucrative business for the big three credit reporting agencies and large banks as consumers try to protect themselves against identity theft. The big three typically sell consumer credit data to big banks for 20 cents to $1 per report, the Times reported. That same information -- your information -- can be repackaged and sold to you for credit-monitoring purposes for $3 to $16 per month. Wall Street analysts estimate credit monitoring is a $900 million business that will grow...

By Annys Shin | December 13, 2006; 9:25 AM ET | Comments (20)

Killing the Viral Marketing Buzz

For the first time, the Federal Trade Commission has tackled the issue of word-of-mouth marketing. On Monday, the agency pulled off the feat of giving critics and marketers something to be happy about by choosing not to regulate the practice more strictly while making it clear that companies that engage in the practice must be up front about what they're doing. What is word-of-mouth marketing, you ask? Well, you probably know it better as "buzz," "stealth," "viral" or "guerilla" marketing, which are promotional techniques that can take all sorts of forms from a Ricky Bobby MySpace page to teenagers hyping...

By Annys Shin | December 12, 2006; 10:30 AM ET | Comments (11)

Top 10 Scams of 2006

With New Year's just around the corner, it's that time of year when we're inundated with all sorts of reviews and regurgitations of the year that is about to end. I don't get much out of them except for the occasional "oh yeah" moment. As in: "Oh yeah, it was this past year that Dick Cheney shot someone in the face." Even though there are always plenty of scams, I have to say, I enjoyed in my own consumer news-nerdy sort of way Consumeraffairs.com's Top 10 Scams of 2006. It helped that the Web site created a video countdown version...

By Annys Shin | December 11, 2006; 9:13 AM ET | Comments (35)

Rating Cell Phone Service

Consumer Reports is out with its latest survey of cellphone service. And Verizon Wireless is having a Sally Field moment. The survey leaves company officials with one major impression, "You really like me. You really like me." The wireless giant came out on top in many major U.S. cities, including the Washington metro area. D.C. area users gave VW a satisfaction rate of 69 percent. That compares to 62 percent for Sprint, 61 percent for T-Mobile and 59 percent for Cingular. Verizon Wireless might not want to rest on its laurels just yet, though. If you look a little more...

By Annys Shin | December 8, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (58)

Getting the Lead Out of Toy Jewelry

The Consumer Product Safety Commission yesterday took the first step toward effectively banning lead in toy jewelry. The agency's staff recommended the commission prohibit children's metal jewelry with lead content exceeding .06 percent. The Commission is scheduled to vote next Monday on whether to move forward with putting the ban in place. If they do go ahead, there's still a public comment period and more votes and comment periods before it becomes official. The staff recommendation is still significant, though, because it marks another move toward cracking down on this preventable hazard. You could say the agency has been working...

By Annys Shin | December 7, 2006; 11:43 AM ET | Comments (8)

Trans Fat Is Out in NYC

New York City's Board of Health has made it official: Trans fat is on its way out of Big Apple restaurants. This was not exactly a surprise. After all, it was a foregone conclusion when the Board of Health proposed it back in September. The restaurant industry is not happy. The city, they say, is not giving them enough time to adjust. We're talking about roughly 20,000 eating establishments. Many owners--and consumers for that matter--don't know what a trans fat is. The industry is skeptical they will get a clue by July 2007, when they have to stop frying with...

By Annys Shin | December 6, 2006; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (114)

Is the Buzz Around Caffeine Drinks Bull?

Whenever I hear the claims of hyper-caffeinated beverages such as Red Bull, I always think they would sound better if shouted by carnival hucksters. Having whimsically-drawn cartoons saying a drink gives you "wings" just strikes me as a mealy-mouthed euphemism for a drug-induced rush. Soft drink companies and, what I call "energy drink entrepreneurs," have gotten wise to this and have started to come up with hyperactive names such as "Enviga," "Cocaine," and "Bawls" to go with their products' hyperactive claims. Hype attracts skeptics, and it was only a matter of time before the truth squading began. Red Bull recently...

By Annys Shin | December 5, 2006; 10:15 AM ET | Comments (0)

Get a Human, Get an A. Get a Machine, Get an F

Back in August, the original Checkout Consumer Champion and GetHuman.com founder Paul English announced he had drafted standards for customer service and would be gathering input from consumers and companies such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems and IBM. It was GetHuman's first step toward evaluating companies on how well they treat us on the phone. The standards are based on six core principles that make sense to anyone ever trapped in a phone tree. Here's a quick rundown: * Humans First. As the name "GetHuman" suggests, talking to a person and not a machine is a top priority. So, where a...

By Annys Shin | December 4, 2006; 9:15 AM ET | Comments (0)

Pick Your Regulator, Any Regulator

Okay. So I know pre-emption isn't the most exciting topic. Or at least the number of comments drops precipitously whenever I start talking about attempts to overrule state consumer protection laws with weaker federal regulation. But I'm going to take another stab at it today because there's a Supreme Court case worth keeping an eye on. (Remember, broccoli is good for you.) The case is Watters v. Wachovia Bank. Ostensibly, it's about the mortgage-lending business, but depending on how the Supremes rule, it could have far reaching implications for business regulation, period. States, after all, have regulations on everything from...

By Annys Shin | December 1, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (14)

 

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