The Checkout

Archive: January 2007

McDonald's Guessing Game: Where's the Trans Fat?

The day we have all been waiting for has finally arrived: McDonald's has started cooking with trans-fat-free oil. The only catch is, it won't say where. Are you lovin' it? Okay, so maybe we haven't all been waiting for this day, but McDonald's announcement certainly marked an anticlimatic end to the five-year saga surrounding its promise to reduce trans fat. A brief summary: The chain first said it would cut back on trans fat in 2002. Then two years passed and trans fat was still in the fryer so anti-trans fat crusader Stephen Joseph sued the Golden Arches, and about...

By Annys Shin | January 31, 2007; 8:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Drug Ads: Taking Medicine Never Looked So Good

Remember all those tricks drugmakers used to get you to take medicine as a kid? They made cough syrup sweet and acetaminophen chewable. They transformed horse pill vitamins into friendly cartoon characters. Well, perhaps a better approach would've been to inundate you with ads--ones that depict a fearful and alone child who becomes happy, confident and popular after taking a pill. That formula, it seems, works well on millions of Americans, who watch as many as 16 hours of prescription drug ads every year -- far more than the average time spent with a primary care physician. Since the Food...

By Annys Shin | January 30, 2007; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

How Many Gs for That Diploma?

When I was helping my parents fill out college loan applications -- I won't say exactly when -- I had little idea at the time how much $280 a month would mean to me just four years later. You could say I was caught up in the whole "my parents-came-here-so-I-could-go-to-the-best-school thing." Because I sure wasn't thinking about what my parents could afford, let alone what I could afford to pay. (And neither were they, for that matter.) Suffice it to say, I picked an expensive private school instead of going to a perfectly good state one. Even with the scholarship...

By Annys Shin | January 29, 2007; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Is That Letter From the IRS? Not.

If you live in the District, you may have received an official looking notice in the mail titled "Payment Reduction Program, District of Columbia Residents 2007 Non-Rental Housing." This mailing is not as official as it looks. Take a look at the full mortgage pitch. "It is very important that you respond to this notice immediately," the notice reads. Despite its appearance, the letter turns out to be a cold refinancing pitch from Houston-based Allied Home Mortgage Capital Corp., the nation's largest privately held mortgage broker/banker. (Allied, if you're curious, was the target of a civil rights complaint last year...

By Annys Shin | January 26, 2007; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (8)

Thank You for Paying Interest

Credit-card companies usually aren't very good at making their customers feel warm and fuzzy. Not even knee-slapping commercials starring barbarians and fake Borats can make a person forget incomprehensible terms printed in squint-inducing type, late fees, and the pain of universal default. But how about a handwritten thank you note? Jeff Baron, a colleague of mine, and his wife originally signed up for an Advanta small business credit card to take advantage of an introductory offer of 2.99 percent APR on transfer balances. "The flier for the deal was clear enough, which was one of the attractions, though of course...

By Annys Shin | January 25, 2007; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (41)

Talk Less and Pay More

Remember the long-distance phone wars of the early 1990s? When your phone rang nearly every day with an offer from MCI, Sprint or AT&T to get you to switch carriers? All that competition was supposed to bring down phone rates. But consumer advocacy group Teletruth says if you believe that, you're mistaken. Teletruth's analysis of phone rates shows that since 2000 long-distance charges for AT&T have gone up 237 percent for so-called "low-volume users" -- people who make up to 15 minutes of long distance calls a month. About 30 percent of American customers qualify as low-volume; many of them...

By Annys Shin | January 24, 2007; 9:36 AM ET | Comments (24)

Is User Generated Always Useful?

2007 is shaping up to be the battle of the health Web sites. Nearly a decade after WebMD went online, advertising dollars are finally migrating to the Web in enough quantity that investors such as Time Warner and the Carlyle Group think health Web sites are a hot investment. So even though WebMD has entered the pop culture lexicon--as in when a character on "Law & Order" quips, "What? Did you read that on WebMD?"--the online encyclopedia of illness info has attracted competitors, including America Online co-founder Steve Case. Case's Revolution Health Group yesterday launched a "preview" of Revolutionhealth.com, sort...

By Annys Shin | January 23, 2007; 7:15 AM ET | Comments (14)

About That Car...

If you've recently entered the used car market, you probably have it drilled into your head to get a vehicle history. For $20 to $25, services such as CARFAX can help you avoid getting stuck with a lemon. Well, consumers are only as good as the information they have and a class-action lawsuit against CARFAX alleges the Centerville, Va., company's reports are not as thorough as it has led people to believe. It turns out that CARFAX doesn't receive accident reports from every state, but the company's Web site is a little coy about disclosing that fact. On the one...

By Annys Shin | January 22, 2007; 8:30 AM ET | Comments (21)

You Qualify ... to Spend More

Reader Brad Schwardt of Hanover Park, Ill., recently wrote in with about an encounter he had with Dell in which the computer company tried to upsell him based on his credit. The story begins like this: Schwardt was in the market for a new notebook PC for grad school and was going to buy a Dell based on a positive experience he had with a previous Dell product. The one catch was that he refused to pay interest so it was either going to be a cash sale or zero percent interest. I'll let him tell it from here: I...

By Annys Shin | January 19, 2007; 7:00 AM ET | Comments (42)

Consumer Reports Retracts Car Seat Study

Consumer Reports is retracting its car seat report after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had found flaws in its side-impact testing methods. A quick recap: Consumer Reports tried to raise the bar on child safety seat testing by putting 12 popular car seats through 35 mph frontal and 38 mph side-impact crash tests. CR chose those speeds because they are the government standard for crash testing vehicles. Currently, federal standards require car seats be tested only in 30 mph frontal crash tests. CR found that 10 seats failed and flew off their bases. One seat, the Evenflo...

By Annys Shin | January 18, 2007; 3:00 PM ET | Comments (40)

Anticipating Tax Refunds May Cost You

January means the start of tax preparation season and those W-2s should be landing on your doorstep any day. For the hundreds of thousands of consumers who took out so-called pay stub loans, the arrival of the W-2 could signal an early financial reckoning, in addition to the one they still face on April 15. A pay stub loan is a short-term, unsecured loan based on an estimated tax refund. It's the latest twist on tax refund anticipation loans and comes with a fee ranging from $40 to $70. Trouble can arise when the estimated tax refund on which a...

By Annys Shin | January 18, 2007; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (6)

Keeping ID Theft Victims in the Dark

This just in: Pretexting is illegal. Still. President Bush recently signed the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006 that makes it illegal to use a false identity or other fraudulent means to gain access to an individual's phone records. (It was illegal before, but now you can go to prison for 10 years for buying, selling or otherwise obtaining personal phone records, unless you're law enforcement.) In related news, last Friday, Bryan Wagner, a private eye who used pretexting to investigate reporters for Hewlett-Packard, pled guilty to two felony counts. In the midst of the big headlines, however,...

By Annys Shin | January 17, 2007; 9:46 AM ET | Comments (0)

Naturally Confusing

I don't think I've ever thought of soda as being "all natural" despite what advertisements might say. That assumption is based on the fact that I've never seen carbonated liquid squeezed out of a fruit or vegetable. Apparently, though, Center for Science in the Public Interest was worried some people might believe soda could be all natural--and thus not so bad for you. In May, it said it would sue beverage company Cadbury-Schweppes for calling the newly reformulated 7-Up all natural, even though it contained man-made high-fructose corn syrup. Last week, Cadbury-Schweppes cried uncle and said it would change the...

By Annys Shin | January 16, 2007; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Going Once. Going Twice. Gone.

Reader Cathleen Graham of Locust Valley, N.Y., brings us this tale from the dark side of online auctions. Last month, Graham and her husband found a plow for their farm on eBay.com. A seller in Detroit, by the name of Melvin, was offering a 2005 Kawasaki Mule, a kind of all-terrain vehicle, with a plow attached. Through eBay, the couple sent an e-mail inquiring about the ATV. Melvin wrote back offering the ATV for $2800 including shipping and handling. If they agreed to his terms, he said he would relist the item on eBay with a "Buy-It-Now" option. The Grahams...

By Annys Shin | January 12, 2007; 7:45 AM ET | Comments (0)

Raising the Bar on Vehicle Testing

On the heels of Consumer Reports pushing the envelope on child safety seat testing, the Department of Transportation says it's looking to change testing standards for vehicles. Apparently, it's gotten too easy for vehicles to score five stars on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's frontal and side crash tests. According to Consumeraffairs.com, 87 percent of 2006 vehicles received four or five stars for side impact crashes and 95 percent earned top marks for frontal crashes. The concern is that with so many cars receiving similar ratings, they have lost meaning for consumers. Other ratings you probably have seen come...

By Annys Shin | January 11, 2007; 9:09 AM ET | Comments (20)

Is The Rising Cost of College Getting You Down?

This is a reporter query for my colleague Kathleen Day: Is the rising cost of college getting you down? Please tell us how your family plans to pay for college if, like the bulk of Americans, you don't qualify for financial aid but find the cost of higher education a potential budget buster. We'll try to find some answers. Respond to dayk@washpost.com....

By Annys Shin | January 11, 2007; 8:00 AM ET | Comments (6)

Do Insurance Profits Come at Consumer Expense?

A few weeks ago, Allstate said it would stop offering homeowner's policies in parts of Maryland and Virginia. Fortunately, those areas still have many other insurers to choose from. But Allstate's move also brought home the ongoing debate over how insurers have acted in the wake of recent disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. On Monday, a coalition of consumer groups led by the Consumer Federation of America issued a report arguing that insurers are charging higher premiums, paying lower claims and reaping greater profit, even as they are jacking up rates on many coastal homeowners or refusing to renew...

By Annys Shin | January 10, 2007; 11:18 AM ET | Comments (39)

Car Seat Controversy: Who to Believe?

By now, you've probably heard about the alarming results of Consumer Reports' tests on 12 popular child safety seats. For the first time, CR tested the seats in 35 mph frontal crashes and 38 mph side crashes--the same speed used to crash-test vehicles. CR previously tested the seats in 30 miles per hour crash tests, which is the current federal standard. Only two seats passed with flying colors: the Graco SnugRide with EPS--expanded polystyrene, a cushioning material--and the Baby Trend Flex-Loc. The seats that failed -- including some CR had previously recommended -- twisted violently or flew off their bases....

By Annys Shin | January 9, 2007; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (46)

Student Loan Aid May Be on the Way

Winter break is drawing to a close at many colleges and universities and there's movement afoot to lower the cost of higher education. For the 200,000 people the U.S. Department of Education estimates put off or give up on going to college because they can't afford it, the newly installed Democratic majority in the House may work to cut the interest rate on need-based student loans and expanding Pell Grants and tax credits, according to Gannett News Service's Maureen Groppe. Whether any of those proposal will survive in the Senate or a presidential veto remains to be seen. For those...

By Annys Shin | January 8, 2007; 9:30 AM ET | Comments (29)

The Biggest Loser Is...

There are days when I think working at the Federal Trade Commission must be a blast. Yesterday, the agency announced $25 million in settlements with several promoters of well-known weight-control products such as TrimSpa and CortiSlim. Deceptive advertising is not a laughing matter, but some of the ads for these products are pretty funny. Take an ad for One-A-Day WeightSmart multi-vitamin, which contains a green tea extract that supposedly does something for your metabolism. WeightSmart's maker, pharmaceutical giant Bayer, was not happy about being lumped in with the likes of Anna Nicole. And the company denied promoting WeightSmart as anything...

By Annys Shin | January 5, 2007; 7:33 AM ET | Comments (71)

Blinko: A Cellphone Charge Mystery

A colleague of mine, Dan Beyers, brought to my attention recently a charge on his Verizon Wireless bill he has been fighting for the past five months. After seeing an ad on television, his teenaged son had signed up via text message for what he thought was a one-time free joke. Soon after, however, a charge of $9.99 for "Premium TXT Messaging" appeared on dad's cell phone bill and resisted his many efforts to identify its source and to have it removed. After several phone calls to Verizon Wireless, Beyers was told the source was something called Blinko. Blinko, it...

By Annys Shin | January 4, 2007; 9:00 AM ET | Comments (27)

Congress to Hear Earful on Credit Report Errors

Congress is about to get an earful on how hard it is to fix errors in credit reports thanks to incoming House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank. Last week, Frank said he plans to hold hearings on the matter after reading a Boston Globe story on the "glacial and ineffectual response of the three giant keepers of consumer credit records -- Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion -- to any errors in their files, even those that appear to result from fraud." Such errors can wreak havoc on consumers who are denied credit as a result or end up hunted by collection...

By Annys Shin | January 3, 2007; 10:23 AM ET | Comments (31)

E-Service Failings

For the most part, e-mail makes communication easier. But I'm beginning to think there is one area where it isn't working: customer service. My husband and I recently signed up for Netflix. We got our first movie without a hitch. (Boys of Baraka. Two thumbs up.) We watched it. We sent it back. No problem. Since then, however, we have yet to receive movie No. 2 on our list. I've gone online several times to make sure the mailing address is correct. It is. I reported the movie missing. Netflix promised to try again. It was supposed to show up...

By Annys Shin | January 2, 2007; 8:19 AM ET | Comments (38)

 

© 2010 The Washington Post Company