The Checkout

Archive: Consumer News

The Cost of Christmas Carols

You think your budget is tight this Christmas. Just think how the poor folks suffered in 1780. That is the year the lyrics to the popular "Twelve Days of Christmas" were written, at least according to Wikipedia. Among the many presents that my poor true love had to dig up were five golden rings, seven lords a-leaping and 12 drummers drumming -- and this was way before Life Took Visa! In today's dollars, the full set of items would cost you $21,080.10, according to an in-depth analysis by PNC Bank this week. That's an 8 percent increase over last year,...

 

By Ylan Mui | December 4, 2008; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

The Return of Layaway

You thought it was a relic of your parents' -- or even your grandparents' -- generation. But layaway is making a comeback. This week, Sears reinstituted layaway in its stores across the country after a hiatus of nearly two decades. Company spokesman Tom Aiello said customer demand for the service, which allows shoppers to put merchandise on hold with a small down payment and pay it off over time, has spiked as the economic downturn lingers on like a bad cold. Sears phased out layaway in 1989 because of waning demand, though it kept the service in its jewelry department,...

 

By Ylan Mui | November 19, 2008; 07:01 AM ET | Comments (2)

I'm Dreaming of a Cheap Christmas

Usually, I am all about Christmas. I love Christmas, not least because my birthday is the day before and because I also love cookies. But this year, the holiday season conjures up images of large credit card statements, small bank accounts and an evil Grinch who goes by the alias "Dow Jones Industrial Average." Apparently, I'm not the only one in this mess. The National Retail Federation, a trade group, today released the gloomy results of its holiday shopping survey: Consumers plan to spend an average of $832.36 on holiday shopping this year, up 1.9 percent from last year and...

 

By Ylan Mui | October 16, 2008; 12:23 PM ET | Comments (0)

Vote with Your Coffee Cup

It's official: There is nowhere left to hide. Yes, this is Washington, and yes, the presidential election is only 21 days away. But now you can't even buy a cup of coffee or eat a burrito without becoming embroiled in partisan politics. Convenience store chain 7-Eleven launched its "7-Election" campaign this month. Customers "vote" by choosing which 20-ounce coffee cup they want to use: one with Sen. John McCain's name or one with Sen. Barack Obama's. As of this morning, here were the standings: DC: Obama, 83 percent; McCain, 17 percent MD: Obama, 59 percent; McCain, 41 percent VA: Obama,...

 

By Ylan Mui | October 14, 2008; 12:00 PM ET | Comments (2)

The Economy that Stole Christmas

Every fall, retailers try to lower the bar for expectations of holiday performance. They warn of tough times and slow sales, and then cheer when -- surprise! -- things aren't all that bad on Dec. 26. But this year is different. This year, retailers have legitimate reasons to worry, just like the rest of us. In a story this morning, I wrote about the real pressures that retailers are facing for the first time in nearly 20 years. The industry reported additional sales numbers today that feed those worries. Abercrombie & Fitch said sales at stores open at least a...

 

By Ylan Mui | October 9, 2008; 03:55 PM ET | Comments (2)

New Data on Children Killed by Unstable Furniture and TVs

On Wednesday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission released new data showing that between 2000 and 2006--the most recent data available--there have been 180 deaths involving heavy furniture such as dressers or armoires, and televisions falling and crushing people. Eighty percent of the deaths involved children younger than 10. And there were 40 reports of tip-over deaths between 2005 and 2006 alone. And such accidents continue. Last Saturday, a nine-month old in Arizona died after a television fell and crushed her. There are various theories as to why there was a big increase. Don Mays of Consumers Union thinks it could...

 

By Annys Shin | October 2, 2008; 07:34 AM ET | Comments (2)

Gift Card Gamble

Take a peek inside your wallet, that desk in the spare bedroom or the catch-all drawer in your kitchen. Chances are that you've got some unused gift cards inside. I know I do. Now may be the time to rifle through them. As the roster of retailers filing for bankruptcy protection continues to grow, the Consumers Union is asking the Federal Trade Commission to force stores to accept those gift cards as long as their doors remain open. The advocacy group also wants retailers to set up a separate trust fund of gift card revenues, so that shoppers can be...

 

By Ylan Mui | September 11, 2008; 11:57 AM ET | Comments (1)

Sparks Fly in the District

My colleague Jordan Weissmann reports that the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington health advocacy group, filed a lawsuit yesterday in an effort to stop MillerCoors LLC. from selling Sparks, its alcoholic energy drink, in the District. The suit alleges that Sparks contains ingredients -- caffeine, ginseng and taurine -- that have never been approved for use in alcoholic beverages, and that the government erred by allowing the the drink on the market. The suit, filed in DC Superior Court, accuses MillerCoors of actively marketing Sparks, which contains 6 percent alcohol, to underage consumers. The CSPI...

 

By Kathy Lally | September 9, 2008; 08:11 AM ET | Comments (0)

Wal-Mart Wants Mommy

Wal-Mart is making a play for the YouTube generation with the help of a dozen "mommy bloggers" tasked with making their own videos on ways to save money and live better, which just happens to be Wal-Mart's motto. The program launched this week and is called Elevenmoms, but of course, being Wal-Mart, they threw in one more to make 12. One of the bloggers, Jessica Smith of JessicaKnows, hails from Olney, Md. Smith said Wal-Mart contacted her early this summer with this offer: Create short videos of money-saving tips to kick off its new YouTube channel. Smith did not receive...

 

By Ylan Mui | September 4, 2008; 07:01 AM ET | Comments (3)

Naked for a Cause

Some companies donate money to their favorite causes. Others put their CEO on the boards of important nonprofits or organize their staff for a volunteer day. Beauty retailer Lush asked their employees to get naked. Oh, we are so there. The premise is that excess packaging is bad for the environment because it uses precious resources and wastes space in delivery trucks, which in turn wastes fuel. Lush bills itself as a "deli-style" beauty bar that sells soaps, shampoos, even deodorant in solid form and unwrapped -- aka naked -- which the company says makes the products more environmentally friendly....

 

By Ylan Mui | August 27, 2008; 04:48 PM ET | Comments (0)

The Politics of Shopping

Everyone wants a little piece of the political action these days, even retailers. Two interesting releases came across my inbox the other day. (None of which had any real inside info. For that, head to The Trail!) But they did offer some insights into what your credit card statement might say about your voting record. According to BIGresearch, which studies consumer behavior, people who drink Starbucks coffee favor Obama (44 percent) over McCain (37.8 percent), giving some credence to the term "latte liberals." However, if you head to McDonald's for your morning cup o' joe (and perhaps a well-done sausage...

 

By Ylan Mui | August 22, 2008; 05:06 PM ET | Comments (0)

Costco Cautions Against Mercury

Costco is the latest retailer to agree to post signs at its seafood counters with the FDA's warnings about consuming mercury in seafood. The move comes after customer requests and an active campaign by environmental advocacy group Oceana. Oceana began its campaign in 2005 and so far has signed up nearly 6,400 grocery stores at several major chains, including Whole Foods, Harris Teeter and Safeway. The FDA's guidance says women who may become pregnant, who are pregnant or who are nursing should stay away from swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel and limit consumption of albacore tuna and tuna steaks...

 

By Ylan Mui | August 11, 2008; 07:01 AM ET | Comments (4)

Balducci's Goes International

The next chapter in the Balducci's saga takes place overseas. The gourmet grocer that built a following for its 10 stores along the East Coast plans to open its first international location in Dubai at the end of next month. The store is being built in partnership with developer Nakheel Retail in the Mall of Dubai, and the company hopes it will be the first of several locations in the bustling, wealthy region. Gee, Penn Quarter -- where Balducci's had an on-again/off-again relationship with a site -- just doesn't have the same ring to it. Looks like residents will need...

 

By Ylan Mui | August 5, 2008; 07:03 AM ET | Comments (0)

J.Crew says sorry

J. Crew wants you to know that it doesn't take technical glitches lightly. Consider this e-mail that appeared in my inbox and on the front of the retailer's Web site yesterday (trendy all-lowercase style is theirs): "we've made some mistakes ... (too many in our mind). we want to say that we're sorry for any issues you have experienced while shopping J.Crew online or over the phone over the last few weeks -- we know we've let you down. we are in the midst of making some enhancements to our web site an call center (and unfortunately encountered some bumps...

 

By Ylan Mui | July 31, 2008; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (7)

Update: Earthworks Responds to WMT's New Jewelry

Mining reform advocacy group Earthworks has responded to Wal-Mart's new jewelry line, Love, Earth, which can be traced back to mines that meet certain environmental and social standards. The group said it is hopeful that the jewelry line is a first step but that it does not consider any large gold mines "responsible." You can read their full statement in all its nuance here. We reported last week that Wal-Mart joined Earthworks' No Dirty Gold campaign last year after repeated pleas from the group. The Love, Earth line launched last week in partnership with Conservation International....

 

By Ylan Mui | July 25, 2008; 09:19 AM ET | Comments (99)

Giant's Seafood Makeover

Last week, we reported on Whole Foods and other supermarkets' new sustainable seafood initiatives. Yesterday, Giant Food announced support for the principles of the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, a coalition of nonprofit groups that works with retailers to change the way they buy seafood. Giant said it is committing to work toward buying environmentally responsible products, making information on seafood products readily available and supporting policy changes that have positive environmental impact. The company's seafood buyers are now also ranking their purchases on how plentiful the species is, how it is caught and what effect fishing has on the...

 

By Ylan Mui | July 24, 2008; 07:01 AM ET | Comments (77)

Cleaning Up Dirty Gold

For years, mining reform advocacy group Earthworks called on Wal-Mart to endorse its No Dirty Gold campaign and promise to adhere to several principles, including respecting human rights, cleaning up mine sites and not forcing communities off their land. The group never got a response -- except once, from the communications department -- from the company that sells more jewelry than any other retailer in the United States. That is, not until 2006, after Wal-Mart had embarked on its sustainability makeover. In February 2007, it publicly joined the No Dirty Gold campaign. The other day, this press release with this...

 

By Ylan Mui | July 17, 2008; 07:04 AM ET | Comments (1)

Transsexual Tilapia?

I know what you're thinking already. It sounds totally insane. But the tilapia you eat very likely has gone through a sex change. Let me explain: When we began working on our story about Whole Foods' new farmed seafood standards, one bullet point caught our eye: No Methyl testosterone for sex reversal. As it turns out, farm-raised tilapia is typically given testosterone in their food when they're very small, for the first 35-40 days of feeding, Whole Foods seafood quality standards coordinator Carrie Brownstein told me. Any fish that were on the path to a womanly fishhood change course to...

 

By Ylan Mui | July 16, 2008; 02:03 PM ET | Comments (4)

Men, Women and Shopping

A new poll by Consumer Reports quantifies what many of us already know: Men and women just don't shop the same. The survey found that 84 percent of couples say they shop together at least sometimes. Three-quarters say they have held hands while shopping, and 46 percent admit to "other" public displays of affection, which, really, we don't need any more detail about. That's the boring stuff, anyway. Here's the good dish: More than a quarter of couples say they have argued in public while shopping, and 25 percent have been embarassed by their partner in a store. ("Honey, put...

 

By Ylan Mui | July 15, 2008; 07:05 AM ET | Comments (1)

Chatting It Up with Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart held its first online chat with shoppers Thursday on its new Web site, www.makeyourdollarstretch.com. The guest chatter was Ellie Kay, who dug herself out of $40,000 in debt and now writes books about saving money. The chat was the latest example of Wal-Mart's attempts to refresh its image under the new slogan, "Save Money. Live Better." (The old motto was "Always low prices. Always." Just in case you missed it.) For two hours, Kay fielded questions on everything from how to start a budget to paying for college tuition to filing bankruptcy -- though not in such a depressing...

 

By Ylan Mui | June 20, 2008; 12:00 PM ET | Comments (0)

Fuel Surcharge Frenzy

The air conditioning in my condo died over the weekend. It sounded fine at first, humming away even as the temperature crept up to 75, 76, 77 degrees. Then it fell silent, and I began to sweat. I called a maintenance company to repair the machine. An agent quoted me a price over the phone, and I was surprised when he mentioned a $10 fuel surcharge for driving the repair van to my house. Ten dollars! It's not surprising to find fuel surcharges added to the price of your airline ticket or car rental. But I had never considered that...

 

By Ylan Mui | June 17, 2008; 01:42 PM ET | Comments (0)

Another Sales Tax Holiday

Hurricane season starts June 1. Do you know where your glow sticks are? Don't worry -- we can't find ours either. Enter the Virginia Department of Emergency Preparedness, which is offering a state sales tax holiday through Saturday on the equipment you need to weather this season's storms. The holiday covers products costing less than $60 each, including: batteries, bungee cords, duct tape, portable self-powered radios, cell phone chargers, first aid kits -- and yes, glow sticks, flashlights, lanterns and other "self-powered light sources." Portable generators and certain power cables costing less than $1,000 are also included. The full printer-friendly...

 

By Ylan Mui | May 26, 2008; 07:46 AM ET | Comments (1)

Retailers Want Your Rebate!

Retailers are feeling very Jerry Maguire these days. All they seem to be saying is "SHOW ME THE MONEY!" That money would be your rebate check, or in government parlance, your "economic stimulus payment." The IRS announced last week that it had begun depositing money in taxpayers' bank accounts and expected to continue the payments through mid-July. The agency has posted a schedule for the rebates on its Web site, along with a calculator to help you figure out how much you're going to get. Retailers, of course, are wasting no time in helping you figure out how to spend...

 

By Ylan Mui | May 5, 2008; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (4)

Your 401(k) Can Cost You

The number of Americans with 401(k)-style retirement plans has grown to about 50 million. But how many of those people know how much they're paying their providers in administration fees? Not many, according to the AARP. A study the organization commissioned last year found that of 1,584 people aged 25 and over who had 401(k) plans, a whopping 83 percent had no idea how much they pay in fees. Even if you were vigilant, you would still probably end up losing out. The fees usually appear deceptively small, ranging from less than 1 percent of assets to more than 2...

 

By Kathy Lally | April 28, 2008; 08:00 AM ET | Comments (2)

The Saucy Siren of Starbucks

We are on the phone with Starbucks public relations and trying hard to sound like a hard-nosed investigative reporter. We want to ask about their newly brown logo and the mermaid -- Compare the new logo (top) with the old logo (bottom). (Images Courtesy of Starbucks) "She is a siren," spokeswoman Bridget Baker corrects. "A siren has a split tail and a mermaid has a single tail." She pauses. "This is my job." Well, we had to ask. And that's because the logo unveiled this month to celebrate the new Starbucks' Pike Place Roast reveals the saucy siren in all...

 

By Ylan Mui | April 25, 2008; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (6)

Update: Toys 'R' Us to Phase Out BPA Baby Bottles

It's still early on Monday morning, but Toys 'R' Us has already sent us two e-mails to make sure we know that it plans to phase out by the end of the year all baby bottles and other baby feeding products that are made with bisphenol A, the controversial chemical used to make clear plastic. Straight from the e-mail from spokesman Bob Friedland: Toys"R"Us, Inc. is committed to the safety of all its customers and is vigilant about staying current with emerging scientific and other thinking about ingredients in products sold in its stores. While the FDA has not changed...

 

By Ylan Mui | April 21, 2008; 11:01 AM ET | Comments (0)

Bye-Bye Bisphenol A?

The bisphenol-A debate has gained plenty of momentum this week. I reported this morning that Wal-Mart said yesterday it will sell only BPA-free baby bottles in its U.S. stores by early next year -- one day after its Canadian division halted all sales of baby bottles, pacifiers, sippy cups, food containers an water bottles containing the chemical. That's a major move by the biggest retailer in the world. It comes at a time when debate over BPA has reached frenetic levels. My colleague Lyndsey Layton reported earlier this week on the National Toxicology Program draft report that found there is...

 

By Ylan Mui | April 18, 2008; 08:19 AM ET | Comments (11)

The Pervasive Plastic Bag

We're getting some company here at The Checkout. As of today, I'm being joined by two of my colleagues, Ylan Q. Mui, who covers retail for the newspaper, and Nancy Trejos, who writes about personal finance. We'll be taking turns on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, so check in when you can. We'll also weigh in when news breaks or we find a really juicy story that we can't wait to share. As always, feel free to write to us at thecheckout@washpost.com. Here's Ylan, taking on reusable shopping bags. I jumped on the eco-bandwagon two years ago and bought my first...

 

By Annys Shin | April 7, 2008; 08:00 AM ET | Comments (26)

What if Barbie Took Some Bad Heparin?

For those of you wondering whether I've contracted a bad case of baby brains, I am here to tell you that while work on Parenting Inc. continues, I have been keeping up with the news. There's a lot to catch up on. What with another government laptop gone missing with tons of personal info on it, and health care costs bringing down wages, even as we work harder and produce more. But today, I thought I'd talk about the FDA. A couple of stories over the past week have brought attention, yet again, to gaps in the food and product...

 

By Annys Shin | March 24, 2008; 09:23 AM ET | Comments (4)

What's the name of that agency again?

Ever heard of the Department of Maryland Notifications? Neither have we! But that is the name that appeared on the envelope of a mortgage refinance solicitation received by my poor colleague Dan Beyers, whose mailbox has lately been filled with refi-related junk mail. Making these solicitations look officials is an old trick. This one is just a little extra creative. Once you open the envelope you discover that it is not from the government. Instead it's a "Notice of Instant Fixed Rate Approval" signed "sincerely" by one Richard Foley of the Potomac Funding Group. His pitch reads: "You have been...

 

By Annys Shin | March 17, 2008; 12:12 PM ET | Comments (3)

Parenting Inc. Part Deux

In case you missed it, the second installment of Parenting Inc., the business of parenting ran on Saturday. The story is about the rise of specialized services for parents of infants and young children. There appears to be a coach for almost everything. Potty training. Sleep. I just heard there's a local lice lady who comes to you house and tells you what to do when you kid comes home with the critters in her hair. I hope I never have to call her. For the next installment, I'm thinking of writing about companies or consultants who specialize in finding...

 

By Annys Shin | March 11, 2008; 12:25 PM ET | Comments (0)

The Business of Parenting

Last Saturday, we launched an occasional series on the business of parenting. The first installment was about how entrepreneurs and retailers are trying to serve the growing number of parents who are spooked by the potentially negative health effects of chemicals in everyday household items. Last year's recalls of lead-laced toys, not to mention Aqua Dots--the craft toy that when swallowed put several kids in comas--has heightened awareness and concern over the chemical components of everything, not just toys. One thing that came up in reporting was the high price that parents are paying for "peace of mind" of buying...

 

By Annys Shin | March 4, 2008; 11:44 AM ET | Comments (0)

Where's the beef addendum

I promised you the beef industry's thoughts on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's move to adopt a regulation that would allow it to release the names of retail establishments that received recalled meat. Dave Ray of the American Meat Institute was kind enough to send us something. You can read the group's comments here. The short version is AMI thinks releasing that information is a bad idea and that recalls are effective as they are. While we're on the subject of meat, I thought I'd mention that the USDA Office of Inspector General released a memo on USDA's sampling and...

 

By Annys Shin | February 27, 2008; 11:06 AM ET | Comments (4)

Where's the beef?

Since we got so many comments about the meat entry last week, I figured I'd take the opportunity to answer a question that I've been asked a lot lately. The question is: how can I tell if I bought meat that was part of the Feb. 17 Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. recall? The reason this is still being asked is because the initial recall notice didn't list the retail stores that may have sold the recalled meat or products that contain it. Instead, the recall notice lists things such as "Various weight boxes of Westland Meat Co., Ground Pork For Further...

 

By Annys Shin | February 26, 2008; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (13)

Your meat isn't sick. It's just non-ambulatory.

Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. record recall of 143.4 million pounds of raw and frozen beef products has sparked a bit of a debate over what it means to be sick. For those of you just tuning in, this California plant had to recall two year's worth of ground beef products after the Humane Society of the U.S. released an undercover video showing workers using a fork lift to shove cows who couldn't stand up into the slaughterhouse. A company spokesman told the Post that senior management didn't know about the inhumane practices. The USDA press operation has taken pains to...

 

By Annys Shin | February 19, 2008; 04:00 PM ET | Comments (119)

Getting Schooled on the Cost of College Textbooks

In the category of things that didn't make it into the paper but are sitting around in my head....A couple of weeks ago, I caught Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin--the Illinois Democrat-- speaking at a Consumer Federation of America conference. And the man was on fire. The subject? College textbooks. "It's a racket!" Durbin declared, referring to the high cost of college textbooks and the fact that students typically receive a pittance when they try to resell those textbooks back to university bookstores, which often have a cozy financial relationship with the schools. Well, Congress is on the case. Or...

 

By Annys Shin | February 19, 2008; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (20)

Nothing Rhymes with Phthalates

Excuse the title. I'm a bit punchy this morning. Still recovering from nine days of single parenthood while the husband was off covering the Super Bowl. (Direct quote from the hub: "I'm surrounded by professional football players and half-naked women. It's terrible!") Despite my sleep deprived state, I managed to read Susan Morse's story in Health on a new study in the journal Pediatrics that found infants and toddlers who use shampoo and lotions were more likely to have higher concentrations of phthalates in their urine. Phthalates are the latest chemical boogey man on the block. They are used in...

 

By Annys Shin | February 7, 2008; 10:06 AM ET | Comments (0)

Bearing the Cost of Stolen Data

TJX, the parent company of discount retailers TJ Maxx and Marshalls, said Wednesday that the data breach it reported last month is bigger than it first thought. As my colleague Ellen Nakashima reported yesterday, TJX initially said it was hacked into sometime between May 2006 and January 2007. Now, however, it thinks its computer system was also hacked a whole two years earlier, in July 2005 and on "various subsequent dates" that year. So much for the laws in more than 30 states that require companies to notify customers as soon as possible after a breach. The company doesn't even...

 

By Annys Shin | February 23, 2007; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Product Safety Agency Needs A Troop Surge

The Consumer Product Safety Commission hasn't had a chairperson since July 2006, when Hal Stratton stepped down to return to the private sector. Normally this sort of agency churn would be considered inside baseball, but in this case it affects millions of average consumers. As my colleague Cindy Skrzycki explained yesterday, the panel needs three members to have a quorum to perform certain vital functions such as setting civil penalties or writing rules. It can still carry out those tasks without a third member for six months. But those six months ended in January. The agency tried to get as...

 

By Annys Shin | February 21, 2007; 08:30 AM ET | Comments (0)

New Rules on Child Safety Seats By Year's End

Something good may yet come of the controversy sparked by Consumer Reports' retraction of its recent child safety seat report. As you might recall, Consumer Reports made a splash when it said 10 popular brands of infant car seats failed in crash tests done at speeds and in directions identical to the ones used for vehicle crash tests. Vehicles are tested at 35 mph for frontal impact and 38 mph for side impact. Child safety seats, by contrast, are tested only in front-impact crashes at 30 mph. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, uncovered a major flaw in Consumer...

 

By Annys Shin | February 13, 2007; 09:31 AM ET | Comments (0)

Calling Your Neighbor May Cost You

Reader Ruth Skiles of Falls Church recently noticed that the minutes on her prepaid AT&T calling card began rapidly disappearing even though she hadn't made any out-of-state calls. That had never happened before in the four years since she bought the card at Sam's Club. She was used to reloading it with minutes via telehone and paying the same low rate whether she called inside Virginia or out. So Ruth called AT&T wanting to know why a call to her neighbor was suddenly depleting many more minutes than a call to a friend in Florida. AT&T's answer is a little...

 

By Annys Shin | February 9, 2007; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (16)

Top 10 Consumer Gripes of '06

It's National Consumer Protection Week and that means every consumer protection agency under the sun releases its Top 10 list of consumer complaints for the previous year. Mostly, I find these lists somewhat unhelpful in that they're not very descriptive. If I were to make up a list of top 10 gripes of 2006, it would include waiting for 30 minutes to be served at a Verizon Wireless store in Rockville, the ordeal of returning anything at the Potomac Yards Target, E. coli in bagged spinach, and Dreft, which I'm beginning to suspect is part of a conspiracy by Big...

 

By Annys Shin | February 8, 2007; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Payday Lending & the Military: Part 2

Just when you thought Congress had dealt with this issue, it just keeps comin' back. A quick recap: After a push by the Pentagon and consumer groups, Congress passed legislation capping the annual interest rate lenders could charge members of the military at 36 percent. The reason: An increasing number of service members were losing their security clearances because they had fallen into debt, in part because of reliance on payday lenders and online lenders that target members of the military, charging them fees and interest rates on loans that, when added up, reach APRs well into the triple digits....

 

By Annys Shin | February 5, 2007; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (16)

Would One Food Safety Agency Mean Better Oversight?

The Government Accountability Office issued a report the other day flagging federal oversight of food safety as a high-risk area. The main reason? No, not the spate of food-borne illness outbreaks we've had in the past six months. Instead, the GAO focuses on the fact that 15 federal agencies collectively administer at least 30 laws related to food safety. Exhibit A for the GAO is a ham-and-cheese sandwich: How a packaged ham-and-cheese sandwich is regulated depends on how the sandwich is presented. USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] inspects manufacturers of packaged open-face meat or poultry sandwiches (e.g., those with one...

 

By Annys Shin | February 2, 2007; 08:30 AM ET | Comments (13)

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; 08:00 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; 09:00 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; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (8)

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; 09:36 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; 07:15 AM ET | Comments (14)

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; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (42)

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; 09:46 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; 07:45 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; 09:09 AM ET | Comments (20)

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)

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; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (27)

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; 07:50 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; 09:37 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; 09:45 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; 09:23 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; 09:45 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; 09:15 AM ET | Comments (18)

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)

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; 07:00 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; 07:00 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; 09:15 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)

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; 09:00 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; 09:15 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; 09:00 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; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (19)

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; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (10)

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; 09:30 AM ET | Comments (0)

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; 09:00 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; 07:31 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; 07:00 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; 07:00 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; 07:15 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; 08:17 AM ET | Comments (0)

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; 07:30 AM ET | Comments (9)

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; 09:48 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; 07:40 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; 09:00 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; 07:00 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; 07:00 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; 09:00 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; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

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; 09:00 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; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (17)

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; 07:30 AM ET | Comments (15)

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; 07:00 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; 07:00 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; 06:00 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; 07:20 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; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Putting the Fed in Sudafed

Despite an endless stream of news reports in recent years about the rise of methamphetamine addiction, I was blissfully ignorant a few months back when I ventured to my local Rite Aid for some Sudafed. I walked out with what I thought was a box of those trusty little red pills, only to find out when I got home it had been swapped with a nearly identical looking package containing something called phenylephrine. When I went up to the pharmacy on my next visit, I saw all the decongestant and cold meds containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine were behind the counter...

 

By Annys Shin | September 29, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

NYC to Restaurants: Get an Oil Change

In what could be a bellwether move, New York City's Board of Health yesterday took the first step in requiring restaurants to sharply limit the amount of trans fat in their foods. Trans fat--a.k.a. partially hydrogenated vegetable oils--has been found to significantly increase the risk of heart disease. Public health advocates have likened it to bacon grease in your kitchen sink and lead in paint. Americans eat, on average, six grams of trans fat a day. A single fast-food meal can contain as much as 10 grams--far higher than the American Heart Association recommended limit of about 2 grams per...

 

By Annys Shin | September 27, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

But Can I Bring My Jelly Doughnuts?

Today, new Transportation Safety Administration rules on what liquid, gels and aerosols are allowed on board airplanes take effect. The rules--or "refinements," as TSA prefers to call them--are an improvement over the original ban on liquid substances imposed August 10, after British authorities uncovered an alleged plot to hijack planes flying from Britain to the U.S. Airport trash cans immediately filled with discarded lattes, $50 bottles of perfume, and countless tubes of toothpaste. With enforcement left up to the discretion of screeners, parents found themselves sipping breast milk to prove it wasn't an explosive, and cream cheese was eyed as...

 

By Annys Shin | September 26, 2006; 09:40 AM ET | Comments (55)

CSPC on ATVs

Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission called in with a clarification on the agency's decision last year not to ban the sale of adult ATVs. The original petition by several groups including the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) had asked the agency to ban the sale of adult ATVs for use by children. Hence, the agency's response that it couldn't control people's behavior, he said. The thrust of CPSC's new educational outreach effort, Wolfson went on, was to get children under 16 to stick to ATVs designed for them. "Limited weight and limited speed are positives...

 

By Annys Shin | September 25, 2006; 03:24 PM ET | Comments (2)

Making ATVs Safer

In the midst of the Deadly Spinach Outbreak last week, the battle over ATVs took another twist. Consumer Product Safety Commission Acting Chairperson Nancy Nord took to the airwaves to encourage the public to "take knowledge to the extreme" and learn how to more safely enjoy ATVs. To help get the message out, the agency enlisted some minor celebrity wattage: National 4-H Council chief executive and president Donald Floyd, NASCAR racing legend Richard Petty and ATV racing champion John Natalie. Not the most potent antidote for Johnny Knoxville, but then again, what is? Then there's the campaign itself, an odd...

 

By Annys Shin | September 25, 2006; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (7)

What's In Your Gullet?

We're almost a week into the Deadly Spinach Outbreak. And it's good to know not everyone is filled with panic. Reader CyanSquirrel has just one thing to say about E. coli, that nasty intestinal lining-attacking bug: Bring it on! "Gee, if I had to choose between poop exposure, something that may harbor bacteria a healthy well-maintained body can fend off or handle, and pesticide/hormone/unnatural substance exposure, which causes a host of cumulative effects the human body is not designed to endure...I'd pick poop any day." Reader Erika says E. coli is giving pesticides a good name. "I think it shows...

 

By Annys Shin | September 20, 2006; 09:04 AM ET | Comments (10)

Spinach Tales

So it's Day Four of the Spinach Alert. (If you're just joining us, and wondering why you can't find fresh spinach at the grocery store, on Friday the FDA notified the public that a deadly E. coli outbreak has been traced back to fresh spinach.) Over the weekend, my editor Kathy tried ordering a sandwich that normally had spinach in it. Rather than make the sandwich without spinach, the restaurant refused to make it at all. Also: Despite Giant's claim that it was pulling spinach from its stores, Kathy found spinach in the salad bar and in salad mixes at...

 

By Annys Shin | September 18, 2006; 01:24 PM ET | Comments (20)

Who Should Regulate Cellphone Carriers?

There's a new Mr. Smith in the Metro station ads around town; this time he's a lobbyist for cellphone companies. (Check out the ad at http:\\www.mywireless.org.) MyWireless.org is a non-profit bankrolled by the wireless industry and the ads try to persuade consumers they would be better off with a "national wireless policy." Why now? Because there's a Senate bill that is pending on the Hill that would switch wireless regulatory authority from the states to the federal government. "The freedom, choice and value wireless consumers enjoy today are threatened," the group's Web site says, because "a confusing tangle of costly...

 

By Annys Shin | September 15, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (14)

Verizon Drops Controversial Fee

The customers have spoken, at least according to Verizon. On Wednesday, the company said it was dropping its new supplier surcharge that I wrote about last week. Here's an excerpt from the company's press release: Verizon Communications today announced that, effective immediately, it is dropping previously announced plans to impose a supplier surcharge for DSL-based Internet access service on its retail customers. A small number of customers who have already been billed for the surcharge will receive a credit. "We have listened to our customers," said Bob Ingalls, chief marketing officer of Verizon Telecom, "and are eliminating this charge in...

 

By | August 31, 2006; 10:36 AM ET | Comments (11)

Verizon Value Update

It didn't take long for federal regulators to react to Verizon's new supplier surcharge. Reuters and Wall Street Journal Online report that the Federal Communications Commission will send a "letter of inquiry" to Verizon, seeking an explanation for the new fee on its DSL customers. The fee replaces a government Universal Service Fund surcharge that ended this month. Both Reuters and WSJ Online said Bell South will also receive an inquiry letter. While that company has not imposed a surcharge, it is continuing to charge $2.97 a month, equivalent to the old USF fee, on high-speed Internet service. FCC...

 

By | August 25, 2006; 04:05 PM ET | Comments (2)

Verizon Value? One Fee Off; Another On

Verizon gives back with one hand, then takes away with the other. That's the best way to explain what the telephone giant is doing to its DSL customers. Just last week, Verizon Online said it would stop charging the federal Universal Service Fund recovery fee, which ranged from $1.25 a month to $2.83 a month, for its DSL service (Verizon telephone customers still have to pay that fee). But then, in an e-mail to its "valued" online customers, Verizon Online said it would start charging a new fee to DSL users--this one is called the Supplier Surcharge--beginning Aug. 26....

 

By | August 25, 2006; 06:40 AM ET | Comments (0)

Generating Safety

Every summer, just before hurricane season starts, the government issues a safety alert about portable generators, warning that their misuse could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning and death. The alert is usually repeated after every major storm. But these warnings don't appear to be sufficient based on the climbing number of deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators. Between 2000 and 2005, there have been at least 216 such deaths, of which 64 occurred last year. That was the highest number ever, but not surprising given last year's horrific storms as well as the growing sales for generators. Now,...

 

By | August 23, 2006; 08:11 AM ET | Comments (0)

Veto Halts Curbs on Credit-Card Policies

Last week, New York Gov. George Pataki vetoed a bill that would have made his state the first to take action against the credit-card "universal default" policies. Consumer groups have been trying to get legislation passed in the U.S. Congress as well as state legislatures to restrict a credit-card company from raising interest rates on its customers, even those who are current in their monthly payments, because those customers may be late in paying other creditor (such as another credit-card company or utility) or have taken on so much debt that their credit scores drop. So far, all their...

 

By | August 21, 2006; 09:05 AM ET | Comments (0)

Cracking Down on Gift Cards

Finally, the government is doing something about gift cards. Trying to head off consumer complaints, especially about expiration dates and hidden fees, two federal agencies are cracking down to make sure the terms and conditions of the cards are clearly disclosed to both card buyers AND recipients. Consumer advocates applaud the efforts but say they may not go far enough as they support a complete ban on expiration dates and inactivity fees. This week, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates the nation's banks (which usually issue Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover gift cards), posted a...

 

By | August 16, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (20)

Customers Happier With Google Than Yahoo

When it comes to keeping online users happy, simplicity and constancy are better than clutter and revisions, particularly when those changes don't necessarily improve anything. That, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of latest quarterly American Customer Satisfaction Index from the University of Michigan's Index being released today. And that conclusion helps explain why Google has tightened its hold as the leading online site, while Yahoo has seen a dramatic drop in customer satisfaction, said Larry Freed, president of ForeSee Results, an online customer-satisfaction company that sponsors the index. For the first time since 2002, Yahoo saw its customer...

 

By | August 15, 2006; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (5)

FDA Demands Lead-Free Lunchboxes

The Food and Drug Administration is urging makers of soft vinyl (PVC) lunchboxes to stop marketing any products that contain lead. The move is an abruptly different course than the one taken by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has said that vinyl lunchboxes don't pose a health risk. Last week, the FDA sent a letter to manufacturers and suppliers, saying it was concerned that the lead in these lunchboxes could leach into foods. "Because neither lead nor lead compounds are authorized for use in the manufacture of PVC food-contact articles such as lunchboxes and some migration of lead...

 

By | July 24, 2006; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Faulting Universal Default

For consumers, "universal default" has to be one of the most aggravating policies practiced by credit-card issuers. Now, New York may become the first state in the country to do something about it--at least if Gov. George Pataki signs a bill passed by the state legislature last month. What is universal default? If you don't know, consider yourself lucky because it probably means you've not been affected. Under universal default, a credit-card company monitors the credit histories of its customers, even those who are current in their monthly payments. If a customer is late paying another creditor (such as...

 

By | July 10, 2006; 09:50 AM ET | Comments (41)

CPSC Chairman Has Resigned

We learned in the last hour that the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Hal Stratton, has resigned, effective July 15. The Republican Stratton -- a former New Mexico attorney general -- has been chairman of the CPSC for four years. According to his exceptionally brief letter of resignation (three paragraphs) that was submitted to President Bush, he does not know what his next job will be. Republican Commissioner Nancy Nord will become the agency's acting chairman. Consumer and safety advocates have been sharply critical of Stratton---saying his tenure has produced a lot of motion but little action. During...

 

By Stacey Garfinkle | June 26, 2006; 03:43 PM ET | Comments (0)

When Should Product Defects Be Reported?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is proposing new factors for determining when manufacturers have to report defective products to the agency. Some industry groups have pushed for and welcome the changes, while one commissioner and some consumer groups warn that the result may be less reporting of safety hazards. Read more in Cindy Skrzycki's "The Regulators" column today....

 

By | June 13, 2006; 08:19 AM ET | Comments (0)

Toy Industry Will Delve Into Magnets

Today, the toy industry is setting up a special committee to investigate whether there should be a voluntary safety standard for magnetic toys. The move follows a major recall of a popular magnetic toy building set, Magnetix, after a 21-month-old boy died from swallowing magnets that had broken free from the building set his older brother had gotten as a birthday present. See my earlier item. The toy committee of the international standard-setting organization, ASTM International, is meeting today to discuss the growing use of magnets in toys and will set up a working group that could well conclude that...

 

By | June 6, 2006; 07:50 AM ET | Comments (16)

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; 05:31 AM ET | Comments (29)

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)

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; 08:30 AM ET | Comments (30)

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)

Debt Collectors Seek to Auto-Dial Cellphones

Debt collectors are asking the Federal Communications Commission for permission to use automated dialers to call a debtor's cellphone about overdue bills, which the collectors were barred from doing in 2003. The FCC has said it would review the request and is seeking public comments which are due next month. Here's the full story from today's Post. What do you think? Should the FCC allow this? UPDATE: You can also file comments directly with the FCC; the docket number is CG Docket No. 02-278....

 

By | April 19, 2006; 08:49 AM ET | Comments (43)

An End Run Around Class-Action Lawsuits

Alan Kaplinsky is one proud man. For years, the Philadelphia lawyer has been advising financial institutions, leading their defense in class-action lawsuits brought by consumers -- and, more importantly, designing ways to limit such suits by writing arbitration clauses into many credit-card agreements and banking contracts. These clauses, often found in the fine print, have met with mixed results in court, with some judges upholding them, some not. Now, Kaplinsky has found a way to one-up the courts, at least in Utah, where a new law specifically allows these clauses in all consumer loan contracts, including credit-card agreements. Over the...

 

By | April 17, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Testosterone and Internet Fraud

Are men bigger victims of Internet fraud than women or are they just more likely to report it? Those are certainly two questions that come to mind after reading a just-released government report on Internet crime. In its latest assessment of Internet crime, the federal Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) says men filed 64 percent of the 231,493 complaints submitted to government officials in 2005. What's more, on an average per-person basis, men lost $1.86 for every dollar lost by women. IC3's report on 2005 complaint data paints a disturbing picture of Internet fraud with complaints increasing by 11.6 percent...

 

By | April 10, 2006; 10:25 AM ET | Comments (0)

Hang Tight for Better Phone Holds

The next time you're on interminable phone hold, consider this: If you're hearing music--and you like the tune--the wait probably won't seem so bad. That's what two Georgia professors discovered in an experiment they conducted at a private company's call center where customers seek technical help. The results, just published in an article in "The Journal of Service Research," show that customers' satisfaction increased if they liked the music they heard while on hold. The music made the wait seem to go faster. Naveen Donthu, a Georgia State marketing professor, and Anita Whiting of Clayton State College say an important...

 

By | April 6, 2006; 10:28 AM ET | Comments (0)

Slamming, Spamming, Phishing, and Now Spoofing

For those of you who live and die by caller ID--answering only the numbers or names you recognize--be forewarned: That number or name on the machine may be fake. State and federal government officials are starting to investigate a practice called "spoofing" that allows callers to conceal their identity over the phone. Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist has launched a probe into spoofing, sending out three investigative subpoenas to get information about some of the Web sites that sell spoofing services. Here's what some of the Web sites say: "Log in at Tricktel and make 100 percent anonymous prank calls."...

 

By | March 29, 2006; 08:31 AM ET | Comments (22)

SEC Targets Free Lunch Scams

Here's some more consumer news, from Laurence Arnold and Elizabeth Hester of Bloomberg News: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is cracking down on hard-sell investment seminars that seek to lure senior citizens with the promise of a free lunch. SEC Chairman Christopher Cox said the agency is scrutinizing brokers and advisers who conduct meetings over free meals at "fancy hotels and restaurants." The effort will begin in Florida in the coming weeks, Cox said today at a conference in Washington hosted by the Consumer Federation of America. "If we find that instead of a legitimate sales seminar and a...

 

By | March 24, 2006; 03:37 PM ET | Comments (2)

The Latest Bankruptcy Stats

This just in: Bankruptcy filings in 2005 hit record highs, with nearly 2.1 million filings for debt protection, up 30 percent from 2004. This is really no surprise. After all, a new bankruptcy law took effect in mid-October making it harder for consumers to completely wipe out their debts. As a result there was a last minute surge of bankruptcy petitions in October; more than 630,00 petitions were filed that month, nearly a third of the entire year's total. For more details and numbers, visit the Web site full of bankruptcy statistics from the U.S. Courts....

 

By | March 24, 2006; 12:31 PM ET | Comments (3)

Update on Bracelet Recall

Yesterday's recall of 300,000 charm bracelets by Reebok, after the lead-poisoning death of a 4-year-old, was one of three recalls announced Thursday by the Consumer Product Safety Commission that involved metal jewelry because of lead poisoning risks. Over the past three years, the CPSC has announced 13 recalls of metal jewelry, involving 162 million pieces. And more are likely as the agency continues to enforce its voluntary guidelines, issued a year ago, limiting lead in children's jewelry to no more than 600 parts per million in any component. "This isn't the last lead jewelry recall you will see," said CPSC...

 

By | March 24, 2006; 12:03 PM ET | Comments (10)

A Personal Way to Fight Global Warming?

Performance reviews. Reliability ratings. Government crash and rollover test findings. Fuel-mileage data. Car shoppers sort through all sorts of information before they make the big leap. Now, Resources For the Future suggests buyers also should consider carbon-dioxide emissions. Katherine N. Probst, a senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, has devised an easy-to-read window label so shoppers can easily determine if that car they want is a big polluter. The colorful labels would help consumers make the link between fuel economy and global warming, Probst said. So a blue "Best" label would go to the Chevrolet Malibu, Dodge...

 

By | March 23, 2006; 12:00 PM ET | Comments (7)

Extra Airline Fees Take Off

In one of my very first postings on this blog, I included a prediction by airline expert Terry Trippler: Just as we now pay extra for services that were once free (gift-wrapped purchases, furniture delivery, gas pumped by an attendant), Tripper said we will soon be paying added fees for what we now consider part of the standard air fare. Among other things, Trippler said airlines would start charging extra for advanced seat assignments, especially desirable ones that have more room, such as aisle seats on an emergency row or bulkhead. Well, it's less than three months later and Trippler's...

 

By | March 21, 2006; 11:54 AM ET | Comments (16)

Geico's Risk Criteria Challenged

Auto insurer Geico uses drivers' levels of education and occupations in setting insurance rates, according to an internal company memo cited by both the Consumer Federation of America and a competitor. As a result, CFA argued, blue-collar workers with relatively low levels of education sometimes are charged almost twice as much as better-educated professionals, based on those criteria. "No single criterion is ever used to determine a customer's rate," Geico said in a statement late yesterday. "Persons of all educational levels and occupations are offered insurance at our best rate based on a variety of criteria. Income or race based...

 

By Stacey Garfinkle | March 21, 2006; 08:56 AM ET | Comments (16)

Don't Miss This

My colleague, Brooke Masters, has posted a story you shouldn't miss: H&R Block, the nation's largest tax preparation service, defrauded hundreds of thousands of customers by encouraging them to invest their tax refunds in individual retirement accounts without disclosing that high fees meant most small investors would lose money, New York Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer alleged in a civil lawsuit Wednesday. H&R Block denied the charges, saying it has helped 590,000 clients begin saving for their future. The company said that 78 percent of its customers ended up ahead, once the tax savings involved in opening an IRA are...

 

By | March 15, 2006; 04:50 PM ET | Comments (7)

Credit Score Confusion

You can't get a loan today without a credit score -- a three-digit number that's based on your payment history, outstanding debt and the number and type of accounts. Most lenders use the FICO credit score, developed by Fair Isaac Corp. 17 years ago. But now, the nation's three largest credit bureaus have developed a competing system, which they say will make it easier for lenders to determine a consumer's credit risk. It also will reduce the large score variations that are common among the three bureaus: Equifax Inc., Experian and TransUnion. The three credit bureaus insist the new scoring...

 

By | March 15, 2006; 07:15 AM ET | Comments (0)

Shredders Put Kids and Pets At Risk

Worries of identity theft has driven millions of Americans to buy document-shredding machines. Now, safety officials and pediatricians are warning they can be hazardous, particularly to children and pets. Read more in my story about this in today's Post....

 

By Stacey Garfinkle | March 9, 2006; 07:03 AM ET | Comments (5)

Identity Theft Study Revisited

Some consumer advocates who specialize in privacy issues have written to complain about a blog item last week on a new identity theft study done by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy and Research, a consulting firm for the financial services industry. Their complaints centered on the statement: "Almost half of all identity theft is perpetrated by someone the victim knows: friends, neighbors, family members, in-home employees, etc." Beth Givens, Director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, said that statement "is only half correct." According to Givens: "The survey found that only 36% of victims...

 

By | March 7, 2006; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (5)

The Baby Walker March to Safety

Gary Smith is a well-known pediatric emergency medicine doctor, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children's Hospital in Ohio. He is also chairman of the Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention of the American Academy of Pediatrics. So, when he talks, a lot of people listen. Today, he's talking, as his Center issues a study showing a dramatic reduction in injuries from baby walkers. In 1990, there were about 21,000 injuries a year from baby walkers; in 2001, there were about 5,100 -- a 76 percent drop. The number has dropped even more since...

 

By | March 6, 2006; 11:00 AM ET | Comments (12)

Caution: Credit Bureaus May Be Sharing Your Loan Application

If you're in the market for a mortgage--and even if you're not-- you should make sure you read this column by Ken Harney in Saturday's Real Estate section. Harney has uncovered a practice by some lenders and credit bureaus that lets them share your private information without you knowing about it. How does it work? You apply for a loan and within 24 hours you may start receiving offers from competing lenders because they (or firms acting on their behalf) have paid the credit bureaus for a special alert when consumers apply for a mortgage. While some consumers may...

 

By | March 6, 2006; 10:30 AM ET | Comments (4)

Annual Car Rankings:Japanese Models Get the Top Nod

Consumer Reports, which has lots of sway with American car shoppers, has given 10 Japanese brands the top honors in its annual, closely watched survey of Best and Worst Cars. As for reliability, nine of the top 10 are also Japanese, with Lexus heading the ratings, followed by Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Subaru. Mercury was the only American car on the top 10 list. The three least reliable models: Land Rover, Hummer and Porsche. The Consumer Report rankings come as another blow to the already trouble-plagued Detroit carmakers. For more details on the report and the industry, please read today's...

 

By | March 2, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (3)

Some Surprising Findings About Identity Theft

True or False? Internet use increases the risk of identity theft. True or False? Consumers bear the brunt of financial losses from ID fraud. True or False? Seniors are the most frequent target of ID fraudsters. All are false, according to a recent survey by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy and Research, a consulting firm for the financial services industry. The survey of 5,000 Americans is full of a number of surprising findings that challenge many of the assumptions we all have about identity theft. First off, most of the compromised data is not taken through the Internet....

 

By | February 28, 2006; 06:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

E-Tailers Beat Bricks and Mortar in Customer Satisfaction

When it comes to customer satisfaction, online retailers beat the traditional brick-and-mortar stores, hands-down. In fact, customer satisfaction with e-tailers is nearly 12 percent higher than the overall retail industry. That's just one of the many findings being released today by University of Michigan business school in its latest quarterly study of how thousands of customers rank their experiences with about 200 companies. Every quarter, the American Customer Satisfaction Index focuses on different segments of the economy. This quarter it's retailers, finance and insurance and e-commerce. Here are some of the key findings: By far the sector with the greatest...

 

By | February 21, 2006; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (5)

Catching Up

In case any of you missed a couple of important stories done by my colleagues, here are two stories you may want to check out. Did you know that the red meat you reach for in ther supermarket may have been spiked with carbon monoxide to make it look more appealing? Rick Weiss explored the controversy in Monday's paper. Did you also know that some car rental companies are adding one more fee to their already long list of extra charges? Keith Alexander in his "Business Class" column notes that Budget Rent a Car is imposing an additional $9.50 charge...

 

By | February 21, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Gift Cards Update

Gift card issuers that do not clearly and conspicuously disclose fees or expiration dates may be engaged in deceptive marketing, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission has told Congress. Read More...

 

By Stacey Garfinkle | February 18, 2006; 02:30 PM ET | Comments (0)

Bank Gift Cards Come Wrapped With Limits

Visa likes to say that "finding the perfect gift just got easier" with its gift card. But recipients of those cards -- or similar ones issued by MasterCard or American Express -- are discovering that using them presents unexpected difficulties. Read More For more tips on buying gift cards, check out the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Alert. I'll be live at 1 p.m. today to chat about this, problem packaging, identity theft insurance and other consumer topics....

 

By Stacey Garfinkle | February 17, 2006; 07:26 AM ET | Comments (4)

Check These Stories Out

The Post ran two consumer stories today that you shouldn't miss. First, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is voting today on a rule that would restrict consumers from seeking damages under state laws governing faulty products in the case of mattresses that catch fire, the most recent rule changes undertaken by several agencies. Second, the federal government yesterday issued an official definition of whole-grain foods. The long-awaited nutritional guidance is designed to help consumers sort through a confusing -- and sometimes misleading -- array of foods that purport to contain whole grains but often do not. 2 p.m. Update: Also...

 

By Stacey Garfinkle | February 16, 2006; 02:00 PM ET | Comments (2)

Problem Packaging Part Two

I have received so many e-mails about the problem packaging item I wrote last week that I clearly struck a nerve (only figuratively, I hope). I want to share many of these comments, so I will post them below. But first, I also want to thank the reader who thoughtfully posted a news story about Netflix to my entry last Friday about electronic e-mails. The news story points out Netflix's definition of a good customer isn't necessarily a consumer's definition. In other words, the more DVDs you rent from Netflix a month, the lower you go on the company's priority...

 

By | February 13, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Consumer Champion #1 Launches New Web Site

A month ago, I named Boston software entrepreneur Paul English as Consumer Champion #1. The reason: On his own, he developed a "cheat sheet" to help consumers avoid voice-mail hell after he got fed up trying to find live customer service agents at several different companies. Well, his cheat sheet was so successful -- it got more than 1 million hits in January -- that his server kept crashing. So he had to close down his site. But the good news is that with the help of 16 volunteers, he has just opened a new Web site, running on five...

 

By | February 9, 2006; 10:51 AM ET | Comments (0)

When Is a Sale Not a Sale?

Okay, will someone please explain to me the ads the promote a one-day sale, when the sale is really two days--or more? Take Macy's ad for its "ONE DAY SALE" today. "Savings and Values Storewide 25%-80% Off on Thousands of Items Throughout the Store." But wait, the sale actually started yesterday. Of course, yesterday's sale was a "preview day" so maybe it didn't really count as part of the "one-day sale"--even though the store opens early on both days and the sale prices are good for both days. I know, I shouldn't complain when stores are willing to run discounts...

 

By | February 8, 2006; 08:53 AM ET | Comments (0)

Problem Packaging

So how many scars do you have from opening up those hard plastic shells that seem to surround almost everything we buy these days, whether it's toothbrushes, electronic gear or toys? I've got quite a few. I've also had my share of messes when I've tried to open some of those cereal and chips bags as well. Well, the latest issue of Consumer Reports is handing out "Oyster Awards" for America's hardest-to open packages. (Consumer Reports requires payment to read this.) The winner is the hard-plastic clamshell around Uniden's digital cordless phone set. It took 9 minutes, 22 seconds to...

 

By | February 7, 2006; 09:20 AM ET | Comments (18)

Now's Your Chance to Sound Off on Air Fare Pricing

Ever tempted to buy those low $89 fares to California, Vegas or Florida, only to book the ticket and discover that the fare is significantly more thanks to all the added government fees and taxes? Well those extra fees could get worse if the Department of Transportation grants an industry request for a separate fuel surcharge. Such an extra fee is now barred by current rules, which were adopted 21 years ago. DOT is seeking comment on whether it should amend its airline advertising policy. It wants to know if it should: 1. Keep the rules as they are, letting...

 

By | February 2, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

An Unsettling Subscriber Glitch

A scary slip-up indeed. The Boston Globe today sent a message to its subscribers about what it calls "an unfortunate event" that happened over the weekend. The event: Confidential credit and bank account information of Globe and Telegram & Gazette (of Worcester, Mass.) was inadvertently disclosed on the back of slips used to label bundles of the Sunday Telegram. The records of about 240,000 customers may have been released. The Globe said it was notifying the four major credit card companies, contacting the banks of its subscribers and mailing notices to affected customers. Meanwhile, it warned its readers to monitor...

 

By | February 1, 2006; 01:06 PM ET | Comments (0)

Leading the Fight Against Lead

The California public-interest group, the Center for Environmental Health, has been on a mission for the past three years: to get rid of lead in products made for children. Slowly but steadily, the group is succeeding. Last week, the center announced a settlement with 71 major retailers--including Target, Kmart, Macy's, Nordstroms, Claires, Sears, Toys R Us and Disney--that will result in the reformulation of children's jewelry to reduce lead to trace amounts. The settlement does not include the nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, and it is only binding in California. But the center said it expects most, if not all, the...

 

By | February 1, 2006; 10:15 AM ET | Comments (0)

FTC Fines ChoicePoint Over Data Breach

The Federal Trade Commission said Thursday that data warehouser ChoicePoint Inc. will pay $15 million to settle charges that its security and record-handling procedures violated consumers' privacy rights and federal laws. Read More...

 

By Stacey Garfinkle | January 26, 2006; 11:50 AM ET | Comments (0)

Frequent Flier Mile Hassles

Within the past week I've received three complaints about Capital One's new rewards policy for its cardholders. Two of my colleagues and a reader say the company has significantly cut their mileage benefits; the reader said his values were cut in half. Here's his complaint: "I have accumulated 180,000 points, which under my agreement was worth 2 round-trip tickets to Australia valued at 85,000 each up to a max of $1,700 each." Now, he says, "the new, improved plan" will require 340,000 points for the same tickets, or double the points he previously needed. Here's another complaint from my colleague...

 

By | January 26, 2006; 10:40 AM ET | Comments (41)

No Surprise Here: Identity Theft Tops FTC Complaints

Once again, identity theft tops the list as the most complained about consumer fraud, according to a just released study by the Federal Trade Commission. Of the 686,683 complaints received by the agency in 2005, 37 percent, or 255,565 were about identity theft. Last year, the agency received 246,847 identity-theft complaints, or about 38 percent of the total 653,040 complaints. Second on the list: Internet auctions, accounting for 12 percent of the complaints, followed by foreign money offers (8 percent). Internet-related complaints account for 46 percent of all fraud complaints. Particularly troubling: Internet fraud complaints with "wire transfer" as the...

 

By | January 25, 2006; 12:42 PM ET | Comments (3)

Most Credit Counseling Firms Lose Tax Exempt Status

Two years of audits into credit-counseling organizations led to revocations of the tax-exempt status of more than 30 groups. The audits were prompted by hundreds of consumer complaints of deceptive business practices, including high fees, high-pressure tactics and inadequate educational services. For more information, read today's story...

 

By Stacey Garfinkle | January 13, 2006; 06:55 AM ET | Comments (1)

Coming Soon to a Grocery Store Near You

More organic choices started showing up in the supermarket aisles in 20055, including products from such mainstream brands as Ragu, Orville Redenbacher and Ocean Spray. That trend will continue in 2006 along with more whole grains in soups, pretzels and even cakes! Expect lots more dark chocolate products as well. (YEAH!) And yes, there'll even be more organic chocolate. Also showing up: More details on food labels, as new federal rules are requiring food makers to start posting the amount of trans fat on their products. Food companies also must specify if any of their products contain one of eight...

 

By | January 4, 2006; 09:50 AM ET | Comments (1)

 

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