The Checkout

Archive: Consumer Tips

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)

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)

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)

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)

Teaching Your Kids About Money

Consumer banking site bankrate.com yesterday delved into a topic that totally fascinates me: When to start giving an allowance and how much. I'm obsessed with the topic because I never had really got an allowance. Nor did I have assigned chores. I'd always heard other kids talk about both things, but I could never really contribute to the conversation. Don't get me wrong. I did housework. I learned my way around a kitchen making dinner for my family nearly every night when I was in high school. And my parents gave me money for lunch every day. But the two...

 

By Annys Shin | February 7, 2007; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (11)

Food Product's a Wash

Ever since E. coli was found to have hitched a ride on some spinach last week into the digestive tracts of scores of unfortunate people, I've found myself wondering about food wash. Before we begin, a brief primer on E. coli: There are hundreds of kinds of this bacterium that is found in the intestines of humans and animals. The kind involved in the outbreak is E. coli O157:H7. It produces toxins and within a couple days of exposure can cause abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and a fever. Healthy adults usually get better within a week. Young children and the...

 

By Annys Shin | September 19, 2006; 09:05 AM ET | Comments (15)

A Pretext of Vulnerability

The story of Hewlett-Packard hiring private eyes to pull the private phone records of its board members has the makings of a great corporate soap opera. But who can enjoy it when it's also a depressing reminder of the vulnerability of our personal information? A brief recap: The non-executive chairman of the giant computer maker authorized an internal probe into whether her fellow board members were leaking information to the press. The company hired a guy who hired a guy who used "pretexting"--setting up phony e-mail addresses and impersonating account holders on the phone--to obtain the phone records of HP's...

 

By Annys Shin | September 12, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Cookie Monsters

Years ago, my youngest daughter's favorite expression was "Toss Your Cookies." I'm not sure what prompted her to say that phrase again and again--and why we always laughed when she did. But earlier this week, I was reminded of that phrase when I tried to sign up for a Wall Street Journal subscription. As a result, "toss your cookies" has now become one of my favorite mottos, at least for online shopping. Here's why: A month ago, I decided I wanted to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. I went online and found I could buy the print and...

 

By | September 8, 2006; 06:48 AM ET | Comments (10)

Shredding for the College Set

Fellowes Inc. makes shredders. So, it's no surprise that it recently issued a press release urging college-bound students to include shredders on their back-to-school shopping lists. Here's some of what the company said in a recent e-mail release: "Credit card offers, communal dormitory garbage cans and unsolicited mail make college campuses an identity thief's dream," said Kristen Gehrig, senior marketing manager at Fellowes. "It's frightening how careless college students can be with their personal information. However, by shredding personal documents before throwing them away, college students can significantly decrease their risk of becoming a victim of identity theft." My first...

 

By | August 28, 2006; 09:26 AM ET | Comments (13)

Warrantless Wireless Bills

Here's just a small sample of the e-mails I've gotten in the past few weeks about what seems to be a very troubling pattern: unwanted charges on a cellphone bill, particularly for what's called SMS service. (That stands for Short Message Service--for text messages such as horoscopes or jokes sent to cellphones and PDAs.) * "I have been charged over $60.00 in the past month for a service I did not sign up for. I have contacted Sprint. ... I was given a credit of $9.99 but had to pay the other $21.00. I am mad as hell ... and...

 

By | August 18, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (19)

This Phone Bill Charge Was No Joke

Reader Luke Currano of Columbia, Md., recently sent me an e-mail about some extra cell-phone charges that really angered him. I wonder if any of you have had similar experiences. Here's his tale: He added a cell phone line to his Cingular account for his younger sister. His next bill included an $8.69 charge on the new line for "Direct Bill Download Detail." It turns out, his sister had been getting "stupid, unfunny jokes text messaged to her phone for several days,"--79 cents for each joke, coming two to three times a day. Currano said this was not something she...

 

By | July 5, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Happy Traveling!

I'm leaving on a jet plane--but I'll be back again. I'm going to the Canadian Rockies, where I hope to do lots of hiking and thinking. But as I'm packing, I thought I should leave a few tips behind to help you (and hopefully me, as well) avoid travel scams. These tips come from the Federal Trade Commission, which unfortunately has investigated far too many unscrupulous travel promotions over the past few years: * Buy your travel package from a company with a good reputation. Ask friends to recommend a business you can trust. * Be wary of ads or...

 

By | June 19, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Still Pestered by Telemarketing Calls?

Has your phone been pretty silent lately? Or is it still ringing regularly with unsolicited calls from telemarketers--even though you've posted your phone number on the national do-not-call list? I don't know about you, but we still get a fair number of calls from telemarketers even though our phone number is on the anti-telemarketing registry--at least one a day, sometimes more. True, that's far fewer than before, but many still seem to be getting through. Of course, most of those calls are from politicians and nonprofit groups, both exempt from the do-not-call rules. We also get several calls a week...

 

By | June 15, 2006; 08:50 AM ET | Comments (0)

Consumers' Checkbook: Don't Leave Home Without It

For years, one of my most favorite consumer publications has been Washington Consumers' Checkbook. It's where I always go to check on the best car-repair shops, plumbers, furniture stores, doctors, roofers, cobblers, etc. You name the field, Checkbook has price and quality ratings for the companies. And as best I can remember, the ratings have been accurate--they either reflected the experience I had already received or the treatment I was about to get after I used a company suggested by Checkbook. What's more, Checkbook included tons of valuable tips on how to shop, whether I was looking for insurance, funeral...

 

By | June 14, 2006; 08:30 AM ET | Comments (0)

Consumer Hero #3

You've already met Paul English. He was this blog's very first Consumer Hero, thanks to his Web site that tells all of us how to reach a real live customer-service person quickly in hundreds of companies, thus avoiding telephone hell. And you've also met Edgar Dworsky, a former consumer-affairs television reporter and consumer-protection official who currently monitors the world of consumer news and outrage through two informative Web sites: consumerworld.org and mouseprint.org. He calls himself Mr. Consumer and that's certainly a good label from Consumer Hero #2. Now meet Consumer Hero #3: Shawn Mosch. Mosch probably doesn't consider herself a...

 

By | June 1, 2006; 08:32 AM ET | Comments (13)

A Warning About Inflatable Pools

The weather's been so cool, it's hard to believe that Memorial Day--and the opening of swimming pools all over--is just a few days away. But as the summer heat approaches, it's once again time to issue a warning about those increasingly popular inflatable swimming pools now in many toy, hardware and mass-merchandise stores. Last weekend, Target was promoting a 15-foot diameter, 42-inch high pool for $328. "Ready for water in 30 minutes." Toys R Us was selling a 16-foot diameter pool for $199.99 The price alone makes these pools attractive. Then, there's the easy set up. With an air pump,...

 

By | May 26, 2006; 06:00 AM ET | Comments (17)

"Free" May Just Be Another Word for "Fee"

We all know there's no such thing as a free lunch. But, clearly, many consumers still believe "free trial offers" and "free shopping sprees" are also free. Usually, they're not. In the past week, I've received two alerts that underscore this point. They involve consumers complaining about unauthorized charges on their phone bills, credit cards or bank accounts. Turns out those charges were probably incurred when the consumers signed up for those delicious, too-good-to-pass-up "free" offers. Case One: Florida's Attorney General Charlie Crist announced he is investigating a rash of phony $12.95 charges on telephone bills for an Internet shopping...

 

By | May 23, 2006; 06:00 AM ET | Comments (25)

A Witty Warning About Wireless

It sure seems cozy to sit down at a Starbucks, sip a latte and surf the Internet or catch up on e-mail, using the shop's wireless network. But the Federal Trade Commission is warning consumers that while these public "hot spots" are convenient, they are not necessarily secure, and your computer could be accessed by hackers. You should ask the proprietor what security measures are in place. Unless you can verify that there is effective security, you should probably assume that other people can access any information you see or send. So act accordingly! The FTC has lots of...

 

By | May 19, 2006; 06:45 AM ET | Comments (10)

Credit Card Bills Due Faster Than You Think

I got my credit-card bill last week and was about to toss it on my pile of bills-to-pay. But for some mysterious reason, I happened to glance at the due date. Normally I don't know exactly when my bills are due. There's one exception: My Visa card from Chase -- and that's only because it's been due the 30th of every month for as long as I can remember. So I was stunned when I saw a new due date: the 25th, just 20 days after the current billing period closed. I went back and checked my old statements and...

 

By | May 17, 2006; 06:00 AM ET | Comments (83)

Voucher Voodoo

"Fraud!" screamed the e-mail. The note was from a colleague who was ticked off about American Airline's voucher policy. Passengers get these vouchers -- for $100, $200 or whatever -- when they agree to be bumped from an overbooked flight or when the airline is feeling generous and wants to compensate for lost luggage, delayed flights or some other unpleasant experience. But as my colleague discovered, you can't use these vouchers online; you can only take advantage of the vouchers by making a reservation on the phone or in person. And since American charges $10 to make a reservation over...

 

By | May 15, 2006; 06:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Meet Mr. Consumer

Edgar Dworsky calls himself "Mr. Consumer" and by many measures, that's a pretty good assessment. The former consumer-affairs television reporter and consumer-protection official (first for Boston, then Massachusetts) currently monitors the world of consumer news and outrage through two informative Web sites: ConsumerWorld.org and Mouseprint.org. Dworsky, 55, founded ConsumerWorld in 1996, the early days of the Internet, after he started to surf the Web and bookmarked any consumer-related item that caught his eye. "I had 600 links before I knew it, so I thought, 'Why not organize it and publish it.' " Today, the site has more than 2,000 links...

 

By | May 12, 2006; 06:00 AM ET | Comments (2)

A Twist on Mother's Day E-Cards

Don't know what to get Mom for Mother's Day? Well the Federal Trade Commission has an idea: a special electronic greeting card with "something she can really use...tips from the FTC on keeping her personal information secure." This is the second year the agency is offering the card, which comes with soft, sweet piano music, fluttery butterflies and greeting-card poetry before getting to the tips: Protect your Social Security number, read your bills and bank statements, exercise doubt and report fraud. The e-card is part of an agency effort to both enlighten consumers and have fun. The FTC has also...

 

By | May 10, 2006; 06:00 AM ET | Comments (4)

True or False, These Tips Save Gas?

We've all heard the tips on how to save gas. And, as fuel prices continue to climb, we're hearing them almost daily on TV and radio: Don't drive aggressively. Drive at lower speeds. Use cruise control. Don't use air conditioning. Keep your tires properly inflated. Avoid excessive idling. So, which ones are true? Edmunds.com, a popular online Web site that has all sorts of car-buying and maintenance advice, put the tips to a test (many tests actually) to see if they can really, truly help you save gasoline. Some results may surprise you. For instance, tire pressure had no measurable...

 

By | April 27, 2006; 06:30 AM ET | Comments (31)

Verizon's Wrong Numbers

Takoma Park resident Charles Feinstein was stunned recently when he opened his Verizon cellphone bill and saw he owed $278.82, three times the $89.99, four-phone plan he had signed up for. Careful scrutiny of the bill yielded two exceptionally high charges for a 777 phone number for "National Access," something he had never heard of. One fee, for $41.85, was for 113 minutes; the other charge of $106.20 was for 236 minutes. Since the phone belonged to his son, Feinstein immediately questioned him, somewhat angrily he admits. But his son denied any knowledge of the calls. Besides, he was in...

 

By | April 26, 2006; 09:44 AM ET | Comments (57)

Medicare's Deadline Day

If you're on Medicare, you should be stressing about May 15 just as much as you do about tax day, maybe more. That's the deadline for signing up for the new Part D prescription drug coverage. Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran says if you procrastinate and fail to sign up by May 15--and you don't have creditable drug coverage elsewhere--you could be assessed a penalty, 1 percent more PER MONTH. As Curran explains it: People on Medicare who already have a separate prescription plan (through a retirement insurance plan, union or HMO) with coverage as good or better...

 

By | April 25, 2006; 06:30 AM ET | Comments (7)

Going, Going, Gone!

Now's your chance to win a solar-powered flashlight! Continuing its campaign to teach consumers about online safety with a big dose of humor and creativity, the Federal Trade Commission has a quiz to test your knowledge about using Internet auctions. Some of the questions are downright simple (for example "True or False: The term Internet auction refers to the sale of computers online." That's false, of course). But that, along with the solar-powered flashlight, will get you laughing while you learn such things as not to use a wire transfer to pay for items won in online auctions. In fact,...

 

By | April 18, 2006; 08:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Travel Tips--and Fees

A $9.50 surcharge on rental cars driven fewer than 75 miles. A $2 fee to check bags at the curb outside the airport. A $2.50 to $5 fee to restock the mini-bar---plus the cost of the item. These are some of the added fees that you can find on your travel bill. Read about them--and other travel logistics--in a story in Sunday's Business Section by Keith Alexander. And when you're done, skip over to yesterday's Travel Section for tips on what to tip the maid, skycap and taxi driver....

 

By | April 17, 2006; 06:00 AM ET | Comments (1)

The Nasty Fine Print of "Terms & Conditions"

I don't know about you, but when I shop online, I'm usually in such a rush that I rarely read the e-tailer's "terms and conditions." That's a mistake. The latest edition of Consumer Reports (subscription required) explains why. Many e-tailers use their terms and conditions to trim many of the consumer protections we have taken for granted when dealing with a bricks-and-mortar store. For example, at a traditional store, there's usually an implied warranty that the product you buy will work properly and last a reasonable amount of time. But CR surveyed many e-tailers and found their terms and conditions...

 

By | April 11, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Educate Yourself with Insure U

I don't know about you, but I think dealing with insurance issues--trying to select the right policy, whether it's life or health insurance, auto or home protection--is almost as enjoyable as filing my taxes. But the National Association of Insurance Commissioners is trying to make things a lot easier with its new educational Web site, Insure U. The Web site is jam-packed with information and tons of good tips. Better still, it's organized in such a way to make the education and decision-making process simpler and less daunting. First, you select your appropriate age group (young singles, young families, established...

 

By | April 4, 2006; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Spring Forward and Check Your Smoke Alarms

It's time to check your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. You should be doing this at least once a year and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission usually recommends you do so when you reset your clocks, either when we spring forward to Daylight Savings Time or in the fall, when we revert to standard time zones. So, if you didn't check these essential household protection devices over the weekend, take time to do so this week. Replace the batteries if you didn't in the fall and test them to make sure they are working. In fact, you should...

 

By | April 3, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

A Traveling Tip for Credit Card Users

If you're traveling abroad this spring or summer, you should think about the credit card you plan to use. Almost all charge fees for overseas credit card purchases, but these international transaction fees vary widely among credit-card issuers, according to a recent survey by IndexCreditCards.com http://www.indexcreditcards.com, an online clearinghouse of credit-card data. The Web site says Visa and MasterCard charge a 1% processing fee on international transactions and most card-issuing banks add their own fees on top of that. But some don't. IndexCreditCards says Capital One imposes no fee -- and also eats up the 1% Visa or MasterCard fee....

 

By | March 30, 2006; 07:01 AM ET | Comments (18)

Attention Car Shoppers

When it comes to buying a car, Edmunds.com is a popular Web site to get the process started. There are car reviews, up-to-date price information (for both the car you want to buy and the one you're trying to sell), current deals and even price quotes from local dealers. There's also a lot of advice, including two 10-step programs: one for buying a car, the other for selling. And if you have the time, you should make sure you read the long tale by one of its reporters who went undercover to work in two car dealerships, one a high-pressure...

 

By | March 28, 2006; 09:00 AM ET | Comments (2)

The 411 on 411

Dialing 411 to get information, especially long-distance numbers, is no cheap thrill these days. Over the years, the system has become more automated--and expensive. It now costs $2.49 per non-local query for AT&T and Sprint customers, $3.49 for Verizon (which now includes former MCI customers). In 1996, that charge was 95 cents, according to the Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), which monitors long-distance calling charges. However, there are some free alternatives you may want to consider. First, there are a variety of helpful sites on the Web, including AT&T's anywho.com, switchboard.com, and Verizon's Superpages. But these are only helpful...

 

By | March 27, 2006; 07:45 AM ET | Comments (0)

Disaster Marketing

I received an interesting solicitation this week from my mortgage company, making it clear that there are a lot of companies still trying to take advantage of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The solicitation was for Disaster Mortgage Protection in case my home was ever devastated by fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, etc. etc. For $25.96 a month, this insurance would pay my monthly mortgage payment for up to 2 years if a disaster forced me from my house for more than 48 hours. It also would help pay the balance of my mortgage if my home is completely uninhabitable (up...

 

By | March 20, 2006; 11:29 AM ET | Comments (0)

How To Stop Having Your Credit Data Shared

Last week, I highlighted a column by Ken Harney in which he uncovered a practice by some lenders and credit bureaus that lets them share your private information without you knowing about it. As he explained it: If you apply for a loan, you may suddenly 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. I've learned more about the practice since then because many of you asked how you could make sure your data isn't shared. First, I learned...

 

By | March 17, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (2)

A Movable Shredding Party

If you're concerned about identity theft and shredder safety (see my earlier story), then consider the free community-shredding taking place this Saturday at 1100 H St NW (in the parking lot where the old Convention Center used to be). Shred-It trucks will be accepting documents for shredding from 8 a.m. to noon. The event is being co-hosted by Mercantile Potomac Bank. I wonder if these shredding events will become the urban, 21st century equivalent to barn raisings....

 

By | March 16, 2006; 02:15 PM ET | Comments (0)

A Free Consumer Guide That's Good and True!

Need to know your liability if your debit card is stolen? (Answer: $50--but only if you report the loss promptly. It can be much greater if you don't.) Or how much an airline will pay you if your luggage is lost? (The maximum is $1,250 per passenger). These answers plus tons more very useful consumer information is contained in the government's 2006 Consumer Action Handbook. Only 158 pages, it's full of tips and lists of who to contact at companies, trade associations, federal agencies, state and local agencies and consumer groups. This handbook is issued annually and this year's is...

 

By | March 16, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (4)

Believe Your E-mail ... Or Not

How's this for a scary e-mail? My podmate received it recently from her wonderful mother-in-law, who likes to warn her family about all sorts of catastrophes "just in case." (Consider the warning she received just before a beach trip: Don't approach baby seals because they can grab you by the arm and crush you to death. And they weren't even going to a beach with seals!) Here's the latest "just in case" alert sent by the well-meaning mother-in-law: "Never, ever answer a cell phone while it is being CHARGED!! A few days ago, a person was recharging his cell phone...

 

By | March 14, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (23)

Checks Enclosed With More Bills Ahead

You can't miss the message on the envelope from Chase. There it is in bold black letters: "Check Enclosed." Maybe it's my long lost rebate check! Nope. It's a promotion. I should have known--especially since I got two such offers in the same day. If I cashed the first check, I would automatically be enrolled in Chase's Fraud Detector, which would alert me to any suspicious activity on my account. I'd also get a special "fraud advisor" if I'm an identity-theft victim and could be reimbursed up to $25,000 for expenses incurred to correct my credit record. Of course, that...

 

By | March 3, 2006; 07:10 AM ET | Comments (0)

Paying Taxes with Plastic May Not Be Rewarding

This tax season, credit-card issuers want to make it rewarding for people to pay their taxes by just saying "charge it." Many are offering extra miles or cash back rewards for every tax dollar paid by plastic. This may sound tempting, but IndexCreditCards.com--a Web site that offers credit card news and information-- says don't do it. The reason: Unlike stores, which usually pay the 2-3% transaction fee on every purchase made with plastic, the IRS doesn't absorb that cost. You do--and that could cost way more than any rewards you may receive. IndexCreditCards.com does the math: Say you owe $4,000...

 

By | February 27, 2006; 06:00 AM ET | Comments (8)

Do You Need ID Theft Insurance?

It's not surprising that the increase in identity theft has also given a boost to identity-theft insurance. After all, it can be very expensive and extremely time-consuming to restore your good name and credit once your personal information has been used by another person to commit fraud. But is identity-theft insurance a good deal? The National Association of Insurance Commissioners raises some key questions you should ask--and, of course, answer--before signing up for a policy that typically costs between $25 and $50 a year. The association of state insurance regulatory officials notes that ID theft insurance doesn't protect you from...

 

By | February 16, 2006; 09:50 AM ET | Comments (24)

A First to the Government for its New Web Site

You know the old saying: Never believe someone who says he/she is from the government and here to help. Well we may all have to revise that point of view, thanks to the federal government's new search engine. FirstGov.gov really does help. It's an incredibly easy-to-use and helpful Web site that can direct you to the appropriate agency to file complaints, obtain a form, get some sort of arcane statistic or consumer advice. It connects you to federal and state government sites. There is so much information on it, you could spend hours researching questions you never even thought you...

 

By | February 15, 2006; 07:51 AM ET | Comments (0)

Opting Out of Unsolicited Credit Card Offers

Stuck at home in the snow on Sunday, I decided to follow my own advice and check out one of my credit reports. I followed the normal process, visiting the Web site where people can get a free report from each of the three major credit bureaus annually. All went smoothly and, fortunately, there were no unpleasant surprises. However, I have to admit that each time I download one of my credit reports, I'm always stunned by how many companies have contacted a credit bureau seeking information about me--"prescreening" my credit history to see if I qualify for a new...

 

By | February 14, 2006; 05:48 AM ET | Comments (0)

You Can Always Send Me Flowers Or Chocolate

Beware of electronic valentines. It's certainly tempting to open any e-mails from any "secret admirer," but cybersecurity officials are warning that these messages may be anything but love notes. Instead, they could contain a nasty surprise from a cyber scam artist--an e-mail virus or spyware that can capture enough vital information to gain access to your financial accounts. Cyber scamsters will prey on your curiosity, so there definitely will be some attempts to take advantage of Valentine's Day, said Purdue University's chief information security office Michael Carr. "It's human nature and exactly what the bad guy is counting on." So...

 

By | February 10, 2006; 07:38 AM ET | Comments (0)

Beware of Enticing Offers to Fix Your Credit Report

"The credit you always dreamed of." "If we fail to remove any negative credit from your reports, we'll give you a refund plus $100." "80 percent of the derogatory information is deleted off your credit report within...three months." The offers to repair a person' credit are tempting--so much so that 2 million Americans fall for them every year. And they shouldn't. Year after year, law enforcement officials warn consumers to steer clear of credit-repair shops that promise to remove negative information from credit reports, even accurate information. And they did so again yesterday as federal and state officials announced a...

 

By | February 3, 2006; 08:40 AM ET | Comments (0)

Will Higher Gas Prices Mean Lower Car Insurance?

If higher gasoline prices have prompted you to change your driving habits--making you use the bus or subway to commute to work or getting you to substantially reduce your driving around town--you may be able to trim your insurance rates. The Consumer Federation of America is urging consumers who drive less to contact their insurance companies; these drivers could trim their insurance cost by five to 10 percent a year. "Most insurers include miles driven and how the car is used as major factors in determining rates, so if consumers have altered their driving habits, they may qualify for immediate...

 

By | January 25, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (0)

Check Out Your Credit Report

It's been more than a year now since the government started rolling out a program giving consumers free annual credit reports from each of the three major credit bureaus. Residents in the West coast were the first to have access to their reports, and finally last September, East coast residents--and everyone in between--were able to check their credit history annually. The credit reports were mandated by Congress three years ago to reduce the incidence of identity theft. By checking your credit history regularly, you should be able to spot any suspicious activity, such as a new credit card account that...

 

By | January 24, 2006; 07:00 AM ET | Comments (8)

An Urban Myth That Will Not Die

It is the e-mail that will never die. About every two months, I get a panicked e-mail from a friend telling me that cell phone numbers are about to be released to telemarketers. Soon my cell will start ringing off the hook with unwanted solicitations on my mobile phone--and my precious limited cell phone minutes will be eaten up! The letters started reappearing in my e-mail box again recently--even though telemarketing to cell phones is prohibited by law. So let me reiterate, this is an urban myth. If you're concerned, you can always register your cell-phone number on the government's...

 

By | January 19, 2006; 02:30 PM ET | Comments (14)

Test Your ID Theft Smarts

Your identity has been stolen--what should you do? If the stolen information includes your driver's license or other government-issued ID, all you need to do is create a facsimile using a recent color photo. True or False? If someone has stolen information about your financial accounts, it's best to wait several weeks to see what they do with it before taking action. True or False? One of the best ways to protect your identity is using online passwords only you would know like your mother's maiden name or the last four digits of your Social Secuirty number. True or False....

 

By | January 11, 2006; 08:55 AM ET | Comments (6)

Limited Warranties--Really, Truly

In case you missed this news item that my colleague, Jeff Turrentine, wrote in the last week's Home section, check out the latest news on appliance manufacturers. What Turrentine noted is that major appliance manufacturers have quietly started trimming their warranty programs on refrigerators, dishwashers, dryers, etc. Instead of offering the traditional two-to-five year coverage for parts and labor, some companies will start offering only one-year warranties. So, if you're in the market for a major appliance anytime soon, make sure you know the product's warranty details. If it's really short, it may finally be time to consider buying an...

 

By | January 11, 2006; 07:30 AM ET | Comments (0)

Vitamins and Organic Food

Be wary of super cheap multivitamins that are for sale in dollar stores and other super discounters. That's the conclusion of the latest Consumer Reports after the magazine tested 18 multivitamin brands from such stores as The Dollar Store, Family Dollar and Big Lots. The magazine tested for vitamin/mineral content and dissolvability to determine if the pills break down fast enough to be absorbed. Its results: Nearly half of the 18 tested brands failed to contain the labeled amount of at least one nutrient and several did not dissolve adequately. Over the years, the magazine has tested major multivitamin brands...

 

By | January 10, 2006; 09:30 AM ET | Comments (13)

The Story on Store Credit Cards

Reader Marc R. from McLean warns shoppers to be leery of the store promotions that offer an immediate 10 percent discount to shoppers who sign up for a store credit card on the spot. Looking for savings, Marc naturally took advantage of such an offer from Macy's. But a few weeks later, he was surprised when he received a store-branded Visa card--not a private-label card that could only be used at the store--with a $10,000 line of credit. Since he had more credit cards than he needed, including one from Visa, he called to cancel and get what he wanted...

 

By | January 6, 2006; 08:00 AM ET | Comments (14)

Meet Consumer Champion #1

Boston software entrepreneur Paul English is my kind of hero. And he'll probably be yours as well--as soon as you discover his Web site which helps consumers avoid voice-mail hell. His handy list gives directions on how to quickly find a real live person when calling a company--without having to punch in your account number, Zip code, etc. Need to talk to someone about your Citicard? Just dial the listed number and then punch 0 repeatedly. If it's someone at JC Penney, dial the 800 number, then press zero twice and ignore the error message. English said he launched...

 

By | January 4, 2006; 10:00 AM ET | Comments (4)

Ticket Buyers Beware

I went to order movie tickets online the other day--and almost fell for one of those promotional offers that would have cost me a lot of money, far more than the $10 discount I thought I was getting on my next ticket purchase. So this is a ticket-buyer beware notice: Be careful on what you click! The promotion was on Fandango. Who wouldn't want to save $10? Of course, I clicked yes. It was only when I was finalizing my ticket purchase that I learned the $10 coupon came with strings--costly ones. By accepting the coupon, I would be...

 

By | January 3, 2006; 10:30 AM ET | Comments (1)

 

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