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Here on our Consumer Watch page, I will post some news and notes and commentary to help you get the most for your money, and to keep you alert about things to watch for as you spend your money.  I will be posting new money alerts and money tips on a regular basis here.  Some will deal with major consumer issues, and some will deal with minor issues such as making sure you get napkins from the drive-thru attendant at a fast food restaurant.  (I hate when they don't give you napkins.)  Please also see our "Consumer Alert" page for breaking news including product recalls.

Have you got something we should watch?  Go to our "Contact Us" page and send me an email.  Thanks for watching and good shopping!

REGISTER RANG UP THE WRONG PRICE AT CVS 

Update May 26, 2016  I stopped in at a nearby CVS to pick up a travel toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste for the office. There were several different choices in the travel and sample section at CVS and I chose a pack that had a shelf price sign of $1.57 and that was the lowest priced package. At the cash register I was distracted and didn't pay attention when the cashier told me the total price to be paid. I gave the clerk a $5 bill, received my change, and hurried out of the store. Later, when I went to throw out the receipt I happened to glance at it and saw that I hadn't paid $1.57 but was charged $1.99 which was the price on another toothpaste and toothbrush package. I called the store, got a manager on the phone who confirmed that I was charged too much, and he told me to bring the receipt in for a refund. I appreciated that. Of course the lesson here is to pay attention at the check-out and check the receipts. By the way, my distraction was an attractive young lady at the next check-out register. Since I didn't get her phone number so that was a loss. Fortunately, CVS has a policy to make good on its error so at least I will make good on my loss with the retail purchase. See the photos below.

Shelf price tag showed $1.57 at CVS.
webassets/20160525_165129cvsproduct.jpg
But register rang up a price of $1.99 in error.

When I discovered the error I called the store
webassets/20160525_165139.jpg
and a manager confirmed the error.

WHAT PRICE DO YOU PAY?

Update May 21, 2016  In California there are state laws about posted prices, tagged prices and what retailers must charge you. State law prevents a business from charging you more than a posted price even if the posted price was supposed to have an "end date." That means if it is still posted, it's still the price despite an intended expiration date. There are other pricing issues to consider. For example, what if a retailer has an online price which is higher than the tagged price of an item in its brick and mortar store? See our discussion about this subject by clicking here.

HOW SLOW CAN MAPFRE INSURANCE BE?

Update March 25, 2016  MAPFRE Insurance, based in Massachusetts, says it builds relationships based on trust. But consumer Linda Y. of Ventura, California has no trust in them because she has been waiting weeks and weeks for a check for $500 that MAPFRE says it has mailed not once but twice. It seems that the company that claims an "A" rating and has been collecting premiums from this consumer can't get her correct mailing address on the envelope with the $500 that she is owed. First the payment was mailed to an old address, and then a second check was mailed to an incorrect address.

But there are more problems to tell you about. Getting the first check sent out was met with delays. A supervisor at MAPFRE even suggested to the consumer that she contact a superior because the employee assigned to her case was weeks behind in her work. The consumer also told me that days and even weeks went by that her voice-mail messages left for the employee assigned to her case went unanswered. When I first became aware of the problem I called the MAPFRE offices on March 9th and I never got a call back. A week ago I sent an email to an employee who was handling the consumer's case and I never got a response either.

Did I say that two checks were mailed out by MAPFRE and neither got to this consumer? Well, it seems that the consumer was told a third check was being mailed out. Will this be a third strike against MAPFRE? How many strikes till you're out in the eyes of customers?

BANK OF AMERICA CHANGES ATM PROCEDURES AGAIN

Update March 4, 2016  Bank of America has changed its ATM procedures again and I think this change will improve customer safety at automated teller machines. The new change is actually a return to an old procedure: your card will stay in the machine until the transaction is completed. See the photo below showing the new instruction. It also appears that you can only make one transaction each time you insert your card and enter your personal identification number or PIN.

A while back Bank of America changed its basic procedure so that ATMs returned your card and then asked you to punch in your PIN to continue with the transaction. This probably prevented consumers from forgetting their cards when a transaction was over. Now, Bank of America has returned to the original method that ATMs used -- you put your card in, enter your PIN, and the card is returned at the end of the transaction.

What I like about the latest ATM procedure is that there is only one transaction allowed with each card insertion and cards are returned when the correct PIN number is punched in. The new safety feature is if an incorrect PIN is entered five times the machine will lock the card until midnight. This will help prevent crooks from using stolen cards and trying a partial PIN to access an account.

We have all heard of reports of crooks who watch consumers enter their PIN at an ATM. Crooks will continue to get stolen cards but this additional safeguard means a crook with a partial PIN will be limited in the number of tries before the card account is locked.

Under the previous procedure, a crook could be watching you enter your PIN and then after your first transaction was completed the crook could enter your PIN again and withdraw money from your account without having your card. Crooks could still enter your PIN but there is the additional step of needing your card to be inserted again.

Now legitimate customers might be concerned about having a limit of five attempts to enter your correct PIN. Well, for legitimate customers five tries to enter your PIN is enough. If it takes you more than five attempts to enter your PIN you're not in any shape to be spending your money.

Message about new ATM procedure.
webassets/20160304_095913bankofamericaatm.jpg
Bank of America ATM in Southern California.

GETTING READY FOR 2016

Update December 27, 2015  I hope you had a great Christmas holiday and I wish you and your family a happy and healthy and prosperous 2016. There are several things you can do to start 2016 right for you and your family. You might want to include these in your New Year Resolutions:

1. Start a savings account. You've heard that before but do you have one? Surveys show that 20% of Americans do not have a savings account and 62% of Americans have less than $1,000 in a savings account.

2. Create a family budget. If the kids are old enough to understand, get them involved. It will help them to understand why you can't buy them the latest video game or cell phone every six months, and it will also teach them to learn how to budget their own money whether they earn it or it's their allowance.

3. Improve yourself. That might mean taking a course at a local college, or joining a gym, or spending time taking a walk every day. Years ago my doctor encouraged me to exercise and he said "join a poor man's gym if you have to." So what's a poor man's gym? It's a couple of large soft drink bottles or cans of food used as weights.

4. Create a goal for yourself and your family members. I'm not going to tell you what goal because that's up to you. But if you have a goal it will keep you focused on doing something productive. The goal could be to clean out the attic, or find a better job, or it could be starting a hobby, or adding to your collection of Lincoln Cents in the blue Whitman folder you started as a kid.

5. Improve the value of your home. Your home is your most valuable asset so it makes sense to improve its value. Paint, add something, remodel, upgrade. Improving the value of your home makes your life better and it can improve your resale value later. But be careful -- not every remodel will increase the resale value so do your research.

6. Have a garage sale or tag sale. A garage sale or tag sale is a great way to clear away things you no longer use and to make some money. You can advertise your garage sale or tag sale for free on the forum of our website. Click here.

7. Check your credit reports for free. Be sure there are no bogus accounts and no one has tampered with your ID. Below, on this page, is an article about how to check your credit reports for free from the big credit reporting agencies. 

WHEN WILL OUR LEGISLATORS CUT AND CAP INTEREST RATES?

Update August 6, 2015  I just can't understand why our legislators -- state and federal -- are not talking about cutting and capping interest rates on credit cards?  When interest rates on certificates of deposit are at one-percent or two-percent or less, and when mortgage rates on a home are around 2% for homeowners who got into trouble making their payments, and when money market funds have interest rates of a fraction of one-percent, how can these legislators allow banks and credit card companies to charge 15% to 30% or even more on plastic?

If the legislators are serious about boosting consumer spending how do they allow these high rates -- which in decades past would be enforced by the mob with crowbars, tire irons and concrete-filled boots -- to be legally charged?

The Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee, the policy making group of the Fed,has been keeping interest rates at very low levels for years now -- but interest rates on credit cards never came down.

If the Federal Reserve is going to keep interest rates low to help prevent a recession and to help grow the economy, then it needs to take one more step to fix the economy: the Fed has to make sure there are low rates for consumers and for businesses to benefit from.

If they really want low rates to help the economy they should slap the banks and credit card companies with limits on credit card interest rates. Allowing banks to still charge 30% or even 33% is sick when other rates are around 2% or less.

If the banks have a problem with consumers who are deep in debt, the solution is not to charge them higher interest -- rather the banks should cut off additional credit, and lower rates so that the debts can be repaid.

We all know that consumers deep in debt will never repay credit card loans with 30% interest rates.

And while low mortgage rates are being quoted-- even for homeowners who failed to pay their mortgages for months or even years, there has been no help for consumers who owe money on credit cards.

And if the Fed is not going to do it, then our legislators should reinstate the usury laws that they repealed years ago that kept a lid on credit card rates.

CHECK YOUR CREDIT REPORT FOR FREE EVERY FOUR MONTHS

Update July 26, 2011  You know it is important to check your credit report.  You should check it for errors because errors can lower your credit score and could force you to pay higher interest on loans -- or it could cost you to be denied a loan or even a job.  You should also check your credit report for signs that you are a victim of identity theft-- such as a credit card being issued that you did not receive or you know nothing about.

There is an official website set up by the big credit reporting companies that allows you to get your free credit report from each of the three big credit reporting agencies once a year.  By getting a free credit report from one of the agencies every four months, you will be able to check your credit three times a year.  The reason for doing this is that you are more likely to catch a problem sooner with a check every four months than one check each year.  And what shows up on one credit report is likely to show up on the others very quickly.

Go to www.annualcreditreport.com for your free yearly credit report from the big three credit outfits.  But as I suggested, get one free report from one credit reporting agency and then in four months get another free report from a second agency and then another after another four months.

Here are some important facts:

AnnualCreditReport.com is a centralized service for consumers to request free annual credit reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

AnnualCreditReport.com provides consumers with the secure means to request and obtain a free credit report once every 12 months from each of the three nationwide consumer credit reporting companies in accordance with the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act).

AnnualCreditReport.com offers consumers a fast and convenient way to request, view and print their credit reports in a secure Internet environment.  It also provides options to request reports by telephone and by mail.

AnnualCreditReport.com is the only service authorized by Equifax, Experian and TransUnion for this purpose. The three nationwide consumer credit reporting companies have always encouraged consumers to regularly review their credit reports, and under various laws if you are ever denied credit you can ask to see the credit report that caused that to happen.

Please note that, as a security precaution, you
 should never provide their personal information to any other company or person for requesting free annual credit reports under the FACT Act.  And, AnnualCreditReport.com will not approach consumers via email, telemarketing or direct mail solicitations.  So if someone says they are contacting you to give your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com it's a lie.

A GASOLINE PUMP PRICE REALITY CHECK

Update June 23, 2012  When I filled the tank of my car today, paying $4.09.09 for premium gas, I couldn't help but notice the "tax notice" on the pump.  The tax notice includes the per gallon state and federal excise taxes.  Not included is the state and county sales tax.  What many consumers don't realize is that there is so much "excise tax" on a gallon of gas.  And what fewer consumers will realize is that the "excise tax" is considered to be part of the "product price" and so the sales tax is levied on top of the excise tax.  So, you are in effect paying a tax on a tax.  Below is the photo of the state and federal excise tax notice.  You'll notice that the state and federal excise taxes add up to 54.1-cents and remember that the sales tax is on top of the excise tax. 

webassets/IMG00245-20120623-1606.jpg

HERE'S ANOTHER SCAM OFFERING A JOB

Update December 29, 2011  Scammers and identify crooks like to hold out the promise of a job in order to steal your identity or steal your money.  And the promise or lure of a high paying job just might make some unsuspecting people give their vital information.  Look at the email I just got:

To Alan
Thank you for your application.
Upon review we have found that you may be pre-selected for high paying roles.
The expected pay range for available positions range from $36.77 - $59.62 an hour.
Before being considered, you must finish our internal application.
Click the link below to begin:

Below that paragraph was a link to a website that was disguised as a link to digg.com and you can be sure I didn't click on it.  First of all, the email didn't come from a company -- it came from a Yahoo.com email address.  Secondly, I never heard of the person who sent me the email.  And thirdly, I didn't apply for any jobs recently.

THIS EMPLOYMENT SCAM IS TARGETING YOUR IDENTITY

Update December 25, 2011  I just came back from a holiday party and the hostess pulled me aside to tell me that this holiday week has been a near disaster.  It's because her son was approached by someone who claimed to be a corporate recruiter who was offering a high paying job with an oil company in South America.  As part of the job application process, the "recruiter" said he needed all sorts of personal information not only for her son, but also about her and the family business.  Unfortunately, the guy who claimed to be a corporate recruiter had served time in jail for financial scams, he did not represent the oil company, and her son did give out vital family information including social security numbers and bank account information.

So how did the crook pull off this scam?  First, he was well dressed and hung out at bars at high end restaurants and clubs making small talk.  The casual conversations allowed him to find his "mark" and in this case it is some who talked about a family business, a vacation home, and a desire to find work in another country to have an adventure.  Immediately the con artist put the pieces together and crafted the scam.

The next day the "mark" got a fax with what appeared to be an official letter from the oil company asking for the personal and family information.  The "mark" responded by email to an email address that was not with the oil company.  Later it was discovered that the "official looking letter" was really a cut-and-paste job using logos from the oil company that were photocopied to create what appeared to be stationery.  When sent by fax, it's hard to tell that the "official looking letterhead" had been pieced together.

In this tough economy, when anyone is enamored with the idea of an exotic job or a golden opportunity, they could easily let their guard down.  A real corporate recruiter will understand that you would want to verify who they are so don't hesitate to get an office phone number and then confirm with the company who this recruiter is.  A warning flag should go up when someone out of the blue and a couple of seats away at a bar picks you for a great job but didn't have a business card or an office phone number that could be verified at the big oil company he claims to be with.

Now, with vital personal information in the hands of a stranger, the family is now putting fraud alerts on credit files, notifying banks and credit cards, notifying the police and hoping that the oil company that had its documents forged will take action.  I'm going to follow this case to let you know what happens.

A NEW SCAM: AN EMAIL SAYING YOUR ACH TRANSACTION FAILED

Update December 19, 2011  I just got an email informing me that my "ACH Transaction Failed" and I was immediately concerned because ACH stands for Automated Clearing House which is a giant network of banks for clearing bank transacation, credit card transactions and various cash transactions.  So, as anyone would do when notified that your "ACH Transaction Failed" I opened the email to find out which transaction it was and why?

Well, I didn't have to do anything else to breathe a big sign of relief and realize that some moron was trying to scam me with a fraudulent email.  I knew it was a scam because as soon as I opened the email I saw that it wasn't just sent to me -- the email was sent to about a hundred other people whose email address started with an "A" which meant the email addresses came from some email list.

Obviously if a bank or credit card company or ACH, the Automated Clearing House, was going to notify me of a transaction problem, they wouldn't be sending copies to a hundred or so complete strangers.

Since I'm a reporter by trade and tradition, I wanted to find out more.  Was this scam artist trying to get my bank info or was the gangster trying to get my true ID including my social security number?  Well, my security software would not allow me to open the link to get more information.  My security software said there was definitely a virus or other malware in the link.  I reported the problem.

Frankly, it is very unlikely that a bank that you have no knowledge of would ever tell you about a problem with your account or about a problem with your transaction via email.  Your regular bank or a credit card company you regularly use might make some kind of notification by email -- but a "strange bank" or someone you did not do business with before would likely send you a notice via snail mail.  So beware the emails that say  "ACH Transaction Failed" and happy holidays.

DO YOU KNOW HOW TO BUY A DIAMOND RING?

Update November 24, 2011  A diamond ring, including a diamond engagement ring, is one of the single most expensive things you could buy in your lifetime.  It ranks up there with a new car.  But you are likely to keep a car for only three to seven years while a diamond engagement ring is supposed to last for decades and then can be passed down to a son or daughter or grandchild.

If you make a mistake buying a car, there mistake will be forgotten with a trade-in and a new car in the driveway.  But if you make a mistake buying a diamond, it's a mistake that may not be forgotten.

The diamond industry has done a good job telling consumers the importance of knowing the 4 C's when buying a diamond.  You should understand and know the differences in Color and Cut and Clarity and Carat weight.  But do we rally know the differences in color that we can pick out a D diamond that's mixed in with a bunch of E diamonds?  Can we tell which diamond is an S-1 and which is an S-2?  How about cut?  Do we really know if the angles of the cut are correct?  And do we each have scales at home to measure and confirm the carat weight we were told the diamond has?

This is why I think there are two other C's that are equally important when buying a diamond.  You should have the C for Confidence in your jeweler, and you should practice the C for comparison shopping.

So consider 6 C's for buying a diamond: Color, Cut, Clarity, Carat weight, Confidence in the jeweler, and Comparison shopping.  This way you are more likely to have a diamond that can be enjoyed and cherished for generations.

MONITORING YOUR MOVEMENTS IN A SHOPPING MALL

Update November 23, 2011  Many of the news media outlets here in Southern California were making a big deal today about the report that the Promenade Mall in Temecula had started a system where they can track where cell phones are moving about inside the mall.  Of course, the mall managers don't care about the cell phones -- what they are tracking is the owners of the cell phones.

The news media immediately questioned if this was an invasion of privacy?  No, it's not, says the mall.  No data is being ripped from the cell phones, no phone numbers or emails are being detected, but they are just using the electronics of the cell phones to watch where patrons move about in their mall.

Actually this is a good idea as it could help mall designers do a better job of creating and managing shopping mall layouts.  But it could also cause some problems in the future for shoppers, and here are some examples:

If the mall detects that we go to malls first for the food courts or for the coffee shops, they might bury the food courts and the coffee shops deeper inside the mall so we will have to pass more stores to get there.  The same goes for restrooms.  And if the mall discovers that we are going to shoe stores first, the shoe stores might be moved to interior mall locations.

If the mall detects that we are not stopping to look at the advertising signs and banners inside the open spaces of the mall, they might change the walkways into some sort of maze that would force us to look at the signs and banners as we go through the walkways.

If the mall detects that we walk quickly past certain stores, the mall managers might want to take a closer look at those stores to find out why.  And if the mall detects that we are lurking outside the fronts of certain stores but not going in, the mall managers might ask Victoria's Secret to cover up more of its models.  (Admit it, you knew that was coming.)

The mall might also be able to determine where it needs more cleaning services, security services, and seats -- or where it should remove seating areas.  If the mall determines that a particular store is getting a lot of foot traffic it might raise the store's rent.  If the mall finds a particular store gets a lot of traffic but that store is near a mall door, the mall might move that store further from the door so more traffic will pass by other stores.

And if the mall wants its shoppers to stay in part of its mall longer, it might offer some form of entertainment to keep us there.  And if the mall finds we are walking at a slow pace in other sections, it might decide to install a moving sidewalk.

This kind of research could be done the old-fashioned way, with managers watching and taking notes.  But high tech makes this kind of research easy.  If you don't like the idea of tracking your cell phone signals, the malls could put RFID tracking chips in the shopping bags that the stores use and get similar information.

THE END OF FREE TV

Update November 7, 2011  Don't tell my friends who own TV stations that I said this, but in the next few years they may be out of business.  It's not that TV is going out of business -- it's that TV stations will be put out of business.

Now, that's a strong statement, isn't it.  But in carefully planned steps, industry and the government appear to be taking steps to shut down over-the-air free TV as we know it.  Slowly, all TV broadcasts will be moved to the Internet and to cable TV that you pay for, and to cell phones that you also pay for.

The government, you see, is starting to take steps to siphon away the TV broadcast spectrum, and shift those wavelengths to other media including cell phones and data.

What does this mean?  Well, it means that perhaps in ten years or twenty years (not tomorrow) your favorite TV programs and networks will be viewable on the Internet and on special cell phone channels, and of course on Cable and Satellite systems.  For many of us, that will be just fine because we don't watch TV with over-the-air antennas and we watch with cable or satellite.  Now, you can also watch many programs on the Internet and you can access the web with your smart phone.  See?  In a few years everyone will have a smart phone so even if they don't have cable they'll be able to plug their cell phone into a TV monitor at home and dial in whatever show or network they want to watch.

The networks just might not care how their programs are watched.  Already the networks are putting their TV shows on the Internet, and quite frankly they don't care if the programs are watched via cable or satellite or the web -- just as long as they are watched.

The TV stations will care but already TV station revenue and eyeballs (the number of viewers) is down because many of us find our entertainment on the web.

And program production companies also don't care how their programs are seen -- as long as they are seen and that means on the web or on cable or on satellite systems.

Poor TV station owners are really between a rock and a hard place, as the saying goes.  Nobody really cares if they survive or not because technology is going to leave them behind.

True, the networks own some TV stations themselves -- but the networks wouldn't care much if the actual TV stations had to close.  After all, when you own a TV station you have to deal with the FCC and its license requirements, you have to deal with the cost of real estate, you have to deal with the cost of operating a building.  Even the TV stations could adapt to the new technology by selling their tower land, dropping their FCC license, skipping all the legal requirements of the FCC, and instead of broadcasting their news and programs just put them on the web instead.

In fact so much of the TV we watch today is already on the Internet.  Even local TV stations put their own local programs -- which is mostly the news -- on the Internet.

In just a few more years when everybody has a smart phone with web access, and a video monitor that you can plug your cell phone into, the idea of over-the-air TV will be history.  Oh, if you don't want to watch TV via a cell phone attachment, don't worry.  There will be two other options: cable and satellite.

And those old TV station signal wavelengths?  They'll be used for carry data for business and government, and more cell phone signals.

And if you don't believe, check back here in 20 years.  And what do you think?  Please give your opinion and observations on our Media Forum by clicking here.

WHAT IF YOU DON'T HAVE A SHREDDER?

Update November 3, 2011  Yes, you should shred your sensitive documents including statements about bank accounts and credit cards and medical records that you don't need to maintain.  But what if a shredder isn't handy or if you simply don't have one?

Well, you can shred papers the old fashioned way -- ripping them up by hand.  But the key to shredding is to make the pieces very small and without a particular pattern.  The problem with most commercial shredders that you can buy for your home or office is that they cut the paper in a particular pattern, and all it takes is some work to unshred the shredded papers.  It's done, and it's a big business.

Of course, if the paper is pulverized or smashed into tiny squares and then shaken, stirred, and mixed it becomes that much more difficult to unshred.

I have another idea you should consider: don't put all of the shreds in the same container.  You might consider taking half of the shreds and dumping them in one trash bin, and taking the other half of the shreds and dumping them in another trash bin a week later.  This will prevent a dumpster diver from getting all of the shreds unless he's also following you -- and in which case you probably have even bigger problems.

I also like the idea of taking shredded documents and using them for composting -- turning them into the soil with the help of bacteria and worms.  Shredded documents can also be used for gardening fillers and they can also be used to help start your fireplace for a cozy evening on a cold winter night.

I love what commercial shredders do with shredded documents.  These commercial shreds can be turned into insulation products or toilet paper.  Yes, after the credit cards kicked you in the butt with their high interest rates, you could be using the shreds of credit card statements on your butt later.

But before you get shred-happy, remember that it is important to keep some of your sensitive documents forever.  Tax returns should always be kept forever along with supporting documents.  Other legal documents should be kept probably for at least five to seven years -- and some should be kept forever.  Utility bills, bank statements, credit card bills, insurance payments are not among the documents that must be kept for years and usually can be tossed if they have no reasons to be kept for taxes, or claims, or lawsuits.

RIPPED OFF AND TOO EMBARRASSED TO REPORT IT

Update October 4, 2011  For more than thirty years I was a consumer news reporter in Los Angeles and Miami and New York, and too often I heard about consumers who were ripped off or cheated in some scam but didn't report it to police, or authorities, or even to their own family, because they were too embarrassed about what happened to them. 

And it just happened again -- someone who got ripped off it too embarrassed to report it.  And this time the victim is a businessman who is involved in the medical industry-- he was ripped off with a bait and switch from another company.  He told me he is too embarrassed to report it -- and he's even too embarrassed to tell his own attorney about it.

This is not an unusual reaction.  When we lose or get tricked we often feel embarrassed or just plain dumb about what we did.  And we shouldn't feel that way.  While we should investigate what we are doing with our money, when someone lies to us or tricks us or fools us, we have every right to demand that we be made whole by the offender.  Bait and switch is a crime, and this businessman lost several thousand dollars when he paid for a service that he did not receive and the company selling the service was never in a position to deliver that service.

You should not feel embarrassed about being ripped off.  You should feel that you are entitled to get your money back.  The emotion you should feel is anger when you report it to the police or other authorities.  Being embarrassed and being silent only allows the crooks to do it again.

BE VERY CAREFUL BUYING STERLING SILVER SILVERWARE

Update May 15, 2011  A lot of people are now selling their sterling silverware on eBay and at garage sales and house sales and tag sales and just about every seller is emphasizing the high value of sterling silver these days.  True sterling silver is marked ".925" which means that the silver content is 92 and a half percent of the weight.  Some sellers may try to get a much higher price for their sterling silverware because of the high price of silver.  And this is where you have to be careful.

First, you must be sure that what you are buying is indeed sterling and not a copy or counterfeit or something "doctored" to appear as if it is legitimate sterling silver.  Secondly, you should know that some sterling silverware may not be all sterling.  In the case of a knife -- it is likely that the blade is stainless steel, attached to a steel shank which in turn is embedded in a steel base or cement base or a base that is filled with something heavy such as sand.  This is done so that the knife has weight to it and is easier to use and will give the blade support.  Unfortunately, I've seen listings for sterling silver knives on eBay that mention the weight and comment on the silver but make no mention that a sterling silver knife is also made of material which is not sterling silver.

Forks and spoons that are marked sterling silver are traditionally all sterling silver.  Be careful.

TAKING A TAXI?  DON'T GET TAKEN FOR A RIDE.

Update March 2, 2011   It happens a lot -- a newcomer to a city hails a taxi and gets taken for a ride -- usually a long ride so that the cabbie makes more money off the fare box.  Sometimes worse things can happen, but let's stick with just being taken for a long ride.  There are things you can do to prevent being taken for a ride.

First, have an idea about what route the cabbie should be taking.  You might call ahead to your destination and ask what is the best route to take from the airport?  Then, when you give your destination to the cab driver, you can tell him what route to take.

Second, if you don't know which route to take, have an estimate ahead of time how much the fare should be.  Yes, there will be traffic delays that might increase the waiting time but if you have an estimate and the actual fare is within that estimate, you'll feel pretty good that you weren't ripped off.

One thing I always do when I get into a taxi is to look at the cab driver's license and address him by name.  This tells the cabbie that you know who he is -- just in case there is a problem later.  It's also a good idea to make a note of the car's license or cab license number.

I was suprised to find out that some taxi companies have the passenger compartment wired for sound and video.  Yes, there may be a recording of what you say and what you do in the cab.  While that can protect the driver in case the fare (the passenger) turns out to be a bad guy, it also can put you at risk.  Be aware that what you say can be overheard by the cab driver.  Don't talk about money that you might be carrying, or exensive items you might have.

And be wary if a cab driver asks you if it's your first time in town.  If you answer yes -- the cab driver might think you're an easy mark for a long detour and a higher fare.

GETTING ROBBED AT AN ATM

Update December 5, 2010   You could let yourself get robbed at an ATM if you are not careful.  We're all busy rushing around for the holidays, but you need to take a moment and think when you are at an ATM.  When I talk about getting robbed at an ATM, I'm not talking about letting someone peek at your PIN or secret code and I'm not talking about withdrawing cash just as someone reaches for it as it comes out of the ATM.  What I am talking about is leaving your card in the machine, or leaving the machine without pushing the "exit" button to stop additional transactions.

Twice in the last week the consumer in front of me at an ATM has forgotten to either remove their ATM card, or to push the "exit" button when they finished their transaction.  If I weren't an honest guy, in both cases I could have walked up to the machine and taken more money out of their accounts. 

Today, at the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City, the consumer ahead of me at the ATM rushed off after getting her money without pushing the "exit" button. I pushed the button for her. For this ATM the bank card was swiped at the start of the ATM visit. 

In the other instance a few days ago, a customer at a bank ATM left his card in the machine and started walking back to his car.  I saw that the card was not removed, the warning beep was sounding, so it was easy for me to yell for that consumer to return to the ATM to retrieve his card.

But you can't expect everyone to be honest.  It might seem simple enough but be sure you walk away from the ATM with your card and be sure that you have pushed the "exit" button to end your transaction period.

SO MANY REWARDS CARDS, AND SO CONFUSING

Updated November 24, 2010   Like you, I like to sign up for free rewards cards or loyalty cards that stores and businesses offer.  My first loyalty program was a frequent flyer card from the old Eastern Airlines back in the 1980's.  I don't fly much now, but I am part of the Southwest Airlines rewards program now so when I take a trip to Tucson to visit my wife's family I can get a credit towards a free flight.  I am also a member of the loyalty card program at CVS Pharmacy and I am part of the loyalty club program at Cafe 50's which is a local restaurant near my home in the West Los Angeles area.  If I eat at Cafe 50's enough, I'm supposed to get a free meal.  So far, I keep paying.

I'm also a member of the loyalty program at The Haircutters, the Los Angeles salon chain.  Since I get a haircut every three weeks I've filled up several loyalty cards with stamps and I've redeemed them for a free haircut.  I still give my usual tip to my hairdresser, of course.

The loyalty card that my wife and I use the most comes from Ralphs, the supermarket chain.  We regularly shop at Ralphs.  And last night, I used my Ralphs loyalty card to get a 10-cent per gallon discount at my neighborhood Shell gas station.  Shell and Ralphs have made a marketing deal and this is being advertised as a new benefit for Ralphs rewards members.  I suspect Ralphs gives Shell a few cents per gallon so Shell will give Ralphs customers ten-cents off on the price of a gallon of gas.  I'm sure it's a win-win deal for both companies.  But is it a winning deal for me?

What I didn't know until I checked the program's rules on the Ralphs website is that in order to get the discount of 10-cents a gallon at Shell, I have to redeem 100 points in the Ralphs rewards program.  Those points usually give us coupons for payment at the checkout.  This past month, we got a coupon for $6 at the checkout.  So now I have to wonder if it was wise to redeem 100 Ralphs points to get the 10-cents per gallon discount at Shell?  I bought 15 gallons which gave me a savings of $1.50.  The trouble is, I don't know if those 100 points in my Ralphs account would have saved me more than $1.50 at the supermarket.

What I also discovered is that when you redeem those 100 Ralphs rewards points for the 10-cent per gallon discount at Shell, you are entitled to buy 35 gallons of gas at the discounted price.  Gee, I wish I knew that in advance because I would have stood at the pump and had my wife's car follow mine and my son's car follow her car so we could have used our full allotment of 35 gallons.  Had I bought 35 gallons, I could have saved $3.50 with my 100 Ralphs rewards points.  Now I wonder if 100 Ralphs rewards points are worth $3.50 at the supermarket?

Darn, it's complicated, isn't it?

These rewards clubs and loyalty clubs are a good idea.  But they can be too complicated to figure out.  Let me give you another example.  I belong to another program that lets you redeem points for gift cards -- but the point value varies for a $50 gift card with one company and a $50 gift card at another company.  In this case, company A's $50 gift card cost 1800 points while company B's $50 gift card cost 1500 points.  But that one was easy to spot because the loyalty program's catalogue clearly spells out the number of points needed for each $50 gift card.  But I went with company A at 1800 points because I rarely shop at company B.

When these loyalty programs get complicated I just wish they would scrap the loyalty programs and simply lower their prices.  Lower prices would really get my loyalty.

WHY DO CREDIT CARD COMPANIES CHARGE SUCH HIGH INTEREST RATES?

I'm writing this on Sunday, January 17th, 2010 just after I took a look at the latest statistics on interest rates published by the Federal Reserve.  I'm not going to clutter this page with statistics but here's what you should know:  corporations are borrowing money at about 5% and mortgage rates are at about 5% and banks are paying about 1% or less on savings accounts.  So why are credit card interest rates as high as 30% or more?

Again, here's the question: Why do credit card companies charge such high interest rates?  The answer is: because they can.

As you know, new rules about credit cards are taking effect but there still is no law saying that credit card companies must lower their interest rates to match the other low rates in our economy.  But I think it's time that this happened.  If the credit card companies say they can't make money charging 10% or 15% interest -- and they must charge 19% or 30% -- then let them go out of business.  And if the credit card companies say they can't lend money to high risk card users unless they charge those high risk card users 30% or more, then tell the credit card companies not to make those loans because they'll be doing those consumers a favor.

When interest rates in the economy are so low, and when banks are paying out so little on deposits, it's time to bring back the usury laws and put a cap on interest rates.  The days of credit card companies charging "mob rates" must end -- and it's time for them to end. 

So join our fight-- go to our "Contact Us" page and tell us you're "in" and we'll get the campaign started.

By the way, watch your credit card statements for a change.

A new entry on your credit card statment will tell you "how long it will take to pay off your balance."  The Federal Reserve says:  "your monthly credit card bill will include information on how long it will take you to pay off your balance if you only make minimum payments.  It will also tell you how much you would need to pay each month in order to pay off your balance in three years."  And that info might get a lot of consumers to wake up about the true high cost of plastic. 

TIPS ON HOW TO PURCHASE AND USE GIFT CARDS

Gift cards are always popular gifts and here are some important things to keep in mind.  First, store gift cards and general purpose gift cards which might be issued by a credit card company have different rules of operation.  Store gift cards are good at a particular store or chain of stores.  While a general purpose gift card issued by a credit card company can be accepted wherever that card is accepted.  There may be a fee or purchase price added to the cost or value of general purpose gift cards, but store gift cards generally have no fees.  Store gift cards usually have no monthly fees, but gift cards from credit card companies might have fees that start after six to twelve months.

Consider buying gift cards that clearly disclose their costs, fees and information about how the cards to be used.  Don't leave anything to guess work.  You might want to find out if a refund is available on the gift card balance that is not used. 

Can you get help with your gift card questions?  Yes, you can call the Federal Trade Commission at (877) FTC-HELP or the California Attorney General's Office, but the quickest way to check on the gift card is to get the store's or gift card company's rules in writing before you buy them. 

And remember don't lose the gift cards -- because they are like losing cash for the most part.  Some other tips: try to use the entire balance within six months because this way you're more likely to use the balance before it's forgotten.  Always keep track of your balance -- because it's your money. 

Starting in August 2010 new federal rules take effect on gift cards that prohibit fees if the card is used within the previous 12 months, and cards can't expire for at least five years.

SHOP CAREFULLY WHEN YOU BUY GOLD FOR INVESTING

With the price of gold now above $1,000 an ounce, many consumers are now interested in buying gold coins for investment -- or selling the gold coins they have for a profit.  It is very important now that you shop around for the best buy and sell prices.  Prices will vary, and you should be aware that certain coins, especially smaller coins, have higher markups than other coins have.

For example, if you buy United States $20 Gold pieces issued before 1933 you will pay a larger premium because many $20 gold coins, called "double eagles" have a numismatic or collector value.

Most "bullion coins" such as Krugerrands and American Eagle and Canadian Maple Leaf gold coins do not have a collectible value are their price more clearly matches the price of gold.  But smaller gold bullion coins have higher percentage markups.

Here is an example:  I called one coin dealer when the price of gold was at about $1,055 an ounce and asked for his price for a one ounce American Eagle gold coin.  He said the price was $1,098. 

Then I asked the price for a French 20-Franc gold coin which contains about one-fifth of an ounce of gold, and he said the price for that coin was $352.  With gold at $1,055 the "bullion value" should be about $210.  The difference between $352 and $210 is about $140 which is the markup on small gold coins.  In fact, if you were to buy five of those French coins to get one ounce of gold, you'd be paying $1,760 while a one ounce American Eagle gold coin would cost you $662 less.

ARE SOME OF THOSE ARCADE GAMES LIKE SLOT MACHINES?

My cameraman and I stopped at a pizza restaurant the other day.  The name of the pizza joint is not important but it's part of a national chain.  Anyway, while other lunch timers were waiting for their pizzas I noticed that many of them were playing the arcade machines in the back of the restaurant.  There were the classic arcade games like pinball and air hockey and arcade games where you can shoot space invaders.  But there were also those "skill games" where if you can maneuver the crane to the right spot you could scoop up a stuffed animal or a bunch of candy or if you didn't have skill (or luck) you'd scoop up nothing but air.  

And watched some of the lunch timers lose quarter after quarter and dollar after dollar trying to scoop up a stuffed animal or some candy or other prize-- but all they got was air.  And that made me think these types of arcade games were nothing more than slot machines but instead of winning quarters or dollars, the jackpot on these arcade slot machines was a scoop of candy or a stuffed animal.

So I started thinking -- were these arcade games really games of skill or really just games of chance, like slot machines.

Some of you might argue that video poker machines are games of skill that start with chance.  The skill is knowing which cards to hold and which cards to discard in the video poker game; the chance is the gamble that the machine will give you good starting cards and then give you good replacement cards after you toss the cards you don't want to hold after the deal.

Those arcade games with the crane are really very much like those video poker machines.  The skill is in maneuvering the crane.  The chance is in how the prizes inside the tank are stacked or pushed together which might make it absolutely impossible to pluck one using the crane.

So I have to ask if those arcade games with the cranes that are used to pluck a prize are legal, why isn't video poker legal in pizza parlors and stores and gas stations (outside of the usual venues like casinos)?  With both those arcade cranes and those video poker games it's a combination of luck and skill, and in both arcade crane games and video poker games, it appears to me the house has an edge and the player is more likely to lose than win.

That's my opinion.  Alan Mendelson

IT'S TIME FOR THE YEAR-END FINANCIAL CHECK-UP

Certified financial planner Brian Gilder in the video below gives you some ideas about what financial records you should be checking as we approach the end of the year.  Actually, checking these things now wouldn't hurt.  He also suggests checking your financial safety cushion, your beneficiaries, what stocks you might want to sell at a loss to save on taxes, and carefully check your insurance policies to see that you are protected against accidents.

MORE PHISHING FOR BANK ACCOUNT INFO

These crooks never give up -- they keep sending out emails asking me to confirm my login information for my bank account.  But these crooks must be idiots, or they can't speak English, because their email notifications always have bad grammar or misspellings.  I am going to highlight the bad grammar and misspellings from the latest "alert" phishing scam email:

During our usual security enhancement protocol, we observed multiple login attempt error while login in to your online banking account. We have believed that someone other than you is trying to access your account for security reasons, we have temporarily suspend your account and your access to online banking and will be restricted if you fail to update.

Okay, now for our phishing grammar lesson for the crook.  It should be "multiple login attempt errors to your...."  And "we believe that someone other than you...."  And instead of writing "is trying to access your account for security reasons,"  Mr. Crook should have written "someone is trying to access your account and for security reasons we have temporarily suspended your account, and your access to online banking will be restricted if you fail to update your login records."

Maybe these crooks will learn proper grammar and sentence construction and spelling while serving long terms in prison.

DO THE MATH, BECAUSE SOME BUSINESSES CAN'T

Updated May 15, 2011  When I first started in TV as a consumer news reporter, the "hip thing" to do was to expose businesses for their goofs and for misleading consumers.  For example, measuring how much water was in a can of peas.  If you found a company that packed too much water and too few peas in  their cans it was a "big story."  Wow, did the consumer advocates on the TV news go hot and heavy with that story.  I remember the anchorman on the newsbreaks saying it -- "our consumer advocate (fill in the name here) says you're paying too much for water in your can of peas.  Film at 11."  Go get 'em, you consumer advocates, go get 'em you pitbulls of investigative journalism.  

One of my favorite stories was comparing the number of raisins in different brands of raisin cereal.  I actually counted, one by one, all of the raisins in a national brand, and counted all of the raisins in a "supermarket private label brand" of raisin cereal.  The supermarket's cereal sold by Ralphs had the exact same number of raisins as the national brand "with two scoops of raisins" as was advertised in its commercials.  That was in the 1990's.  I wonder what would happen if I repeated that test today?  I hope we'd get the same results.

But now I must wonder if companies can do the math -- if they can count, if they can multiply, if they can figure out percentages accurately.

The reason I am skeptical is that back in May of 2009 I went to the drive thru of the McDonald's restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard in Century City and ordered a ten-piece package of Chicken McNuggets.  I opened the box and found there were only 9 -- not ten -- McNuggets in the box.  Gee, McDonald's has workers who can't count to ten?  It wasn't worth driving back to the restaurant to get my tenth McNugget.  So I just ate my lunch with 90% of the ten-piece package of McNuggets I ordered.

A few days before I stopped at the McDonald's drive thru at Primm, Nevada, in the casino and shopping area on the I-15.  This restaurant actually charges extra for the dipping sauces for those McNuggets (other restaurants usually give one or two packages of dipping sauce at no extra cost).  I ordered two packages of Hot Mustard dipping sauce but when we got the bag at the drive thru window we checked -- and there weren't any.  Gee, all the worker had to do was count "one, two" packages.

I don't mean to pick on McDonald's.  Frankly I like McDonald's.  When my kids were young I even bought them shares of McDonald's stock.  McDonald's is a great company and a lot of people must know how to count or else they couldn't post those signs about "billions and billions served."  But gee, did they really serve "billions and billions" or just 90% of billions and billions?

Some other companies don't know how to count, or how to do the math, either.  At least that's what it looks like after buying their products and doing the math myself.

At CVS, the big drug store chain, I bought a big box of their antibacterial moist wipes.  I like them, and always use them.  They're handy, especially when I go through a drive thru at a McDonald's.  What I liked about the purchase of this box of wipes is that it had in bold lettering "25% MORE FREE."  And the printing on the box says "60 WIPES FOR THE PRICE OF 45."  Well, I did the math and found it wasn't 25% more free.  If the basic box of 45 had 25% more, then the box should have 56 and a quarter wipes.  Well, when you go from 45 wipes to 60 wipes, it's an increase of almost 33%.  CVS, thanks for the deal but you are cheating yourself.  You could have said "33% MORE FREE" and you might be selling more of those Antibacterial Moist Wipes.

By the way, CVS, if you reduced your box of wipes from 60 wipes to 45 wipes that would be a reduction of 25%.

Another company that can't seem to count is Van deKamp's which makes frozen fish sticks.  I love their frozen fish sticks.  I've been eating them forever.  My wife bought me a large box of Van deKamp's with 30 frozen fish sticks.  Well, thirty is too many for me to eat at any one time, and so I portioned out my meals.  I had ten fish sticks the first time -- and then ten more the second time.  That's twenty so far.  And when I made the rest of the Van deKamp's fish sticks I found that 13 remained in the box.  Hmmm... that's a total of 33 fish sticks.  I guess I got a deal.  Below is the video I made about the bad math.

Here on our new media website "Moneyman" Alan Mendelson who is the original Best Deals TV Show reporter on KCAL9 and consumer advocate, shows you the best deals on TV, and the best buys, bargains and where savvy shoppers go to save, and how to get the most for "your money" with the best of Los Angeles, Orange County, Ventura County, Riverside County and San Bernardino County.  Our Best Buys TV Show has the best TV deals and is the only regularly scheduled weekly best deals TV show in Southern California.  We show you the best buys and best deals on TV and more deals and bargains on www.alanbestbuys.com and www.bestbuystvshow.com and watch for our Las Vegas TV show Vegas Best Buys.  Some of the content can come from paid advertising and from our advertiser paid TV infomercial programs.  The Best Buys TV Show is a paid infomercial program which may also include news and information which is not sponsored or paid for by advertisers.  AlanBestBuys.com has the highest ranking among competitive sites in Southern California according to the independent website ranking companies Alexa.com and Quantcast.com and our Best Buys TV Show is the most watched shopping and consumer information show in Southern California.

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