Robocalls? Not Much we can do . . . but Maybe a Little.

 I once sued a telemarketer for violating the National Do Not Call Registry. I was awarded $1,500 by the small claims court commissioner. I had fully intended to follow suit by supplementing my income suing every son-of-a-bitch company that showed contempt for both the registry and my inalienable right to a peaceful dinner while watching Jeopardy!

National Do Not Call Registry logo

You can fight against unwanted telemarketing calls by signing up on the Do Not Call Registry

Even though I know that small claims court is a piece of cake and a great way for the little guy to take down the bullies of telecommunication, I find an inexplicable emotional inertia within me when it comes to going to court and filing the suit.

So what alternatives are left?  First, sign up on the registry at https://www.donotcall.gov/Register/Reg.aspxHere are a few tips to wrangle successfully with the robo-rascals.  But  know this: anyone with whom you have an ongoing business relationship—for instance, a credit card company—is exempt from the do-not-call prohibition. Political campaigns and charities, as well as government calls for emergency situations, are also exempt.

First, get a phone with “caller ID” capability. They are relatively cheap. Then, get an answering machine. They’re cheap and easy to use.  If you get a call and you don’t recognize the number, let the machine pick it up. If it’s a call you want to deal with, pick up the phone. Otherwise, let the call die away.

If you do answer the phone and a recording instructs you to press a certain number, DON’T DO IT, not even if it tells you to press a number that will take you off their call list. It tells the calling device that it has reached a legitimate number that’s ripe for receiving telemarketing calls. Just hang up.

Check out the site nomorobo.com. It works best with VoIP and mobile phone services. VoIP is Internet phone service.  It often comes as part of a package with cable and Internet services. Nomorobo blocks any calls it recognizes as coming from unwanted robocallers. I use AT&T landline service and Nomorobo is not yet supported by AT&T landline service, although it does work with AT&T VoIP service.

You can report any robocalls to the federal government at 888 382-1222 or at https://complaints.donotcall.gov/complaint/complaintcheck.aspxBut I am dubious about the number of people who would bother to take that road. I am also dubious about the effectiveness of such reporting.

And finally, if you are receiving telemarketing calls from a local company, get the person on the line to give you the company phone number and address. Then get in touch with your local small claims court to learn about the procedures to get the evildoers into court in order to sue them for the $500 fine to which you are entitled; even more for multiple violations.

Good luck.

Easy Ways to Save on Electronics and Travel

Here are easy ways to track prices online that might enable you to compare for the best deals.

 

For electronics, Decide.com offers an app that you can download from the site. The will let you know when the price for the item you are interested in is likely to drop (it claims a 77 percent accuracy rate – so don’t blindly depend on it). You can check price alerts and compare what items will cost at brick-and-mortar stores.

 

If you are planning a trip, Bing Price Predictor (www.bing.com, then click “More,” then “Travel”) to find the best time to buy plane tickets.

 

After you buy your tickets, go to Yapta.com and enter your itinerary the price you paid. It will let you know if the price drops enough to qualify you for any travel refunds (travel refund policies depend on from whom you buy your tickets and what their policies are). If you didn’t buy your tix through a seller with a price-drop refund policy, at least you’ll know if the price dropped enough to cover the cost of changing you tickets.

 

Hotel room bookings can come with a low cost guarantee as well. If you reserve through Tingo.com you will automatically be rebooked at a lower rate if the cost of your room drops. This only applies to rooms with a “Money Back” designation. Just be sure that Tingo has the lowest price to begin with compared to booking though other sites.

Thanks to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance for these tips.

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The Consumer Gal and I just had our book, Enough of Us – which deals with other subject matter – published. Now we have to focus on marketing our “baby.” So for thetime being, I will be suspending my semi-monthly Consumer Guy full-length blog posts and, instead, providing  brief consumer tips..

If you would like to learn more about our book, which deals with issues of ethics and procreation, please visit our other website, www.enoughof.us. Many thanks for your interest.

 

 

 

 

So-called “Convenience Checks” are Convenient . . . for the Banks

You know those “convenience checks” that come with your monthly credit card statement?

Convenience checks

Convenience check promotion with an low introductory rate

They’re for suckers. Here’s why. When you use them you’re usually charged the daily cash advance interest rate of 12, 15, or even 20 percent. Often they come with a 3-4 percent fee. When you make purchases with them you don’t usually accrue the benefits—like airline miles, cash back, and the extended warranty benefit —that come with credit card purchases.The low introductory interest rate may quickly disappear and if using one of these checks causes you to exceed your credit card limit, it could cause the check to bounce and to hurt your credit score.Shred any checks that you receive. Better yet, resist temptation, as I have done, by calling your card issuer and telling it to stop sending the checks.

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The Consumer Gal and I just had our book, Enough of Us – which deals with another realm – published. In order to concentrate on that project I will be suspending my semi-monthly Consumer Guy full-length blog posts and, instead, providing  a short consumer tip each week (I hope).

If you would like to learn more about our book that deals with issues of ethics and procreation, please visit our other website, www.enoughof.us. Many thanks for your interest.

 

Professional sports pitching intoxicants to kids? You bet.

In 1991 the late journalist Jeff Zaslow interviewed me for his column in the Chicago Sun-Times about how advertisers sometimes use poor taste – or even hypocritical pitches – in order to hawk their wares.

Allow me to quote from Zaslow’s column: “Consumer advocate Ellis Levinson . . . finds all liquor ads objectionable and says our society is hypocritical. ‘During the World Series, you see baseball players [in public service ads] telling kids to say no to drugs. Then in the next commercial, ballplayers pitch beer. Beer gets you stoned. It’s a drug commercial.’”

Have things changed? You bet. Have you ever heard of Avion Tequila? I never had, until tonight. I was watching the Yankees-Rangers game when a commercial came on for the Mexican elixir (replete with a subtle reference to S & M pain).

What, exactly, are they selling?

I have also seen ads for Captain Morgan Rum and Skyy (please, spare me the clever spelling; Toys R Us is bad enough with its backward R) Vodka on professional sports broadcasts. Coors Beer promises you not only a silver bullet high-speed train electrifying your life, but lots of sexy women wearing not much in the way of sartorial splendor (i.e., they’re scantily clad).

I don’t know how else to say this, but I am pissed off. There was a day when beer and wine were the only alcohol products that advertised on TV. No more. I truly believe that if our graft-ridden Congress were not beholden to the booze industry, alcohol advertising on television would go the way of the dodo and cigarette ads. It’s already  bad enough that kids can’t wait to get to college so they can board the Coors Silver Bullet.

Let’s just hope that Phillip Morris doesn’t gain enough traction among members of the House of Reprehensibles to entice its members to allow smokes back onto our home screens. In the meantime, if you have kids, lock your liquor cabinet.

Coupons: Money Makers or Cash Costers?

Lots of folks use coupons. They save you money, right? Sometimes. Manufacturers of retail items, with the exception of the U.S. auto industry, have typically been pretty smart. So they are not giving away the store. The idea behind coupons is to lure you to their products, or to create demand for new ones.

Photo: U-Haul Trucking Rental

I seldom use coupons because they are usually for stuff I don’t need, stuff that’s overpriced to begin with, or “foods” that are bad for me.

The Consumer Gal and I enjoy tea. My wife especially likes herbal teas. I recently came across a one-dollar coupon in the Sunday newspaper for Celestial Seasonings tea. When I saw that my supermarket “club” card price gave a dollar discount, I piled on my coupon and got the $2.99 box of tea for one buck.

On the other hand, I have a one-dollar coupon for “WhoNu?” cookies. It’s a new line of cookies from Suncore Products. They‘re marketed as a nutrition-rich treat, containing fiber, protein, nutrients, yada, yada, yada. My Consumer Guy curiosity (and my sweet tooth) has gotten the best of me. So I will take that tooth to the market and check it out. But here is the caveat. I’ll check the after-coupon price. If I’m not going to save a buck compared to my normal gamut of after-dinner, low-fat goodies, I ain’t buying. And I’m not sure that WhoNus are low in fat.

The primary source of food in our home is Trader Joe’s. Excellent prices and a great array of healthful, vegetarian items are why. TJ sells a huge percentage of stuff bearing its own brand, which allows it to keep prices down. As for name brands, TJ accepts coupons.

We rarely buy foodstuffs we wouldn’t ordinarily buy just because we have coupons. If you don’t stick to that commitment, you could be in for a world of financial hurt. (Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration.)

If I can buy a can of beans at TJ or Safeway that bears the stores’ labels and pay 89 cents for them, but I can get 25 cents off a can of S&W beans with a coupon, which way should I go? That depends. If the S&W beans cost a dollar with the coupon, you know which way I’m going. But if you simply like the taste of the S&W’s better, enjoy yourself! Of course, coupons don’t only apply to grocery items. I collect coupons for restaurants from the Sunday paper. On occasion I buy a Groupon. But I make it a point never to do so for a restaurant or other establishment where I would not otherwise be spending my money (unless I’m interested in trying a new place.

I have about 150 old LP and cassette music albums (for the youngsters out there, they are ancient forms of recorded albums from the days before CDs came along). Kohl’s was selling a device that allows listeners to play their LPs and cassettes and to record them onto CDs. It cost almost $170, a very good sale price. But for each $50 spent, Kohl’s issued the consumer $10 in Kohl’s Cash, which is essentially a coupon. So, with my $30in Kohl’s Cash I bought a $25 plush bathrobe and a $12 pair of slippers – both on sale (of course). They came to about 40 bucks, including sales tax. I ended up forking over only $10 out of pocket for stuff I needed. By the way, man, I’m really diggin’ listenin’ to my old vinyls and trippin’ back to the days when most of rock was real music.

That’s the upside of coupons. Here are some downers:

  • They induce us to buy junk foods and beverages like potato chips, candy, soda and juice drinks;
  • They induce us to buy additional stuff we don’t need or really want;
  • And, according to financial journalist Faroosh Torabi (www.farnoosh.tv) using coupons often seduces us into spending the money we saved, and more, on other stuff. In the September 1, 2011 issue of Bottom Line Personal¸ she refers a Harvard Business School study that show online shoppers who use a $10 coupon tend to spend $1.59 more than those who don’t use the coupon.
  • Bed Bath and Beyond offers 20 percent off coupons which are frequently a great deal. But you need to compare the pre-coupon price of what you’re buying. While some stuff at BBB is priced well, I have also seen items there for two or three times the price I have seen at Target or Costco.

Here’s something else to watch out for – coupon web sites. I find that frequently they offer coupons good at vendor web sites, which are nothing more than the same offer already available from the vendors. I just ordered a ladder from the Home Depot site that was selling for $168. I checked with several coupon sites. They offered me free-shipping coupons for Home Depot on products that cost at least $45. That’s the exact same deal that Home Depot was offering with no coupon requirement. The best way to get the best price on a particular item is to use one of the discount price comparison sites like Buy.com, ebates.com, or one of the many others. I bought the special- order ladder from Home Depot’s web site because there is a Home Depot store near my home and I can return it there if it doesn’t meet my expectations. Plus, they deliver it right to my house.

In summary, a coupon is only a bargain if it’s for something you already want and you can’t get another, equivalent item for less.

Are White Men the Dumbest People in the World? TV Advertisers Seem to Think So

I admit it; I am a TV addict. Being a writer is a lonely job. I write two blogs and I’m now marketing a book. My dog Ozzie and my TV sets keep me company. It’s mostly news show that I watch . . . or listen to . . . or just have on in the background to keep me company.
But I catch enough of junk TV to see a lot of commercials. Actually, commercials keep me up on what crap a lot of advertisers are foisting upon the American consumer. By the way, is there ever a day when Kohl’s is not having a huge sale?

TV commercial
Yoplait commercial in which the husband is clueless that his desserts are really Yoplait yogurt . . . duh!

Here’s what I’ve noticed about a certain technique advertisers employ in order to make certain segments of their target audience feel good about themselves. In humorous commercials at least 90 percent of the time, white men are dolts. Idiots. Morons.  At the top of the intelligence heap are black women. They are followed closely by Asian and white women. Then come Asian men, followed by black men and children of any ethnicity. Finally comes the lowly white guy.
Now these are not hard and fast rules. There is some limited upward and downward mobility between levels, but just a little. Forgive me for leaving out Latinos, but advertisers don’t identify them much in commercials and when they do, the families seem to be stuck just interacting within their own culture.
Let me demonstrate a few examples. There’s the former State Farm Insurance customer who calls his former agent and cries that he ran his car up a pole. She’s compassionate. He’s an idiot.
There’s the AT&T Internet customer whose whole family understands that their Web connection is wireless but he just can’t understand it, much to the disdain of his daughter.
How about the guy who walks into the kitchen, overhears his wife talking on the phone about the delicious dessert flavors of Yoplait yogurt, and starts looking for the desserts in the fridge? That is until she derisively asks him, “What are you doing?”
In commercials, there are mostly black doctors of either sex. There are no dumb Asian or black women. Black men are only dumb in comparison to others above them in the hierarchy.
After much contemplation I have figured out the why the world of humorous commercials is so ordered. There are two prongs to my theory. White guys have a disproportionate influence in society. And they are not all that sensitive to being at the bottom of the TV commercial pile. They can laugh at being made fun of.
But by making women, and particularly minorities, feel good in relation to the product being sold, the advertiser creates a humorous and positive association with its product or service.
The second aspect of this phenomenon is that men – particularly white men –– control “Madison Avenue,” as the ad business is often called. So white guys flatter minorities and women in order to dupe them into buying the stuff the advertisers and their ad agencies are hawking. So while everyone else gets to feel superior, white guys (predominantly) are manipulating them.

Personally, I find this phenomenon disturbing. Sexism is sexism. Racism is racism. Period. The John Gray book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, did a lot to promote the “men do this, women do that” mentality that pervades so much of television, radio, and publishing. It leads to viewpoints that generalize sex-defined behavior and ignore the behaviors of sensitive men, coarse women, and everything in between.
As a white man, while I enjoy funny beer commercials I also resent being generalized as a sex crazed oaf (no matter how true it is of me personally) who makes consistently stupid choices.

I don’t give a damn what it sells.