Are you Willing to Swap Convenience for Privacy?


Orchard Supply Hardware

An OSH Store

I am downright paranoid about privacy. Getting my Social Security number from me is less likely than a cow jumping over the moon. It amazes me how easily, even in this day of rampant identity theft, consumers are willing to turn over their personal information to any web site or merchant who asks for it.

Orchard Supply Hardware, commonly known as OSH, has 85-plus retail outlets in California. Their stores are smaller than big box stores like Lowe’s but considerably larger than the typical Ace or True Value location. Some years ago OSH became a subsidiary of Sears.

There is an OSH just three blocks from my house and I have often joked that if I had an employer I would ask for direct deposit, not to my credit union, but to OSH. I have bought everything from power tools to screws to plants at that store.

I recently returned a 2 ½ gallon jug of driveway cleaner to the store and was asked for my driver’s license. I showed the license, still in my wallet, to the staffer. “I’ll need you to take it out of the wallet,” she remarked.

            “Why?” I responded, as if I didn’t suspect what was coming, much to my chagrin (I brought my chagrin along on this trip as I always do. My chagrin hates to be left alone at home).

            “I need to run it.”

            “Gee,” I thought, “She’ll definitely win that race. My license has no legs.” But what I said out loud was, “No.”

            “Excuse me?” she interrogated.

            “If I let you enter the information on my driver’s license into your computer, it will go into a data base. There, anyone who works for your company can access all my personal information. And if a hacker gets into your system they (Ed. note: yeah, I know, bad grammar) can steal my identity.”

            “We use a company to maintain the database and it’s secure,” she politely retorted.

            “If the Pentagon can’t keep its data bases secure, and UCLA had 300,000 personal records hacked, I somehow believe that OSH’s database can be hacked into as well,” I rejoined, not that I ever joined anything to begin with.

            Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of this rest of this epic tale. Store policy: no refunds without driver’s license.

            “But California requires that all such restrictions be conspicuously posted near the cash register.”

            “But the new policy is on the back of the receipt.”

            “Did anyone point it out when I made the purchase?”

            Here comes the store manager.

            I explain my concerns, i.e., giving OSH my name, address, date of birth, driver’s license number, hair color, eye color, etc. And since you did not make me aware of the return conditions, you have to pay up.

            “May we at least copy down your license number?”

           “OK.”   Here’s the upshot. Most people I know say they would never hand over this info, but they don’t have the cojones to stick to their guns. Because I stick to my guns, I often complicate my life, like when my new dermatologist’s staff said they could not process my insurance claim without my SSN, even though my health insurer does not even want to know my SSN. So I had to seek reimbursement through a claim to my insurer, which claim they lost, then forgot to act on the second submission, then had to reimburse me through payment back to the doctor. And it took seven freakin’ months!           

         So I called OSH headquarters. Mind you, this is a company that was started in 1931 as an orchard farmers’ cooperative in the town of San Jose. San Jose is now America’s tenth largest city. Company headquarters is just a few miles from my home. I want to support a business that employs local people. And I expressed this desire to Barbara, the company customer service gal. Why, I wondered out loud, do I not need show my driver’s license when I use my credit card before walking out of the store with $200 worth of stuff, but I do need to have my personal information recorded when I ask that the return be credited back to the very same card?

            Barbara was flummoxed, if that means what I think it means. And when I told her that although I had shopped at this OSH hundreds, if not thousands, of times, I would not be likely to shop there again, until they dropped the driver’s license requirement. She said she would pass my concerns onto management. I’ll be writing more about that type of process in large corporations in an upcoming blog.

            So here I am, about to leave for The Home Depot to pick up a dishwasher discharge hose, lamenting my trial separation from OSH, the local company swallowed up by the big-name retailer; the company that was once my local hardware store and is now just hard.

            But I rest assured that my ID will not be stolen, at least not because of OSH’s unreasonable demands.

  • P.S.  – I am a commissioner on the all-volunteer Santa Clara County Advisory Commission on Consumer Affairs. I have just requested that this issue be placed on our next meeting agenda and that we ask the county board of supervisors to recommend to the state legislature (after all, what else does the State of California have to worry about?) that they outlaw this type of invasive refund requirement. So there.

YOU CAN BANK ON BANKS BANKING ON YOUR FEES – or, how to get more bank for your buck


           Until a few years ago I was a Washington Mutual Bank customer. The branch was close to my house and there were no fees for the services I used, with the exception of a safe deposit box. (No, it’s not a “safety” deposit box. It’s a box in a safe.) When the banking scandal hit in 2008 Wamu went bye-bye. Seems it was in the illegitimate mortgage business that eventually bit it on the ass.

            That’s when JP Morgan Chase got into the picture and picked up Wamu’s business for a song (I think the song was George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”). So my Wamu branch became a Chase branch.

            Then three things happened. I became uncomfortable with all the money Chase got as part of the federal bailout. Then Chase had a few more scandals. And as I waivered as to whether I should take my money and run because of ethical considerations, Chase announced its new fee schedule.

            Hasta la vista baby. I moved my money, primarily deposited in a checking account, across the mall parking lot to a credit union. And I’m glad I did. As if the big banks aren’t making enough, they’ve come up with some pretty sneaky fees. According to USPIRG and California PIRG (PIRG is the acronym for Public Interest Research Group) here are some fees and how you can avoid them.

            Some banks will allow you to withdraw more money from your automatic teller machine (ATM – that’s why it’s bad English to say “ATM machine”; “machine” is already in there; if you say “ATM machine,” I will report you to the FBI of investigation) than you have in your account. Then you get hit with an overdraft fee.

Solution: Check your balance to make sure you are not withdrawing more money than you have in the account.

            Many financial institutions are now charging several bucks for non-customers to use the banks’ ATMs to make withdrawals from the user’s bank. On top of that, the user’s bank may charge a fee as well. You could end up paying five dollars or more in fees for a 20-buck withdrawal.

Solution: Use only your own bank’s ATMs or become a credit union customer and use an ATM that’s a member of its affiliated network. Some groceries will allow you debit additional cash as well, when you make a purchase .

            Here’s a swift one, and to me it’s just a rip-off. Let’s say you inadvertently write several checks in a short period for which you have inadequate funds in your checking account. What many banks do is deduct the largest check amounts first from your account. This causes the most checks possible to bounce. At the usual $29 to $39 returned check fees, plus the potential penalties levied by the offended merchants, you are getting – as they say in the financial industry – screwed big time.

Solution: Keep track of how much money is in your account. That’s why there’s a register in your checkbook. And don’t forget debit card expenditures. If you’re not sure of how much is in there, check with your bank. It’s a good idea to use a check book that makes carbon copies of checks as you write them. I wonder if that’s last situation left where we make carbon copies.

Some banks are now even charging five to 10 smackers if you deposit a check you received from someone else and that check bounces.

Solution: Don’t accept checks from someone you don’t know to be trustworthy.

            There are banks and credit unions that charge fees for not having a set minimum in your account unless you use direct deposit from your employer. Others charge dormancy fees for not actively using your account

Solution: Find a financial institution (I think that term is so pompous; institution?) that doesn’t levy those fees.

Here’s a cynical one. Fortunately for Californians, it’s a no-no in that state: You buy a gift card at a bank. After a set minimum period the bank charges non-use fees of two to three dollars a month.

Solution: Move to California. Or, if that’s too drastic, buy gift cards from retailers that don’t attach such fees to their cards.

            If your bank charges a fee for your talking to a teller or a telephone representative (or even an automated telephone system!), ask yourself: “Why am I doing business with people who charge me to check on the money I am, in essence, lending to them?”

Solution: If this situation isn’t enough to motivate you to look elsewhere for a bank, at least ask the leaches how many free teller visits or calls you are allowed each month. If you call or visit to correct a bank error, be sure that you are not charged a fee.

            Since I don’t use – or even have – a debit card, I was not aware of this one. If you choose to use your personal identification number (PIN – see grammar lesson for ATM at the top of this article) instead of signing for a debit card transaction at a merchant,, your bank may charge 25¢ to $1.50 for each transaction. Really?

Solution: If your bank imposes such a fee, use your credit card instead of a debit card, providing, that is, you’re not carrying a balance on your credit card account. You don’t want to add to the balance for which you are already paying interest. Otherwise pay cash or by check. Or find another bank that appreciates your business. By the way, I don’t carry a debit card because a debit card is like cash. If you lose your wallet or purse, you could be in for a heap of hurt.

            In conclusion: Know your bank’s policies and fees. When you get those occasional notices that describe changes in bank policy, take a few minutes to read them. They may be significant enough to prompt you to change financial institutions. And keep in mind, the big bank bailout that cost the American taxpayer so much did not involve credit unions.

Are you an Environmentally Conscious Consumer?

(The first in a recurring series on consumers’ impact of on the environment)

Going to a coffee place? Bring your own mug. Photo courtesy

We hear it time and again. Americans make up less than five percent of the Earth’s population and we consume approximately 25 percent of the world’s goods. Why and how? In a word: money. We have lots of it. And even when we may not have quite enough moolah to satiate our families’ desires for material goods, there seem to be few limits on how much we’re willing to borrow in order to satisfy our collective hunger. Credit cards, home equity loans and refinanced mortgages fuel our materialistic society.

And with those financial resources, we indulge ourselves in all sorts of stuff that strains our ecosystems, the air we breathe and our very lives. How many times have we seen so-called soccer moms driving around town alone, after they’ve dropped the kids off at . . . fill in the blank: school, soccer practice, dance lessons, Little League, etc. – in their Chevy Yukons or Ford Excursions? And as they go about their shopping chores they’re guzzling down (or is it “up”?) a gallon of gasoline every ten miles, give or take.

The law of supply and demand is going to change all that and more quickly than most of us think. Petroleum and natural gas are not renewable sources of energy. And prices at the gas pump are just beginning to show that. As countries like India and China (accounting for almost one half of the world’s population) modernize, the demand for fossil fuels, lumber and water is skyrocketing. One projection sees the price of gasoline in the U.S. to ratcheting up to eight dollars per gallon in the next ten years. And that’s in 2005 currency, not adjusted for inflation.

So what are you willing to do in order to contribute your fair share to – if not turn things around – at least slow the pace of consumption and the strain on Mother Earth? After all, at two-and-a-half bucks a gallon, a 40-gallon SUV gas tank now costs 100 bucks to refill.

There are waiting lists for 50 mpg Prius and Civic Hybrids now. When the cost of refilling large SUVS goes to over 300 dollars, where will you be? And a 20-mpg minivan is no bargain either.

Lumber and paper prices are rising as well. Virgin (i.e. not recycled) paper may soon be at a premium. That would be especially true if the current American administration runs into roadblocks from so-called tree huggers, a phrase loosely used these days as a term of derision for anyone who wants to place a priority on environmental protection over unfettered materialism and corporate profit.

What I’m driving at here is this. We can each play a part in reducing the stress on our planet and on each other. Let’s start with a few examples. You know all that paper that comes spewing out of your printer at home (and at work too, for that matter)? Do you toss it after you no longer need what you printed? It seems that most of what we print is stuff we really don’t need anyway. How about saving paper whose reverse side is blank and using it to print out the other stuff that doesn’t require pristine paper, like first drafts, email jokes and Web site purchase receipts? Using this simple method I’ve cut my paper use almost in half. If we all did this we could save gazillions of trees – give or take a zillion – each year. And are you meticulous about recycling paper? Come on! Big deal! For a provocative article on effects on the environment of Starbuck’s coffee cups, check out

If you’re driving a gas guzzler, think about a different choice next time. After all, what is an SUV? A sport car? Ha! Most of them are jacked-up, modified station wagons that car manufacturers equip with big tires and call sport utility vehicles. Can you say, “marketing to the gullible”? How many people ever take them off-roading? So where does the “sport” come in? For most folks a car with similar interior room will do just fine.

In the months ahead I will from time to time share more specific ideas on this topic. For now, please ponder the issue of an indulgent consumerist society for a few minutes before you kick back and crank up your DVD player or TiVo or VCR.

Money Saving Tips – and What to do With That Tax Refund


Looking for ways to spend that tax refund? Whoa! Not so fast.

If you’re not saving money each month, here are some things to consider in order to stash some cash..

1. If you carry a balance on your credit card accounts, use that 600 or 1200 bucks to get rid of it. The monthly interest – and any late fees – is costing you a fortune. You’re giving your money away!

2. Cut back on air conditioning. First thing in the morning, open up your doors and windows and turn on a fan. Cool the house down then close it up, including shades and blinds. Let nature cool the place for free. A whole house fan can cool your home at night or in the morning in just 15 to 20 minutes.


3. Brown-bag it to lunch. A piece of fresh fruit makes a healthful dessert.

4. If you must eat out, get the larger sandwich at places like Subway. Have half the sandwich today and half tomorrow. For an extra buck and a half you get two lunches.

5. You’ll be paying at least three times as much for a restaurant meal as for one made at home. But if you must eat out, try these money savers:

A. If dining as a couple, order one appetizer and an entrée and split them.

B. Restaurants make their biggest profits on drinks and desserts. Order tap water (or iced tea if you must – it’s usually refillable, but ask first). Why order a $6 or $9 glass of wine? At Trader Joe’s I can get three bottles of decent wine for 9 bucks.

C. Stop at the market on the way home and get a half-gallon of ice cream or frozen yogurt for less than the price of dessert at most restaurants.

D. Before you order a “special” that’s not on the menu, ask the price.

6. Don’t be embarrassed about looking cheap in front of your friends. Affirm that you are a cheapskate and let them be envious of your self-confidence.

Discount and big box stores
7. Buy vitamins and minerals at places like Trader Joe’s or Costco. You’ll save a bundle buying store brands or specials.

8. If big box stores sell in quantities that are too large for you, ask your neighbors if they would like split a case of mangos and a twin pack of dishwasher detergent with you.


9. If you must have cable TV, drop the premium packages that cost so much extra. If you can’t be entertained with a mere 100 channels, you’re watching too much TV.

10. Shop around for lower cost TV/Internet/and-maybe-phone packages. But be careful about packages that save money for a limited time only.

11. Shop around for insurance. This can save hundreds a year. Comparison shop on Internet sites and find out what’s available, especially if you combine auto and home insurance.

12. Raise the deductibles on your insurance. You don’t need to insure for small damage claims. Insurers could raise your rates if you make such claim.

13. If you go to the movies a lot, how about waiting six months longer for those new blockbusters and renting from Netflix or You can get four movies a month for less than 10 bucks.

14. Get DVDs from the library.

Auto Savings

13. Drive slower. You’ll use more time but less gas. And cut your engine when waiting at a light during the daytime, if you're expecting to idle for more than a minute.

14. Unless you do a lot of desert driving, you don’t need to change your oil and filter every 3,000 miles. Check your owner’s manual.

15. If your car uses premium gasoline, try switching down a grade. If it doesn’t ping, you’re good. And you’ll save 10 cents per gallon.

16. If you need a new car, think twice. A two-year-old car under warranty can save you a bundle. Just be sure you have it checked out before you buy. Check and take it to a reputable diagnostic repair place.

17. If you don't need your cell phone except for urgent situations, switch to a pay-as-you-go service like T-Mobile To Go. I spend about 8 dollars a month on cellular service.

18. Use a discount long distance service such as ECG for your home phone. You can pay less than 3 cents per minute for interstate calls and 4 cents in-state.

Ellis Levinson has made a career of helping consumers with their complaints against businesses that don't meet customers' expectations. Your business might be employing money-saving strategies in the short run while alienating customers day after day.

Why do You Think They’re Called “Contractors”? It’s Because of that Contract.

The thought of finding a reputable contractor can strike fear even into the heart of a Green Beret. In the last edition of Inside South Valley, I discussed the ways to choose a contractor for your remodeling job. But even tougher can be negotiating the contract. Why bother nitpicking the details of a contract? You went through the trouble of finding a reputable professional, so why not trust him to do the job right? Right?

Wrong. Have you ever heard the expression, “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip”? That means what the parties agree upon and what they remember agreeing upon can be quite different. And if there’s a dispute, you’ll need a written document. My friends Rance and Mara hired a contractor to do a second story addition on their house. The document was about two pages long, probably one-tenth of what it should have been. Their descent into contracting hell was rapid and deep.

So what goes into a contract? Everything! And I do mean everything, down to the color and brand of the paint and the appliance model numbers. Never be afraid to negotiate the fine points of the contract. Don’t let a preprinted form intimidate you. Other than for legal requirements, everything in a contract is negotiable.

Make an extensive list of everything you’ll want in the contract. While you and the contractor write the document, include any changes. It’s easier to do at this stage so you won’t have to create change orders later on. Provide for negotiating such change orders as the work progresses.

For substantial renovations, have the contractor include sketches or building plans. Mara and Rance didn’t. If the contractor doesn’t have a design department, consider hiring an architect. If you take that option, interview several architect candidates, as you would when hiring a contractor. Be sure all your needs appear in the remodeler’s contract, as some incidentals may not appear in the architect’s plan.

You can negotiate for upgrades or a price reduction before you sign. But don’t get pushy. And get a warranty – at least one year, preferably backed by a reputable warranty company – on all work and materials.

Include a completion date with daily monetary penalties for late completion.

Anytime you pay for materials or services provided by a subcontractor – plumbers or electricians for example – have the contractor give you a lien release signed by the supplier or “sub”. If you don’t, your house could be subject to mechanics liens if the contractor doesn’t pay these providers.

Include wording that describes how clean the job site will be left at the end of each day and how waste will be disposed of.

Set up the payment schedule based on phases of completion, not upon dates. In other words, when specific parts of the job are completed – say the staircase is finished – the contractor will be paid for that stage of the job (once government inspectors sign off on the work). And be sure there’s a holdback included on the final payment of at least ten percent. Final payment should take place 30 days after completion in order to ensure that all work is done properly and everyone’s been paid.

Include a provision for settling disputes, whether through arbitration or court proceedings. Arbitration means you will not be allowed to sue the contractor.

Purchasing appliances and fixtures on your own might save money or offer more options.

Include a clause entitling you to inspect and supervise the job as work progresses.

Try not to pay any sums in advance. California limits deposits to ten percent of the contract or $1,000, whichever is less. If you have to pay for materials in advance of the job start, you may want to make the checks out to the materials suppliers. Include that in the document.

Rance and Mara did very few of these things. They paid for incomplete work and eventually asked me to rescue them from an overpriced and drastically incomplete job. It cost them a lot of extra money and emotional stress – to say nothing of the additional six months – to get the job finished.

If you’re lazy about putting in your share of the work at the start, you may end up putting in a lot more effort trying to make everything right later on. Good luck.

Ellis Levinson has made a career of helping consumers with their complaints against businesses that don't meet customers' expectations. Your business might be employing money-saving strategies in the short run while alienating customers day after day.

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