You may Have $ Coming to You!

Unclaimed money site

Unclaimed money site

All types of financial transactions go awry. Perhaps a bank, or retirement fund, or former employer owes you money, but they’ve lost track of you. Such funds end up “on hold” in the treasuries of respective states.

For instance, I just discovered that my late mother-in-law has pension money from a former employer here in California coming to her. It amounts to a whopping 13 cents! Oh well. In a few short moments you can find out if you or one of your relatives has some serious cash coming.

Just go to www.unclaimed.org to find out if your Caribbean vacation awaits you.

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The Consumer Gal and I are about to have our book, Enough of Us – which deals with another realm – published in a few weeks. In preparation for the big event we need to concentrate on that project. So for the next eight weeks or so, 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.

Ways to Spot an Emailed Virus.

Two types of viruses are contaminating the landscape. One is influenza. The other is all those email viruses concocted by mentally ill people who have no self-esteem and who want make an impact on society, no matter how useless and negative.

There are lots of folks who have had their email contact lists compromised and who are spreading viruses without knowing it, that is until their contacts tell them about it. Here are some ways to detect these insidious little buggers.

Be very careful about messages that are not truly personal even if they have your name in the subject line. The body of the email usually goes something like this:

“Hey Bob, you really have to check this out http://www.9dfkr.ibl-finance”

Notice, there really is no personal communication, except for your name.

Also, be careful of extensions in the email link like .exe, .scr, or .pif, which are the most common extensions of viruses.

If you click on one of these links, you compromise your contacts list and everyone in your list is likely to have the same virus sent to them.

If you receive such a virus, notify the person who unknowingly sent it to you and then delete it

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The Consumer Gal and I are about to have our book, Enough of Us – which deals with another realm – published in a few weeks. In preparation for the big event we need to concentrate on that project. So for the next eight weeks or so, 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.

I’m going into semi-hibernation for the next two months.

For those who regularly visit this blogsite, I want to say thank you both (har, har).

The Consumer Gal and I are about to have our book, Enough of Us – which deals with another realm – published in a few weeks. In preparation for the big event we need to concentrate on that project. So for the next eight weeks or so, 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.

Look out for Sneaky Contract Terms

I recently came across a magazine article that goosed me into writing about something that has rankled me for a long time. I guess I had to come across this issue elsewhere before I heard my internal wake-up call to write about this issue.

I’m talking about the one-sided contracts with unconscionable clause that most of us sign because we are – or perceive ourselves to be – powerless. The worst of the worst are arbitration clauses. If you want to open a bank account, use an Internet service, or sign onto Netflix, you’ll probably have to agree to a clause that says if you have a dispute with the company, you agree to take it to arbitration, often an arbitration company selected by the vendor. The problem is that arbitrators are notorious for siding with the parties that give them the most business. And that ain’t likely to be you. Adding insult to injury, you may have to share in paying the arbitrators’ fees.

A typical contract arbitration clause

Arbitration clause. photo- CreditInfocenter.com

Recently, each time I logged onto Netflix I saw a banner at the top of the page telling me to read and agree to a change in the Netflix contract. I read the change. It was a requirement that all disputes be settled by arbitration. So I ignored it. The notice was there each time I logged on. After a while I was warned that time is running out. So I let time run out. I never agreed and the banners went away. I guess Netflix would rather have the business of those who wouldn’t agree than lose them as customers. After all, they know we can visit our local Redbox.Here are some tricks you can try to avoid arbitration requirements. If you must agree to an online contract, go ahead. Then email the company’s customer service department and tell them you rescind your agreement to subject disputes to arbitration and that you reserve your right to take disputes to court. Send the email from your own email account; not the company’s “Contact Us” link, and keep a copy of your message. If you don’t hear back, you may be in good shape. If they send you an “either, or” response, you’ll have to make a choice.If you are signing a paper contract, cross out and initial the arbitration clause. If they don’t notice the change, you may be in like Flynn.If you receive a contract by email that you are to print, sign and mail back, yahoo! (Not the Internet service provider – just old fashioned “yahoo.”) Delete the arbitration clause, print the contract, and sign it, and mail it in, keeping a copy for yourself. If the company doesn’t notice the change, too bad for them.  It should have read it before it signed. Just make sure you get a returned copy signed by the appropriate company official. If they can try to slip one by you … turnabout is fair play.

Has your bank, brokerage, credit card company, cable TV provider or any other business ever slipped a little sheet into your statement or bill that notifies you of changes in the terms of your agreement? Read it! If you don’t like what you read, call the company and tell it how you feel. If necessary, take your business elsewhere. If the change of terms is significant, it could give you a way out of your contract with your cellular service company, Internet provider, or the like.

I’ll finish with this. When you get a bill for any utility service that is not a government sanctioned monopoly, like for instance, your electricity provider, check the fees on the statement. There may be a lot of small dings on the bill for just pennies or dimes. Call the utility and ask them to explain each fee and whether it is required by the government as a tax or fee. Many may not be. If so, it’s time to negotiate including the polite threat to take our business elsewhere. Think about it this way: If they say your service (exclusive of taxes and government fees) costs 50 bucks, but they are charging you $54, that’s a four-dollar, or 8 percent – rip-off. While the service provider may not reduce those fees, you threat to leave may prompt them to offer you an extra goodie at no charge. Recently, when I threatened to leave my cable company, the phone rep called me back and offered a “tier” upgrade and a 10 dollar monthly price reduction for six months.

Remember my motto: “Whoever holds the money, has the power.”

 

 

Student Loans are Just That . . . Loans. Defaulting is a Risky Proposition – Part II

In part one of this column I described how borrowers of student loans get into trouble and how collection agencies, on behalf of the federal government often make their lives miserable. But just how do the debt collectors go about it?

According to an excellent article by Andrew Martin (“Debt Collectors Cashing in on Student Loan Roundup”) in the September 9, 2012 New York Times, they often start with trolling the Internet for databases that contain information on respective debtors. When they find a suspect, they contact their prey. If a debtor refuses to cooperate, is employed, the agency will try to garnishee their wages. And the government is tenacious. It usually gives a collection agency just six months before transferring the case to another agency.

The article tells the story of Arthur Chaskin of Michigan, who borrowed $3,500 in the 1970s. By last January the debt, along with interest and penalties, had grown to 19 grand. When a government-contracted lawyer tracked him down, he garnisheed Chaskin’s brokerage account. A judge reduced the debt to $8,200, 25 percent of which went to the lawyer. The object lesson here is that student loan defaulters never know who is looking for them, when the hunters will strike, and how deep in doo-doo the debtors may find themselves. And, as a reminder, repayment may even come in the form of deductions from Social Security payments – not a pleasant prospect for those on fixed incomes.

Martin reports, “Government officials estimate that they still collect 76-82 cents on every dollar of loans made in fiscal 2013 that end up in default. That does not include collection costs that are billed to the borrowers and paid to the collection agencies.” A 2007 MIT study, however, estimates that Uncle Sam collects something closer to 50 percent of debt. The bad news for student debtors – but good news for taxpayers – is that the government, year to year, is growing ever more efficient at getting its money back – an 18 percent one-year improvement last fiscal year, totaling $12 billion.

Student debt demonstration, Washington, DC, April 4, 2012 – Photo – campusprogress.org

Many defaulters are in dire straits. They received schooling and then got caught in the quagmire known as the Great Recession, unable to find work. Some are ill. Some are in over their heads with all types of accumulated debt. But with little chance of shedding their government debt through bankruptcy, they find themselves between a rock and hard place.

And even in cases where a person is broke and either ill, disabled, or unemployed, it’s not easy to incentivize collection agencies to help those debtors get into a program that either allows gradual payment – say through gradual income-based repayment – or to forebear on collecting until the debtors are back on their feet. That’s because the collectors make more money by collecting than by merely preventing default.

The creditors and debt collectors frequently don’t tell the borrowers about programs to ease the repayment burden, or the requirements for qualifying are so daunting that they give up in frustration.

Even President Obama acknowledged, “Too few borrowers are aware of the options available to them to help manage their student loan debt,” in a June memo.

Good news for borrowers may be on the horizon. Congress and the Department of Education are considering regulations that would require debt collectors to offer student loan delinquents an affordable income repayment plan. And the department has promised to do a better job of publicizing such plans, starting with those who are still in school. As part of the proposals, monthly payments would be limited to 10 percent of discretionary income.

But, according to Andrew Martin, “Efforts to change the incentive [reimbursement] structure for guarantee agencies have stalled. And the Obama administration’s efforts to impose new regulations on profit-making colleges were initially watered down and then significantly weakened by a federal judge.”

So while some folks are so deeply in debt that foreclosure and/or bankruptcy are the only ways out from under crushing debt, it will be almost impossible for them to shake off their student loan obligations.

Unless Congress (you know, the government branch with a 9 percent voter approval rating), gets head out of it’s a_ _ _ _ _ e, many of those students who made some big mistakes a long time ago will suffer for a long time to come. Congratulations to those collection agencies that care more about money than humaneness.

 

Something Different from The Consumer Guy – A Commentary on Journalism and Phyllis Diller

I’m going to step out of my The Consumer Guy persona to discuss a few topics that are near and dear to me. For almost 20 years in a previous life, I was a standup comic and actor. That career actually led me to one in television consumer reporting.

During my comedy career, I twice crossed paths with Phyllis Diller. Once, I appeared in disguise on the iconic “game” show, The Gong Show, as the Bandit Impressionist. Ms. Diller was one of the three judges. She, along with the other judges, gave me the maximum score of 10 points each and I was that show’s winner, walking away with $516.32 and a trophy (which sits on my bookcase even today).

Some years later I ran into her at LAX. I introduced myself. We spoke for a brief moment. She was affable and very real, as opposed to her wacky comedy persona.

I tell you this because I want it understood that I have no axe to grind with Diller. I really liked her.

But . . .

When I hear in TV reports that she was a “pioneer” in women’s standup comedy, or as Joan Rivers said, Diller “broke the way for every woman comedian,” I feel that I must correct the record.

Have you ever heard of Minnie Pearl? Or Judy Canova? Moms Mabley? Betty Walker? Or Jean Carroll? They are among the handful who really were the “standup” trailblazers for women, including Phyllis Diller. And they started in the 1940s.

Minnie Pearl – photo – wikipedia

Canova was a major radio star and film actress in the 40s. You can still  listen to episodes of her show.

Minnie Pearl, a character portrayed by Sarah Colley, with her trademark straw hat sporting a price tag hanging on a string, was a Grand Ole Opry fixture for decades starting in 1940. She became a regular on TV’s Hee Haw in 1969. There are more Minnie Pearl videos on YouTube than fleas on a stray hound dog.

Moms Mabley

Moms Mabley became a star with general audiences not too long before her death in 1975. She had spent most of her career in vaudeville and the so-called chitlin’ circuit, a loose collection of venues for black audiences that sprang up as a result of racial discrimination in the first half of the 20th century. Moms’ bawdy humor found a wider audience as television shows became less restrictive.

One of my favorite female comedy “pioneers” was Jean Carroll. She was a regular on the Ed Sullivan Show. Carroll was one of the few women on the “borscht belt” circuit – the Jewish hotels in the Catskill and Pocono Mountains near New York City. She had a fast-paced delivery with impeccable timing. I think of her as a precursor to the Joan Rivers style of standup. She even had her own TV show in 1953-54.

Jean Carroll. photo – whosdatedwho.com

Jean died last year at the age of 98.

I mention all of these women not to degrade Phyllis Diller, who stands tall in her own right, but to pay deserved homage to the ladies mentioned above and their many lesser-known contemporaries and those who preceded them.

Check out these women, and while you’re at it, take a peek at Fanny Bryce, Gracie Allen, Totie Fields, and any other old-timers you can find.

It couldn’t hurt!

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.

TV appearance tonight

I’ll be appearing tonight on NBC Bay Area news at 11:00 p.m. It’s a story on hidden fees used by merchants in various transactions.
You can find it tomorrow at www.nbcbayarea.com/news and search for “Stephanie Chuang” (reporter).

Want to Bitch About Credit Card Issuers? Have we got a Site for You!

You have probably heard about the Dodd-Frank Act. It aims to regulate speculative and unfair practices on the parts of financial institutions. Most Congressional Republicans are out to kill it. Many Democrats want it strengthened. Part of that act is the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). How silly! Complaints against lenders? Why on earth would we big, bullying consumers need protection from those sweet little-bitty banks like JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Citibank?

When financial consumer advocate and Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren advocated before Congress for the creation of the CFPB she was raked over the coals by the free market boys (and girls?). It soon became clear that if and when the bureau was created, she had a Klondike Bar’s chance in a microwave of being approved for the post of director. That position eventually went to Richard Cordray, the former attorney general of Ohio, a well-known consumer protection guy. President Barack Obama had to appoint Cordray with a recess appointment to avoid the free-market contingent in the House. Warren went back to Massachusetts to run for the U.S. Senate.

It looks like Cordray is taking this job seriously. The CFPB made a formal announcement today that it has set up a web site that allows

CFPB Director Richard Cordray
Richard Cordray

consumers to post grievances against companies that provide credit cards, mortgages and student loans. The grievances are posted in the form of databases.

Since the bureau opened for business last July, it has received 45,000 grievances – 17,000 about credit cards alone – through June 1, 2012.

“By making our data publicly available, initially in the area of credit cards, we hope to improve the transparency and efficiency of this essential consumer market,” Cordray said in a statement. ‘‘Each and every time we hear from American consumers about their troublesome transactions with financial products, it gives us important insight.”

The public database includes complaints made since June1. Working with the credit card issuers, the CFPB created a number of response categories that show how each complaint has been dealt with and how quickly.

For each category, companies can respond to a consumer in one of four ways. Once the complaint is routed to a company, it has 15 days to respond and 60 days to resolve the complaint. Consumers should expect to receive a refund, an explanation, a correction, a change in account terms, or simply have the case closed.

If you have a complaint against a bank, mortgage lender, student loan provider, or credit card issuer, take it to http://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaintdatabase.

For the time being, you will also be able to see the recent record concerning credit card complaints. The other categories should come online by the end of the year.

 

 

Here’s a Way We Can Help the Economy: Buy Stuff Made in the USA

Trivia question: For the 2012 model year, which motor vehicle model uses the highest percentage of North American labor? (Note: This is a trick question)

Toyota Avalon – made in USA (mostly)

According to Todd Lipscomb of MadeInUSAForever.com, that would be the Toyota Avalon, with 85 percent of its labor occurring in North America*. Say what? Hey, why not? After all, most U.S. flags are made overseas, aren’t they? So why wouldn’t foreign automakers make stuff, or buy parts, here in order to save on supply chain costs? Globalization means just that – anything can come from anywhere in the world.

Wondering which American vehicle brands include the most North American labor? They would be the Chevy Express Van and GMC Savana at 82 percent, the Chevy Impala,

2012 Chevy Express

Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator at 80 percent. But Honda’s Accord and Crosstour use that percentage as well. Using between 79 and 77 percent North American labor are the Chrysler 200 convertible and Chrysler’s two large minivans (an oxymoron if ever I wrote one).

The point is this; a lot of American-made stuff is at best mostly made in America. The Consumer Gal and I recently bought a set of Tramontina made-in-America pans at Costco. So far, we really like the pans. Tramontina USA is located in Texas. It makes its cookware in Wisconsin. Its parent company is in . . . Brazil. So while the manufacturing jobs are in Wisconsin, and the office jobs are in Texas, the profits go to Brazil. This is the definition of globalization.

As far as I am concerned, the most important aspect of this is where the jobs are, especially in this economy.

A few years ago I got a call from Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa. Unable to answer the trivia question on their Live! TV show, I received a set of All-Clad cookware. It’s made in Pennsylvania. But the package did not say “Made in USA.” Why? Because the handles are made elsewhere and the Federal Trade Commission requires that almost all – as in 95 percent – of a product’s value must have been created in this country in order for it to wear the Made in USA label. So, the Pennsylvania cookware is not “Made in USA,” while the Brazilian cookware is.

We recently bought a memory foam mattress topper that was made in the America and put it on top of our new memory foam mattress that came from Southern California but, alas, we soon learned, came from China.

What to do? Well, if you give a rat’s behind about where stuff is made, read the labels. Appliances, for instance, are often made here. Whirlpool, Maytag and Kitchen Aid, all from Whirlpool Corporation, are mostly made here, (with the exclusion of all their microwave ovens). Some Fisher and Paykel (a New Zealand company) laundry appliances are made here, along with the upscale Viking, Wolf and Sub-Zero brands.

If you are looking for American-made products, here are some sites to try:

www.StillMadeinUSA.com

www.MadeInUSAForever.com

www.madeinusa.org

As for me, the next time I need jeans (or dungarees, as we used to call them) I’m going to bypass Costco’s 14-dollar pants and try a pair of Texas Jeans, made, ironically, in North Carolina. And I’ll be happy to spend 30 buckaroos on them.

Sometimes patriotism comes at a (retail) price.

Happy shopping.

 

*I use North America instead of just the United States as a criterion since Mexico and Canada have no auto industries of their own, U.S. automakers do some assembly in those two countries. It’s a matter of, “since you buy our cars we’ll do some assembly over the border.” It’s quid pro quo.