A Web Site for Reporting and for Researching Dangerous Products

I am a devotee of Whirlpool appliances. Until recently, I had never owned a Whirlpool, or Whirlpool-made, product that needed to be replaced. Our Kenmore refrigerator was manufactured by Whirlpool. I do not, however, have an opinion on Kitchen Aid or Maytag – also Whirlpool brands – one way or the other.

Last year the Consumer Gal and I bought a Whirlpool gas range and microwave oven/hood. Both products worked well until the mounting blocks that attach the microwave handle to the door began to crumble after a few months. Whirlpool replaced the door.

A few more months and the bottom handle block repeated its demise. Once again Whirlpool replaced the door. When a piece of the bottom block on the third door fell into a frying pan just below it on the range, I had had enough. Wheat if I weren’t watching and the plastic piece, about the size of a nickel, had gotten mixed into the food I was cooking?

I concluded that this was a hazard caused by hit rising from the range and making its way around the pots and/or pans, rising up to heat the plastic blocks, thereby inducing their disintegration. I reported the incidents to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It found no similar complaints, which dismays me. I know I cannot be alone with this problem. I can only surmise that other folks with this experience just allowed the plastic blocks to go their separate ways and decided to live with the attachment screws, which the blocks hid from view, to show between the handle and the door.

When I applied heat to Whirlpool, it allowed me to exchange the Whirlpool microwave for a similar Maytag model, but one with a steel handle (and a nifty turntable that works with oblong baking dishes).

Recently I discovered a government web site that allows consumers to easily file complaints about unsafe products and to look up products with which consumers may have had dangerous experiences. It’s at www.saferproducts.gov.

Fron CPSC web site
Consumer Product Safetwy Commission recalled items

Here are a couple of caveats: Don’t assume that every reported complaint will be posted on the site. My oven handle complaint is not. On the other hand, don’t assume that one or two posted complaints mean that an entire product line is unsafe. When hundreds of thousands of a particular product come off production lines there is always the possibility of a fluke or two.

My own preference for checking the reliability of major products like cameras, TVs, cars, and the like is Consumer Reports. You can all check retailer web sites for customer reviews.

The buysafeeatwell.org blog gives the example of a particular child’s ball that has a tendency to burst and release a toxic liquid. Now that’s something you’re not going to find in Consumer Reports.

So, if you are a consumer maven like me, you might want to bookmark the government site for your own sake and that of others. Remember, that reporting you own experiences with unsafe products you may be saving others from a lot of grief. And if you are looking for a nifty way to waste some time, the site has a monthly roundup of recalled items.

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.

All that credit card info they ask for online keeps your account safe . . . NOT!

I had an agenda of topics laid out for this web site for months to come. But last week I had an eye-opening experience that taught me that as low as my esteem for big banks was, it still had a long way to drop.
I have a Chase Freedom Visa card. I haven’t used it in more than three years. I keep it as a backup in case I misplace my two primary cards (I lose a lot of stuff. In fact, the only thing I ever had trouble losing was my virginity – but that’s probably more than you need to know). When the card came up for renewal about a year and a half ago, I decided to not activate it.

Freedom from what?

But lo and behold – what does “lo” mean anyway? – I recently received a statement from Chase with a charge on it from Mutual of Enumclaw insurance company. I never made a payment to that company. How could I? I had never heard of it. I would remember if I had, since it’s the worst name for a company since Studebaker. And since I had never activated the card, it was unusable anyway. Or so I thought.
I called Chase and canceled the payment. Chase got back to me and informed me that the charge was a mistake. “How could that happen?” I inquired, since M of E had neither my three-digit security code nor the expiration date for the card. Furthermore, how could anything be charged to a card that was never activated?
The rep could not answer so she connected me to the fraud department. The guy at the fraud department told me that if a Chase customer doesn’t activate the card within 60 days, Chase activates it AUTOMATICALLY!  “Why would you do that?” I asked. “What if someone had stolen my card from the mail?”
“We don’t want to inconvenience our cardholders in case they forgot to activate,” was the explanation. “What about the failure to verify the expiration date and security code?” I parried. The fraud rep kicked me upstairs to his supervisor, Audrey. I repeated the question. “You’ll have to ask the merchant,” Audrey advised.
So I called M of E and found a person whose actual name is Sara. I use her real name because she was nice, solicitous, and a good listener. After diligent research she determined what had happened. One of M of E’s “insureds” (that’s what they call their customers in the insurance game) had mis-entered her card number when making a premium payment. The one-digit error meant she entered my unactivated card number. But what about the expiration date and the security code?
“You’ll have to ask your bank,” responded Sara. So I called Chase again. This time Dean was my fraud department supervisor. He explained that some vendors do not ask for the security codes and/or expiration dates for credit card charges and that’s how this charge got through. “How about the fact that the customer had a different name?” I challenged. I’m not sure what Dean said exactly, but it was something like, “Mhllf blah, sheboygan, phlegm.”
So I called Sara at M of E again. I asked if they request expiration dates and security codes for credit card payments.  “We do,” she averred.
So let’s review.
• The person who made her credit card payment to Mutual of Enumclaw, innocently entered my credit card number.
• The card had never been activated.
• She had the wrong name for my account number.
• The expiration date was incorrect.
• The security code was wrong.
• And still the charge went through.
Once again I chased down Chase’s fraud department. This time I got Elvira on the phone. Long story short: Elvira admitted that, “We dropped the ball on this one.” She agreed that the charge never should have gone through and should have been sent back to the merchant. “We use a variety of algorithms,” to verify charges, she claimed.
On behalf of Chase she took full blame for the screw-up, but reminded me that Chase never charges the customer for fraudulent charges and that anytime a cardholder brings a wrong charge to the bank’s attention, the bank makes it right.
What, I asked, if a person has a hundred charges on a monthly statement and, like so many consumers, they don’t check each item? This $385 charge would be paid as part of – let’s say – a $3,000 bill. The cardholder would pay it and never know they had been ripped off.
Elvira admitted that such instances do occur.
Upshot. Check your monthly credit card statements. Match the charges to your receipts. And if you think all those data that merchants ask for when taking your credit card number protect you, think again.

Debit Card Fees by the big Banks may be Just What the Doctor Ordered

While thousands of angry people across America are joining Occupy Wall Street and its nationwide clones, Bank of America seems oblivious to the upsurge. Here’s how it works: If you use your debit card during any month, your account is debited five bucks for that month. If you don’t use your card, there’s no penalty.
The banks are saying they are forced to raise fees because of all the new restrictions on them. The most relevant rule, which went into effect on October 1, restricts the amount banks can charge retailers for debit card transactions to 21 cents. That’s down from 44 cents.

Even the Pentagon has a credit union!

Ohhh, poor banks! Chase Bank and Wells Fargo are testing $3 monthly fees. Sun Trust is jumping on the $5 bandwagon.
Good! Good? The Consumer Guy® likes bank fees? Nah. But I do like the idea that the big boys are making the small ones more appealing. I closed two Chase accounts last year and moved the dough over to the financial institution where The Consumer Gal keeps her money (yeah, we know, it’s strange that a couple has independent solo accounts) – a Credit union across the parking lot from Chase. Now these accounts are subject to virtually no fees. Citibank is standing pat with no debit fee as well.
In case you do not remember, the big banks are partly responsible for the meltdown of the U.S. economy, no small part of which had to do with bad mortgages. Then they took massive bailouts from U.S. taxpayers, only to deny hundreds of thousands of needy homeowners a break on their mortgages. So it warms the cockles of my heart, whatever they may be, to know that as the banks are finding an array of fees with which to hit their depositors, they are also giving those customers an incentive to say hasta la vista, and to look for better deals at local banks and credit unions.
It’s my hope that bank depositors will be willing to look at local financial institutions for free – or at least low cost – services. In other words, support local businesses. Just make sure they don’t charge other fees, like checking account or teller fees.
Here are some other ways to save on debit card charges.
• Pay cash. Just make sure that you extract the money from an ATM that doesn’t charge a fee. Either use your own bank’s ATM or one on its no-fee network.
• Use a credit card, but only if you pay off your entire bill each month. If you carry a balance, that’s costing you interest each month and makes credit purchases impractical. For information on choosing credit cards with the best benefits, do a web search for ‘best credit cards” – avoiding search results paid for by credit card issuers – and decide if you want money back, airline miles, or whether you want to pay an annual fee for expanded benefits.
• Try online banking. I am not a big fan of online banking because I’m fearful of compromising my personal information and becoming a victim of identity theft, or worse. If you are an Internet whiz kid, check out the services at  institutions like Ally Bank, Discover Bank and ING Direct, among others.
If you decide to switch banks, Consumers Union offers a checklist for consumers who want to switch at www.DefendYourDollars.org.
Don’t feel locked into your current financial institution. Free competition can be a very good thing for consumers.

What’s with Those Direct Marketing Commercials that Offer a Second Item . . . for Free?

What’s with Those Direct Marketing Commercials that Offer a Second Item . . . for Free?

If you watch much television, you are familiar with those adds that promise a second item for free. The bonus offer usually starts with, “But wait! If you order now, we’ll send you a second widget . . .  for free!” Then, in a somewhat more muted voice, and stated very fast, is the phrase, “Just pay processing and handling.” Aha!
Let’s parse this marketing technique, using the ChefDini as an example. About that name, my best guess is that it’s a Houdini reference. The ChefDini is a food processor without all the inconveniences of an electric processor because you crank it by hand. Wow!
It’s $39.99. But wait! We’ll send you a second ChefDini for free. Just pay additional processing. Processing costs $7.99. So when you order, you end up paying $53.97.
Why do they do that? Here’s why. Putting a second item in the box costs the vendor just pennies for shipping. The balance of the additional $7.99 means they are still making a profit on the second gadget.
The Ped Egg is a small grater that has an integrated container. It removes rough skin from feet. Price? 10 smackers. Gimmick? $6.99 shipping and handling. Handling? Really? When I go into a local store, how come they don’t charge me for handling? So, sure enough, you can get a second Ped Egg free. Just pay shipping and handling. So when you order a 10-dollar Ped Egg, the yolk is on you (I couldn’t resist). It ends up costing you $23.98.
If you send any of this stuff back because you don’t like it, guess who pays the return postage. Yep, you do. But here’s the unkindest cut of all. They refund the purchase price but not the processing (or shipping and handling) costs. So, in the case of the Ped Egg, you send them 24 bucks, they refund 10 dollars, and you also lose the return postage. Let’s say you pay five bucks to return the stuff. You are now out 19 dollars and you have zero product.
Some malls have As Seen On TV stores where you can buy the direct marketing products that are “not sold in stores.” The trouble with these outlets? They typically charge a 15 percent restocking fee. Here’s the pitfall. You buy a product for, say, $20. You decide the product sucks – or at least doesn’t meet expectations. You bring it back. They charge you a restocking fee of 15 percent, which means you get 17 bucks back. The store keeps three dollars. Then they put the item back on the shelf. So you are out three dollars and they keep their profit anyway.
The bottom line:
Don’t buy direct marketing products from TV. It’s too risky. The two items I ever bought that were both junk. Wait for the products to come to traditional retail stores. If that doesn’t happen, it’s probably for a good reason.
If you decide to buy at an As Seen On TV store, have them cross out the restocking fee notice on the bottom of the receipt. If there is no notice, but a sign posted in the store instead, have the salesperson right on the receipt “No restocking fee” and sign it. If they won’t do it, repeat after me: “Sayonara.” (Hasta la vista or ciao will suffice.)

You may be out of Warranty, but not out of Luck

The product you bought is broken. The limited warranty has expired. And you are as exasperated as hell because you think the piece of crap should have lasted longer. Well, fret not. Try these approaches.

********DISCLAIMER – Although I mention several brand names in this column, this is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation. This is based on my personal experience with these companies and is no guarantee of future success or failure********

Almost three years ago I bought an Armitron digital sport watch at the Mervyn’s going-out-of-business clearance sale. The watch looked great and cost only 18 bucks. It came with a limited warranty that covered the watch’s internal movement. Last June, immediately after being felt up by a TSA officer at San Francisco Airport, I boarded a plane to New York and proceeded to strap my watch back onto my wrist. The strap
came off in my hand. I discovered that it wasn’t the strap that broke, it was the watch case. The plastic case had broken apart.

Considering that I only wore this watch when traveling or participating in sports, I was particularly irked. I reckoned that I had worn this watch perhaps 200 days in less than three years. When I returned home to San Jose I called Armitron in New York. The agent told me that only the movement is covered by the warranty. I conceded the accuracy of the statement and got off the phone. But the more I thought about it, the more the inequity of this situation ate at me. Why on Earth should a watch case ever fall apart?

A few days later I called Armitron again and asked for a supervisor. I left a message on his voicemail and lo and behold he called me back. I explained what happened and made my case about the case. He felt it was reasonable to expect a watch case to last more than three years. He asked me to send him my watch so he could inspect it. A week later a new watch arrived in the mail.

I called the guy and left a message on his voicemail. I told him that I appreciated the great customer service and that he had won me over as an Armitron customer. After all, one good turn deserves another.

Before I make my point I’ll tell you a related story. I regularly attend an upper-body class at my local health club. I usually leave the class a little early as the cool-down and stretching part of class begins (I do my own stretch routine after doing a few more independent exercises). I noticed that as time went by, my Reebok sneakers were not helping me sneak out of class. They started squeaking – louder and louder each week. The squeak was coming from inside the shoes’ soles.

I called Reebok, explained my problem and the customer service agent asked me to send them the shoes. About a week and a half later I received a new pair of Reeboks. They lived out their lives without a peep.

Here’s my point. If a product fails way before it reaches its reasonable life expectancy, speak up. A good manufacturer will do the right thing. And what is there to lose? After all, the worst thing a company can say is, “Sorry.” (Okay, they could also tell you to go pleasure yourself – but how painful would that be?).

If you are the type of person who is easily daunted, I can only say don’t fear the daunt. Most customer service reps are polite, even if they turn you down. And the sooner you take action, the sooner you will get the intended request off your mind and – I guarantee – you will feel great about standing up for yourself. Go get ‘em tiger.

Why I’m not Shopping at Amazon (& O.co) and why you Might Give This Some Thought

by Orin U. Unphare – Guest blogger

Why is Amazon.com smiling?

First, let me lay it all out. This is not my real name. I am using a pseudonym because I fear retaliation from Amazon. Why? Well, first, as far as companies go, it is an AMAZON. Second, it is known for retaliating, which is why I’m walking away to begin with.

            To be honest, I got fed up with Amazon a while back when I discovered it sells fur. Fur is a needless product that involves the tormenting and killing of animals. Amazon sells fox, raccoon and rabbit fur.

But now Amazon is retaliating against the State of California because the Golden State feels it’s unfair to sell stuff to  people here without collecting sales tax, the same sales tax that every business in the state must pass on to the government. It seems that our state throws money around for crap like schools, hospitals, roads, cops, firefighters, mental health and junk like that. How arrogant.

  Internet-based retailers already have a pricing advantage over brick and mortar stores because they don’t have to . . . well . . . have brick and mortar stores. No buildings, no land, no sales clerks, no business taxes, no property taxes, yada yada. But with most California communities charging taxes of more than eight percent in order to pay local and state bills, Amazon and other Internet retailers can undercut local business even more by saving their California customers eight-plus percent. As Bill Dombrowski of the California Retailers Association puts it, “This is nothing more than some companies trying to get a competitive advantage though a tax loophole, and now we have closed it.”

            So Amazon and Overstock.com (now going by the sobriquet O.co; I guess the J-Lo and A-Rod thing has spilled over into the Internet retail arena) feel they don’t have local retailers tightly enough by their cojones, so they have decided to get even with California.

Overstocked or undertaxed?

            How? As you may know, these retailers often do business with affiliated retailers all over the country. Since Amazon and O (not to be confused with Oprah  whatsername’s magazine) and other Internet businesses that meet certain criteria and that are affiliated with businesses in California, they must turn the sales tax over to the state. Instead, Amazon and O have opted to sever all relations with their California affiliates. In other words, they have found another way to screw greedy California, which is laying off more public employees than it can count.

            Well I have had enough. And this isn’t easy for me. I have bought some stuff at O.co for a fraction of what it would have cost me locally. I did that because there are some items that sell for outrageously inflated prices at retail locally. But that is fair competition.

            Now you may say, “Why should I give a rodent’s behind about California’s problems?” How’s this for an answer: According to the June 30, 2011 San Jose Mercury News, Amazon has pulled the same maneuver in Illinois, Arkansas and Connecticut, cutting out its local affiliates in those states. It is also suing New York State over similar legislation. U.S. Supreme Court, here we come! And with the current “Big Business Rules!” court, I wish all these states good luck. You’ll need it.

            As for me, taxes are what pay for essential government services. So if the big Internet boys won’t play – make that “pay” – fair, they can shove their businesses up their assets. I’m shopping elsewhere.

            Give this some thought. Your state may be next. And your local mom-and-pop may be steamrolled out of business.

How can all of Those Insurance Companies be Cheaper Than Each Other – and a few More Tidbits?

 How can every company have the lowest auto insurance rates?

Progressive Insurance spokesperson, “Flo,” (Where the heck does she work anyway? It looks like a Jean Paul Sartre version of hell.) says

Oh no! It's Flo!

Progressive will save you hundreds compared to other insurers. So do the GEICO Gecko, Allstate’s Dennis Haysbert and 21st Century.

Well, according to J.D. Howard of the Insurance Consumer Advocate Network – quoted in the newsletter Bottom Line Personal – it’s all about tweaking what it is they’re talking about. If Allstate gives divorced women in their 30s with full time jobs the lowest rates in Kansas, they may claim they “can” save you 300 bucks compared to other insurers.

Others may save you money by cutting out certain coverage or raising the deductibles or lowering the maximum benefits.

I find that a great way to find excellent coverage and lower rates is to take these steps:

  1. Check Consumer Reports for the highest rated companies in terms of consumer satisfaction;
  2. Go to a web site that offers rate comparisons, like Insweb.com or Netquote.com;
  3. Go to your state’s insurance department web site and check to see which insurers have the fewest complaints.
  4. Call your three top choices to see what deals they offer. But be sure to compare identical coverages and in terms of deductibles and limits.


You can also check satisfaction results at the web site of the consumer satisfaction research group, J. D. Power (jdpower.com).

            Oddly, in my own case I have found that AAA gives its members no particular breaks. They have always offered me the highest premium quotes of any company to which I have compared them.

  Lost your credit card?

            If you have lost or misplaced your credit card, or wallet here’s what to do. If you think you have not lost it somewhere “out there,” but merely misplaced it, let me tell you what I recently did when I couldn’t find my card during a recent visit to New York. I called the credit card company to report my concern. They offered to merely put a stop on the card, disabling it until I could determine if it was truly lost.

            In order to determine if anyone else used the card I asked for the last transaction for which it had been used. June 8th at Big Daddy’s Diner, was the reply. “Doh!” was my response. I must have left it there when I had dinner with my buddy Paul.

            I called Big Daddy’s and sure enough they had my card. Case closed.

            If you cannot track down your card in a similar fashion, here’s what to do. If your card is missing, put a stop on it. If your wallet is missing, file a police report in the place where you lost it and get a copy of the report.

            Let each company from which you had a credit card in the wallet know that your cards are missing and file fraud alerts with the three credit reporting companies: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.

            Notify your local department of motor vehicles so it can flag your file so that it becomes more difficult for a ne’er-do-well to impersonate you, and so that you can get a new license. Get a new debit or ATM card from your bank.

 Best Buy’s worst buy?

Best Buy has a great promotional offer going . . . not! Afraid your new state-of-the art electronic doo dad will soon be outdated? Fear not. Best Buy will buy it back within two years, four years for a TV. According to ConsumerReports.com all you have to do is pay upfront for the “protection;” $70 for a laptop, netbook or tablet; 40 to 60 smackers for a cellular phone; and 60 to 350 bucks for a television set. An item returned within six months gets 50 percent back; between 18 and 24 months you can get 20 percent back, depending on condition; and for TVs more than two years old, they give you 10 percent. The refunds are in the form of Best Buy gift cards, the idea being that you apply the refunds to a new purchase.

            Before you go for this “deal,” think twice, or thrice. In effect, you are paying for insurance with a very limited benefit.

            And remember, whoever holds the money has the power.

Some Cool Consumer Tips

            I l-o-o-o-ve when I run across cool stuff for consumers. Here are four new factoids that might help – or at least interest – you. 

1 – You know those nutrition labels on packaged foods that tell you about calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium, and the like? Well I think they Typical Nutrition Facts lbelare great. Better than great. They’re Gre-e-a-a-t! (I’m not sure if Tony the Tiger spells it that way). I check out what I buy to put into my body. And while I do not eat meat for a variety of reasons, here’s some good news for those who do. Starting January 1, 2012, raw meat and poultry will be required to come with nutrition labels; at least the most common cuts and ground meats will. If this is stuff you’re cut out for, check out the regulations at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/rdad/FRPubs/98-005P.htm.

  1. 2 – If you have purchased HDMI cables for your cool electronic equipment (or, as I like to call it, all that electronic junk that we think will make us happier but just drains our savings and makes our retirements that much more bleak) like flat screen TVs Blue Ray players and the like, you know how damned expensive they can be. I have seen them ranging in price from 15 to 40 bucks. It’s a damned cable for Pete’s sake, not that I even know who Pete is. So I did some fishing (not “phishing” or phooling around). And voila, I found a pair of six-phoot cables for less than six bucks, including shipping! There they were on display at Overstock.com, which I now believe is simply O.co (great, another thing to remind me of Oprah Winfrey). So you can spend less than three smackers for each cable (in a pair) or you can get them in a fancy box for 10 times the price. My 3-buck cables work great, thank you very much.

3 – Have you ever checked out government web sites for money that may be owed to you? If your answer is “no,” what are you waiting for? Most states hold money that is coming to folks for a variety of reasons. The most common types of unclaimed property are:

  • Bank accounts and safe deposit box contents
  • Stocks, mutual funds, bonds, and dividends
  • Uncashed cashier’s checks or money orders
  • Certificates of deposit
  • Matured or terminated insurance policies
  • Estates
  • Mineral interests and royalty payments, trust funds, and escrow accounts.

California’s unclaimed property URL is http://www.sco.ca.gov/upd.html. I once found that the Consumer Gal had a modest amount of dough coming her way. Do an online search for your state. In addition, the IRS has nearly $165 million in unclaimed refund checks lying around somewhere. There are 112,000 taxpayers who have not received their 2009 refunds due to mailing address errors. So think back . . . “Hmm, did I ever get that refund from last year? . . .Doh!” If you are missing one, update your address at www.IRS.gov.

4 – Have you ever gone to an emergency room only to discover that the staff thinks that 27 other people’s emergencies are more emergent than yours? So you sit around for hours until you forget why you are there. Well, guess what. A lot of hospitals are okay with you going somewhere where the wait time is shorter. To find out a hospital’s wait time, check its web site or call the hospital. If you have a life-threatening emergency, make the call on your way to the hospital of first choice, providing you are not the one driving. Better yet, first call for an ambulance, then start calling or surfing for emergency rooms.

Tips About Tip Jars


Photo courtesy Bottoms Up Restaurant & Bar Supply - http://bottomsup.com

        On Saturday, we went into a restaurant. Someone put our order in. This person put napkins and flatware on our table. He brought our food and filled my glass with ice tea. He even made my payment at the register. So does the restaurant staff deserve a tip?


          Why? Let me reframe the way I presented the above story. Cheryl (The Consumer Gal) and I walked into a restaurant and approached the cashier. We perused the menu and made our dining selections. We told the cashier what we wanted, he  rang up the bill, and we paid him. He handed us our beverage tumblers and a pager. We went to the condiment/flatware station and loaded up on napkins, condiments and flatware. Then we headed for the beverage station and filled our tumblers with ice and drinks. When the pager went off, we headed to the pickup area and retrieved our tray full of food and carried it back to our table. When we wanted drink refills, we fetched them for ourselves. In other words, The Consumer Gal and I were the “someone” in the original version of this story.

            Now, here’s the question: Why is there a tip jar near the register? A tip jar! There are all kinds of stories about the derivation of the word “tip” or “tips,” but its purpose is clear. You reward an otherwise (usually) underpaid service provider for giving you good or better service. An earned tip, therefore, requires an essential element: personal service. Cashiers have never been part of the tip gestalt.

            Before I go into the second tip jar issue, I’ll create another scenario, one that most people have been through many times. You stand in line at a coffee establishment. You order your jumbo double-shot, cocoa-raspberry, Ethiopian, fair-trade espresso with whipped cream. While paying your $5.25, you notice the tip jar. “What the heck,” you think, “the person making my drink deserves some reward.” So you plop your 75 cents change into the jar. Ten minutes later you get your coffee, only to discover you are sipping a Sumatran, decaf, cinnamon macchiato. Damn! Back to the cashier. Re-order. Another 10 minutes lost and wishing you could fish that tip out of the jar.

            So what did you do wrong? You tipped for a service before you actually received it. Tips are for after service people have carried out their duties . . . and did a good job of it.

            Let’s sum this up with a few tips on tips. As savvy consumers we need to put a stop to this. First, no tipping for non-service. Cashiers do not get tips. If there’s a busboy, busgirl, or bus-hermaphrodite who cleans up and/or refills your water glass, leave a buck or two on the table.

            Second, never, ever, ever leave a tip in advance. If you are satisfied with your order and service, go back to the tip jar before you leave.

            Let’s not reinforce cheap employers or service people who have no incentive to earn that reward.