Here Come the Tax Scams

It’s that time of year again. No, I am not referring to George Washington’s birthday. Nor those of Drew Barrymore, Vijay Singh, Dr. J, Ted Kennedy, or Lord Baden-Powell (dudes . . . he founded the Boy Scouts!). It’s time to prep your bits of paper and checkbook registers for your tax returns. Each year the Internal Revenue Service does us all a favor by offering a dirty duodeciscam (as in a dozen scams) list. “Taxpayers should be careful and avoid falling into a trap with the Dirty Dozen. Scam artists will tempt people in person, on line and by email with misleading promises, about lost and free money. Don’t be fooled by these scams,” Says IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman.

1) Identity theft: If you suspect that your identity has been stolen, notify the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at www.IRS.gov/identitytheft.  If you do so in time you might prevent a rogue from reaping a refund in your name, even if you do not have a refund coming.

2) Phishing. As many of you know, this is not a typo. And it is not related to Price-Pfister, the faucet company. It’s a solicitation that looks exactly like an official email from a government agency or a legitimate company with which you might have done business. The phishing email asks for personal information about you and various account numbers. If you receive an email that appears to be from the IRS and asks you for any personal information, do not respond. Instead, forward it to phishing@irs.gov. It’s a good idea to not provide such information to any business that asks for it in an email.

3) Illegitimate Tax Preparers. If you use a professional to prepare your taxes, check that person or business out before hiring. As the IRS puts it: “Questionable tax preparers have been known to skim off their clients’ refunds, charge inflated fees, and attract new clients by promising guaranteed or inflated refunds . . . In 2012 every paid preparer needs to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number and enter it  on the returns he or she prepares.” Here are some indications that preparers may not be on the up and up: They don’t sign the return or include their tax preparer number; Failure to give you a copy of your return; Promise of a larger-than-expected refund; Charges you a percentage of your refund as a fee; Asks you to split the refund; Adds forms to the return that you never filed before even though your status has not changed; They encourage you to place false information on your return.

4) Hiding Income Offshore. This usually applies to taxpayers (or cheats) with substantial resources. Many people have evaded taxes by hiding income in foreign banks, brokerage accounts and other schemes including foreign trusts, employee-leasing schemes, annuities or insurance plans. Now we all love the IRS, so we’re happy that they have lots of investigators who pursue taxpayers with undeclared accounts, as well as the enablers who assist them in their nefarious undertakings. If you have such offshore holdings, you are required to report the. If you don’t and you get caught, you will most likely have to pay through the nose or some other orifice.

5) Free Money From the IRS. Come on, what other kind of money can be given away? Money that you have to pay for? Scammer have been circulating flyers at community churches or spreading word among low-income people and the elderly. Here’s how the scam works. They let folks know that the government has a money giveaway program. All you have to do is apply. They charge the dupe a fee, help them fill out a form and then disappear. One of the scams involves having the victim apply for a Social Security refund that doesn’t exist.

6) False Income and Expenses. This is a really good way to be called in for an audit. I went through a small such audit a long time ago. I ended up owing nothing but it was a pain in the neck and several other body parts. And if you owe money as a result you will be very, very unhappy. This scam works thus: You claim more income than you actually made and then make false claims about your expenses in order to maximize refundable credits and then get an increased refund. In addition, says the IRS, some taxpayers are filing excessive claims for the fuel tax credit. Doing so could result in having to repay the refunds plus interest plus penalties. Good luck with that.

7) False Form 1099 Refund .Truthfully, I don’t quite understand this. But if you are thinking of filing a false information return like a 1099 Original Issue Discount (OID) to justify a false refund claim, don’t do it.

8) Frivolous Agreements. “Promoters of frivolous schemes encourage taxpayers to make unreasonable and outlandish claims to avoid paying taxes they owe. The IRS has a list of frivolous tax arguments that taxpayers should avoid.” They have been thrown out of court, so don’t bother.

9) Falsely Claiming Zero Wages. Typically, a filer submits a Form 4852 or a “corrected” Form 1099 that reduces income to zero, sometimes submitting statutory language as an explanation as to why the filer does not consider certain income as wages. Sometimes they blame a paying company for not issuing a corrected 1099. In addition to other penalties there is a $5,000 penalty.

10)  Abuse of Charitable Organizations and Deductions. In a nutshell, here’s what not to do. Don’t claim deductions for contribution to charities over assets that you still control or from which you still make income. Don’t overvalue non-cash assets that you donate. If you donate non-cash assets, make sure you are not claiming the value on one set of donated items that other entities are also claiming.

11) Disguised corporate ownership. In this scheme, third parties request employer identification numbers and form corporations that obscure the true ownership of a business. Then they underreport income, claim fictitious deductions, avoid filing tax returns and pull off all sorts of other scams, like money laundering. The IRS is now working with state authorities to identify such cons.

12)  Misuse of Trusts. Trusts serve all kinds of use purposes, including some that legitimately aid folks in reducing tax burdens. But – and here comes my big but – the IRS has seen an increase in the use of trusts like private annuity trusts and foreign trusts in order to shift income and deduct personal expenses. If you are planning to use a trust, seek the help of a legitimate attorney who specializes in such vehicles and include advice from a financial professional as well.

 

A Couple of Controversies Concerning Conventional Car Care

Part 1

You are Probably Changing Your Oil too Frequently

How frequently do you change your motor oil? Every 3,000 miles? 4,000? 5,000? Your local oil change shop probably advises you to change your oil every 3,000 miles. They are so thoughtful they even put a transparent sticker on the corner of your windshield telling you to bring your car back in when the odometer hits certain mileage.

Listen to your manual, not your oil change retailer
Photo: Wikipedia

I used to do it every 4,000 miles because calculating 4,000 requires no brain power. But since the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery launched its Check Your Number campaign, I have been reformed. Check Your Number urges drivers to go with manufacturers’ recommendations for oil changes. Many newer vehicles, in fact, have devices built in that calculate when your next oil change should take place. My 2007 Honda Element has an indicator in the odometer that tells me the amount of oil life remaining based on how I drive and how many miles I have gone. For me, it’s at about 5,000-mile intervals. If I did more long distance driving it would extend the oil life even more. My 2001 Toyota Solara does not have that feature. The manual allows me up to 7,500 miles, but that applies to ideal driving conditions. Since most of the Consumer Gal’s and my driving in that car is of distances ranging between one and seven miles, I recently switched to oil changes at 5,000 mile intervals.

Why is all this so important? There are three reasons.

1) Nearly 40 percent of the pollution in America’s waterways is from used motor oil. One gallon of used motor can pollute one million gallons of water.

2) Changing oil less frequently saves the consumer money. If you change your oil, as an example, every 5,000 miles instead of 3,000, you get two-thirds more for your money.

3) Consuming petroleum products adds to the demand for fossil fuels, which our country can ill afford for a variety of reasons.

So check your owner’s manual and follow its recommendations. For more information, go to the Check Your Number web site at www.checkyour number.org. It’s aimed at Californians but you most of it applies to you no matter where you live.

The ten states that prohibit credit card surcharges are :

California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma and Texas.

 

 Part 2

Credit Card Surcharges at Gas Statiions

How do gas stations get away with charging more for credit card purchases? Sloppily written laws, that’s how. Ten

Gas prices higher for credit cards
Photo: KPBS, San Diego (Glenn Batuyong)

states prohibit surcharges, also called checkout fees (see below). Under California law, for example, a retailer may not charge a fee for using credit cards. But with a loophole the size of the Van Allen radiation belt, they may offer discounts for using cash. This is what I call a scam, especially when the huge price sign required for gas stations in the Golden State sometimes show the discount price, with a tiny sign below showing the “full” (read “credit card”) price. Adding insult to injury, ARCO stations in California do not accept credit cards. They do, however, accept debit cards if the consumer pays a flat fee (35 cents the last time I looked) for using the debit card.

According to the California Department of Consumer Affairs, the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACSO) makes the case that credit card companies charge gas merchants about two percent for each transaction (Duh!), so they need to pass that cost along to their customers. The fallacy with this argument is that most gas stations, as well as printers, plumbers and pizza parlors, just figure the expense of credit cards into their prices without passing the costs along to just their credit card customers. Look at it this way; if you were to purchase a $500 TV set with a credit card at Best Buy, and the store were to charge you an additional 10 bucks for using the card, you’d be pretty ticked off. You might even leave in order to look around for a better deal. And, after all, credit cards bring more business into the stations and simplify their accounting by automating those purchases and generating computerized bookkeeping. On its web site, Visa explains that it does not allow its merchants to surcharge customers for using its card, but does not have a policy on cash discounts. My advice to you: skip retailers that charge extra for credit card usage and find stations that even the playing field. Here are the ten states that prohibit checkout fees: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma and Texas.

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.

A Brief Holiday Consumer Guy Blog

I’m taking off this week but I would feel guilty if I did so without leaving at least one helpful hint.

If you would like to give your, let’s say, older parent a free technological bonus gift for the holidays – especially if you gave that parent a smart phone or computer – check this out. www.TeachParentsTech.org offers 50-plus brief videos with instructions like how to make text larger, how to set up a video chat, or how to create a new screen saver. This site was built by a few folks at Google to help keep tech support a family business.

You can even send an email message to your loved one with links to specific videos. So check it out. You might even learn a few things yourself.

Happy New Year!

 

You can Avoid Checking Fees and Even Make Money on Your Checking

While the big banks have dropped the idea of charging monthly fees for using your own debit card, there are still some nasty charges out there for checking account customers.
To compete with the big boys, many smaller banks around the country are not only skipping the fees, they’re offering substantial dividends. Are there any catches in order to access this largess? You bet. But if the requirements to access these returns are within – or close to – your normal banking behavior, it’s no big whoop.
Let me give you an example. In California, where I live, Community West Bank is offering a 2.53 percent yield on up to $15,000. The requirements? Each month you:
• Must complete 10 debit card transactions;
• Have a direct deposit or automatic debit transaction;
• Receive an electronic statement
• Access online banking.

At Bank of the Sierra, the qualifications to earn 2.09 percent on up to 25 grand are:
• Minimum 12 Sierra Check Card purchases per qualification period
• Minimum one direct deposit or automatic payment from your account per qualification period;
• Make at least one payment using Sierra BillPay per qualification period;
• Enroll and receive electronic statements.

Financial institutions in almost every state have similar deals, some with rates above four and five percent.
In a recent survey by Bankrate.com, just 45 percent of the banks in the 25 largest markets are offering free checking. In 2009 76 percent of these banks offered free checking.
To qualify for the high interest rates, you typically must be a resident of the state where the bank operates. And they all have restrictions similar to the ones above.
You can find banks in your state at the web site www.depositaccounts.com, run by Ken Tumin.
Credit unions sometimes offer competitively high rates as well, and, like banks, they have account insurance. If you tend to keep only relatively small amounts in your checking account, as I do, then I favor credit unions. And since I don’t use a debit card because it’s like carrying cash in your wallet if anyone obtains your PIN, I favor credit unions. But if you do a lot of debit card purchasing, the high-rate checking accounts may be just right for you.
The Consumer Gal and I make most purchases with a credit card and earn two percent back on those transactions. We pay off the entire balance each month. That’s the only way credit cards work to your advantage.
If you are looking for a credit union in your area, check out the web site above or www.creditunion.coop.
Happy holidays. And remember:
Whoever holds the money has the power.

 

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.

 

B of A – I Told You So! (And other ways to beat your bank)

In a column last month I talked about why I approved of Bank of America’s lame effort to ignore the “Occupy” tide across the country and charge five bucks for customers to use their debit cards each month. I liked B of A’s – and the test market versions of other big banks – policy because I was sure that it would drive many customers away from the sociopathic corporations that played such a big part in bringing our country to its financial knees when they dealt in questionable financial instruments. Generally speaking, local banks and credit unions offer lower rates for most services.
In an Associated Press article, reporter Ben Nuckols relates the story of how a young woman, Molly Katchpole,  who was upset by Bank of America’s new policy, initiated a petition on Change.org, a nonpartisan web site that facilitates launching of campaigns on any topic. 300,000 signatures later B of A canceled its plans to charge the five dollar fee. Did the petition cause the change of policy? Maybe. Was it the fact that other banks like Wells Fargo and Sun Trust scotched their debit fee plans? Could be.
Or was it this fact? In 2010, approximately 600,000 people joined credit unions. In just the month of October 2011, an astonishing 650,000 people enrolled as credit union members, according to the Credit Union National Association as referenced in yesterday’s San Jose Mercury News.
When the big boy banks let it be known that customers would have to pay extra to access their own money, the banks were daring their customers to take their business elsewhere. It seems like a lot more than just a coincidence that customers left in droves. Consumers double-dared ‘em right back.
Whether you bank at a community bank, credit union, or at one of the big boys, here are some ways to lower your costs. If you pay off your credit cards in full each month, get a card with a cash-back or travel rewards benefit. Shop around – there all kinds of good deals for those with good credit.
If you rarely make an overdraft but goof once in a very blue moon, ask the bank to refund your overdraft charge. Find a bank – or ask your current one – to give you free overdraft protection, giving you a day to cover the boo-boo upon notice.
Use checks that make carbon copies so you won’t have to ask the bank to sell you a copy if you mess up your register.
Choose an account that has a low or zero minimum balance so that you don’t get hit with a fee.
When it comes to ATMs, choose an institution that does not charge for using ATMs at other banks in their network. On a recent trip to New York City I was able to use an ATM, without paying a fee, in a McDonald’s that belonged to a credit union on the same network as my California credit union,. Some financial institutions will reimburse you if you have to use another bank’s ATM.
(Footnote – Anyone who refers to an ATM “machine” should be reported to the FBI of Investigation).
For lots of good banking information, check out www.bankrate.com.

 

Here’s a Bright Idea – Energy Efficient Lightbulbs

In case you haven’t heard, the federal government is about to rock your dark little world. Before you go out and buy a lamp that uses a traditional incandescent bulb, keep in mind that buying replacement bulbs will be very difficult.
Here are the who, what, when, where, why and how of these changes:
Most ordinary bulbs, the type introduced by Tom Edison more than a century and a quarter ago, waste their energy consumption by putting out lots of heat. That’s why you can’t touch such a bulb with your bare hand after it’s been on for a moment or two. So, most of the energy is expended as heat, not light. The government wants less of that energy wasted. The aim is to save Americans $13 billion per year and reduce CO2 emissions by 100 million tons annually.
Starting next January, it will be lights out for traditional 100-watt bulbs. Manufacturers will be prohibited from making those bulbs as of that date. 75-watters go the following year. As of 2014, 60- and 40-watters will be discontinued. If you have a fixture that uses candelabra, appliance, or three-way bulbs (the ones that typically have two elements and can click to 50, 100 or 150 watts), not to worry; you’re protected for the foreseeable future.

Sylvania LED Bulb

     So what can we do to keep the lights on when we run out of old-style bulbs? There are plenty of alternatives around with more to come than you can shake a filament at. You probably already have compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs, in your home already. They are the ones that look like swirled soft ice cream cones. Some folks don’t like their spirally looks, the color of their light, or the fact that you can’t clip light shades onto them. The first two objections are being dealt with. Some newer versions encase the swirls in an outer globe. And there is a growing variety of shades of light available.
Halogen bulbs produce more light per watt than do incandescent bulbs. They’ve been around a while in the form of tubes that snap into clips at either end for use in lamps that are designed to accommodate them. They can, however, get very hot.  A greater variety of halogens is now available, including those that screw in like the incandescents.
I recently bought a bunch of flashlights that were on sale at a local electronics store for a buck apiece.
Each one is about the size of a lipstick except that it’s a little thicker. At the front end are nine tiny LED (short for light emitting diode) bulbs. The amount of light this thing emits is awesome. The LEDs don’t get hot because most of their energy – which comes from three AAA batteries (side note: how come there are no A or B batteries?) – goes to making light. The little suckers are amazingly bright. LEDs are the light of the future because of their small size, exceptionally long life, and their efficiency.
All of these alternative bulbs (while most of them are no longer bulb shaped, the term has come to mean almost any man-made item that gives off light) are much more expensive than traditional incandescents, they earn back their initial cost by using way less energy. And they tend to last a lot longer.
The October 2011 edition of Consumer Reports has a nice breakdown of a variety of bulb types, by function. It rates them according to brightness, expected bulb life, light color, warm-up time (for CFLs), and other characteristics.
Briefly, when shopping for bulbs, look for price, life expectancy in hours, brightness (in lumens), and color of the light. The colors can be cool or warm, daylight bright or slightly yellowish.

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.