Car Rental Safety

I have to admit, I’m breathing a little easier these days since Congress recently passed the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act). The new legislation mandates that car rental agencies repair all recalls and safety issues before renting vehicles to consumers. It seems unconscionable to me that prior to the passage of the law, agencies had no obligation to repair vehicles whose safety issues had been identified by the manufacturer.

The act was championed by the family of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, two sisters, who died in 2004 in a car rental. The sisters had rented a car from one of the nation’s largest rental agencies and had been upgraded to a Chrysler PT Cruiser. Just one month earlier, the agency had received a recall notice. The car needed adjustments to the power steering fluid, which had the potential to leak. It was not fixed and in fact, the car had been rented out three times before the Houck sisters took possession. Unfortunately, the steering fluid leaked, causing the cabin to fill with smoke and ignited a fire causing their untimely death. The car agency admitted that they never brought the car in for service because the demand for their fleet was so high, they couldn’t afford to take the car out of service.

So now when I rent a vehicle at any car rental agency, I will have the peace of mind to know all recalls and safety problems have been resolved. But to be on the safe side, before signing any contract, I will definitely inquire if all repair issues have been addressed.

Cindy Matloff

 

 

 

 

Getting snowed!

If you live in Massachusetts, you are probably used to the snow tire routine.  Not a big deal, the only issue is usually the timing. Waiting too long in the Fall to put them on or taking them off too soon in the Spring can mean you are in for some hair-raising, snow-day driving situations!  But it’s not rocket science.  If you have a rear wheel drive car, they go on the back; front wheel drive on the front, 4 or all-wheel drive, you probably have some type of all-season tires that you are comfortable leaving in place all year.

My favorite snow tire story occurred years ago. I had purchased a new Nissan Maxima wagon, back in the days when they made them. I was a little disappointed when the salesman told me the car did not have front-wheel drive, which I would have liked, but otherwise it was perfect. Each fall, I religiously took it to the automotive department at Zayre’s to get my snow tires put on. Then. one year, probably because Zayre’s went out of business, I switched to a local gas station. Much to my amazement when I picked up the car, I was told the car was all set—snow tires on the front wheels.  When I protested that they belonged on the rear wheels, because I had a rear wheel drive car, they broke the news to me: Lady, your car is a front-wheel drive car! These snow tires are supposed to be on the front!  Dumbfounded, I checked with the manufacturer and, sure enough. Zayre’s had been putting the snow tires on the wrong axle for 5 years!

Unfortunately, this Spring I found out that the correct axle is not the only thing you have to worry about. When waiting at a dealership for my current car to get its snow tires taken off and regular tires put back on, the service department rep called me over and said my car was almost ready. But, just one problem—one tire had an issue. It was damaged to such an extent that it could not be put on a rim. And, as a result, I needed to purchase a new tire! I reminded him that it was his dealership that had taken these regular tires off in the Fall and in the meantime they had been wrapped in plastic bags in my basement. If a tire were that damaged, why didn’t their mechanic notice it when he took the tires off in the fall?  His response was that they don’t inspect tires when they take them off! So how was this damage caused? I have my suspicions and will be following up.  But in the meantime, a word to the wise: when you are having tires switched over, ask the service department or your mechanic to inspect the tires and make sure they include a notation of their condition on your invoice. If they won’t do it, you might want to consider taking your business elsewhere!

Marie Taylor

The new way of shopping

My supply of copy paper was getting low, so off I went to the local big-box office supply store to stock up on my favorite brand. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I discovered that the price had almost doubled from a year ago. In disbelief, I looked a little more closely at the signage and found that a $5 rebate was available, either by mailing my receipt to the store’s rebate department or submitting information about the product online. At first I was relieved, but then, after thinking about it, I had to scratch my head. How much time was this going to take?

If I went online, I was required to submit all kinds of information like the 10-digit order number found on the receipt, the serial or bar code number and my email address, which would open the door for all kinds of solicitations from the company. They wanted me to set up an account with a password and my email as well. Despite my efforts in completing the online form, there was a glitch so I had to resort to making a copy of the receipt, buying a 47-cent stamp, and taking the time to put everything in the mail. All this to save $5.00! I had to wonder how many people just give up entirely or put the Reward Card in a drawer and forget about it.

In my case, my $5.00 Reward Card arrived a few weeks later. The tiny print on the back informed me that if I didn’t use the card within six months, a $3.00 maintenance fee would be charged. Just what services were involved in “maintaining” the card? I suppose I will never know!

To be on the safe side, I decided to use my Reward Card as soon as possible and purchased two potholders for a total of $4.83. Of course, the seventeen cents went directly back to the card. I’m not sure just how many people toss the card at this point, but I am going to bet that a lot of pennies, nickels and dimes are going back into the office supply store’s pocket. I immediately used the remaining seventeen cents toward the purchase of a pack of lifesavers!

All I had wanted to do was to purchase a ream of copy paper, but in order to get a fair price; I was being manipulated to jump through all sorts of hoops. The new way of shopping definitely stacks the deck, but unfortunately, it’s not in my favor or the everyday consumer!

Cindy Matloff

Where is my package today?

Have you ever wondered what happens to mail that doesn’t reach to its proper destination? Chances are it may be something you never have to worry about. Mail can be late, like the Christmas card I sent to North Carolina this past December that arrived in February; but mail usually gets there.  But what if it is a package that contains books and package falls apart?  The books must end up somewhere. Where do they go?

The answer is the Atlanta Mail Recovery Center (MRC), the U.S. Postal Service’s official “lost and found.” And now, unlike in the days of the Dead Letter Office, when mail is undeliverable it can end up on the website GovDeals.com. This is the Postal Services’ online auction site and is actually a money maker for the Postal Service. It caters to re-sellers who buy in bulk who are willing to pay, for example $500-$1000 per “lot” for books.

My sister recently found out about the MRC and GovDeals.com the hard way.

When she returns to Massachusetts each Spring from Florida, she likes to mail items that she doesn’t have room for in her luggage. This year, it was a box of books. She purchased one of those cardboard boxes at the post office in Fort Myers, packed up her books and made sure her address was inside as well as clearly written on the outside of the box. She paid the postage for the 27 pound box and off it went.

After she arrived in Massachusetts, the box arrived on schedule. But as soon as she picked it up, she knew something was wrong!  It only weighed a few pounds. Then, she noticed extra tape around the box. When she opened the box, it was full of crushed, brown packing paper but no books!  Although she would be able to replace most of the books, she knew it could be challenging to replace one – an Italian landscape painting book. She immediately went to her local post office and was told to submit a claim, but was not optimistic. With books, if after holding them for one week a post office cannot determine their destination, they are sent to the MRC and are put into the online auction on GovDeals.com. Then, her only hope would be if a re-seller put the Italian painting book up for sale on a site like Ebay or Amazon and she happened to see it. Definitely, a long-shot, but it could happen. In a news story she saw on the Internet, one lucky man, a Colorado author named Chuck Blakeman, was able to find his books for sale on Amazon.com within days of being lost by the Postal Service!

My brother-in-law’s box of books had a happier ending. He tied his books in a large plastic bag before putting them into a FedEx box for shipment. So, even though his box was delivered in a rain storm to the wrong address and not located until the next day, his books stayed dry and together!

What to do next time? Insure your package and make sure to follow the MRC’s “Boxing and Packaging Tips.” Or, better yet, take your hard-to-replace possessions on the plane with you!

Marie Taylor

When WiFi may not be secure

I am always reminding people that public WiFi may not be secure and if you have banking transactions that need to be done or purchases you want to make, you really should wait until you get home or make them from someplace where you know the WiFi is secure. Otherwise, you could be putting personal and financial information at risk.

And, it is not just public WiFi in urban settings or bustling areas that are of concern. On a recent Saturday morning, two of my friends arranged to meet at a small coffee shop in the suburbs.  It was the type of coffee shop where half of the people sitting at the tables are retirees who gather each morning to start their day, talk about weather and discuss local news.  They thought it would be a convenient spot for them to meet where one could show off her new laptop and the other could help her set up her Outlook email.  Nothing complicated and no credit cards involved.  So what happened next surprised both of them.

When the laptop’s owner typed in her password for Outlook, Outlook said that the login was unsuccessful. Maybe she mistyped it?  But then, Gmail sent her an email that she saw on her phone saying that someone using Outlook was trying to log into her account.  OK, she thought, that was me, so that was no problem. But then, Gmail sent her another email that said someone using Safari was trying to login to her account!  It wasn’t her! She wasn’t using Safari. So was someone in the coffee shop who was using Safari trying to log into her account?  Could that be true?

What might have been occurring was a man-in-the-middle-attack. A man-in-the middle attack intercepts communications with the goal of stealing user data such as passwords, account numbers and other personal and financial information. Or, the goal could be to try to install malware on an unsuspecting person’s computer. There are a number of ways this can happen. One way is that an attacker could configure his laptop or other wireless device to act as a WiFi hotspot and give it a name commonly used – like “Free WiFi” – to trick people in a public area such as an airport, coffee shop or commuter train to click on it!  My friends had no idea how it was happening in their situation, but definitely someone had intercepted her user name and, using Safari, tried to log into her account! When my friends realized this, they quickly turned off the computer.

So don’t let yourself become a victim.  Public Wifi can be convenient and it is tempting to let down your guard and try to buy something online when sipping a Latte or relaxing on the train on your way home from work. But unless you are just catching up on the day’s news, it is safer to wait until you are home, using your own network!

Marie Taylor

Constructive tips for your home improvement project

After the long winter, many people start to focus on home improvement projects. Our project began last fall, when we bought a fixer-upper and true to its name, required extensive repairs. Although the completion date was targeted for early January, various aspects of the project are still ongoing. I am happy to report that the end appears to be in sight and we are still on speaking terms with the general contractor who we hired.

Following the guidelines offered by the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation was the easy part. The contractor pulled the appropriate permits with the town. We checked he was registered with the Home Improvement Guaranty Fund, called all his references and verified that his workers compensation and liability insurance were up to date.

Overall, we are pleased with the results, but it has been a long haul. Having never tackled a project to this extent, we were definitely at a disadvantage and learned by trail and error. If you are considering a home improvement project, here are some tips to consider to ensure a good result.

Interview at least three contractors. We had four visit the house and spoke extensively with another. Each contractor offered his suggestions, which were helpful in determining the final design. Obviously, there were many questions. Three contractors promptly returned follow up phone calls and took the time to patiently answer our concerns. Two contractors eventually got back to us. In the months ahead, you are going to be working closely with this person. If phone calls are not returned in a timely fashion in the exploratory stage, you could be headed for a difficult time. We were fortunate to have worked with a contractor who responded to our texts promptly and even came to our rescue when the new washing machine door leaked.

Most large projects will require “subs” or subcontractors. It is in your best interest to meet and interview them as well. Have your list of questions ready when they come in. We were particularly impressed with our general contractor’s subs. They were professional, knowledgeable and addressed our issues.

Study the contract very, very carefully. The devil is in the details and there will be many details. Are there provisions for work that is sub par? Consumer Affairs recommends that hiring an attorney to review the document, which is a good idea. We didn’t, but spent many hours crunching numbers and scrutinizing the details.

Determine who is responsible when mistakes are made. In our case, the kitchen designer’s measurement of the stove’s dimensions was inaccurate. As a result the lower cabinets did not fit and had to be reordered and reconfigured. The hardware for the cabinets was incorrectly ordered and needed to be replaced. His company ate the additional costs.

As you move through the project, it is inevitable that there will be upgrades and changes. Make sure your contractor documents the costs and that both of you approve it in writing. Some examples might be an estimate from the lumberyard for trim or additional tile. We used “change orders” throughout the project ensuring that everyone was on the same page.

If you are changing or upgrading your electrical system, lighting, and receptacles, plan ahead of time where everything will be placed. The same goes with plumbing fixtures. Given these contractors’ busy schedule, they may just show up unexpectedly ready to go into action.

And finally, hold back 10% of the cost until the punch list has been taken care of to your satisfaction. Most contractors will be on to their next job so getting them back to complete the final details can be challenging.

Two months later we are almost at the end of our project. Was it worth it? Most definitely, but I will admit, the absence of constant dust, endless visits of work crews and volley of daily texts will be wonderful!

Cindy Matloff

FTC website now offers recovery plan for victims of ID theft

More and more consumers are facing identity theft issues. The Department of Justice estimated that 17.6 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2014. Dealing with notifying government agencies, financial institutions and creditors is not an easy task. But now, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has upgraded its website IdentityTheft.gov, so that along with being able to report identity theft, victims can create a personalized recovery plan that generates the documents they need to alert police, the main credit bureaus and the IRS among others.

The enhanced website lets you browse general recovery steps or you can click “Get Started” and be on your way to designing your individualized recover plan. If you decide to “Get Started,” you are prompted to choose the question that best describes your situation. These include: I want to report identity theft, Someone has filed a tax return using my information, My information was exposed in a data breach, or I’m just worried about identity theft because someone had access to my wallet or personal information. The website then directs you to take certain actions, depending upon how you answered these questions.

For example, if your personal information was exposed in a data breach, the website may list the name of the company involved, so you can just click on it. The website then asks if someone has used your information to commit fraud. Depending on your answer, it enumerates steps for you to take, including filing your tax return early, placing a credit freeze and getting a free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com.

Another handy feature is that when you initiate a recovery plan through the website, it automatically generates affidavits and pre-fill letters and forms to send to credit bureaus, businesses, police, debt collectors and the IRS. If your recovery runs into issues, the website will suggest alternative approaches. Once you complete your initial report on the website, you will receive follow-up emails. And, if needed, you will be able to return to your personalized plan online and be able to continue the recovery process. There is also a FTC video that explains how the website works.

Having your personal information stolen or compromised is a challenging situation, but the FTC is definitely trying to help victims deal with the aftermath.

Marie Taylor

Is a new car in your future?

February is the month that car ads are everywhere. And, if you have not purchased a new car recently, you may be surprised at the number of decisions you are confronted with. Deciding which performance and safety features are necessities for you is a good starting point. But convenience and entertainment features are also important to consider. Test-driving a car is no longer just getting a feel for how the car performs in certain road situations. It is also on opportunity to feel how comfortable you are with the interface of buttons, touchscreens and voice controls in real-life driving situations. If you are like me, your car may have features you may never choose to use, but make sure that the ones you know you will be using are intuitive and are located in places that make them easy to access while driving.

It is always a good idea to find out what your present car is worth before you start shopping. By going to the  Kelley Blue Book website you can calculate what you might expect to get for your present car – either as a trade-in or by selling it yourself. Next, do the research. Read reviews. As a regular practice, I like to read John Paul’s (The Car Doctor) columns which he writes for AAA Northeast and Boston.com. Edmunds.com is a good, general online resource. And, Consumer Reports Magazine’s April issue is a good reference if you are purchasing a used car, since it lists used cars to avoid. When you are ready, check out the manufacturer’s website for an overall view of models. Then, use the Kelley Blue Book website to compare model features and specifications for different vehicles. (For example, you may want to compare how much wider or taller would your new car would be than your present car, so you don’t have garage issues!)  After you narrow things down, you can go to a particular dealer’s websites for inventories and prices. But, don’t forget about car shopping websites like cargurus.com and autotrader.com.

If you are like me, you may want to caluclate your a budget before you walk into the showroom. That way, you won’t be tempted  to pay more than you can afford. If you are considering a used vehicle, make sure to look at its CARFAX report which a dealer will often supply for free. It should list the car’s history, including major repairs And nowadays, even for new cars, it is important to check for recalls and get assurances that all recall work has been completed. The website safercar.gov shows if a vehicle has been part of a recall. But note: even this site may not cover recent recalls, if Vehicle Identifications Numbers are yet to be identified. 

Lastly, don’t miss an opportunity to make your good credit work for you. Ask the dealer if you can put part of the purchase price on your credit card, so you can get points or miles. Just make sure you have cash in the bank, so you can pay the credit card bill in full when it is received.

And remember, it’s OK to walk away. Don’t be pressured. You do not have to buy a car today!

Marie Taylor

A Word to the Wise

After our recent move to the North Shore, we were faced with many decisions when we decided to renovate our new home. A kitchen-remodeling project was first on the list and we knew it would not be inexpensive. So we began by preparing a budget with a substantial amount going towards appliances.

Being a savvy consumer, I started to read various reviews in publications like Consumer Reports’ Appliance Buyer Guide. All of the manufacturers had some positive features; others had mixed reviews outlining potential problems.

After narrowing my choices, I began to look at the advertisements in the Sunday paper and online and found a significant difference in price from the big box retailers and the independent appliance stores. My initial reaction was: why would anyone even consider going to the local appliance store? We could save a lot of money by buying our appliances at one of the big box stores.

It just so happened that our daughter’s refrigerator went kaput that week. They had bought it only three years ago at a big box for a great price. A repairman was called in and delivered the bad news. The compressor had completely stopped working. Unfortunately, they were looking at a major repair. When finding out where and when they had purchased it, he told them that he was not surprised – he fixes many of these appliances in every month.

According to the repairman, the big box retailers purchase huge quantities of refrigerators, washing machines, dyers, ranges, dishwashers etc. In order to keep the price competitive, they substitute many of the inner mechanisms with plastic and lesser quality parts, which keeps the cost down, but tend to break after a couple of years just when the warranty has expired.

Finding this hard to believe, I had the opportunity to speak with another repairman who runs his own company. He confirmed exactly what the other repairman had said; only he included plumbing fixtures as well. He advised us to spend the extra bucks, buy our appliances from a reputable dealer and assured us that we wouldn’t be sorry.

We did end up going to a local dealer, who offered us many rebates, actually making their price almost the same as the big box store. Our saleswoman spent considerable time understanding our needs and answered our many questions. When I asked her about the advertised price difference between the big box and their store, she had much to say. First, the big box retailers can’t sell the same exact product with such large discounts. She suggested that we look carefully at the product number where we would most likely find one small discrepancy, which would differentiate from the counter product sold at the independent appliance store. Secondly, we were informed that their store belonged to a consortium of 200 dealers from Georgia to Maine and buy appliances in large lots making their prices competitive, too. Additionally, the various manufacturers offer rebates, which the dealers pass on to their customers. And finally, when buying from an appliance showroom, the sales personnel are not only knowledgeable, but will service the product if there is a problem. When our new washing machine malfunctioned the first time we used it, our saleswoman quickly arranged for their service vendor to come and assess the problem.

As consumers, we have many choices available to us when buying goods and services. So a word to the wise. When making any large purchase, take the time to understand the pricing, return policy, financing and all your options before putting down your hard earned money. You won’t be disappointed.

Cindy Matloff

When is a bargain not a bargain?

I love to get a bargain and as I have gotten older I have expanded the types of stores I shop at. I have found there can be amazing values to be had at thrift stores. I have found a set of Royal Copenhagen Blue Line china at a Goodwill store for just a dollar or less per plate and recently found a camel hair coat for $15.00 that looks like it was made for me. And I have bought almost new Talbots slacks, an L.L.Bean turtleneck and a Macy’s cashmere sweater at a hospital thrift store. The original prices were not marked on these items, but when you only pay $5.00 or $10.00, you have a good estimate of what your actual savings are.

But what if you are shopping in a department store and the price tag on a sweater has a “Compare At” price of $218.00 and it is marked $49.97. Wow! That is a saving of about $168.00, or is it? What if the sweater had never been offered for sale for $218.00! The plaintiff in a recently decided case, Shaulis v. Nordstrom, Inc. d/b/a Nordstrom Rack had purchased such a sweater and alleged that a higher reference price can create a perceived value and willingness to buy the product.  When the price is inflated, the consumer may be encouraged to purchase based on a false sense of value. The plaintiff alleged that because of the presence of a higher price reference “…she was unfairly directly induced into a purchase that she might not have otherwise made, except for the misrepresentation.” You would think that Judge F. Dennis Saylor, IV of the U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts who heard the case would have agreed, ruled in her favor and awarded her damages. Surprisingly, that was not the outcome. Judge Saylor stated that “… the fact that plaintiff may have been manipulated into purchasing the sweater because she believed she was getting a bargain does not necessarily mean she suffered economic harm; she arguably got exactly what she paid for, no more, no less.” The judge continued to say that it is the plaintiff’s subjective belief that she did not receive a good value, and without more, it isn’t enough to establish an injury that could be compensated under the Massachusetts consumer protection statute, Chapter 93A.

So a word to the wise. A tag that shows you are getting a terrific bargain, may be just that, a tag. It is probably better to use your instincts and past experiences in evaluating the quality of an item, how well it is made and its value. And, its true value is what you are willing to pay for it!

Marie Taylor