Category Archives: Consumer News

Fill up at the rental car counter or at the gas pump?

hertzWhen you rent a car, you’re bombarded with questions from upgrades to insurance. I always say no to everything including the gas, but I recently thought twice about saying yes. The salesman told me the pre-pay gas price was cheaper than nearby gas stations. The price of gas seemed cheap on the sign behind the counter, but I wasn’t willing to take the risk. After all, I’ve always been told to say no to all the add-ons at the rental car counter. How did I know the gas at the counter really was cheaper?

As a consumer reporter, I have a natural skepticism toward the rental car salesman. I’ve done stories with drivers who dropped off their car flawless only to be billed later for damages they say they didn’t cause. Some companies are even requiring receipts for gas to make sure you fill up the tank close to the airport and don’t get a few extra miles out of that full tank of gas.

On my way back to the airport, I filled up at a nearby gas station. The price I paid was a few cents more than the one I saw previously posted at the airport rental car counter. It made me think. Maybe this was something to consider the next time I rent a car.

Before I do it, or suggest you do it, ask many questions. Make sure the price listed is the TOTAL price you will pay per gallon. Make sure there are not additional taxes or fees. Also, ask if that price is valid regardless of whether you need a full or half tank of gas. Finally, get the offer in writing to make sure you won’t be charged later.

I wasn’t ready to experiment with this during my last rental, but I might explore it next time around. I’ll at least ask a few questions to consider whether it’s really a good deal.

hotels charging for items

bed for saleI don’t like to pay full price for hotels, and gladly share my tricks for saving. However, is the hotel business that bad that they need to sell everything in the room from the shower head to the alarm clock?

Many high end stores are even expanding beyond the items you’ll find in a hotel room. They want your hotel to seem as comfortable as your room at home. I might look at the style at a hotel chain like W Hotels or Westin, because they are high-end or luxurious brands. They sell their amenities in online stores, and offer much more than what you’ll find in the hotel room. W Hotels sells jewelry, and the West Hotel Collection is having a summer sale on its products.

This trend of selling products seen in a hotel room is not reserved for luxurious hotel chains. I recently saw a budget hotel making a pitch. I don’t feel luxurious at a budget hotel. I feel like I’m getting a good deal, but that’s about it.

alarm clock for saleAt a low end hotel that I stopped in on my way to Florida, the hotel was selling everything from the alarm clock to the ironing board. Is that really necessary? It wasn’t a fancy alarm clock. It was a clock radio just like the one I’ve had at home for years. Only, the one at home was nicer and cheaper. The hotel wanted $25 for an alarm clock. Really? You can find similar ones for $10 at retailers.

coffeemaker for saleIt gets worse. The hotel wanted $50 for the coffee maker. This wasn’t a Keurig. Just a basic coffeemaker. A similar pot is sold at retailers for less than $20. More than 50% markup is a pretty good profit margin for a hotel.

The hotel chain sold items from $25 to $80. While many were ripoffs, the $80 comforter actually isn’t a bad deal. Those can cost $100, but rest assured the store bought $100 comforters are thicker.

hotel items for saleIs anyone really buying, though? The sign says that due to the increasing popularity of the guest room amenities, the housekeeping staff now offers them for sale. Maybe it’s to prevent theft. The fine print at the bottom of the sign reads, “Each guest room attendant is responsible for maintaining the guest room items. Should you decide to take these items from your room instead of obtaining them from the Executive Housekeeper, we will assume you approve a corresponding charges to your account.” Sounds to me like you’ve been warned. Don’t steal the towels, coffee pot, or ironing board!

What’s next?! Pretty soon they’ll be charging me for the soaps and shampoos that they put out for guests to use. Of course, I always take the supplied ones for my travel stash. At this rate, that amenity will soon cost me $10.

I like my hotel to be cozy and as homey as possible, but I’m never going to fall in love with the products in a room that will make me want to buy them. What about you? Join the conversation.

Related links you may like:
A new hotel amenity?
Airport parking that won’t break your travel budget
Picture perfect honeymoon – best research sites
Tipping habits – have yours changed with the economy

Saving money on vacation: ask for a “life” discount

New ZealandBooking a hotel for a vacation or just one night is never an easy task in my house. I like to save, and don’t like to pay full price. I scour websites for the best prices and dates to travel (if my dates are flexible). Sometimes, you just can’t find a deal especially if it’s a vacation hot spot. Before you give up, pick up the phone and ask for the discount you need.

In this day and age, picking up the phone and calling a hotel seems so ten years ago. For years, my bargain strategies began and ended online. Priceline was my best money saving tool for years. I always bid $25-40 in a big city, and typically get well known hotels. I once told a hotel employee this, and she gasped. I usually just gasp in excitement. Why pay $150 for a room when I can get it for $40?

Lately, Priceline hasn’t been cutting it for me. I think the hotels are catching on to cheapskates like me. They haven’t been as willing to sell me that $40 hotel room. I’ve had to look for other options.

My other option is the phone. We were booking our one-year anniversary getaway and noticed some hotels in Florida offer discounts for Florida residents. I called up the hotel we really wanted, and told them we were down to two hotels and that the other one offers a Florida residency discount. I then said, “This trip is for our one-year anniversary. Do you offer any of these discounts?” Within minutes, I saved $60 off the lowest advertised price for the resort.

This brings up another tip for newlyweds on their honeymoon. Tell everyone it’s your honeymoon. You will get all kinds of perks and freebies. The travel industry wants you to enjoy your trip, and they want you to make honeymoon memories so you’ll come back again.

IMG_7090Unbeknownst to us, our New Zealand travel agent told the hotels it was our honeymoon even though we really got married seven months prior. We told our travel agent we were newlyweds, never imagining it would get us upgrades in New Zealand so long after our wedding. It was a great surprise hearing “Congratulations on your wedding” from the reception desk throughout our trip. We got room upgrade and free commemorative gifts. It’s something we’ll always remember. 

We got an even bigger kick out of it because of the couple they congratulated. I booked the trip, and used my maiden name. So, “Mr. and Mrs. Strathman” were congratulated for their wedding. It made us chuckle.

There are unadvertised deals out there. You just have to know what to ask for. Don’t forget to ask for a “life” discount.


Extreme changes to eBay coupon policy limiting resale

The controversy over extreme couponing practices continues. This time, eBay is the target of the anger. For years, couponers have sold their surplus coupons on eBay, but the website is making changes to its policy that will make it harder to make money. Just like when a grocer changes its coupon policy, there is outrage.

Under the new policy, sellers will be restricted to a monthly maximum of coupons valued up to $100 or 25 valid, unexpired, original coupons. The limit you reach first will be the one that is enforced. Previously, couponers sold multiple coupons under one listing. You’ll still be limited to 25 coupons even if they are all sold in bulk under one listing.

If you have a coupon for a free product or a buy one get one free (BOGO) offer, you can’t sell it. Those are some of couponers favorite coupons.

The changes start September 1, and any listing that violates the new policy will be removed. Also, the seller could have their buying and selling privileges restricted or suspended.

Couponers are sounding off on eBay’s community forum saying their business will shut down and they’ll lose money. It’s a big reversal in policy, but it’s one some advocates say is long overdue because the rules have been bent for years.

Most coupons say they are void if sold or transferred. To get around the fine print, eBay sellers put a disclaimer on their postings. It often said the coupon price was not for the value of the coupons but for the seller’s time spent clipping the coupons. The disclaimer outraged ethical couponers. For a story I did on this issue in 2011, the Coupon Information Corporation said, “The CIC said disclaimers “prove that the seller / auctioneer knows that their illicit coupon sales are inapropriate, wrong.”

There’s always been a push for eBay to police the coupon selling, but it never happened until now.

What do you think of the changes? Join the conversation by commenting below. 



Shining a light on ripoffs in the sunshine state

west palm beachIt’s been a busy few months. My husband and I recently hit the road driving from Ohio to Florida, where we are making our new home. Instead of blogging about consumer tips, I’ve been putting them to use getting our car ready for the 1200 mile road trip and hiring a moving company to help us unload our belongings. Over the next few weeks, you’ll notice a few consumer thoughts and tidbits that popped in my mind during the 18 hour drive. After all, this blog is about my life as a consumer with the insight of a reporter who has been covering these issues for 13 years.

headshot 2I am excited to be in South Florida, the epicenter of many consumer issues. Many of the biggest national ripoffs I’ve covered as a reporter, originated in Florida. I’m glad to be here to expose some of these schemes and to help South Florida consumers.

I’ve already picked up on how rampant the fraud is here. The good news — there are many arrests for it. In some states, consumer fraud is rarely investigated or prosecuted. That’s not the case here. There are also many agencies trying to educate consumers to prevent them from becoming a victim. Despite all the efforts to curb the fraud, it’s still prevalent and a threat to consumers. That’s why NewsChannel 5 is is launching the Contact 5 Consumer Watchdog.

helping in floridaI’m already working with many South Florida and Treasure Coast residents. In a way, I feel like I’m back home in the Northeast. Every day I speak with someone from New York. I’ve even met many people from my home state of Connecticut. We’re already getting action for people, and I look forward to helping even more people.

You can find me on Florida’s #1 station, WPTV. My Contact 5 Consumer Watchdog reports will start in August. Until then, stay connected on Facebook and Twitter. Let me know if you have a consumer issue, or think I should look into a new trend or ripoff. I look forward to working with you, and warning you of ripoffs.

Google Reader alternatives

Google ReaderGoogle Reader is disappearing in a week (July 1), so you need to find a new RSS reader if you haven’t found one already.

Google says it’s getting rid of its reader program because usage declined. The company is putting all its energy into a few products so it can make the user experience better for the remaining programs.

feedlyI chose to switch to Feedly. You simply allow the site to access your Google Reader account like you would any other app on Facebook. It takes just seconds to import your files.

I think this process is easier than exporting your information on Google Takeout. I tried this as well, and it creates a zip file with your contacts and feed information. However, I’m not sure how you import this into Feedly at this point. I’m not a computer whiz, so I opted to let Feedly do the accessing and work for me.

Feedly is all about enhancing the user experience. The company added new servers and created 10x more bandwidth to deal with the influx of users. Also, the company wants to hear about your experience on the new site and new releases will be pushed out weekly. It looks like this is one company hoping to capitalize on another one that’s fading away.

feedly picturesYou can select  how you want to view your content. You can do it in a list format or with pictures.

Of course, Feedly is not the only option for former Google Reader users. It depends on what you are looking for as some options are only available in a mobile format. Let me know what you choose and your experience as we say goodbye to Google Reader.


Facebook rolls out new design for news feed

Facebook Timeline updateFacebook is slowly rolling out changes to your news feed, but this new design may not leave you grumbling like all the other changes. Unlike previous design updates, this layout one is intuitive and easy to figure out. It allows you to customize your feed based on your interests and viewing habits.

facebook photos newsfeedI think the new design features a cleaner look that’s customizable based on what you want to see. The stories and photos in your feed are bigger. You can also customize your news feed on the right hand side. You can select recent, all friends, or just photos. When you select photos only, your news feed is filled with large photos that your friends posted. The photos are vivid and large. It’s like a slideshow of your friends lives. It’s so customizable, you could view photos only from people you went to school with or your work colleagues. It’s all based on groups you create. You can also choose a news feed based on music or games. It’s all based on your interest or mood at the time.

new timeline 2 edited There is a sidebar full of icons that allow you to easily navigate to the other sections of Facebook like events, photos, and messages. There is even an icon to build a family tree.

News feed family tree icon The family tree is not an app, but you need to add it to your timeline. You can build it right on the web. You click add a family member, and Facebook automatically populates possible people. It’s pretty accurate, and based on your previous interactions and mentions. You can even get stats on your family, like age distribution, gender distribution, alive/deceased.

Facebook is trying to get you to spend more time on their site. While the family tree is an interesting feature, you need to consider what you are telling the social media site and all your friends. At some point, you need to consider what to share and what not to share. Privacy is becoming more of a privilege than a right, and we’re partly to blame. While social media sites make it easier to share and connect, the more we share the more we give up our right to privacy.

The family tree is a neat feature, because it makes it easy to see how you’re connected to loved ones. It’s visually laid out for you. However, think about what you’re doing and how much of your privacy you’re compromising.

privacy settings

Whenever changes are made, it’s a good idea to check your privacy settings. You can do this by clicking at the top of your Facebook page and choosing Settings. Then click privacy from the left hand column. You can also find privacy settings as a lock icon in the sidebar.

Most of these changes seem to effect your news feed only. The Timeline page looks the same, other than the icons that are on the left allowing you to navigate to different sections of Facebook.

My husband got the new look this weekend, but I still don’t have it. If you want to get it earlier than scheduled for your Timeline, you can add your name to the waiting list.

Facebook explains the new design here. What do you think of the changes?

Related links you may like: 
Facebook Timeline 101
How to use Facebook Graph Search
Facebook Timeline privacy

Affordable Care Act calls may be attempt to steal your identity

Prescription medicationsThe final details are being put together for the health insurance exchanges that will start next January. The applications have been released, and processing of them will begin in October. Already, the Better Business Bureau says scammers are trying to use the program to steal your personal information. 

The BBB says the callers are claiming to be from the federal government. Consumers are told they’ve been selected to be a part of the initial group of Americans who receive insurance cards through the Affordable Care Act. Before you can get the card, you need to provide your bank account information and social security number.

socialSharing personal information with an illegitimate source puts you at risk for identity theft. You should always initiate the call before providing such sensitive information. You should always question the legitimacy of any organization who calls you requesting that information. Instead of giving the information, ask for a call back number. Research the company and call it back.

If you did your research, you’d realize the application process doesn’t even start until October. 

Scammers are slick, and you need to be careful even with caller ID. There are ways to spoof a caller ID number to legitimize a fraudulent call. So, the thieves could prompt a government number to show up on your caller ID. That doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. 

Be careful who you tell what, as these ripoffs will only increase as we get closer to this new insurance program. 

17.7 million Borders gift cards are worthless

borders booksGift cards are a popular gift despite the fact that many go un-redeemed. Most of the time the cards don’t get used because consumers forget about them or lose the card. Stores going out of business are another problem, and a court ruling isn’t giving consumers much hope that their gift card is worth anything when a store closes.

There are more than 17.7 million Borders gift cards that were never used and a judge decided those customers will not get a refund. There are many reasons for the decision including issues over paperwork and whether it was filed in a timely manner.

The value of the unused cards is estimated at over $210 million. That’s a lot of money that consumers invested in a defunct company. It raises questions about whether a gift card is really the best gift. It’s a debate we have every holiday season as analysts predict which stores may be defunct within six months.

I still think gift cards are a good idea if you have no others. If you get one and don’t feel you’ll use it, then sell it. There are several sites like Gift Card Granny and Plastic Jungle that allow you to sell and buy cards at a discount. As soon as you hear about a store closing or liquidating its goods, sell fast so you don’t lose your money.

Warning: Internet Explorer 8 users

keyboardIf you use Internet Explorer 8, you need to be on the lookout for a security issue that could make your computer and personal information vulnerable. There is a security issue with the browser that could allow scammers to take over your computer.

This is a good reminder to keep your system updated with the latest security software to help spot vulnerabilities like this. You can download a fix for this issue via Microsoft. At this time, the risk is not for users with earlier Internet Explorer browsers.

Microsoft is working on a patch and hopes to release it soon.