Thursday, December 27, 2007

H&FF Radio: Sure-fire tips to get off most junk mail lists

WASHINGTON (12/21/07)—Tired of the onslaught of junk mail clogging your mailbox and inbox? There are steps you can take to get off those lists, and one of Sunday's HFF Radio show guests will tell you how.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network.

Sunday's show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:
  • "How to Stop Getting Junk Mail You Don't Want," with Pat Kachura, senior vice president for corporate responsibility, Direct Marketing Association, Washington, D.C.;
  • " Official Kids Portal for the U.S. Government," with Mary Levy, director, Federal Citizen Information Center Consumer Information and Outreach Division, Washington, D.C.;
  • "Building Credit With a Secured Credit Card," with Linda Sherry, director of national priorities, Consumer Action, Washington, D.C.;
  • "Ways to Lower Your Utility Costs," with Mike Wilson, marketing and communications coordinator, Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative, Paxton, Ill.; and
  • Listener E-mail Questions.

Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, makers of cheddar cheese; and Visa. For more information, read "Start an Energy Diet: Save Money Around Home" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Consumer Brief

FRESNO, Calif. (12/27/07)--Thinking of buying or trading a gift card on an online auction site? Think twice: That discounted card for sale may not be legitimate, and the person trying to unload it may be a con artist. It's estimated that 2% to 30% of all cards sold on secondary sites are fraudulent. The National Retail Federation recommends you buy gift cards directly from reputable retailers, although one beefed up security measures and reimburses customers for losses ( Dec. 13)...

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Store returns more complicated, restrictive

BOSTON (12/26/07)--Despite a decrease in holiday gift returns, more retailers are ratcheting up their return requirements, largely to curb abuse by serial returners ( Dec. 17).

Many returns are legitimate, but too many consumers abuse easy return policies, and some criminals who steal merchandise try to return items for store credit.

Because of the abuse, everyone pays. When you return items, some retailers now use your driver's license to see if you're on a "blacklist" of serial returners.

If you exceed the retailer's return limit, the store won't allow you to return the item. Some stores don't disclose their return limit, and others do so inconspicuously on signs and on the back of receipts. An example of a return "cap" may limit you to five returns within any 90-day period with a receipt, or cap the amount at, say, $300 without a receipt.

Between 4% and 6% of holiday gifts make it back to the return counter each year (National Retail Federation Dec. 11). But as gift cards continue to increase in popularity, the tide is turning: 64.3% of consumers didn't return anything last holiday season, up slightly from 62.4% in 2005. The use of gift receipts also has helped reduce return headaches.

If you think you'll be standing in the post-holiday return line, keep these pointers in mind:

  • Organize receipts. This is still the best route to a hassle-free return. If you don't have one, or if you lost it, ask whether you can have merchandise credit. However, you may get credit for the lowest markdown price within the past 30 days or so.
  • Return sooner rather than later. You can take advantage of extended store hours immediately after Christmas.
  • Check time restrictions. Check state laws--you may have a choice of a repair, replacement, or refund.
  • Ask about restocking fees. It's best to know store policy before you finalize the purchase.
  • Don't open the box. Try to keep all the original packaging, all parts, and tags. Some retailers will reject the return if the item isn't in the original package. If you know you'll be taking the item back to the store, don't use it or play with it.
  • Know where to complain. If you run into problems, start with the store manager or retailer's customer service department. If those avenues don't work, file a complaint with your state attorney general's office or local consumer protection agency.

For more information, read "'Tis the Season for Trouble-Free Shopping, Returns" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Consumer Brief

MADISON, Wis. (12/20/07)--Tempted by 0% deferred financing for large purchases? Unless you're disciplined and know you'll pay off the entire amount before the stated period, you might be better off putting the purchase on a low-interest credit card or taking out a personal loan. Neglecting to pay off the balance in time--even if your final payment is received just one day late--means you'll be socked with high interest charges back-dated to the date of purchase. If you decide to go the 0% route and the stated period is one year at 0% interest, divide the total purchase amount by 11 and make 11 monthly payments before the 12 months are up. But if you're not sure your budget can handle those payments, just say no to 0% financing (Credit Union National Association Center for Personal Finance) ...

Creative gifts: Meaningful, unique and cheap

McLEAN, Va. (12/19/07)--With less than a week until Christmas, shoppers are scrambling to purchase last-minute presents. But an unsure economy is forcing many gift-givers to look for less expensive items and ideas (USA Today Dec. 13).

One way to save: Put on your creative hat and make your own gifts or provide a service for the special people in your life. The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) Center for Personal Finance suggests:

Volunteer your time. Shovel snow or rake leaves for an elderly or disabled neighbor, or baby-sit for a friend.

Heat up your oven. Get your hot pads ready and bake someone's favorite holiday pie, frost cookies with nieces and nephews, or provide a home-cooked meal for those who aren't up to doing it themselves.

Hit the trails. Instead of worrying about individual gifts this year, take the family cross-country skiing or enjoy a day at a local park.

Scrap it up. Present someone with an assortment of homemade greeting cards or a ready-made scrapbook or journal.

Smile, you're on camera. Consider making your own calendars, beach towels and mouse pads. With today's technology, it's easy to go online and make creative gifts using favorite family photos.

Help the needy. Instead of exchanging names this year, pool your resources with siblings and friends and provide gifts and food for a low-income family in your community.

For more nontraditional gift ideas, read "Avoid the Red, Save More Green This Holiday Season," in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Watch for phish bait when shopping online

NEW YORK (12/17/07)--Online shoppers beware: Phishers are baiting their hooks this holiday season and hoping you're too busy to take some necessary precautions (The Wall Street Journal Online Dec. 5).

Be careful in the coming weeks as scam artists try to trick you into divulging personal information:
  • Watch for financial institution look-alikes. If the e-mail asks you to verify a transaction by clicking on a link or using a phone number that appears in the e-mail, exercise extreme caution. Instead, call the phone number on your credit union or credit card statement to verify that the request is legitimate.
  • Watch for charity look-alikes. Scam artists send bogus e-mails that seemingly come from charities, hoping to lure you into giving personal information as they tug at your heart--and purse—strings. To make sure you're accessing a legitimate charity, go to Charity Navigator's website at
  • Use caution with unfamiliar companies. If you've never heard of the company, check its reputation with Better Business Bureau at to see if complaints have been filed against it. Look for the company's address and phone number on the site for contact information if something goes wrong with your purchase.
  • Use caution when using auction and classified-ad sites. The National Consumers League cautions consumers that classified-ad and e-commerce sites--such as eBay and Craigslist--are particularly risky, generating a large proportion of consumer complaints each year.
  • Beware purebred puppy ploy. Some unscrupulous merchants are tempting their victims with promises of free--or low-cost--purebred puppies if the buyer pays the shipping. In this scam, any money you send goes right into the so-called seller's pockets, and the dog never gets delivered.
  • Don't wire money to a stranger. If the seller insists that you send your payment by wire service, that's a big red flag. Steer clear.
  • Check account balances frequently. Online banking allows you to access your accounts 24/7, making it easier--and faster--to detect fraud as soon as it happens.

For more information, read "Stay Safe When Shopping Online" and "Online Banking Makes Money Management Simple and Safe" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Consumer brief

YONKERS, N.Y. (12/13/07)--If you want your Parcel Post package delivered in time for Christmas, you'd better hurry--it needs to be mailed by Dec. 14. Procrastinators pay extra for other options. Mail your items First Class by Dec. 19, Priority by Dec. 21, and Express Mail by Dec. 22. Consider a Priority Mail Flat Rate Box for $8.95--there are two sizes from which to choose, and you can send a package weighing no more than 70 pounds anywhere in the U.S. To avoid shipping charges on goods you purchase, seek out retailers that offer local in-store pickup for online orders. Some retailers post coupons online at and, and others offer free shipping for orders of a certain size (Consumer Reports Money Adviser December) ...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Don't fall for subprime credit cards

McLEAN, Va. (12/12/07)--In an effort to improve their credit history, many consumers are unknowingly signing up for subprime credit cards--often with disastrous consequences (USA Today Dec. 9).

Targeted to young adults with no or little credit history, as well as to those with a tarnished credit history, issuers of subprime credit cards--referred to as predatory by some critics--are taking advantage of vulnerable consumers who can least afford the excessive fees.

How excessive? In one example, with a low credit limit of $250, some applicants were socked with an array of fees that totaled $178, leaving the user just $72 to spend on that card during the year. Instead of improving their credit history, victims are sinking deeper in debt.

The National Consumer Law Center, Boston, issued a warning to consumers on Nov. 1 that these high-fee, low-credit predatory credit cards are merely a way for some issuers to extract as many junk fees as possible from consumers desperate for credit.

What should you watch for?
  • Low limits. If the card carries an unusually low line of credit--say, only a few hundred dollars--that's the first clue it may be a predatory credit card.
  • Phrases that may not sound like fees. In the fine print, look for phrases such as account maintenance, account set-up, program, participation, and activation fees.
  • Fees that put you over the limit. Excessive fees--which add up quickly--reduce your available balance right off the bat. Cardholders who don't deduct those fees from their available balance increasingly are slapped with over-the-limit fees.
  • "Good-guy" claims. The issuer may make the claim that it's going out of its way to help users get out of debt trouble and give credit to subprime borrowers. One issuer justified its predatory credit card by stating that its "mission" is to bring affordable banking services to minority communities. And with millions of cash-strapped homeowners facing foreclosure, claims like these may sound enticing.

Looking for an alternative? Get a secured credit card, says Susan Tiffany, director of personal finance information for adults at the Credit Union National Association's Center for Personal Finance. "You'll have to deposit money with your credit union or other reputable lender, and then use that line of credit to build a good credit history. Repay purchases in full and on time each month. Then after a time, say six months to a year, apply for a traditional unsecured card with a higher limit."

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Energy audit can light the way to greater savings

McLEAN, Va. (12/11/07)--Unless you have an extra $1,000 lying around, you might want to read this. The $1,000 is almost how much the average U.S. winter heating bill is expected to be for October 2007 through March 2008, according to the Energy Department (USA Today Nov. 30).

Of course the amount of your bill depends on where you live. If you live in the Northeast and use heating oil, your bill may be as high as $1,900; if you live out West and use natural gas, your bill may only be $600.

Regardless of the amount, you might reduce your energy expenses by taking advantage of an energy audit--either hiring a professional energy auditor or performing one yourself.

If you decide to go it alone, the Energy Department suggests keeping a checklist of areas you've inspected and listing problems that you've found. Here's what you should check:
  • Lighting. Try to maximize the use of daylight. Task lights illuminate only the area you need to light. Shut off lights you're not using and install motion detectors in your garage and other areas where you might forget to turn lights off. Consider switching to compact fluorescent bulbs--they're more efficient and longer lasting than incandescent bulbs. It's estimated that a compact fluorescent bulb that makes as much light as a 100-watt incandescent bulb would save about $63 during the bulb's 4.5-year lifetime--assuming the bulb is on six hours a day.
  • Insulation. Inspect insulation in the attic, walls, and basement. Make sure that insulation isn't blocking the attic vents and that the water heater, hot water pipes, and furnace ducts are insulated.
  • Heating and cooling equipment. Inspect equipment annually or as often as the manufacturer recommends. Check filters and replace as needed--most likely every month or two. Have professionals clean equipment annually. If your furnace is older than 15 years, consider replacing it with one that's more energy-efficient. Insulate ducts or pipes that travel through spaces that aren't heated.

For more information, read "Start an Energy Diet: Save Money Around Home" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Consumer brief

SAN FRANCISCO (12/6/07)--High gasoline prices are pushing the standard Internal Revenue Service (IRS) mileage-rate deduction for business-related driving to a new all-time high in 2008: 50.5 cents a mile, up from 48.5 cents in 2007. Other variables affecting the rate increase include vehicle maintenance, repairs, registration and insurance. Remember that the standard mileage deduction only is for companies using four or fewer vehicles; other companies use the IRS standard as a benchmark to set their own reimbursement rates. If you plan to claim a deduction for medical or moving expenses, the rate--calculated differently than the rate for business driving--will drop to 19 cents a mile, from 20 cents a mile in 2007. And if you plan to claim a deduction for charitable-related driving, your rate will stay the same in 2008 at 14 cents a mile ( Nov. 27)...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Flex your money smarts and use up your FSA

McLEAN, Va. (12/5/07)--Don't get so caught up in the holiday hustle and bustle that you forget to use the remaining dollars in your flexible spending account (FSA). Now's the time to consider purchasing cold medicine, pain reliever, and extra contact lenses if you have money left in your account (USA Today Nov. 27).

FSAs let employees set aside pretax dollars to pay for things not covered by insurance such as certain over-the-counter (OTC)/drug store items, co-payments, and eyeglasses.
The catch: If you don't spend the money by the end of the year--or, in some cases by mid-March--you forfeit the money and it goes back to your employer.

Check the list at to see what items qualify. Simple things such as ointment and bandages qualify, so give the list a good look or you may miss out. Generic brands of items also might be eligible. OTC items purchased to treat a general medical condition that are not preventative or cosmetic in nature are eligible expenses to claim. No toiletries are allowed.

For other ideas of how to tie up 2007 using sound money management skills, get registered and join the Home & Family Finance Resource Center's Financial Fitness Challenge.

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Free tools check for dangerous websites

McLEAN, Va. (12/3/07)--Surfing the Web is risky--click on one corrupt site and sophisticated cyberthieves could hand you a sentence of life with spam and malware. Fortunately, just as we dive into the heaviest online shopping time of the year, free tools are available that take some of the guesswork out of surfing the Net (USA Today Nov. 26).

Using color-coded icons, these free products flag search results and rate the safety of websites:

  • McAfee Site Advisor. The color-coded search results are based on automated safety tests combined with feedback from volunteer reviewers. A red icon warns you the site may contain spyware, spam, viruses, or online scams. A yellow icon indicates the site is questionable. And a green icon indicates the site is clean. Mouse over the icon for more details.

  • Scandoo. The analysis is less detailed than that of Site Advisor, and it won't block sites that are questionable, but Scandoo's advantage is that you can flag sites using one of 26 different Web category filters, such as nudity (

Jason Masterson, information technology analyst at Credit Union National Association, Madison, Wis., leans toward McAfee Site Advisor. "It can be used as a 'browser plug-in,' and it integrates well with both Internet Explorer and Firefox," he said.

For more information, read, "Stay Safe When Shopping Online" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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