Savvy Consumer Tips

You’ve probably heard that honey bee colonies have been in decline for the past few years. This is bad news, and not just for the bees, since they’re the primary pollinators of many of our food crops. Still, as much as honey bees do for us, you probably don’t want a swarm of them setting up a colony in or near your home. If that happens, you may be able to get expert help from a local beekeeper, who can capture or “extract” the bees without harming them.

The Sonoma County Beekeepers’ Association (www.sonomabees.org) offers instructions for dealing with a honey bee swarm on your property. At the top of their list: Don’t spray the bees with anything, especially pesticide. Once you do that, beekeepers can’t use them. And before calling a beekeeper, check the SCBA’s online photo gallery to make sure you’re dealing with honey bees. For other types of bees and wasps, you may have to contact a pest control professional rather than a beekeeper.

Most people don’t need the help of an accountant to prepare their taxes, says Geoffrey Kulik, a partner at Sterck Kulik O’Neill Accounting Group, Inc., a Diamond Certified firm. However, Mr. Kulik says many taxpayers sign up for too much or too little help in March and April because they panic and choose a professional based on who’s available rather than who can best help them.

Fall is the right time to decide how you’re going to prepare your taxes next spring. Taxpayers with complex returns can meet with CPAs to see if the firm is a good fit. Salaried employees with simple returns can interview preparers about their price and schedule requirements. For simple returns, you can even investigate home computer tax software. By deciding how you’re going to get help in the fall, you can intelligently match your tax situation with the different levels of assistance available without feeling deadline pressure.

Spring is peak car buying season, and as a result, the National Consumer League Fraud Center is seeing an increase in complaints about used car scams. If you’re enticed by ads for deeply discounted cars, you could easily fall for one of these scams. The shady sellers operate long-distance, so when you inquire about a well-priced car you’ve found on an auction site, craigslist, eBay or another online classified listing, you’re informed that the vehicle has to be shipped. Payments are demanded in the form of wire transfers, which is the biggest red flag of all. Don’t ever wire money to someone you don’t know.

Other tip-offs that you’re dealing with a scam artist: the seller is located overseas but has an American middleman, the seller requests speedy payment, the seller’s emails and ads contain lots of grammatical errors, and the car is priced well below Kelley Blue Book value. If you’ve been a victim already, file a complaint at www.fraud.org.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants consumers to beware of telephone sales pitches for magazine subscriptions. While some offers may be legitimate, many are not. Agreeing to buy could result in years of monthly bills for magazines you don’t want, or you could end up paying for a magazine you never even receive.

Solicitors may try to lower your guard by saying they’re just calling to conduct a survey. To protect yourself, don’t ever give your credit card or other personal information to any caller. Don’t agree to anything you don’t receive in writing first. Before you accept an offer to renew a subscription, check the expiration date to determine if it’s really coming up. Also, be cautious of magazine subscriptions sold door-to-door. Contact your state attorney general or local consumer protection office to report a scam.

Even though your doctors maintain your medical records, you have the right to access them at any time—that’s state law. Some consumers are in the habit of keeping their own copies of important blood tests, x-rays and MRIs, but many of us rely on having these results on file in one central place. But what if your doctor moves or retires? What if you switch doctors?

Jennifer Simoes, the California Medical Board’s Chief Information Officer, explains that doctors who close their practices have to make good faith efforts to offer you copies of your medical records. They might send letters and place ads in local papers to inform patients. Know that when you ask for medical records, doctors can charge a reasonable amount for clerical fees and copies of hard and electronic files. Generally, physicians will transfer records to another provider without charging a fee, but some doctors do charge for copying and mailing.

Jay Cool, owner of Cool’s Custom, a Diamond Certified company, gets questions from people wondering what can be done about the pits and worn traffic areas in their natural stone floors. Most of the time, he says, the repairs are more costly than installing a brand new floor.

To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, Mr. Cool recommends that you choose the right floor material based on the room’s use and foot traffic. White onyx, for example, is a terrible choice for a bathroom floor because it is a soft product that easily stains. A great option for almost any area in the home is simulated natural stone porcelain. It requires virtually no maintenance, no sealing, and can simply be spot-cleaned and swept. It comes in many tile sizes and colors and can be used to create a variety of patterns. Lastly, it’s not hard on your budget either.

Paul Berry, owner of Diamond Certified company Martin and Harris Appliances, says manufacturers are warning consumers about the importance of using the right laundry detergent with new, high efficiency (HE) front- and top-loading washing machines. If you don’t, says Mr. Berry, you might create too much sudsing and cause longer cycle times, poor rinsing, noticeable mold or mildew, and even component failures.

HE machines require HE detergents, preferably liquid ones. Manufacturers recommend against using some brands of dry HE products, which contain chemicals that can damage spindles and rear bearings. You also need to use less detergent and fabric softener, because HE systems use 65 percent less water. When you add too much, your clothes will have stains and/or a waxy build-up on them. Usually, you only need about one tablespoon of detergent or softener for a full load of laundry.

In last week’s tip, I wrote about deceptive sales tactics used in the floor covering business. I described low-balling and bait-and-switch, where offers may be initially enticing, but end up costing a lot more due to hidden charges and unexpected extras. How do you recognize a true sale and identify real savings? Here’s Laurel Pallock from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Consumer Mediation Unit: “The best way to protect yourself is to question any sale price that sounds way too good. Many of these come-ons lead to add-ons. Learn as much as you can about the flooring you’re shopping for, and ask very specific questions when you shop around first by phone: How much is the carpet itself per square foot? What types of padding is available and the price range? Do you charge extra for stairs? Do you charge to move furniture? Then, be sure to check the company’s reputation with local groups and agencies.”

A recent report on ABC news motivated me to dash out, buy a one-pound bag of frozen shrimp, and then weigh it. Investigators had found evidence in 17 states that some frozen seafood companies count the weight of the ice as part of the total weight of the package. How do you know if you’re being ripped off? The report said your frozen seafood should weigh about 10% more than the weight stated on the package.

In my test at home, I not only weighed the frozen shrimp on a kitchen scale, I also counted the shrimp because the label claims a count of 26-30 in each package. I was happy to find 29 shrimp inside AND the total weight came in well over 10% to account for ice on the shrimp. That gave me a lot of confidence not only in the brand, but in the retailer (Trader Joe’s) as well.

As a San Francisco Bay Area resident, you’re probably well prepared for an earthquake. You have a stash of water, blankets, flashlights and batteries, a radio, canned food, extra clothes, and extra cash (at least $200) stored in a safe place. But how prepared are you to deal with an emergency on the road? Consumer Reports recommends drivers outfit their vehicles with the following items: cell phone, hazard triangles or flares, jumper cables, flashlight, roadside-assistance membership, tow-rope, duct tape (for emergency repairs), small shovel and a bag of sand (to get traction if your tires are spinning), windshield scraper, blanket, and hand warmers (particularly necessary if you drive to snow country). Based on decades of driving, we’d add water, old tennis shoes, a rain slicker, and a first aid kit. What’s in your emergency car kit?

Consumer experts like Laurel Pallock with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Consumer Mediation Department say the New Year is a good time to take stock and re-organize your consumer affairs. Ms. Pallock gets you started with her top 5 tips.

1. Get a free copy of your credit report @ AnnualCredit Report.com.
2. Use your gift cards as soon as possible.
3. Make a copy of everything in your wallet. Copy both sides if necessary. Put copies in a safe place.
4. Create a list of all your passwords and store it in an unusual spot. Give the file a title that is NOT “Passwords.”
5. Check for hidden fees on everything from your bank account, credit cards, TV, telephone and Internet. Challenge questionable ones and switch to providers when possible that clearly disclose all fees clearly and upfront.

I will have more consumer tips from Laurel and other experts throughout the year on Twitter @asavvyconsumer.

Fish may be an important part of a healthy diet, but the way we harvest our seafood can be very bad for the health of our oceans. Some species are over-fished, or caught using methods that kill significant amounts of non-target sea life. In the case of farmed seafood, some aquaculture methods pollute the ocean. The challenge for sushi and seafood lovers is how to know which choices are better for the environment. +

To help eco-conscious consumers, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Blue Ocean Institute, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium each have created a “pocket” guide to more sustainable seafood selections. The aquarium’s version for the West Coast was updated in January 2010. Go online to download one or more of the guides and refer to it the next time you’re trying to decide between blue fin tuna (an environmental no-no) and wild-caught Alaska salmon (a better choice).

When you make a substantial investment in custom cabinets or closets, it’s important to get several bids, but it can be tricky. Customers trying to comparison shop may not realize that in order to do an apples-to-apples comparison, they need to ask the right questions.
Customers often forget to request a detailed breakout of the items selected, such as type of drawer slides (full-extension, over-travel, and 3/4 extension), interior material (melamine or plywood), or door hinges (multi-way adjustable or clip-on). These options can sometimes make-up more than 20% of the bid and could mean the difference between using high quality components and someone who is cutting corners. Spend the time to understand the material and accessories being provided in order to make a fair assessment of the estimates and not just go with the lowest bid.

The passwords to your computer and online accounts are like the keys to your safe deposit box. In the wrong hands, they can be used to steal your money and your identity. Strong passwords - those that are virtually impossible to recreate, even using a special decoder program - will keep your assets and information safe and secure.

A strong password is one that appears to be a random string of characters, including letters, numbers and symbols. The longer your password is, the harder it is to decipher. When creating a password, don’t use personal information such as your birth date or dog’s name. Don’t use real words. Do consider creating a password derived from a “passphrase” that is easy for you to remember. For example, “My favorite number is 13” could be converted to MfaV#=13!. And use a different password for each account to avoid having all your accounts at risk if one password is compromised.

Most of us know to ask our pharmacists for generic drugs whenever possible in order to save money.  But have you ever thought about asking your veterinarian whether a generic version is available for the brand name drugs your dog or cat is taking? It never occurred to me, but I was delighted when my veterinarian’s office suggested a generic form of heartworm medication that was almost 50% cheaper than the brand name prescription I had been buying from another vet.  A second way to save money on pet drugs is by buying drugs from online pet catalogues and pharmacies. These companies sell both prescription and non-prescription medications at a savings. Written prescriptions have to be faxed to the on-line company. Some vets might charge you for writing the prescription, and others might even refuse. If the doctor refuses, you might want to find a more customer-friendly practice.

If you're paying the tab for any upcoming parties, one thing to keep an eye on is the wine and how it's served. Co-owners of a Diamond Certified company, tell clients to buy their wine from places that will let you return unopened bottles. They recommend asking the caterer or restaurant staff to save all the bottles, corks and empties too. You get an accurate count that way.

Have the servers pour about 1/2 glass for starters, so guests can fully enjoy the flavor and bouquet. On average, you can count on getting 4 to 5 glasses per bottle. Finally, unfinished bottles are yours to take home. Just make sure you transport them in your trunk to be on the safe side.

In my junk drawer, I just found an old gift card from a bookstore that I received last year. I was surprised when I read the small print on the back of it, which said if not used within 18 months, $1.50 a month would be deducted from the card's value. According to Gail Hillebrand, a senior attorney with Consumers Union, this will be illegal next year when nearly all service fees for retailer gift cards will be banned in California.

The exception applies to rechargeable cards unused for 2 years, which have a balance of $5 or less. A dollar a month fee may be charged. Be aware that this Christmas shopping season you still have to watch out for fees because the law takes effect January 1, 2004. And remember, you are already protected when it comes to cards expiring. Stores cannot specify an expiration date on gift cards or gift certificates.

In the scramble to pack your kids off to college, you may have forgotten to make an important call to your insurance company. Did you know that if your child is more than 100 miles away for home, and does not have a car at college, you can have them temporarily taken off your policy? I called GEICO and by not having a rated young driver on our policy, our premium is reduced by $363 for the next 6 months.

I saved this much even though a surcharge for an earlier accident will stay on our record while the teen is away at college. My insurance company does allow the student to drive one of the cars if he comes home just for a long weekend. However, if the student comes home for more than 30 days and will be driving your cars again, you will have to have him or her re-instated.

Most of us know to ask our pharmacists for generic drugs whenever possible in order to save money.  But have you ever thought about asking your veterinarian whether a generic version is available for the brand name drugs your dog or cat is taking? It never occurred to me, but I was delighted when my veterinarian’s office suggested a generic form of heartworm medication that was almost 50% cheaper than the brand name prescription I had been buying from another vet.  A second way to save money on pet drugs is by buying drugs from online pet catalogues and pharmacies. These companies sell both prescription and non-prescription medications at a savings. Written prescriptions have to be faxed to the on-line company. Some vets might charge you for writing the prescription, and others might even refuse. If the doctor refuses, you might want to find a more customer-friendly practice.

One of my best strategies for getting excellent customer service is nothing mysterious. By simply using good manners and kindness when I deal with service people, I consistently get superb results. When I call my doctor's office for example, I ask for the receptionist's name and ask how her day is going. Recently I gave the office nurse a Starbucks gift card for her exceptional service. Now you're no longer a stranger, so when you beg for a last minute appointment, they find a way to squeeze you in.

And how about offering the plumber, painter, carpet cleaner or gardener a cup of coffee, a glass of water or a soft drink? Who doesn't appreciate a kind word at the end of a long day? Why not thank someone for the hard work or extra effort? Staff will be competing with each other to come to your house the next time you call for service!

Sampling dishes before choosing a menu for a big party or a wedding is an opportunity for you to find out if you like a caterer's food. It's also a chance to get a sense of the caterer's personality and communication style. Glenn Nelson, owner of Panetta's Elite Events, a Diamond Certified company, believes that chemistry is an important element in creating a successful event.

Mr. Nelson suggests that at least 2 people attend a taste test. You might sample just a small taste of each dish and other times, a caterer will provide an entire meal. Ask whether the tasting is complimentary; some companies charge a fee. Expect to spend at least an hour eating and asking questions. Don't be afraid to discuss your budget constraints. Professional caterers offer creative solutions and know what tastes good and holds well. A real pro can plan a menu that meets your needs and pleases your guests.

A new condo may be your very first home, a vacation home, or a place to live after downsizing from a larger house. The two main questions people have about condominiums are about living in such close proximity to others and understanding the homeowners’ association rules.

Make sure you review all the fine print in the CC&Rs, (codes, covenants and restrictions) which cover everything from whether you can have pets to where you can park your car at night. Talk to people who already live there about the community and what they like and don’t like. Inspect the models for quality throughout (sloppy paint, ill-fitting trim) and ask if the builder had a third party inspection done. If not, talk to the county building inspector to get learn more about the builder’s quality of construction.

It’s not unusual for families to look at assisted living communities after spending the holidays with an elderly relative.  Many of these facilities facility receive calls after the new year and every family should take the time to look at several places before making a decision.

Evaluate the “little things” during your visit. Many tours are designed to show you the best features of the building. Attention to detail matters.  Is there a friendly atmosphere about the community? Is there happy eye contact from staff?  Do the residents seem well cared for?  Ask how the community helps residents maintain an independent life-style while getting help with daily needs. Is there a nurse on staff every day to oversee and troubleshoot resident needs?  Finally, families should expect administrators and other staff to be available should they wish to discuss their loved one.

It’s not unusual for families to look at assisted living communities after spending the holidays with an elderly relative.  Many of these facilities facility receive calls after the new year and every family should take the time to look at several places before making a decision.

Evaluate the “little things” during your visit. Many tours are designed to show you the best features of the building. Attention to detail matters.  Is there a friendly atmosphere about the community? Is there happy eye contact from staff?  Do the residents seem well cared for?  Ask how the community helps residents maintain an independent life-style while getting help with daily needs. Is there a nurse on staff every day to oversee and troubleshoot resident needs?  Finally, families should expect administrators and other staff to be available should they wish to discuss their loved one.

Deep-fried turkey has won many devotees over recent years. But deep-frying is a potentially hazardous process that can result in burns and fires. To see exactly what can happen when dunking a large bird in a big vat of hot oil, watch the cautionary video posted to YouTube. If that doesn’t dissuade you, at least follow the safety tips offered by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), which tests and certifies products for public safety. (UL has not certified any turkey fryer as safe.)

For a much safer Thanksgiving, go retro and cook your turkey in the oven, just like mom used to do.

When was the last time you talked to your insurance agent about your homeowner’s policy? Some agents, like Jim Russo, Sr., with State Farm Insurance, a Diamond Certified company, check in with customers right around the time their policies are up for renewal. This is when you can review your coverage, let the agent know about changes, and learn about new products and services.

With an annual review, you might find out that you may qualify for a discount on your premium. For example, if you have upgraded your electrical system, added an alarm system, or increase your deductible, you might see your premium reduced. The biggest discounts are available to people who carry multiple lines of insurance with the same company (car, home, umbrella), so be sure to ask about that. Mr. Russo says other new endorsements now available include a personal injury endorsement for a non-physical injury, and identity theft protection.

You may not think too much about backing up data until the day comes when your hard drive crashes. That’s when I got the wake-up call, thinking I had lost everything – photos, work documents, records, letters, music. Rick Sutherland, owner of ClickAway, a Diamond Certified company, says most people are like me and don’t realize how easy back up is, and how expensive data recovery can be.

To back up data, some people use an external hard drive, where data is put onto another disc and stored in a safety deposit box, or somewhere else outside your home. You can also use an automatic on-line back up service, which is especially useful for saving data on a daily basis. The simplest method is not very expensive. You buy a 2 GB flash drive for less than $20 and a fireproof box to store it in. This small investment insures your data will be safe and sound.

Choosing the least expensive bid from a contractor is not always a wise strategy. You could end up being the star of a contractor horror story. Matthew W. Johnson, General Contractor, a Diamond Certified company, hears these sad stories all the time and says you can usually avoid big problems by looking for red flags.

Some low-balling contractors bid jobs lower than their cost. You might be tempted by the price. Once they get into the job, they start adding on the extras, hire unskilled labor, take their sweet time completing the job (because they’re taking a loss) or simply walk away from a partially completed job. Diamond Certified contractors have had their licenses checked and credentials verified by American Ratings Corporation. A large random sample of past customers are surveyed and only top-rated contractors in your area are awarded the prestigious Diamond Certified symbol.

It’s one of the biggest furniture investments you’re going to make, so take your time when choosing a new sofa. Our Diamond Certified expert Craig Kohler with Artesanias Unique Home Furnishings says the biggest mistakes people make are on the depth of the seat and the overall size. Seeing a sofa in a large retail space may throw off your sense of how big it really is.

Look at your traffic flow and where you’re going to place the sofa first. Think about how you will be using the sofa, so you can balance style and comfort. Will you be sitting and reading with your feet on the floor, or lying down to watch TV? This will affect your choices on size and cushions. To evaluate quality, examine the stitching, grab the back of the sofa to check on the padding and pick up the front corner, a sofa’s weakest point, to check for strength.

The answer may be yes, and it may be no. According to Frans Cartwright, owner of Better Water Heaters a Diamond Certified company, you should either flush your water heater regularly (once a year) OR don’t do it at all.  Here’s why. Sediment builds up and calcifies over time. This makes the water heater less efficient and shortens its life. Regular flushing clears the sediment and prevents build-up. If you haven’t bothered to do the maintenance regularly, you won’t be able to wash out the calcified material and may do more harm than good.

To flush out a water heater, attach a garden hose to the drain valve, leaving your water and gas on. Open the drain valve for 2 to 3 minutes, and then simply shut off the valve. No special product is needed, just your garden hose. If your drain valve is plastic, handle gently so not to break.

Before you know it, you’ll be making your to-do list and shopping list for Thanksgiving. One item to add to the list is to clean your oven well in advance of the holiday season. This advice is coming from Diamond Certified’s appliance experts, Paul Gwilliam and Chris Wilhelmsen, co-owners of Asien’s Appliance, Inc.  They get overwhelmed with service calls Thanksgiving week from people who’ve used the self-cleaning feature on their ovens.

When you use the self-cleaning function of your oven, the temperature heats up to 800-900 degrees for a few hours. The high heat might trip the safety thermostat, which can cause the oven to shut down. The door may lock shut or the oven may not heat up at all when this happens. You could also set off smoke alarms. Asien’s recommendation is to do your oven cleaning well in advance of the holiday, so that if something goes wrong, you won’t be scrambling to get an appliance repair done during one of the busiest weeks of the year. 

Consumer experts like Laurel Pallock with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Consumer Mediation Department say the New Year is a good time to take stock and re-organize your consumer affairs.  Ms. Pallock gets you started with her top 5 tips.

  • Get a free copy of your credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com.
  • Use your gift cards as soon as possible.
  • Make a copy of everything in your wallet. Copy both sides if necessary. Put copies in a safe place.
  • Create a list of all your passwords and store it in an unusual spot. Give the file a title that is NOT “Passwords.”

Check for hidden fees on everything from your bank account, credit cards, TV, telephone and Internet. Challenge questionable ones and switch to providers when possible that clearly disclose all fees clearly and upfront.

I will have more consumer tips from Laurel and other experts throughout the year on Twitter @asavvyconsumer.