Savvy Consumer Tips

You’d be surprised how attractive some of the new grab bars for bathrooms can be. “Grab bars are available in many colors, shapes and sizes, so you don’t always have to settle for the plain, institutional-looking ones,” says David Cook, President of Cook’s Kitchen and Bath, Inc., a Diamond Certified company. “There are many different finishes and shapes. You can even match them to your existing faucet and shower valves.”

Mr. Cook says you should install a grab bar right where you step into the bathtub and then put one on the opposing wall, so if you slip or lose balance, you have something to hold on to. Grab bars should be at the right height for the person using them, so to get the job done properly, have a professional install them. Also, there are various anchors available for different materials that ensure your grab bars have the proper load bearing.

I’m embarrassed to admit that all I have in my trunk right now is a pair of jumper cables, an extra pair of tennis shoes and a blanket. According to an article in Consumer Reports magazine, my car should be outfitted with a lot more than that to handle emergencies. Here’s what they recommend: hazard triangles, a flashlight, a tow rope, duct tape for emergency repairs, a small shovel and a bag of sand (to get traction if your wheels are spinning), a road assistance membership card, a windshield scraper and hand warmers (if you live where it gets cold).

Based on decades of driving, I think I’d add a rain slicker, a gallon of water and, most important, a first-aid kit. I also like to carry a few extra quarts of oil. Looks like I have some shopping to do!

Jim Donovan, President of Donovan’s Pest Control, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, says to start this process by identifying what a pest is to you. Not every living organism is truly a pest, so know what your “pest threshold” is. Next, consider what action to take if the pest is harmful to you and your home. The idea is, according to Mr. Donovan, to eliminate food sources, water and shelter for the pests.

Your options range from keeping all food stored in containers to sealing off cracks and holes with caulking material to using a mechanical device like the Bug Vac, which electrocutes bugs on contact. Other effective measures include bait, pheromones and natural pesticides such as clove oil and mint oil where placement is key. A good source for more information is the book Common Sense Pest Control: Least-Toxic Solutions for Your Home, Garden, Pets and Community.

I will be the first to admit that I have never thought twice about throwing any and all pre-approved credit card solicitations into the trash. David Rhoads, Vice President of SureShred, a Diamond Certified company, warns against being so careless. He says that identity thieves can easily take these offers from the garbage, change the return address, sign it and get a credit card in your name.

This can be just the beginning of your troubles. Once you put something in the trash, it is considered public property and anyone can sift through it. Besides pre-approved credit card ads, you should also destroy credit card and bank statements, driver's license renewal forms, hospital bills, old tax returns, and anything that has your social security number on it.

Never use the cruise control on your car in bad weather. That advice is coming from Augie Barone, Service Writer for a Diamond Certified company. What can happen is that traction control systems will not work in some vehicles when the cruise control is on. If you have to make a sudden stop, you might panic and slam on the brakes, which is the wrong thing to do. When you're dealing with wet or icy pavement, it's better to ease up on the accelerator and back off the throttle gradually.

That isn't an option if the cruise control is on because you have to touch the brake pedal to disengage cruise control. It's best to use the cruising feature in good weather when you're traveling at high speed for long distances.

The window covering industry is making a national push this month to urge parents with young children and grandparents to repair or replace their older corded blinds and shades with safer products. Keeping kids safe is the number one priority. Since 1994, the Window Covering Safety Council has worked with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to address child strangulation concerns.

Ms. Lloyd recommends that cords made before 2001 be replaced with new updated products with safety features like permanently attached tie-downs. Many older blinds and shades have cords you can retrofit to reduce strangulation hazards.

A blind spot is literally that — the area you can't see when backing up your car. Parents have run over their own young children because they ran behind the car and couldn't be seen. Some cars' blind spots are huge, 6 feet wide and 50 feet long, according to Janette Fennell, Founder and President of the non-profit group Kids and Cars. The taller, longer and wider a car is, the more trouble you'll have with blind spots, increasing the chances someone could get hurt.

Besides taking precautions such as making sure you know where your kids are before you move a vehicle or having another adult supervise children at that time, Ms. Fennell says new technology can save lives too. Many new cars have rear sensors with warning signals or video cameras, which are like having eyes in the back of your head. Older cars can be retrofitted with either one or both of these options.

Criminals now are breaking into homes and buildings by unlocking doors through a method called lock bumping or key bumping. According to Joe Schoepp, owner of Crown Lock and Safe, a Diamond Certified company, about 90% of all locks can be opened by hand-filing a blank key, inserting it into the lock and then knocking it (or bumping it) with the head of a screwdriver or piece of wood. The tapping eventually unlocks the lock.

Mr. Schoepp suggests a number of ways to safeguard your property. First, you can buy "bump-proof" locks such as those made by Medeco. These high security locks also prevent unauthorized key duplication. Another suggestion is to add a non-keyed lock to the inside of your doors for when you are home. Finally, if you only use a door for exiting, you can fill the keyhole with glue. Use clear silicone glue, so the lock is not permanently disabled.

Surveillance systems for homes and businesses are very popular because they are effective crime deterrents. Sammy Sze, manager of Cypress Video Surveillance Systems, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, suggests that if you just want to keep an eye on your own kids and pets, all you need is an inexpensive do-it-yourself (DIY) system. A typical DIY system includes 4 identical cameras, a monitor, and an optional recorder.

However, for security applications against vandalism, thefts, burglaries, and trespassing, professional-grade equipment is required. Trained surveillance specialists can advise you how to secure your property by making the right choices on the number and model of cameras, installation locations and camera angles. A word of caution - some locksmiths, phone installers and other companies may pose as surveillance experts and merely sell you low-quality DIY systems. If you're making a significant investment, make sure you find a specialized surveillance company.

Teenage drivers are at higher risk than other drivers. That’s why they’re required to take driver’s education, including behind the wheel training and they must be monitored and tested.  Safety experts believe in involving parents from the beginning by inviting them to ride along for the driving lessons. They can see for themselves what and how the teen is learning, and this helps with continuity and consistency when the parents monitor practice sessions.

A good driving teacher shows parents not only how to communicate with their teens, but specifically explains what it means to be proactive in preventing automobile crashes. He shows them how not to overwhelm students by putting them beyond their skill level when practicing. Some families draft a parent-teenager agreement; it might include rules about night driving, number of passengers and cell phones. Another tip — set a good example by always being a good driver yourself.

Most people don’t think about getting a fireproof or burglarproof safe until they’ve been victims. Joe Schoepp, owner of Crown Lock & Safe, a Diamond Certified company, says a small investment of a few hundred dollars can save you all the hassle of replacing priceless possessions, important papers, and even valuable computer data.

You can buy a safe with a spin dial, or one that opens with an electronic code. The latest systems use biometrics, which means you can unlock the safe with your own fingerprint. Safes are given a one-hour or two-hour fire rating to let you know how long the items inside will be protected.  It’s up to you to assess your threat level, which mostly depends on how quickly you think the fire department will answer your call. No matter what kind of safe you choose, make sure you bolt it down. Many people forget to do that.

Washing the car typically uses many gallons of water and sends toxic runoff into storm drains and, ultimately, lakes and streams. Products such as Lucky Earth Waterless Car Wash not only save water, they get cars shiny again with no runoff. A no-rinse product from Eco Car Care requires only a couple of gallons of water, to dilute the cleanser. And though Simple Green’s car wash solution requires a full rinse, the sudsy runoff won’t harm lawns or other greenery.

A gift card can be the perfect gift for graduation or any occasion—if you protect yourself from a variety of scams that leave gift card recipients with little more than a colorful piece of plastic.

Before you buy a card, inspect it to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with and that the PIN, if there is one, is still hidden under the protective, scratch-off coating. And beware of using one of the online card exchange services that allow visitors to buy, sell or trade gift cards. The opportunity to pay less than the face value of the card may be tempting, but there have been cases of buyers receiving stolen, expired or counterfeit cards. If you want to buy a gift card online, reduce your risk of hacking by buying only through a secure Web site. Of course, the only way to shop truly risk free is to buy gifts at a store.

ScamBusters offers more information about gift card scams, as well as tips for protecting yourself.

When the doorbell rings, it’s not always the Avon lady. Be on the alert for scams involving unscrupulous contractors who come to your home uninvited. In some cases, the unethical contractor does a job for a neighbor and then goes door to door collecting deposits for jobs he never intends to start. In other cases, the dishonest contractor says he’s offering free inspections. Not surprisingly, he finds something seriously wrong with every property he inspects. Then he offers to make the unneeded repairs at what he says is a bargain price because he’s doing a number of homes in the neighborhood.

The safe way to handle home repairs and improvements is to determine what you want to have done and then contact one or more contractors you choose from a list of ethical contractors. The best place to start your contractor search is in the Diamond Certified directory.

According to the Mesothelioma & Asbestos Awareness Center, nearly 80% of structures built before 1980 contain some asbestos. The material can become a hazard when asbestos-containing building components such as floor and ceiling tiles, insulation, and drywall are damaged during remodeling or as the result of a fire, flood or earthquake.
 
Avoid asbestos exposure by hiring qualified professionals to remove it or repair the damage. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides information about when asbestos can become a hazard and what homeowners should know about hiring an inspector or contractor. Read the EPA’s advice and then search for a reputable professional in the Diamond Certified directory.

The recent California fires serve as a reminder that a disaster can strike at any time. To avoid losing your important papers if you have to make a quick exit, take the time now to protect them.
 
Rules of thumb for protecting your papers: Have everything in at least two places. And concentrate on duplicating and protecting those items that you would need access to immediately, or that would be difficult or impossible to replace.
 
Keep one set of papers in a lockable, fireproof box at home. It should be lightweight enough that you could easily carry it out of the house if you needed to evacuate. Of course, if your home becomes inaccessible while you’re away, you won’t be able to reach the box. So keep another set of papers off-site, with a friend or relative out of the area, for example.
 
Or use a few tech tools to make back-up and storage even easier. Use a scanner to convert documents to PDFs (electronic files) and then upload them to your personal Web space. Or, copy them onto a USB flash drive that is small enough to fit inside your pocket or on your keychain. Be sure to get one that offers password protection, though, in case you lose it.

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—so, a seven-character password is stronger than one that has only five characters, but not as strong as one with 12 characters.

When creating a password, don’t use personal information such as your birth date or dog’s name. And 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.

Learn more about password dos & don’ts, and how to keep track of your codes, from ConsumerReports.org and Microsoft.com.

If you hire an incompetent contractor to tile your bathroom, you could end up with a big mess. Monica Beverly, owner of Santa Cruz Tile and Stone, a Diamond Certified company, says to re-do a job can cost thousands of dollars more because of all the water damage that may occur.

On a bad install, the shower pan may not be waterproofed, resulting in leaks through walls, floors and ceilings. Tiles might be crooked, not cut correctly, not flat, and not set with the right adhesive. If tiles are installed on an incorrect surface in a kitchen, tiles could start moving and the grout will fall out. To avoid making an expensive mistake, hire a licensed tile contractor with a known track record. Monica specifically recommends asking the bidding company for references from people who had work done a few years ago. A well-done tile job will stand the test of time.

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.

Financial institutions have tightened their lending criteria, which makes having a good credit score more important than ever. The higher your score, the more likely your request for credit will be approved. And consumers with higher credit scores typically pay lower interest rates.
Here are some tips for increasing your score:

  • Pay your bills on time.
  • Make up any past-due payments.
  • Keep the outstanding balance on any credit account at less than 50% of your available credit line.
  • Don’t open a lot of new credit accounts in a short period.
  • Don’t close older, unused accounts—your credit history will appear shorter and your outstanding debt will increase relative to your available credit. 

Though there are many different credit scoring systems, the most widely used is the FICO score, named for the company that developed it. Learn more about credit scores and how to improve yours at www.myFICO.com.

A gift card may seem like the perfect present, but you should know that many carry monthly inactivity or maintenance fees, and some even expire. This is particularly true for bank cards—those that carry the Visa, MasterCard, Discover or American Express logo and can be used at any establishment that accepts those brands. Bank card maintenance fees typically range from about one dollar to as much as five dollars per month and can start as soon as six months after purchase. Expiration dates range from about six months to about 42 months, at which time you’ll have to request a new card or a refund by check—and there are fees for those!

The consumer protection office of Montgomery County, Maryland, publishes an annual gift card report that includes information about fees, policies and expiration dates on many popular gift cards. You can also contact the issuer for information about your particular gift card

As a San Francisco Bay Area resident, you’re probably well prepared for an earthquake. 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? Email us your suggestions, and we’ll share some of them in the next issue of the Diamond Certified Consumer Report.

Following its investigation into air bag fraud, NPR (National Public Radio) is warning consumers that some car air bags are not being replaced after they’ve been deployed. In some cases, consumers unknowingly purchase a used car with no air bags. In other cases, car owners who have been in an accident receive their car back from the repair shop without new air bags installed.

The motivation for air bag fraud is, of course, money. Air bags can cost between $1,000 and $3,000. Crooked car sellers increase their profit on a used car by not replacing deployed air bags. Bad body shops make money by billing the customer or insurance company for an air bag they order but then return to the manufacturer for a refund. The typical driver can’t tell if an air bag has been replaced or not.

Here are some ways to protect yourself against air bag fraud:

  • Patronize only reputable auto sellers, mechanics and body shops. Get referrals from people you know and trust, and check the business’s complaint history.
  • If you have any doubts, get a second opinion.
  • Before you purchase a used car, consider using a service such as CARFAX to find out if the vehicle has been in an accident or sustained other damage. (Next year, you’ll be able to access a U.S. Justice Department database that provides information about cars that have been damaged in floods or totaled.)
  • Be suspicious if your car’s air bag light is on or if the seat belts don’t retract normally. Have a trusted mechanic or body shop technician check the car out.
  • Look for small tears and other signs of air bag deployment or tampering around the steering wheel and dashboard.
  • Report a suspected offender to the state attorney general, the state insurance department (if the air bag fraud was committed as part of an insurance claim), consumer protection agencies, and any other enforcement agency you think should know.

In California, air bag fraudsters face up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Here’s what every homeowner needs to know about asbestos removal in California, according to Scott Tamayo from Environmental Remedies, Inc., a Diamond Certified company. Cal/OSHA operates under a legislative mandate to register contractors and other employers who perform asbestos-related work. Anyone who removes more than 100 sq. ft. of asbestos containing materials must be registered with Cal/OSHA. If the materials are less than 100 sq. ft., by law, homeowners can remove the materials themselves.

However, homeowners and a surprisingly high number of contractors are misinterpreting this mandate while putting themselves, customers, employees, and the public at risk. These homeowners are incorrectly assuming that because they can legally perform the removal without certification, they don’t have to follow the numerous regulations. By taking on such a project, homeowners are taking on the liability normally assumed by a professional abatement firm. Improper handling of asbestos-containing materials can lead to costly clean-ups, potential criminal charges, and fines.