Savvy Consumer Tips

You might be thrilled to hear that a roofing company is offering a lifetime warranty on its shingles or other roofing materials. But what’s in the fine print? David Imhof, manager of Bay 101 Roofing, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, says consumers are often shocked to find out that some warranties can be voided. “Most roofing warranties are only valid if they’re installed on a ‘clean deck installation,’ which means there are no layers of material underneath the one that’s being installed.”

Mr. Imhof says another pitfall is when the lifetime warranty isn’t honored unless you use a qualified installer. “The only way to get a non-prorated warranty that fully covers the entire roofing system, including labor, is to use a company that’s been factory certified. Non-certified companies can’t offer these warranties.” So, before you agree to a lifetime roofing warranty, ask lots of questions and get out your magnifying glass for the fine print.

In 1974, a law was passed to protect California consumers who were pressured into signing contracts with pushy and unrelenting salespeople. The 3-day “cooling off” period allows you to cancel some contracts signed in California by midnight of the third business day. According to Laurel Pallock from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Mediation Unit, “This has to be in writing in the contract and explained to you in advance of signing. You just tear off the form and send it back to the company, saying you want out.”

Here are some types of contracts covered by the law: dental services, job listing services, home solicitation sales, employment counseling services, home improvement agreements, discount buying services, dating services and door-to-door sales contracts. Note that there is no statutory cancellation period for automobile sales or leases. Learn more about your cancellation rights at the Department of Consumer Affairs website: www.dca.ca.gov.

Here’s something a lot of California drivers don’t know: The Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR) has an auto body inspection program that isn’t widely advertised due to budget constraints. Bureau Chief Sherry Mehl told me she initiated this service to help consumers determine if they were getting the auto body work they paid for.

How does the program work? First, you contact the BAR (866-799-3811) after your body work is completed to set up an appointment. A field investigator will come to your home or office to check your invoice against the actual repairs performed. BAR investigators want to know if things like bonding and painting were done properly, and they also check to see if new parts were installed rather than used parts. In most cases, Ms. Mehl says her investigators don’t find any problems, but if they do, BAR will open an investigation and/or mediate on behalf of the consumer.

If you've had an accident and you need to have your damaged vehicle repaired it is your legal right to choose where the repair work is done. Robin Miller, owner of Livermore Collision Center, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, says your insurance company cannot suggest, recommend, force you or even mention that you take your vehicle to their designated body shop for any reason, unless you first ask for a recommendation. Many repair facilities work with all insurance companies and some offer insurance deductible discounts.

The California Motorists Bill of Rights was added to the Insurance Code in 2004. If an insurance company forces you to use one of their shops, they are in violation of the regulations. The insurer must also inform claimants of the right to select the repair dealer of their choice, in writing. Violations still occur, according to Ms. Miller, but are less likely if consumers know their rights ahead of time.

Last year, I violated one of my own cardinal rules for getting customer satisfaction. I did not take my complaint to the top. I had complained about a defective bathing suit both by phone and in writing. The company wanted the suit back, but after several more calls, the rep claimed it never arrived. Did I insure it? Why would I insure a damaged suit? I went away very dissatisfied. A month ago, I attended a conference where the same bathing suits were on display. While looking around, I decided that I would tell the salesperson my sad story. He listened and within minutes, insisted on giving me $50 worth of merchandise. What I didn't know until afterwards was I had taken my complaint to the next level. I discovered that the president of the company had been waiting on me. In no time, he restored my faith in the complaint process.

When you've had a car accident, one of the first calls you'll probably make is to your insurance company. Typically, if your car needs repairs, the insurance company will give you a list of approved shops, and most people assume they have to go to one of the companies on that list. According to a General Manager of Bay Area Diamond Certified company, that is not the case. You have the right to bring your vehicle to the body shop of your choice, even a dealership if that's whom you prefer.

You are also not required to get three estimates. One is enough. If the insurer thinks the estimate for bodywork is too high, then the final price is negotiated between the shop and the insurance company. And one final note, don't forget to report any accident involving $750 or more in damage to either party to the Department of Motor Vehicles. It's state law

Someone is sending around a misleading e-mail again that is confusing thousands of us. The message warns that as of July 2003, major credit bureaus will be allowed to release your credit information to anyone who asks for it. This is not correct, according to Beth Givens at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. However, the message is partially correct when it suggests you can call a toll free number, 888-567-8688, to opt out of having your credit information sold for marketing solicitations.

Two federal laws are being confused here. A 2001 law requires financial institutions to notify you of their privacy policies and offer you the chance to refuse to let them share your credit information with third parties. No toll free number exists for that. The other law does require credit bureaus to provide an opt-out opportunity to consumers who specifically don't want to receive pre-approved credit card offers. To add your name to that list, call 1 (888) 567-8688. The July deadline mentioned in the misleading e-mails does not apply.

It's always a good idea to compare a number of health clubs before deciding which one's right for you. The salespeople who show you the facilities are often eager to sign you up for a plan, and if you get pressured into a contract and then have second thoughts, California law offers you some protections.

According to Department of Consumer Affairs spokesman Miles Bristow, consumers have up until midnight of the fifth business day to cancel a health club contract. Sundays and holidays do not count as business days. Your cancellation notice must be done in writing, preferably by certified mail, return receipt requested. Mr. Bristow also notes you even have longer to cancel expensive memberships - 20 days for contracts totaling $1,500-$2,000, 30 days for those ranging from $2,001-$2,500, and 45 days for any agreement costing $2,501 or more. Once your cancellation is received, the club must issue a refund within 10 days.

Each year, the production of junk mail in the U.S. uses more than 100 million trees and produces emissions equal to 3.7 million cars. To end the waste, ForestEthics has launched a campaign for a Do Not Mail Registry, similar to the popular Do Not Call Registry that curbs unwanted telemarketing calls.

Until the registry becomes a reality, take matters into your own hands. Download a Junk Mail Kit, produced by the Bay Area Recycling Outreach Coalition, and follow the steps to stop unwelcome mail. Cancel catalogs with the help of Catalog Choice.

No time to stop junk mail yourself? GreenDimes, a Palo Alto company, will get your name off mailing lists for a small fee. And, they plant five trees for every new customer!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

For many of us, our computer is much more than a tool for surfing the Internet or sending email. It holds our most precious photos, our tax returns and other confidential data, a painstakingly assembled music library, and important work and personal files. While it’s important to choose any service provider carefully, choosing a computer repair company may warrant extra diligence. At least that’s what one consumer realized after a disappointing experience with a non-Diamond Certified company. Here, she shares some of her tips for choosing a qualified, dependable computer repair service.

  • Check out the repair company. Confirm they are in good standing with local consumer protection agencies and request references.
  • Be clear about the services to be performed, such as diagnostics, optimization, hardware or software installation, cleaning, and malware scan and removal.
  • Make sure all terms and conditions of service are clear and reasonable.
  • Understand the estimated repair time and cost. Agree on a procedure for the service to provide the diagnosis and for you to authorize (or not) the recommended service.
  • Back up all files before you leave your computer with the repair company.
  • Record the registration number of your hard drive in case you need to use it for identification.
  • Ask how your computer will be stored and how the hard drive will be protected and identified as yours. (In an earthquake, your computer could fall to the floor, and a removed hard drive could get mixed up with others.