Lauren Oak had a scary encounter with the IRS scam. Click for her story.

Lauren Oak had a scary encounter with the IRS scam. Click for her story.

Health care billing issues, IRS impostor scams and student loan consolidators were among the biggest consumer headaches last year, joining more familiar complaints about identity theft, home repair and debt collection. The definitive survey of consumer gripes, which includes data from 37 agencies in 21 states, was released Wednesday by the Consumer Federation of America. Together, they shared 282,000 complaints with the consumer advocacy group. As was the case last year, auto sales and repairs attracted the most complaints, but debt collection issues were rated the most serious problem by the consumer agencies.

The Consumer Federation of America’s top 10 list is full of old standards like landlord/tenant disputes and bogus sweepstakes or auto sales and repair. But a number of new issues cropped up in the complaint data, and consumers should be most wary of growing questionable practices:

  • “Curbstoning,” in which small auto dealers try to pass off used car deals as private sales
  • The tech repair scam, in which consumers are called by telemarketers claiming the victim’s PC has a virus
  • The phone IRS agency scam, in which a caller threatens the victim with arrest for alleged unpaid taxes
  • Student loan consolidation offers
  • Solar power installation promising rebates that consumers don’t qualify for

The fastest-growing complaint on the list was identity theft, no doubt in part because of all the high-profile hacking incidents during the past year.

(This story first appeared on Read it there.)

“Considering the epidemic of data breaches that we’ve been experiencing in the last year, it’s not surprising that more consumers are contacting state or local consumer agencies for help to resolve the problems that identity theft can cause,” said Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at CFA.

When CFA asked agencies to describe their “worst” complaints, based on the dollar amount involved or the impact on consumers, debt collection was ranked first, followed by immigration service scams, do not call violations, door-to-door sales and used car sales.

“One consumer received an email with what appeared to be an arrest warrant from the United States District Court and stating ‘In the Matter of Arrest for NON-PAID LOAN AND CHEQUE FRAUD,’“ the CFA said. The letter demanded a $3,783 payment. “Courts do not send warrants by email, and the word ‘cheque’ is another red flag of fraud; that is how ‘check’ is spelled in Canada, where many scammers that target U.S consumers are located.”

Bogus offers of help for those with credit trouble remained a big concern, such as foreclosure assistance requiring up-front fees. One example shared by the Los Angeles Department of Consumer and Business affairs was particularly egregious.

“The homeowners paid a ‘foreclosure consultant’ $7,950 but, despite the consultant’s constant assurances that he was working with the lender to get the loan modified and stop the foreclosure, he didn’t actually perform any work,” the report said. “By the time the homeowners contacted the agency for help, the property had already been sold at auction.”

The other major growth area for complaints involved health care billing disputes, the CFA said. Many of those issues involved disputes between insurance companies and health care providers that ultimately hurt consumers – such as one case involving 40 speech therapy visits for a child that was supposed to be covered by insurance, but wasn’t. The victim consumer ended up with a $9,000 bill and, four years later, ruined credit, until the Georgia Department of Law’s Consumer Protection Unit intervened.

“Access to justice is an important principle in the United States,” Grant said. “State and local consumer agencies help consumers obtain justice by educating them about their rights and how to assert them, providing mediation services to resolve complaints and, in some cases, taking formal action to right wrongs in the marketplace.”

Top 2014 top 10 complaints (last year’s ranking)

  1. Auto (1)– Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes.
  2. Home Improvement/Construction (2) — Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job.
  3. Credit/Debt (3) — Billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt relief services, predatory lending, illegal or abusive debt collection tactics.
  4. (Tie) Retail Sales (4) False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver; and Utilities (6) Service problems or billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas service.
  5. Services (5) Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, failure to perform.
  6. Landlord/Tenant (7) Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics.
  7. Home Solicitations (8) Misrepresentations or failure to deliver in door-to-door, telemarketing or mail solicitations, do-not-call violations.
  8. (Tie) Health Products/Services (9) misleading claims; unlicensed practitioners; failure to deliver; Internet Sales (8) Misrepresentations or other deceptive practices, failure to deliver online purchases.
  9. Fraud (10) Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, imposter scams and other common frauds.
  10. Household Goods (not in top ten last year) Misrepresentations, failure to deliver, faulty repairs in connection with furniture or appliances.

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How much might this credit card cost you? Hard to say

How much might this credit card cost you? Hard to say

Want a fancy new Macbook but don’t have the cash for it right now?  Don’t worry, Apple offers two ways to finance the purchase — PayPal Credit or Barclaycard Visa (with points!).

As you might imagine, I don’t think buying a computer on new credit isn’t the greatest idea. If you are doing so, it’s almost certainly because you don’t have enough credit already via a credit card. But there might be some exceptional circumstances where it makes sense. If you feel you must, pay careful attention to the details.  I’m not a fan of the disclosures.

Apple fans might be tempted by this card for two reasons. The card offers points (triple points!) on Apple purchases, which can add up to free Apple Store gift cards. And the card offers interest-free credit if paid off during the promotional period. But….

Like all these old “same-as-cash” deals, there’s a big trap in the Apple offer.  Interest does accumulate during the promotional period, and if you fail to pay the balance off in full, you’ll owe a big chunk of money.  So, for example, if you buy a $1,200 MacBook Air today, you get 18 months to pay that off. If you don’t pay every last cent by January 2017, you’ll owe a lot of interest to the Barclays folks.  As an added trap door, there’s a second way all that interest kicks in — if you make any late payments during the entire 18 months.

How much interest?  I can’t tell you. Maybe $50, maybe  $500?  Just a guess. In fact, it’s pretty darn hard to find out what the interest rate *might* be. Let me take you through the clickstream.

When you navigate to a laptop at, you are presented with the full price and an “as low as” price, hawking the financing options.  In the example above, users are quoted “$1,199.00 / From only $57.57 for 24 months*”  Click on the finance option, and you arrive at a page offering a PayPal Credit payment calculator or the Barclaycard option. If you are curious how much that costs or how the deal works, you might be inclined to click on “see terms and conditions for details. Learn more about financing with the Barclaycard Visa with Apple Rewards.”  Once there, you see a frequently asked questions page on Barclays servers. Fourteen questions down — 14! — you’ll see “What is the annual percentage rate?”

A: N/A

You can’t see it, at least not there. Here’s the answer you get: “Please see the Terms and Conditions for Annual Percentage Rates available to new applicants.”

OK, so back a page.  Armed with no information about potential financing costs, the would-be buyer’s only option is to click on “Apply Now.”  After doing so, you’ll see a gleaming silver Apple Rewards card image, a big form to fill out and….after scrolling through all that, you’ll see “Legal Terms and Conditions.”  And in that section, you’ll see a chart that finally says:

“Annual percentage rate for purchases: 13.99%, 19.99% or 26.99%, based on your credit worthiness. This APR will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate.” (There’s also a link to a pop-up with that information closer to the top of the page under the words “Learn about financing at Apple.”  I missed it on first reading).

Might as well say 0-30 percent.  Not very helpful.

But, also perfectly legal, according to Chi Chi Wu, a lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center.

There’s two obvious problems with the Apple / Barclay disclosures. First, it shouldn’t be so hard to find the APR. And second, what good is a huge range of APRs when a consumer is trying to shop around for the best deal? Remember, the mere act of applying for a credit card hurts your credit, so you can’t just apply for a card, decide it’s a bad deal, and move on harmlessly.

Let’s take them one at a time. First, the location of the APR disclosure.

“The disclosures only need to be with the application or solicitation.  So if you can find them easily when you start applying, I think that probably would be compliant,” Wu said.

On the other hand, the use of APR ranges is something the NCLC is trying to change.  It sent a letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in May requesting an update to credit disclosure rules.

“One of the fundamental problems with credit card disclosures is that they simply do not provide adequate information about the APR for consumers who are comparison shopping,” the letter reads.”We encourage the CFPB to require disclosure of a single APR, not a range of APRs or multiple APRs, when it is feasible to do so.”

Naturally, it’s not feasible for Barclaycard — or any credit card issuer — to give a specific rate to a generic Internet shopper, as the rates are based on personal characteristics.  But even conceding that, the Apple / Barclaycard has an incredibly wide range. Even in the example cited by the NCLC, the range is a far narrower 8.99% to 19.99%. (By the way, this matter a lot.  On balance of $1,000, that’s an annual difference of over $100 in interest, the NCLC points out. Closer to $150 if you’re talking about an 18-month deferred interest deal, and closer to $200 if you span the gap on the Apple application).

The NCLC points out that, even in the challenging Internet shopper scenario, it’s possible for shoppers to get a better APR warning.

“For applications over the Internet or mobile applications, issuers should be required to provide a pop-up after the consumer submits his or her personal information, but before the application is approved, that provides APR information, i.e., a pop-up that says: Your APR will be 19.9%. Do you wish to accept this offer?’ ” the NCLC writes.

So, back to my original proposition. Let me stress that Apple and Barclaycard aren’t doing anything that some other credit card issuers and retailers don’t do.  The problem is Apple’s cache with users, which might nudge someone who otherwise makes rational credit choices to make an irrational one. The writers at make another great point about why this Apple Rewards card is a bad deal — sure, getting points towards Apple products with other purchases sounds great, but that’s a terrible deal when combined with any card designed to carry a balance as part of a deferred interest offer.  New purchases on the card will incur interest charges immediately of 13 percent or more, as they aren’t covered by the deferred interest offer. Those points will be really expensive.

The moral? Just don’t finance a new computer purchase if you don’t have enough credit on your standard credit card that you pay off every month.  If you have to carry a balance for a month or two on that card, it’s not the end of the world. It’s much better than ending up with a new piece of plastic in your wallet that’s full of gotchas.

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JUNE 8, 2007 — Your credit score might be costing you hundreds of dollars each year on your auto insurance, but you’ll never know. It’s a secret. And it looks like it’s going to stay that way.

Consumers took a shot to the gut this week when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that insurers don’t have to tell them when they are paying more for auto insurance because of their credit scores.

Many drivers don’t even realize their credit scores are used in the complex mathematics used to calculate insurance rates. Ditto for most homeowners. But it’s true in most states; credit scores are used to raise rates for some consumers and lower them for others. There’s no way to who is paying more and who is paying less or how much the credit score penalty is because, as I’ve said, it’s a secret.

But Birney Birnbaum, an industry critic who works for the Texas-based Center for Economic Justice, says low scores can actually double some drivers’ rates.

Angry consumers recently sued insurance giants Safeco and Geico disputing this secrecy, and won. A federal appeals court agreed with the trial courts, ruling in both cases that it was unfair to penalize consumers because of their low credit scores without providing notice.

But on Monday, the nation’s top court overruled the appeals court. America’s video replay judges decided the referees on the field got it wrong, and ruled insurers didn’t have to provide such notice after all.

In a not-so-thoughtful analysis, Justice David Souter offered one line of reasoning to rule in favor of insurers: Credit score penalty notices would become so commonplace that they would “go the way of junk mail.” Really, he did write that. See for yourself. (Acrobat required)

Perhaps Souter can afford to ignore mail that indicates he is paying a $200 penalty surcharge on car insurance, but I suspect few Americans would carelessly toss such notes in the trash.

Higher rate, but why?

Here’s what’s going on. In general, when a credit score is used to deny a consumer something — such as a job, an apartment, or a loan — the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the company involved to send a letter called a “notice of adverse action” to the consumer. The law makes sense. Millions of credit reports have errors, owing to sloppy data entry or identity theft. Consumers who are penalized have a right to see the report and check for such costly mistakes.

As the use of credit scores has expanded dramatically, far beyond their initial function of determining credit-worthiness, concerns arose about how the notice of adverse action applies in these other arenas. Often, the notices aren’t sent at all, and that’s wrong. Any time consumers pay a higher rate than they would if they had an ideal credit score, they deserve to know about it.

Birnbaum and others have long argued that consumers should know exactly how much the penalty is, and what the ideal credit score is, so they can check for credit report errors and aim for the ideal score. That was the argument put forth by plaintiffs in the Safeco and Geico cases.

But Geico offered a more tortured, and ultimately more persuasive, argument. It said that it could calculate insurance premiums based on a “neutral” credit score — in other words, what consumers would pay if credit scoring was never used at all. Only consumers who paid more than this “neutral credit score” rate suffered an adverse action and should be notified, the firm argued. The judges agreed.

Souter: There’s a ‘loophole’

Souter admits things still aren’t ideal. For example, the ruling means there will be consumers who pay higher insurance rates because of credit report errors and will never receive notice, he concedes. He even admits the plaintiffs’ assertions that this is a “loophole.” But he said he was more concerned about the threat of adverse action notices flooding America with junk mail.

“We think the cost of closing the loophole is too high,” he wrote.

There is an even bigger loophole, however, that Souter fails to mention: the setting of this “neutral rate.” What will it be? Certainly it won’t be an average credit score. It might even be so low that virtually no consumer receives an adverse action notice.

Justice John Paul Stevens saw it that way and wrote in a separate opinion that he disagreed with the majority’s logic on that point: “I find it difficult to believe that Congress could have intended for a company’s unrestrained adoption of a “neutral” score to keep many (if not most) consumers from ever hearing that the credit reports are costing them money.”

He also poked fun at the rest of the court and its junk mail reasoning: “The court … (reasons) that frequent adverse action notices would be ignored. To borrow a sentence from the court’s opinion: ‘Perhaps.’ But rather than speculate about the likely effect of hypernotification … I would defer to the Solicitor General’s position, informed by the Federal Trade Commission’s expert judgment, that consumers by and large benefit from adverse action notices, however common.”

In this case, our nation’s highest court of referees missed a foul call. The tortured logic of protecting us from junk mail (why start now?) is comical. Allowing insurance companies to set the bar for when adverse notices are sent is akin to giving the fox the keys to the chicken coup.

The ruling is even more discouraging when you consider the ever-expanding universe of credit scores, which are used to judge us in more realms every day. Clearly this ruling emboldens any industry that plans to use credit reports to penalize us and wants to do so in secrecy.

Red Tape Wrestling Tips

• Not all states allow insurance firms to consider credit scores. The practice is banned in California, for example. Call your state legislator and ask him or her to support a ban on the use of credit scores to set insurance rates in your state. Congress could amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act to require more adverse action notices by insurers, but that’s a pipe dream at the moment.

• Your state’s insurance regulators can control the use of credit scores and adverse action notices, says Birnbaum. Contact your board and ask it to do more.

• As with all major purchases, shop around. Get quotes from at least three companies before buying insurance, as each firm uses its own algebra to apply credit scores.

• Before buying home or auto insurance, get your CLUE report. CLUE stands for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange. It’s a massive database used to log claims you make, or claims made in association with any property. Never buy a home without first ordering a CLUE report for that address, as home insurance rates can vary house-by-house, and some homes simply can’t be insured because of a history of claims. CLUE reports are free from the company that maintains the database, ChoicePoint, and are available at ChoicePoint’s consumer Web site.

• Finally, beware notices from insurance companies offering congratulations for a discount you’ve earned thanks to your credit score. Birnbaum says these are often adverse action notices is disguise, offering a small discount from a higher rate.

(Originally published in The Red Tape Chronicles on at this link, now broken.)



However you feel about Tom Brady, the Patriots, and football air pressure, today is a learning moment about cell phones and evidence.  If you think the NFL had no business demanding the quarterback’s personal cell phone — and by extension, that your company has no business demanding to see your cell phone — you’re probably wrong.  In fact, your company may very well find itself legally obligated to take data from your personal cell phone.

Welcome to the wacky world of BYOD — bring your own device.  The intermingling of personal and work data on devices has created a legal mess for corporations that won’t soon be cleared up.  BYOD is a really big deal — nearly three-quarters of all companies now allow workers to connect with personal devices, or plan to soon. For now, you should presume that if you use a personal computer or cell phone to access company files or email, that gadget may very well be subject to discovery requirements.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Anyone who thinks Tom Brady’s alleged destruction of his personal cell phone represents obstruction of justice is falling for the NFL’s misdirection play. That news was obviously leaked on purpose to make folks think Brady is a bad guy. But even he couldn’t be dumb enough to think destruction of a handset was tantamount to destruction of text message evidence. That’s not how things work in the connected world.  The messages might persist on the recipients’ phones and on the carriers’ servers, easily accessible with a court order.  That was just a leak designed to distract people. (And I’m a Giants fan with a fan’s dislike of the Patriots).

But back to the main point: I’ve heard folks say that the NFL had no right to ask Brady to turn over his personal cell phone. “Right” is a vague term here, because we are still really talking about an employment dispute, and I don’t know all the terms of NFL players’ employment contracts.  But here’s what you need to know:

There’s a pretty well-established set of court rulings which hold that employers facing a civil or criminal case must produce data on employees’ personal computers and gadgets if the employer has good reason to believe there might be relevant work data on them. Practically speaking, that can mean taking a phone or a computer away from a worker and making an image of it to preserve any evidence that might possible exist.  That doesn’t give the employer carte blanche to examine everything on the phone, but it does create pretty wide latitude to examine anything that might be relevant to a case. For example: in a workplace discrimination case, lawyers might examine (and surrender) text messages, photos, websites visited, and so on.

It’s not a right, it’s a duty. In fact, when I first examined this issue for NBCNews, Michael R. Overly, a technology law expert in Los Angeles, told me he knew of a case where a company was actually sanctioned by a court for failing to  search BYOD devices during discovery.

“People’s lives revolve around their phone, and they are going to become more and more of a target in litigation,” Overly said then. “Employees really do need to understand that .”

There is really only one way to avoid this perilous state of affairs — use two cell phones, and never mix business with personal.  Even that is a challenge, as the temptation to check work email with a personal phone is great, particularly when cell phone batteries die so frequently.

The moral of the story: the definition of “personal” is shrinking all the time, even if you don’t believe Tom Brady shrank those footballs.

For further reading: here’s a nice summary of caselaw (PDF). 


Click to read on

Click to read on

In all the anecdotes I’ve run across while working on The Restless Project, this simple scene might be the most powerful. And depressing.  It appears in a story I wrote for recently about a gruesome new trend which I’ll call “work-family multitasking.”

“I spoke recently with a gentleman who works for a state government agency and he told me that he is constantly on Twitter on his phone after normal work hours,” said Russell Clayton, a management professor at St. Leo University.  “He told me that in the evening he will use one hand to catch a ball thrown by his toddler son and use his other hand to scroll through Twitter.”

Sure, you can play with a small child while talking with other adults — happens all the time.  We wrote about the five levels of listening in The Plateau Effect. Half-hearing a child’s blabber while chatting with your spouse is on the lower end of the scale, perhaps 1 or 2…empathetic listening to a friend talk about a sick parent is a 5. All these things have a place in time.

But playing catch and following Twitter?  That just means it’s time to call a time out.

The CNBC story wrapped around a new Career Builder survey showing many employees not only bring work home, they mix work and home in a mutlti-tasking mess.  Here’s the lead of the story, but please read the whole piece at


There’s plenty of evidence that the traditional eight-hour workday has gone the way of the cassette tape with many employees routinely staying past 5 p.m. and remotely checking in with the office well into the night. But now an inevitable clash has arisen—what might generously be called “work-family multitasking.”

As professional and personal lives become increasingly intertwined in this always-connected world, workers and their families are struggling to set boundaries.

A CareerBuilder survey released Thursday found 24 percent of knowledge workers check work emails during activities with family and friends. Nearly the same amount said work is the last thing they think about before they go to bed and fully 42 percent say it’s the first thing they think about when they wake up.

And nearly 1 in 5 people seem to have no ability at all to unplug from the office—17 percent said they have a “tough time enjoying leisure activities because they are thinking about work.”

“The problem is that we have created an expectation in our society that we are reachable and available at all times. The new technology allows that and, instead of putting boundaries on our time outside of traditional work hours, we allow work to bleed into our downtime and personal time and to interfere with quality time with family and friends,” said Tanya Schevitz, spokesperson for Reboot, a think tank that promotes an annual National Day of Unplugging in March.

Read the rest of this story at

Read all my recent CNBC stories


Nancy and Dan Nemeth

Nancy and Dan 

Their marriage had a less-than-ideal start. She had $20,000 in debt. He was about to lose his home, and the bank wouldn’t negotiate. He also had a student loan, a car loan and some credit card debt. When she moved to Cleveland to be with him, she’d be unemployed. He’d have to work overtime as a truck driver just to put a few hundred dollars toward paying down the debt.

But Nancy and Dan  — both 49 years old — took the plunge anyway, getting hitched in a $300 budget wedding in April 2012. Thanks to a short sale, Dan was able to get out from under his mortgage and when they moved into a rental, they had a fresh start but a $30,000 mountain to climb — not including their car loan.

“His take home pay was only $2,000 a month, so Dan did all the overtime he could to bump it to $2,600,” Nancy said. “We paid just over minimum payments at first.”

(This story first appeared on Read it there.)

Then, her love of birds, bags, and sewing changed everything.

“I love to craft. So one day, a friend was watching me sew at home and mentioned she wanted a couple things made for a friend’s birthday,” Nancy said. “So I sewed a few items for her. Then that turned into another item for another friend. Then (a different) friend said, ‘Hey, put your stuff on Etsy.’ I didn’t know what it was at the time. Within a couple months… I made enough for a new sewing machine.”

Nancy started making handbags and clutches, often with designs inspired by her pet birds. She made a vow that half the money she made on Etsy would go back into the business, but the other half would be used to pay down her debt. She was making a “couple of hundred” a month for a while, but eventually saved enough to upgrade her machine, which soon was running 10 hours a day, 6 days a week.

“I spent every day sewing and making my little shop bigger and better,” she said. “Studying how to expand and do social media to get my little shop out there. It has blossomed so much.”

And while the business blossomed, the couple’s debt shrank fast. She averages about $2,500 in sales a month, which means she puts more than $1,000 a month toward paying down her debt. They’re not finished yet, but the $30,000 mountain is now more of a $10,000 molehill…plus about $8,000 remains on the car loan.

Paying down debts can also have a positive affect on credit scores – making payments on time and keeping revolving debts on credit cards low relative to credit limits have a big impact over time. This calculator can show you how long it’ll take you to pay off your credit cards. You can also get a free credit report summary on, updated monthly, to see how you debt levels and payment history are affecting your credit.

“We will be completely debt free in ONE year. Can hardly wait,” she said. “Then all the extra will go into savings and a portion to our dream trip to Europe.”

Etsy wasn’t the only step the couple took to attack their debt problem. They also cut out almost all extras. When they go food shopping, they bring the budgeted amount in cash, and never overspend. They plan date nights well in advance so they have something to look forward to, and make choices to keep those costs down, like eating before going to the theater to avoid paying for expensive candy and popcorn.

But finding a way to supplement their income has been the most important step towards climbing out of the hole they were in.

“I have always said do what you love, and if you can find a way, make some of that dream happen,” she said.

Her husband has gotten into the act, too. He recently went back to his old hobby performing comedy. He puts half his comedy income into paying down debt, too. Laughing together is helping their relationship, too.

While their marriage didn’t have an ideal financial beginning, Nancy actually thinks that might have made them closer.

“I think it’s just that we are proud of (our) really tough beginnings being together, but overcoming so much at the same time,” she said. “Go figure. You’re supposed to meet and get married when things are great and all that. But our (story) is opposite. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe seeing the worst times at the beginning gives a healthy dose of realism and something to really bind a future together. It was a struggle… but nothing we could blame each other for. Just a desire to get out of this life that we ‘think’ we should have according to the white picket fence syndrome.”

And the couple might be able to get out of debt even sooner than expected. After began chatting with Nancy about her debt, Etsy featured her store, Birds and Bagz, in an email. Orders spiked for a day, and she earned around $3,500 in July.

“Paying off another credit card tomorrow,” she said. “Feels great.”

What did the couple do to celebrate?

“We are treating ourselves to sushi dinner tonight…which of course we go at happy hour, which is half off,” she said. “Never pay full price.”

Did you manage to dig out of a big debt hole? How did you do it? Write to Bob at BobSullivan dot net and we may feature your story.


Crucial's memory scanner is a nifty piece of software that will tell you if you can upgrade.

Crucial’s memory scanner is a nifty piece of software that will tell you if you can upgrade.

It’s been a ritual as old as the personal computer itself. Microsoft releases a new operating system, and PC sales skyrocket as users buy new hardware to take advantage of the new software. Sure, a hardy few buy the new Windows and try to install it on their old machines, but these are folks who often end up doing things like executing their PCs in a fit of computer rage.

So here we are at another such moment in history. Windows 10 will arrive this coming week, leaving many consumers wondering if it’s time to fork over $500-$2,000 for a new machine. You might even consider financing a new computer. At Dell, for example, you can buy a new $870 computer for as little as $27 a month. Of course, it would take 11 years to pay off the new computer at that rate – meaning you’d be paying for it long after it stopped working — and you would have paid about $2,700 for it. (Interest charges add up on long-term financing, especially if you have bad credit. Before you take out a loan for a computer, check your credit scores for free on to see where you stand.)

But all that may be unnecessary, because this time, things are very different. Microsoft’s last huge upgrade, to Windows 8, was a game-changer – and not in a good way. Windows 8 wasn’t all that popular, as PC sales didn’t spike that time around. Microsoft appears to have learned its lesson. Windows 10 cleans up a lot of the Windows 8 mess, but critically, it’s designed to fit neatly on top of Windows 8. No new computer or hard drive space required. In fact, Microsoft is giving it away for free to most Windows 7 and 8 users. You won’t need to drop a bunch of cash on a new machine to get Windows 10.

Still, this is an occasion that might make you consider a new PC purchase anyway, particularly if you didn’t upgrade when Windows 8 was released. After all, consumers tend to replace their machines every four or five years. Aftermarket memory maker says that only 13% of Americans are using a PC that is more than five years old.
So maybe it’s time. Maybe your computer is running slow. Maybe some newer Internet features don’t quite work. Maybe it’s worth $2,000 to you.Or maybe you can fix the problem for $50.

“Before you reluctantly splurge on a new (PC), you may want to add some memory to your current computer first. It could buy you a few years by speeding up your existing one,” said Brad Harding, at, owned by Micron Technology Inc.

(This story originally appeared on Read it there.)

Harding obviously wants to sell memory chips, but he’s right: adding memory to a computer can make it feel brand new. And it’s the kind of do-it-yourself project that will leave you feeling an old-fashioned sense of accomplishment, like changing the oil in your car yourself.

There are other reasons to try adding RAM before taking your old PC to the recycling center (well, that’s one reason. Keeping your old machine is better for the environment). Here’s another: storage space used to be a big factor in PC purchases, but with the advent of the Cloud, that’s become less of an issue.

Some consumers are intimidated by the prospect of adding memory, and for good reason. A recent Crucial survey found that 73% of consumers said they wouldn’t even try to change their memory, saying they don’t know how, or it costs too much money.

The biggest obstacle, however, is confusion. There are hundreds of places to buy memory, and hundreds of options, most meaningless to the average user. People rightly feel insecure about picking the right memory module.

Fortunately, there are plenty of online tools that help. Two big independent resellers — and, offer easy-to-navigate clickable “memory finders.” Just pick your device and your product line, and see your options.

You can use these tools without buying memory from the sites, just to confirm you are shopping for the right modules. Armed with that information, you can shop around at plenty of other places. Amazon, of course, sells memory through a wide selection of third parties, and it’s worth checking prices listed there. A word of caution, however: bigger sites have better return policies, so if you run into trouble, you might regret trying to save a couple of bucks buying from a small outfit you’ve never heard of.

Some consumers might also be more comfortable buying memory from a firm that makes its own (Crucial is one of those), rather than a third-party reseller. To make things a bit easier, Crucial has a free download that analyzes your computer for current memory status and makes upgrade suggestions (from Crucial’s store, of course. But again, you can use the specifications to shop around).

On most machines, changing the memory itself isn’t hard at all. It’s easiest on desktop machines, which are designed to allow tinkering. You might not even need a screwdriver. Laptops can be a bit more challenging, but generally it’s just a matter of unscrewing a panel and popping in the module.

Adding memory isn’t a panacea. If your computer is sluggish because it’s corrupted by spyware, new memory won’t help. It is possible that your other components are outdated. But it can be worth the $50-$100 investment to see if you can extend your computer’s life, or turn it into a serviceable backup.

It’ll establish you as part of the resistance movement that rejects the notion everything should be disposable. Consider taking advantage of the option while you can: in a pernicious trend, increasingly, hardware makers are sealing laptops so memory can’t be added later. Upgrade on your own while you still can.




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Richard Cordray (Bob Sullivan photo)

Richard Cordray (Bob Sullivan photo)

Hidden fees, penalties, surcharges and other “gotchas” drive consumers bonkers, but some companies love them. In the years leading up to the financial crisis, many credit card issuers and other lenders had created a labyrinth of complex fee charts that confused borrowers and made for easier profits. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, Congress passed sweeping financial reform with the intention of preventing another systemic financial collapse. Known as Dodd-Frank, the law included hundreds of new rules governing the way Wall Street works, but to regular consumers, the law’s most visible provision involved the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The agency’s chief task was to make sure financial products were rid of gotchas, or “tricks and traps,” as CFPB inventor and now Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren liked to call them.

On Tuesday, Dodd-Frank hit its fifth anniversary, and the CFPB celebrated its fourth anniversary. But not everyone is coming to help sing “Happy Birthday.”

“In a very short time, we have done new and important work,” CFPB directly Richard Cordray said Monday. The agency says through various enforcement actions, it has helped get refunds or other kinds of relief to 17 million Americans — $10 billion worth of relief.

But at what cost? Dodd-Frank and the CFPB have vocal critics who say the new regulations it has created have hurt both small lenders and consumers, ultimately making the economy less stable.

During a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee marking the anniversary this month, some argued CFPB rules have led to decreased access to traditional credit products, which forces low-income consumers to used more expensive lending products.

“In the five years since the law came into effect it has resulted in higher prices and reduced choice for consumers and has done little to increase consumer financial protection,” said Todd Zywicki, George Mason University law professor and frequent CFPB critic. “That Dodd-Frank squandered this historic opportunity to modernize and reform consumer protection laws for the benefit of consumers was, therefore, particularly disappointing.”

(This story first appeared on Read it there.)

Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican House member from who serves as the chairman of the House Services Committee, said the elimination of many free checking accounts is one example of the CFPB hurting lower-income consumers.

“Before Dodd-Frank, 75% of banks offered free checking. Two years after it passed, only 39% did so,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Bank fees have also increased … leading to a rise of the unbanked and underbanked among low- and moderate-income Americans.”

A 2013 FDIC survey found that 13.4% of households said the main reason they were unbanked was because fees were too high or unpredictable, while 35.6% cited not having enough money to have an account.

Zywicki made a similar point at the hearing.

“The CFPB found a significant decline in the percentage of households that had (credit) cards, from 76% to 71%,” he said. “Loss of access to credit cards has forced those consumers into great reliance on higher-cost products.”

During a hearing last week, Senate Banking Committee chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) called for Congress to restructure the CFPB so that it has control over the bureau’s spending and to have “the ability to conduct meaningful oversight.” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) countered that such a restructure would weaken the CFPB.

The CFPB points out that 650,000 consumers have filed complaints with the agency during the past four years, and that many of those consumers would have been unable to complain effectively before the agency’s birth.

In Monday’s speech, Cordray told one such story from a consumer named William:

“We heard from William, who was receiving calls for a debt he did not owe. William tried to resolve the issue for more than four years, and saw his credit being ruined in the process. He said, ‘None of them could do anything … except tell me I had to pay them the $8,500.’ But because he submitted a complaint to us, he was able to end the prolonged standoff in just one week,” Cordray said. “Every success of this kind is a thrill for us. One consumer tagged her story about the relief she and her husband got from our handling of a mortgage complaint with the theme from Mighty Mouse: ‘Here They Come, to Save the Day!’ We all got a good laugh out of that one, but it was also poignant because apparently it was exactly how she felt.”

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