Nevada PUC Should Bloody Get Stuffed

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If the title wasn't clear enough, I'm feeling surly today. A couple of years ago, I talked with a couple of British personal finance bloggers and I loved the way they casually would say sentences like in title and make it seem normal. This is a family blog, so for today, I'm going to borrow some British language to express how I feel.

[Yes, part of the reason why I'm surly is that Le-Vel is suing me for this review. I go out of my way to help consumers make informed choices and they through a frivolous lawsuit at me. That's a topic for another day.]

I've been saving this article for a couple of months now.

There's a battle going on in the world of solar energy. Even if you don't have a dog in this fight, I think it is a very interesting debate. Let me set the table so we can get started.

When you have solar panels installed they produce power during the day when the sun is out and not at night. (Yes, this is really basic stuff.) People, however, use power round the clock. You can buy a battery to store the excess energy during the day to use at night. Unfortunately these are expensive and still not very efficient.

The solution to the problem has been something called "net metering." This means that as your panels produce power it moves the electricity meter backwards as you "sell" power back to the grid. At night, the meter moves forward as you use electricity. So you only pay the electric company for the "net" amount that you use when the production is subtracted.

And this "net metering" solution made everyone happy... until it didn't.

It turns out that the electric company can't easily take this produced power and just move it to the next house. There's a some grid infrastructure stuff that needs to happen. It wasn't a big deal for a long time because few people had solar. Now that more and more people are getting solar power, include families like ours (read our solar journey), it becomes a big deal.

It's become enough of a big deal in Nevada, that the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), changed the net metering rules. Instead of being able to "sell" back excess power at an equivalent rate, they're only going to buy it back for 25 cents on the dollar.

The economics of going solar are fairly straight-forward. People put up an initial investment of tens of thousands of dollars based on analysis that it will save them money in the long run while helping the environment. When we bought our solar panels the math was pretty clear that they'd pay for themselves in year 7 or 8 and after that we'd be saving money.

The federal government encourages people to switch to solar by offering them a 30% tax credit. My state had grants to further lower the cost. The message that I was being sent by both levels of government was pretty clear, "We want consumers to adopt this technology so much we are going to cover half the cost ourselves."

If my state were to institute the same net metering math of Nevada the panels we bought would break even probably sometime after their 25-year life expectancy passed. We, like most people, made the buying decision based on a hundred factors (such as location of roof, trees blocking the roof, typical sun, cost of local energy, etc.) none of which anticipated a net metering change.

In order to qualify for the state grant, the power company had to tour my home and make sure that we weren't going to waste the power by using our energy inefficiently (old light bulbs, refrigerators, etc.). I don't know if Nevada offers (or offered) state grants. At a minimum they should have had a similar process of meeting with the customer and telling them the risk of changing the net metering agreement. As best I can tell this never happened.

Maybe the power companies were blindsided by the problem, but now they are passing it onto consumers. As SolarCity said in the article above, "The Nevada government encouraged these people to go solar, and now the government is putting them at great financial risk."

That article makes the point that, "The PUC staff has said customers generally understand that utility rates are subject to change, and the state never promised unchanging prices, even if solar companies did during the sales process."

This is why the Nevada PUC should get stuffed. Everyone expects prices of electricity to change. That's one of the main reasons why people choose solar. By producing electricity through solar, the cost is zero due to the initial outlay. When the cost of electricity goes up, the value of the power by the solar panels should go up too. This isn't Nevada changing utility rates. This is changing a core policy. I wonder if the Nevada PUC highlighted this risk when the net metering was entered into. If it was, you'd think they would have said, "We informed all customers entering a net metering agreement that the rates at which you 'sell' energy back to us can change to whatever we see fit."

Imagine if the government next year passes some kind of legislation that amounts to them saying, "We are going to tax all Roth IRA withdrawals at 75%. We don't expect this to be an issue because the American public generally understands that tax rates change."

Assuming that the typical Lazy Man and Money reader has been putting money in Roth IRAs for years, I think we'd be pretty upset. I think that's probably what the solar customers of Nevada must be feeling right now.

And while this article has focused on Nevada, it isn't just happening in Nevada. Many states have this issue of infrastructure expenses. The result of Nevada's action has lead to a potential federal law to protect those who have already bought from such changes.

The other hope is that the batteries get better. Tesla has introduced a product it calls the Tesla Powerwall, which has a lot of potential.

I don't know where all this is going to end up, but as Terrell Owens used to say, "Getcha popcorn, ready!"

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Posted on February 22, 2016.

You are Easily Fooled!

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A couple of weeks ago, I came across my favorite article of the year:

I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here's How.

This article should be required reading by every student... every year. Non-students should be required to read it too.

I'll give you time to read it now. Got it? Good.

For the few people who still didn't take the time to read it, it is exactly what the title says it is.

A journalist decided to see if he could fool millions of people with bunk science and he did. Here's how:

1) He created a fake "institution" that sounded credible. He's also a doctor, but not a medical doctor as most people assume when they think doctor.
2) He ran a clinical trial on a small number of people testing for a lot of different things... essentially throwing poop at the wall to see what sticks. Statistically a few things are always going to stick.
3) He found a bunch of journals that sounded professional. They are known to publish anything plausible with almost no questions as long as they are being paid.
4) He cooked up a juicy press releasing the "results."
5) A bunch of magazines and news shows took the bait and rushed to highlight those great "results."

I bet there are millions people who today think that eating chocolate helps you lose weight.

The takeaway from the journalist himself:

We journalists have to feed the daily news beast, and diet science is our horn of plenty. Readers just can’t get enough stories about the benefits of red wine or the dangers of fructose. Not only is it universally relevant — it pertains to decisions we all make at least three times a day — but it’s science! We don’t even have to leave home to do any reporting. We just dip our cups into the daily stream of scientific press releases flowing through our inboxes. Tack on a snappy stock photo and you’re done.

If there was a silver lining it was this: "... many readers were thoughtful and skeptical. In the online comments, they posed questions that the reporters should have asked."

I'm often asked why I cover MLM scams so much. One of the reasons is that this kind of junk science is used to push the pyramid scheme and get people to pay so much more than they should. Here are a few examples:

  • MonaVie - The first time I encountered clear junk science was this "study." It used 5 people and essentially concluded nothing helpful. It was also conducted by a doctor who was employed as MonaVie's "Chief Science Officer."
  • LifeVantage Protandim - I wish I could write about more about this... but this is why I can't.

    What I can say is that you should be very careful of ABC Primetime videos you see. For example, ABC Primetime covereda faith healer named John of God, and edited out James Randi's clear explanations. It was a time in history when Primetime's ratings were at an all-time low. It seems like mystery is a better story and delivers better ratings than throwing a wet blanket of truth on it.

  • Xocai - This company produced a study that would lead you to believe that their chocolate helps you lose weight. I'm not making this up. They had 50 people which is at least a little more. They gave them lifestyle intervention which included many things including financial rewards for people who lost the most weight. Of course they also gave them a high antioxidant chocolate drink. There was no control variable and the conclusion was that all the stuff together works.

    Of course we already know that financial incentives help people lose weight. They could have added watching an episode of Seinfeld to the study and conclude that Seinfeld helps you lose weight too. Brainwashed Xocai people actually presented this to me as scientific proof that consumers should buy their chocolate.

    Recently a law-firm contacted me about their class action lawsuit against Xocai. Their exposure of the pyramid scheme in the lawsuit (PDF) was amazing to read. I study MLMs and the lawsuit spends 50 pages on just the pyramid scheme aspect... not even getting to the junk science.

  • Nerium - As one commenter pointed out via Nerium's study: "This will NEVER be published by a respectable journal it is so flawed. No P-value is listed. They don’t say what kind of blinded study it is and the bias is so obnoxious it is embarrassing. No self respecting company with 'real science' would ever put this out. Show me a triple blinded study with over 1,000 subjects in a multiple center design, with a P-value under .05%. Have the results measured with a cutometer or a corneometer. Then have it published in the JDD, the JAAD or any other reputable Dermatology Journal. Until then don’t believe any 'study' they put out."

    The company conducting the study claims that they "help build a strong, science-based, product portfolio", which is exactly what it seems they did. The study was approved for publishing by someone who worked at the same place as one of Nerium's employees and author of the study.

You can usually go through each of the MLMs and see the "doctor" (or Chief Science Officer) who is compensated handsomely to assert that the products "work."

Ocean Spray doesn't need a doctor to sell its juice like MonaVie. Hershey's doesn't need a doctor to sell it's chocolate like Xocai.

Kudos to io9 for publishing this article and telling the story about how can be tricked. Now if only mainstream organizations would shine a light on some of the companies that are using the same tactics to trick consumers every day. Unfortunately, it takes a more work than just "dipping their cups into the daily stream of scientific press releases."

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Last updated on October 13, 2015.

How to Get Clean, Purified Water (at The Best Price)

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Normally, I'd have my holiday gift guide ready for readers today. However, I've been sucked into drama on my "Is Home Depot’s Water Test from RainSoft a Scam?" article from almost 18 months ago. If you stick through this, I'll give you details on a great, unrelated deal that's 65% off of what I personally paid for the service... (or you can just scroll to the bottom, I'll never know the difference.)

Regular readers know that I often write about multi-level marketing (MLM) and the scams there, but this non-MLM topic has exploded to almost 150 comments now. In at least three cases, I've had RainSoft dealers comment and leave a review of how wonderful their system is.

The latest drama came when commenter John, left this glowing review. I recognized that some of the language sounded like it came from a RainSoft salesman. The commenter also left an email of "JPetrich@"... I put two and two together and decided to see if John Petrich was a RainSoft salesman. It turns out that there was a LinkedIn profile for a John Petrich who appears to be a Water Treatment Sales Professional with RainSoft listed as his company. This John Petrich is based out of the Houston, Texas. The comment I received came from an IP address in Houston, TX.

I asserted my logical opinion that the comment from the suspected RainSoft dealer was indeed the John Petrich of that LinkedIn profile. The commenter went crazy, saying that I was "way off" and "an internet stalker." A few hours later a John Petrich emailed me saying that he's getting email on his LinkedIn profile and he's going to sue me for defamation because he's not the same John Petrich who left the comment. That's been going back and forth and the RainSoft debate rages on.

Catching people up on the RainSoft debate

My RainSoft article is long, but tells the story of how we signed up for a free water test at Home Depot and instead of getting water analysis as you might receive from your city or county, we received an in-home demonstration, a "magic show" according to my wife, of RainSoft's EC-4 purifier. We were told it would be a half hour long, but it went on for 3-4 hours. It was filled with fear-inducing stories about the danger of chlorine. It went on about how much money we'd save vs. buying bottled water.

In the end, we were told we could buy a system for $4888 that would purify our water. We could spend another $1200 on a reverse osmosis machine for the drinking water in our kitchen sink. They were happy to let us finance this purchase at 17% interest, essentially like a credit card.

The representative offered to "throw-in" $2700 worth of soap, detergents, etc. Though he wouldn't say what brand it was and I'm guessing it is an inflated price for some no-name soap that people don't typically buy.

Then they topped it off by cashing a $100 deposit that they said they'd hold on to while we decided. I probably shouldn't have given the money in the first place, but I wanted to buy time to research and this deposit held the soap offer, which is normally only available if you buy the same day. After a fight with the independent dealer and reporting them to Home Depot, RainSoft corporate saw my article and offered to give me the $100 deposit back.

It seems that other commenters have had the same experience with the "magic show" based on the dozens of comments.

RainSoft's Assurance Guarantee

The latest thing that RainSoft dealers are pushing is their Assurance Guarantee. This guarantee says that if a RainSoft customer finds the same or better performing product at a better price in 30 days the RainSoft product will be free. Here is the text of that from a RainSoft Dealer. There's no real fine print that I could see and the terms are ambiguous enough to have multiple interpretations.

The problem is that you have to validate it is better and I'm sure that RainSoft is going to challenge your validation. They may find one contaminant in a list of a hundred that wasn't done as well and say, "Sorry, but our product performed better here, so the product you bringing to the table is inferior... no free RainSoft for you. Next!"

Additionally, according to the text, you can't put together a couple of systems like I illustrate below, which would cost 1/5th what RainSoft is charging. That's not one brand's product, and they have different warranties.

It is almost like trying to prove that Babe Ruth is the best baseball player of all time. It may seem obvious to some, but worded as RainSoft does, they'd be free to say, "Umm, Vince Coleman was a lot faster, stole more bases, and played much better defense, so no Babe Ruth is not the same or better than Vince Coleman."

It is unlikely that you'll be able to get another system set up in 30 days, get the proof, submit it, and get it RainSoft to validate your claim. Heck, the claim might even sit for a few days, costing you valuable time in getting a claim for another system in.

At the end of the day, I feel like Chris Farley in Tommy Boy covered the value of this guarantee best:

So How Do You Get Clean Water?

The John Petrich the RainSoft dealer seems to think that I'm not qualified to give water purification advice. Perhaps he's correct, because I have no background in it. Instead he suggests that we take the expert advice. I'd agree, except that the expert advice he suggests is from a salesman. In particular, he's a salesman for one brand of water purification system and his previous comment scam attempt along with the RainSoft experience that I and numerous others have experienced.

There's a big difference in getting car buying advice from Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book than getting advice from Larry Lemon the Used Car King. If there's a better deal elsewhere, Larry Lemon isn't going to tell you about it.

Instead, I suggest using a little common sense and some typical problem solving skills. Here's how I'd, and any smart consumer, would go about solving the problem.

1. Ask, "Is there a problem with my water?" Perhaps your water is fine. Rather than have a salesman come to your house, pick up this Watersafe Drinking Water Test Kit or this First Alert Drinking Water Test Kit. It will give you details about the chlorine levels, hardness, etc. in your water.

2. Analyze the results. These kits will tell you where the results should be and they test to EPA standards. This should tell you if you have a problem or not. Save the magic show for Penn and Teller.

3. If you have a problem, research products to fix it. Here are few greatly-reviewed products that have solved customer's problems:

I may not be a water filtration expert, but combining these three systems would appear to be formidable water purification system... one that is probably overkill for 99.9% of homes. And you'd walk away with all three for under $900, plus tax. That's less than 1/6th the cost of what RainSoft was going to charge me for the EC-4 and reverse osmosis systems.

It is worth reading the comments on Lowe's site for the Whirlpool products. For each product, there are numerous reviews about a local company charging $5000 to $6000 for similar products and that they are very happy with these solutions.

RainSoft dealers will claim that their products are of a higher quality. They'll say that the perform better. They'll say that this is a comparison of a BMW to a Yugo. They've said all this in the comments of my previous post. The difference is that you aren't taking a journey with the water. You don't care about the luxury of how your water travels. You only care about results. With the water kits that I provided, you can test and ensure you are getting quality results. Still got a problem? Return it Lowe's and/or Amazon and get something else. It certainly is worth a shot at these extremely highly rated products for under $900 than simply saying, "Okay, I'll just shell out $6000 and finance it at 17% interest."

My guess is that some 95% won't need one system and 99.5% of people will be happy with these systems at a greatly reduced cost. I'm not saying that RainSoft won't be happy with the results of their system. I'm just saying that I bet they wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two. I'm also sure most people don't want to pay $5000 more when the job can be done at 1/6th the cost.

If RainSoft wants to give out a real Assurance Guarantee let them give out one that guarantees all contaminants will be reduced by 6 times as much as the one above for 1/6th the cost. Then we are starting to get to the point of performance per dollar spent.

But what does Consumer Expert Clark Howard have to Say?

Again, I'm not a water purification expert, but I know basic problem solving, scientific process, and consumer scams... all of which are very useful skills here. You don't need to take my word for it though. Clark Howard is well-known for being a consumer advocate. I love his radio show and have mentioned him many times in this website in the past.

So what does Clark Howard have to say about these water filtration systems. He doesn't say RainSoft by name, but I certainly recognized what he's talking about on his website:

"After years of Clark's prodding, Christa has finally made the switch from bottled water to tap water. What finally made her cross over from the dark side? She got hold of the Watersafe All-In-One Test Kit at Whole Foods. For just about $20, she was able to test her family's tap water for bacteria, lead, pesticides, nitrates, nitrites, chlorine, pH and hardness. Well, the water passed with flying colors, and her brood has been drinking from the tap ever since." - (Source)

See, test the water first. Maybe it's fine and you don't need anything. You will have saved yourself thousands and thousands of dollars before just trusting the RainSoft salesman.

"The complimentary water test the marketer was offering Christa likely would have involved a hard sell in the home. As Clark says, they practically convince you that if you love your children and want them to stay healthy, you must buy their product. " - (Source)

This is exactly what I experienced with my RainSoft dealer. There is really no reason to have anyone visit your home. Anyone should be able to give you performance testing data of their water filtration device that you can compare. If they won't give you that data and instead try to do some kind of in-home demonstration/magic show run, run, run away.

"So what to do if you're afraid of tap water? Try a cheap filtration system. They're available for your whole house, your faucet or just by the pitcher -- and they all address water impurities and improve taste." - (Source)

I mentioned the whole house system here. I figure everyone else knows about the faucet and pitcher systems. After testing with a water kit that I mentioned above, I got a faucet system and installed it in about ten minutes.

At the end of the day I'm simply stating what should be obvious by now... you don't need some kind of water filtration expert. The kits make it very easy for you to test yourself. And stay away from a brand-specific salesman who pitches himself as an expert. He's probably getting paid on commission to sell you that brand's product, which might not necessarily be the best fit for your wallet/needs.

Deal Time

I spent $70 on this PlayOn and PlayLater lifetime service and feel it is some of the best I've spent. It is available for only $25 (for HD) now, which is a no-brainer. Big thanks to Rick Broida's CNET Cheapskate article for mentioning it.

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Last updated on August 11, 2016.

Why You Shouldn’t Trust the Better Business Bureau (BBB)

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For years, the Better Business Bureau was perceived as a great source for consumers to learn about reliable companies. Unfortunately that's no longer true and I now I question whether it ever was true. Until recently, I thought they were a government-run organization. After all the FBI, is a "Bureau" (Federal Bureau of Investigation), right? However, as Wikipedia says, "Although it has 'Bureau' in its title, the Better Business Bureau is not affiliated with federal, state, or local government, and has no direct affiliation with any consumer protection government authority. The BBB, as a privately held corporation, has no governmental authority over businesses."

The BBB is not to be confused with the FTC, the government's consumer protection agency. The BBB is a private nonprofit organization, much like Mozilla, who makes my favorite web browser, Mozilla Firefox. In some ways, the very name "Better Business Bureau" invokes a false sense of trust as most people wouldn't confuse Mozilla with being a government-run organization.

The BBB may be best thought of as a collection of franchises, in the same way that collection of McDonalds restaurants that comprises McDonalds corporation. You can buy a hamburger at McDonalds, but there can be differences between stores. They are owned separately from the global corporation, which is different than Wal-Mart stores, which are all owned by the global corporation. The BBB is like McDonalds with 100+ franchises that are primary funded through its members. (This is an important point that we'll come back to).

In 2009, the BBB switched its grading system from satisfactory/unsatisfactory to a letter grade: A+ through F. There were 16 factors that a company could be rated on a 17th factor, accreditation that could earn a company four extra points if they paid a yearly fee.

An ABC News investigation in November, 2010 found a number of problems with the new system:

  • The BBB gave an A- to a fictional company - ABC News found that "A group of Los Angeles business owners paid $425 to the Better Business Bureau and were able to obtain an A minus grade for a non-existent company called Hamas, named after the Middle East terror group" and that "the BBB also awarded an A minus rating to a non-existent sushi restaurant in Santa Ana, California."
  • Paying Members get A+ ratings - ABC News also found that a a white supremacist website called Stormfront received an A+. Two companies were able to upgrade their C- grades to A+ overnight by submitting their credit card numbers
  • You must pay for the A+ rating - The only way to get the A+ rating was to get the four extra point for paying the yearly fee. This supposedly has changed and non-accredited businesses can get an A+ rating, but it's unclear whether paying for accreditation boost your grade in point system (aside from the cases where merchants were able to simply buy their way from a C- to an A+ score.

This lead to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal saying, "Right now, this rating system is really unworthy of consumer trust or confidence." He sent an official demand letter asking the BBB to discontinue the ratings system because it is "potentially harmful and misleading." The BBB has changed it's grading system.

I should also mention that previous to the ABC News investigation, the Los Angeles Times reported that accredited business seem to receive favorable grades

The paying for accreditation where it impacts grades is particularly problematic, since the BBB's funding comes from these fees. The system is completely untrustworthy if a business can pay a fee of around $400 a year and receive an A+ rating. I found this out when MonaVie, an MLM scam/pyramid scheme that I exposed awhile back went from a C- to an A+ in the span of about a month: Did MonaVie Pay For a Better Grade from the Better Business Bureau?

It is this experience that has me writing about the BBB today. When MonaVie got that A+ rating from the BBB, MonaVie and/or its distributors flocked to Wikipedia to trumpet how it was now a reputable company. They ignored the fact that it was a D- recently (the BBB doesn't give a chart of grades over time, so this was easy for MonaVie to ignore). I should have probably written about the BBB then, but I wasn't aware of the full extent of the problem.

A couple of days ago this came up in my exposing of Youngevity, yet another scammy MLM company. It didn't matter that the "doctor" responsible for pushing the vitamins was a veterinarian pitching himself as a medical doctor or that he was making outrageous claims about people in China living to reach their 250th birthday. It didn't matter than I could show people who to buy nearly equivalent products for a quarter of the price on Amazon. A Youngevity-proponent ignored these facts and left a comment that I must be wrong because Youngevity had an A+ rating with the BBB.

Ugh...

I guess I can't expect consumers to have done the research on the BBB and find out that it isn't the reputable rating agency that we all would like it to be. This concerns me greatly because there are a number of people who would have bought into the Youngevity scam on the basis of its BBB rating being reputable. Thousands of dollars later, perhaps they'd find my article and my response to the commenter and realize that they got scammed by both Youngevity and in trusting the BBB.

In the end, I think that Clark Howard has good advice for consumers about the BBB:

"Here’s what you need to know: I want you to use the BBB as a veto, not as a green light. If an organization has a bad rating, that alerts you to potential danger. But just because they don’t have a bad record, that’s not the seal of approval.

It's the same thing with a CARFAX report. A bad CARFAX is a veto, not a green light to buy, that's why you need a mechanic to inspect any used car purchase."

In the case of MonaVie, Youngevity, ViSalus or many other MLM companies, I try to be that mechanic to inspect the company, since it is fairly easy for them to spend the $400 a year to remove that veto.

Fortunately for me, I'm not listed with the BBB, because after this article, I'd find out first hand that by criticizing the Better Business Bureau, they'll likely pull my accreditation.

Update: It appears that that CNN Money has exposed the BBB as well. It has a great story about companies guilty of fraud that earned the highest rankings in BBB. They even have a nice little app here. They also explain how the BBB makes nearly $200 million a year in revenue - mostly by selling businesses on the need to be members, plaques, and other things that sound like Mafia-style protection money.

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Last updated on February 3, 2016.

Hewlett-Packard Hates the Environment and Your Wallet

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... or maybe they just have it out for me. I'm not sure. Read on and let me know in the comments.

This story starts when I as a junior in high school. Realizing that I'd have to write a number of papers in college, I went out an bought one of the best laser printers printers on the market. I used $600 of my money from working at Papa Gino's and bought a Hewleet-Packard LaserJet 4L. I knew it was a lot of money upfront, but it was 7 years before I had to buy any more ink... and I printed all my papers and many friends' papers. I still have the printer today. It works like a dream... if only I could get it to work with today's computers that tend to only have USB ports. (I've tried a converter cable, but I haven't been one of the 4 people on the Internet who were able to get it to work.) I'm not the only either as you can still buy the printers on Ebay.

When I couldn't get that printer working, my wife and I realized that we should move on to something newer and better. We chose to go with one of the All-In-One printers, copiers, scanners, fax-machines, and dog groomers (just checking if you were paying attention). The other benefit I got was the ability to finally print in color. I wanted that Dororthy stepping into Oz experience. Of course since Hewlett-Packard did a great job before, they earned my business again.

We sprang for the HP L7650, which was around $300 (Having a blog is a great way to keep track of your purchases). Like my previous HP printer, it's still in good working order. So what's my problem?

Unknown to me, the L7650 has printer heads that require replacing every two years. There is an expiration date on them. We were able to get more than two years out of them, but a couple of weeks ago, my printer just shut-down and said, "No more. I'm not going to use these print heads any more" It wasn't going to use those printer heads any more. At least you get a warning with low ink.

My wife and I went on Ebay to look to see how much the printer heads. You can save a good amount of money buying printer ink on Ebay, so it was a natural place to look. The cheapest printer head was $55 after shipping. I probably should have mentioned it before, but the printer requires two printer heads - one for black and yellow and another for magenta and cyan.

The cheapest solution to getting this printer back working was going to $110. If I wanted to get genuine HP parts, it would be $140, plus shipping. I looked at OfficeMax online and a HP J4500 was available less than $80. We called up HP and asked if there was anything they could do. We don't want to recycle a perfectly good printer that simply needs two parts the size of a deck of cards - it is a waste and it's not environmentally friendly. HP told us that was the only option. Also, the ink cartridges that they used less than three years ago can not be used in any of the current models. I didn't realize that ink cartridge technology advanced so fast. (I'm being sarcastic as I think HP simply discontinues sizes every now and again to keep you throwing out and buying new ink every time you change printers. It only stands to reason because they have what seems to be a hundred variations of catridges.)

I'd like to say that we did the smart thing and voted for another brand with our wallet. However, that HP J4500 that we went with was by far the cheapest that fit our needs. It really is a shame that the printer companies decided to go with the cheap razor and expensive razorblade model... especially when they make it cheaper to buy new razors and dispose of old working ones.

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Posted on April 12, 2010.

Fandango Bucks: Not a Fan

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Ever have to buy a gift for a person that has everything? That's my mom. So this holiday season, I thought for a long time of what to get her. Remembering that she enjoys going to movies, I decided some movie gift certificates would be appropriate.

I decided to go to the first movie website that I thought of and see what they have to offer. That's how I found Fandango Bucks. I saw the tag line of "Perfect for all occasions. Good for any movie, any time, on Fandango.com."

Fandango Bucks

Fandango Bucks: Not Good for Any Movie


I have to admit, I was excited. This was going to be the easiest and best gift I've ever sent her. It was a simple instant e-mail. I checked to make sure that Fandango had the theaters near my mom's Boston suburb. I knew it would be a deal-breaker if she couldn't go to the theaters that she was used to. I might as well buy her an In-N-Out Burger gift certificate (sorry, California reference). Fortunately, I saw that Fandango had all the theaters and listed all the movie times... it was a movie, at a time, listed on Fandango.com. So with piece of mind, I made my purchase.

My mother sends me an e-mail a few days later that while it was a good idea, the certificates aren't accepted at any of the 8 theaters she goes to. They are only accepted at four theaters in Boston proper, which is not only a bit of a drive, it's also tough parking. That didn't seem right, so I read things a little closer and realize that the "Perfect for all occasions. Good for any movie, any time, on Fandango.com." is pretty much an out-and-out lie. There's some fine print that says that not all theaters accept it because they are either not partnered with Fandango or don't have the means to accept online ticketing.

I decided to e-mail customer support and ask what's up. Though a response was promised in 48 hours, a week later I have heard nothing (not even an acknowledgment that they have received my e-mail. I send another e-mail thinking the first one must not have gotten through. Still no response. So yesterday, I decided to call them up and see what's going on.

The customer service representative was really, really nice. He said that they have 3000 e-mails from the holidays and their 10 person team is a little undermanned to get back to everyone in time. He understood my problem and looked into the Boston theaters and admitted that most of the theater chains there partnered with their competitors. He suggested that my mom e-mail me back the certificates and I can use them in Silicon Valley. That's not a terrible solution, but it really doesn't speak to the main point: They promised one thing, didn't deliver, and now are giving me a response they might (or might not) be able to refund me the cash.

I will admit that I could have spent a little more time reading the fine print. However, shouldn't the fine print be a clarification or further definition of what is promised and not a complete contradiction of it?

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Posted on January 15, 2010.

“Debt Crisis in America” & JCR Advertising are Evil

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I don't know if you've seen the Debt Crisis in America commercials on television or not, but when I saw them, I thought, "This is a whole new level of scummy advertising." If you haven't seen them, you can watch two of them here. I can't decide which one is more scummy. Here are some tactics that I notice right off in these commercials:

  • Imagery of Washington D.C. landmarks including The White House - This gives an aura that this commercial is endorsed by the government when it is not. It's hard not to see how one could get confused by this.
  • Scrolling News Ticker - This makes it look like a news channel like CNN, CNBC, or Bloomberg. News stations like that are generally considered reputable and typically follow the journalistic principles when reporting information.
  • Special Announcement! - How is that to get your attention?!?! What's special about this announcement? There is no information in this "announcement" that I don't see 5 to 10 times a day.
  • Speedy facts and figures - It's
  • Credit Card and Debt Help Line = 1-800-000-0000 - Ever try dialing that number? Well I'll get to this later on.
  • Transferring the "News" Coverage to Someone Else - Moving the coverage to another person in the way they do is very much like how the news transfers to a different reporter on the scene.
  • Call to Action - The commercial ends with a strong message that the solution is to call the number below - which seems reputable for all the reasons above.

You want to know the scummiest part of all this? The actress/fake newsperson asking you to make that call has no connection to the service they are offering. That's because this commercial isn't even designed for one specific company. It is made to be re-branded for any and every debt settlement company in the country, whether they are reputable or not. That's why there is that aforementioned 1-800-000-0000 number. Just check out their sales pitch:

  • Higher percentage of converted calls to Leads
  • Higher percentage of qualified callers
  • Lower cost per in bound unique lead
  • Instant inbound Activity for your sales staff
  • Trackable phone number provided & routed to your location
  • Inbound call analysis completed & e-mailed to you daily
  • Score calls and evaluate sales staff

It's pretty clear where their interests lie, isn't it? If I wanted to buy this commercial and brand it for my company I could. Why should I be worried about these companies just trying to help consumers? Well they aren't always out to help consumers as you can read on Wikipedia. I don't really know how to pick a good debt settlement company, but I did find this article which seems like it could have some helpful information. I think the safest way to get out of debt is to go on an extreme savings plan. Cut out or greatly reduce the costs of everything in your life. If you go with that route, I have some tips on how to save money.

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Posted on December 1, 2009.

Should Pottery Barn Give Us a Refund?

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A few weeks back our dog Jake decided to rip into some cushions on our patio furniture. They were too far gone by the time we noticed. As a result, we've been looking for new chaise lounge cushions. You'd think they'd be easier to find, but everything has been fairly expensive or not the right size.

We thought our prayers were answered when my wife spotted this Pottery Barn sale on Chaise Lounge Cushions. Instead of costing $250 a cushion, we could buy them for $50... what a deal, right? Sadly, there was a $100 "delivery surcharge" and $17 for shipping and processing. I really don't understand how there's shipping and delivery charges, but we factored it into the overall price and it was still a decent deal considering the quality.

We got the cushions and they were twice as wide as our chairs. My wife exclaimed, "This isn't what I ordered!" So we went back to the website to see what wrong. In case the sale changes with the previous link, here's an image (click for larger):

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

I'll start off by saying that there's enough information here to pin it on us. It does say "Double Chaise Cushion: 53" wide x 86" long x 2.5" high" in the overview box. However, if you missed this piece of information, as we did, I can see where the confusion comes in.

The picture is of the single, which isn't even available for purchase. It would be nice if they removed all references to the single when there aren't any there. Also, we saw the "Double Stripes/Prints/Solids with Piping Chaise Cushion" and thought it meant "Double Stripes" as in the pattern. I would have expected to see a comma between Double and Stripes - or better yet use a word that is unambiguous like "two person." Best of all would be to have two separate pages for the separate sizes, so there is no chance of confusion.

If you click in the Product Info box, the dimensions are only presented for the single size:
potteryBarnChaiseCushionsProductInfo

It does not mention that it's a "single" or "double" or that another size other than the one we wanted exists. Shouldn't the Product Info box be accurate for the product? If it isn't, shouldn't this entitle us to a refund?

There's also this interesting return policy in the shipping information:
potteryBarnChaiseCushionsReturnPolicy

It clearly says that the item is final-sale and can't be returned in italics, but the return policy on the page seems to differ. Not shown in the image is the part of the return policy that also says, "We also cannot accept returns of final-sale items which are identified by a price which ends in .99." I realize that they probably put the same Shipping Info box on all items, but why not tailor it like they do the Product Info?

I'm really on the fence on this one. We clearly could have avoided this situation by being more careful. At the same time, Pottery Barn could have done about 5 or 6 things to have prevented the situation as well.

[Update: I must have reached the right person when I called just now, because they authorized curbside pick-up with almost no questions asked. I didn't even have to point out the Product Info box inconsistency, though I did because they should update the website.]

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Last updated on October 15, 2009.

Sprint Rebates Suck

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On Friday, I came home to following letter:

Sprint Rebates Suck

Sprint Rebates Suck

This letter is in response to the Palm Pre that I bought and activated within the Sprint store - an hour after it became available. How dare they say that I haven't activated in time? Without causing injury to other Sprint customers it would have have been impossible to activate it any faster.

Where does Sprint Rebates, who owe me money, get off sending me a letter saying that they aren't going to pay and "no further action is required." On a list of most obnoxious responses, I think this has to be at the top, right? I'm thinking of not paying my Sprint bill this month and instead sending in a letter that says, "You are not being paid because [insert a lie that would a valid reason if true], no further action is necessary." I might give that a try with the copy of the rebate letter.

Nonetheless, it's time to call up Sprint and find out what's going on.

The first guy doesn't know anything about rebates. He tells me that it's another number. I realize that rebate-handling is typically outsourced, but I don't want to talk to the third party and have them tell me that I didn't actually by the phone and have it activated. I argued for a minute and then decided to see how the Sprint Rebate company would go.

After about 15 minutes on hold with the Sprint Rebate company, they found the problem. They had mistaken one of the digits of my phone number - entered it in as a 6 instead of a 0. Being that it was their mistake, I figured, they 'd be rushing out a check to me right away. Not so. They said that they'd process it in the next 15 business days. I have to wait three weeks for their mistake? Here's how the rest of the conversation went:

Me: Overnight the money.
SR: Sorry can't do that.
Me: Overnight the money.
SR: Sorry can't do that.
Me: I'll have the money in my hands in the next 15 days?
SR: We'll process it in the next 15 days.
Me: I'll have the money in my hands in the next 15 days?
SR: We'll process it in the next 15 days.
Me: You realize that I my money shouldn't be delayed based on your error.
SR: Sorry there's nothing else we can do.

I realized that there's nothing more I can do either. I suppose I can think twice about using Sprint in the future. In fact, I'd say there's a high likelihood I'll do that as soon as mine and my wife's contract is up.

That might be a little over-reacting to this incident, but they've taken away my grandfathered billing plan because I got a new phone (note to carriers - new phone should not equal new plan). Sprint is still the cheapest as far as I can tell, but it's getting worse and soon I will pay more to deal with a different company.

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Last updated on March 24, 2011.

How to Lose a Potential Customer in One Email

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Last week, I featured a guest post of How to Lose a Loyal Customer in Three Easy Calls. This week, I'd like to post one quick way to lose a customer in a single e-mail.

Over the last month, my wife and I have been looking for places to rent on Craigslist (which lead me to this brilliant Craig's List scam). Even looking online, it's fairly time-consuming. The amount of properties available seems to be enormous. The economy is not only making it buyers' market, but it seems a renting one as well.

So I went through and checked of quite a few places that I liked. I e-mailed a few of them and they responded back by telling me to call a number and talking to a person. That's the part that just strikes me as odd. I'm living in Silicon Valley. You are advertising your product on the Internet. Why can't a time to see the place be set up on the Internet?

I'll admit that part of this is me being Lazy. Shooting an e-mail is quick and easy (I'm already on the Internet most of the time) - trying to sync up with someone on the phone is more difficult. I don't do much business on the phone because I finish the conversation and there's no record of it. Still, if you know your customer is on the Internet and using a tool that facilitates Internet communication, why risk losing the person? If you are trying to make a sale, take the path of least resistance. It's not rocket science.

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Posted on February 19, 2009.

 
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