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Consumer Reports Finds Hidden Costs in Cell Phone and Digital-Wallet Payment Services

August 3, 2011 4:59 pm

While Americans are still using plenty of cash, checks, credit and debit cards to pay their bills, new electronic methods such as paying by cell phone or digital wallets are emerging. But before jumping in, consumers should be aware of disparities in loss liability and consumer protections, according to Consumer Reports.
CR's latest investigation into these new payment options finds that banks and technology companies are jostling for a greater share of the $50 billion a year in fees generated by everyday transactions. Some services by PayPal, Obopay, Square, Zong, and FaceCash already allow you to pay for purchases with your cell phone, but so-called digital wallet services are scheduled to hit the market soon. 

Google said in May that it planned to launch its version this summer. At least three competing digital wallets are planned for launch later this year and in 2012: from Visa in partnership with more than a dozen banks; Isis, a joint venture of AT&T Mobility, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless; and PayPal Mobile's point-of-sale technology. 

"As these new forms of payment grow more popular, consumers must be careful to understand the costs, and disparities in protections associated with the promise of new convenience," says Jeff Blyskal, Senior Editor of Consumer Reports. 

Despite all the hype, consumers don't seem to be clamoring to pay with their phones yet. According to a recent nationally representative survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, only 5 percent of survey respondents have used their cell phone to pay for day-to-day purchases in the previous month. Somewhat more use other fairly new forms of payment, including billing to their home or cell phone account (10 percent). 

Most of the new electronic payment options are tied to credit and debit cards, so whatever costs consumers incur in using their plastic will transfer to the new methods. Paying by mobile phone won't save them money. Google Wallet merchant transaction fees are the same as those charged on plastic payments, and the same is expected to be true for Visa's digital wallet. Square and PayPal Mobile charge merchants even more than the average big bank fee, 2.75 and 2.9 percent of the transaction amount, respectively. 

Among payment processors Consumer Reports looked at, only Obopay charges consumers (not merchants) an explicit flat 50-cent fee for payments over $10. You can transfer funds to your Obopay account from a bank account at no cost, but if you link a transaction to a debit or credit card, you'll pay a 1.5 percent fee. So on a $100 payment, fees can run from 50 cents to $2. 

Prepaid debit cards can be especially costly, whether you use them by themselves or link them to an alternative payment method. Many prepaid debit cards charge fees for activating and maintaining the accounts, and for transactions, balance inquiries, and reloading. 

Things often go wrong during the processing of 300 million noncash payments each day. In Consumer Reports survey, one in four Americans said they had an unauthorized charge, billing error, non-credited payment, or other problem in the last year when paying for purchases or paying bills. 

A consumer's right to get their money back when something goes wrong—errors, goods not delivered as promised, fraud— varies by the payment option used. Again, the underlying method of payment tied to your mobile device will govern their rights in such instances. Cell phone and digital wallet payment services linked to a credit card offer consumers the most protection. However, there is a large disparity in protection for services that link to prepaid debit cards and direct billing to consumers' phone bill. 

Prepaid cards offer consumers no guaranteed protections against unauthorized transactions. The cards may have some protections in their contracts, but they're essentially voluntary and can be rescinded at any time. Visa and MasterCard prepaid-card holders may get assurances from those brands' zero-liability policies, which protect against unauthorized use and require issuing banks to give provisional credit for losses from unauthorized use within five business days of notification. But those policies have loopholes. Visa's doesn't cover ATM or PIN transactions not processed by the Visa network. MasterCard's policy offers no protection if a consumer reported two or more unauthorized events in the past 12 months, and it doesn't cover ATM or PIN transactions. 

For consumers who opt for direct-to-phone-bill charges, their rights in this area are unclear. Any protections are based on the wireless carrier's contract, and they vary widely. Consumers Union reviewed the contracts of 18 wireless carriers to find out what kind of baseline protections they contained; none provided protections for mobile payment transactions that are as strong as those guaranteed by law when consumers use a credit card or debit card.
Consumers may have some rights under state laws or public utility agency rules, but those also vary from state to state. So far, only the California Public Utilities Commission provides its state's residents the right to reverse unauthorized charges. California consumers can also bar third parties from putting charges on their phone bill. 

The bottom line—Consumer Reports offers the following advice for those considering the jump to any new form of digital payment service:
• Before signing up for a new payment method, read the fine print and check the transaction costs.
• Pay by credit card to get the best protections whenever you buy online or pay via cell phone, make a major purchase in a store, or worry that a seller might not deliver as promised. Avoid prepaid debit cards and billing to your telephone account. Ask your carrier to block third-party charges to your landline and cell phone.
• Take convenience claims with a grain of salt. Consider new payment choices, but separate true benefits from marketing hype. Keep your mobile shopping tools independent from any branded digital wallet you might choose. 
• You can control the risk of loss by knowing the threats with each form of payment and taking steps to protect yourself. Don't share your personal identification and account information, use security software and procedures for your e-commerce, and always keep cash and payment cards in a safe place.

For more information, visit

7 in 10 Smartphone and Tablet Users Pay Attention to Mobile Ads When Surfing Web, but Not when Gaming or Watching TV

August 2, 2011 4:59 pm

A recent mobile survey conducted by Prosper Mobile Insights™ included 203 smartphone and tablet users from the SSI Panel who completed the survey on their devices. The survey was collected from 7/20 - 7/22/11. Of the sample, 48% were male while 52% were female, and the average age of the sample was 40.

The data reveals that mobile users’ attention spans for advertisements viewed on their devices differ depending on where the ads are placed. Mobile users were most likely to pay full attention to ads when surfing the web on their devices and least likely when watching full TV episodes.

Over half of smartphone and tablet users said they never fully pay attention to ads on their devices when watching full TV episodes and playing games, according to a recent mobile survey conducted by Prosper Mobile Insights™ among smartphone and tablet users on their devices. 13.3% say they regularly pay full attention to advertising while watching TV on their device and 19.2% do the same while playing games. Ads found while surfing the web on a mobile device appear to get the most attention from mobile users: 

Paying Full Attention to Advertisements on a Smartphone or Tablet 

While Playing Games
Regularly: 19.2%
Occasionally: 30.5%
Never: 50.2% 

While Watching Video Clips
Regularly: 15.3%
Occasionally: 42.9%
Never: 41.9% 

While Watching Full TV Episodes
Regularly: 13.3%
Occasionally: 34.0%
Never: 52.7% 

While Downloading Apps/Music/Etc
Regularly: 19.7%
Occasionally: 39.9%
Never: 40.4% 

While Surfing the Web
Regularly: 35.0%
Occasionally: 37.4%
Never: 27.6% 

Source: Prosper Mobile Insights™ Smartphone Survey, July-11

A Glimpse at 'Gluten-Free' Food Labeling

August 2, 2011 4:59 pm

Whether in muffins, rolls, or loaves, wheat bread is found in most households. But few consumers may appreciate the substance that helps the dough rise, keeps the bread from falling apart, makes it chewy, and adds to its flavor. 

That substance is gluten. Breads, cakes, cereals, pastas, and many other foods are made with wheat or added wheat gluten to improve their baking quality and texture. 

Technically, gluten represents specific proteins that occur naturally in wheat. However, the term “gluten” is commonly used to refer to certain proteins that occur naturally not only in wheat, but also in rye, barley, and crossbreeds of these grains and that can harm people who have celiac disease. The only treatment for this disorder is a life-long gluten-free diet. 

Eating gluten doesn’t bother most consumers, but some people with celiac disease have health-threatening reactions, says Stefano Luccioli, M.D., a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allergist and immunologist. They need to know whether a food contains gluten. 

FDA has been working to define “gluten-free” to:
• eliminate uncertainty about how food producers may label their products.
• assure consumers who must avoid gluten that foods labeled “gluten-free” meet a clear standard established and enforced by FDA. 

FDA’s actions on Aug. 2 bring the agency one step closer to a standard definition of “gluten-free.” On this date:
• FDA reopens the public comment period on its proposed gluten-free labeling rule published on Jan. 23, 2007.
• FDA makes available, and seeks comments on, a report on the health effects of gluten in people with celiac disease. The report includes a safety assessment on levels of gluten sensitivity in people with the disease. 

Celiac Disease
According to the National Institutes of Health, celiac disease affects as many as 1 percent of the U.S. population. 

The disease occurs when the body’s natural defense system reacts to gluten by attacking the lining of the small intestine. Without a healthy intestinal lining, the body cannot absorb the nutrients it needs. Delayed growth and nutrient deficiencies can result and may lead to conditions such as anemia and osteoporosis. Other serious health problems may include diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and intestinal cancers.
“Some people don’t get immediate symptoms, but when they do, they are typically gastrointestinal-related, such as abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea,” says Luccioli. “In infants, there may be a lot of vomiting, and they don’t grow and thrive.” And some people do not have any symptoms at all, adds Luccioli, but still may have intestinal damage and risk for long-term complications. It is important for individuals with celiac disease, who may vary in their sensitivity to gluten, to discuss their dietary needs with their health care professional. 

Grocery shopping is challenging for people with this disease, says Andrea Levario, J.D., executive director of the American Celiac Disease Alliance. “When they find a product labeled ‘gluten-free,’ they don’t necessarily know what that means because today there is no federal standard for the use of this term.” 

Having a federal definition of “gluten-free” is critically important, says Levario. “If we have one national standard, the individual will know that all products labeled ‘gluten-free’ will have no more than a minimal amount of gluten.” 

Is Gluten-Free for Me?
“Eating gluten-free is not meant to be a diet craze,” says Rhonda Kane, a registered dietitian and consumer safety officer at FDA. “It’s a medical necessity for those who have celiac disease.”
“There are no nutritional advantages for a person not sensitive to gluten to be on a gluten-free diet,” she adds. “Those who are not sensitive to gluten have more flexibility and can choose from a greater variety of foods to achieve a balanced diet.” 

Gluten-free is not synonymous with low fat, low sugar, or low sodium. For people who must be on a gluten-free diet, Kane says it's important to check the ingredients list and Nutrition Facts information on food labels to find the most nutritious options. 

How Is FDA Proposing to Define ‘Gluten-Free’?
In 2007, FDA proposed to allow manufacturers to label a food “gluten-free” if the food does not contain any of the following: 

1. an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains
2. an ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten
3. an ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million (ppm) gluten
4. 20 ppm or more gluten 

For more information, visit


Travel Industry Sees Explosive Growth in Vacation Rental Market; Renters Urged by Travel Insured International to Take Precautions

August 2, 2011 4:59 pm

Travel industry research has revealed a sharp rise in the vacation home rental market. The company Vacation Home Rentals recently projected a 13.1 percent increase in its 2011 rental business, and the 2010 Radius Global Market Research survey revealed an $85-billion market in U.S. and European vacation rentals.

Travel Insured International®, an independently-owned provider of travel coverage, warns that risks necessitating trip insurance do not decrease with a vacation home rental compared to other types of trips such as cruises, resort hotel stays, or guided tours. Travel accidents and illness, weather-related travel or destination disruptions, and natural disasters are all still part of the vacation risk potential when the vacation destination is a rental home. And with most vacation rentals requiring full prepayments prior to arrival, including taxes, security and cleaning fees, the loss of a complete vacation's cost is very possible if not covered by travel insurance. 

Tips for Vacation Home Renters
Travel Insured International® offers vacation home renters these tips to protect them from problems that can spoil their vacation:
• Strongly consider using a travel industry professional experienced in vacation home rentals who can recommend and book the properties you are looking for.
• Make sure your rental home owner or a rental manager is nearby to attend to any problems. Talk to them before deciding to rent.
• Ask your travel professional if the rental price is negotiable, especially if you can stay longer. Sometimes an owner who wants to fill a rental calendar week will be flexible on price, or offer last-minute specials.
• Ask about towels, bed linens, cleaning and cooking utensils, and other necessities in the house.
• Remember the difference between "waterfront" and "water view," which is often a partial side view.
• Confirm the home contains the exact items you want: DVD, stereo, BBQ grill, WiFi or other priorities.
• Use MapQuest or other mapping devices to pinpoint the exact rental location. Learn the public transportation available or private transportation required and plan ahead accordingly.
• Pay only with a credit card. Obtain the written terms and conditions of rental, including security deposit, cleaning fees, taxes, etc., along with booking confirmations and payment receipts. Remember that all trip insurance claims require documentation to be correctly resolved!
• Always inspect a home thoroughly upon arrival to immediately report any existing damage, stains etc. that might otherwise be made your responsibility. Make sure entertainment units work properly.

For more information, please visit

Getting Your Home Ready for the Change of Season

August 2, 2011 4:59 pm

The change in seasons should bring about more than just a change of wardrobe. It's important to check out your appliances and home systems now in order to help prevent unnecessary repairs when you need those systems the most. 

To help you get your home ready for the next season, American Home Shield, one of the nation's leading providers of home warranty services, offers some tips to help you maintain your heating unit and plumbing system to ensure they're ready before the temperatures drop: 

To prepare the heating system:
• Have your system professionally cleaned and inspected.
• Move any furniture that has been placed over floor vents away to clear the air flow.
• To ensure efficient operation, check your system's air filters and clean or change them regularly.
• It's always important to check out the manufacturer's maintenance recommendations for your specific unit. This information is typically available online and in your owner's guide.
• Have a test run. Don't wait until it's cold outside to turn on your heat. Turn it on now and let it run for at least a half-hour, so you can listen for any unusual noises and make sure it is working properly. 

To prepare the plumbing system:
• Insulate pipes prone to freezing, such as those near an outside wall; those in unheated areas of your home; or any exposed plumbing such as outside faucets.
• Keep your water meter box covered with its lid to prevent the meter from freezing during cold periods.
• Be sure you know where your master valve is located so you can quickly turn your home's water off if a line does break. In most homes, this valve will be located near the water heater, near the clothes washer, or where the water service line enters your home.
• Wrap outdoor or crawl space pipes with electric heat tape or insulation to prevent freezing. 

"Plumbing and heating systems are like any other machinery; they require some basic maintenance to keep them functioning properly," says Dave Quandt, Senior VP of Field Services for American Home Shield. 

"Unfortunately, if regular maintenance doesn't take place and a system or appliance fails, it's usually at the time of need and you're left with a crisis which can require a quick and more expensive decision." 

To learn more, visit

Word of the Day

August 2, 2011 4:59 pm

Deed. Written document that when executed and delivered conveys title to real property.

Question of the Day

August 2, 2011 4:59 pm

Q: What are the pros and cons of owning a townhouse?

A: On the plus side, exterior maintenance and repairs are minimal; there are no neighbors above or below the home like in an apartment; and because the homes are attached, they may offer a greater sense of security.

As for the disadvantages, if there is a homeowner’s association, buyers will have to pay a homeowner’s fee. There is also less privacy than with a detached single-family home. And there are limits on how you can make exterior changes to the home.

Gracefully Aging in Place

August 1, 2011 6:59 pm

Up in the great northwest from Oregon to Idaho, I see REALTORS® focusing on aging in place. In today’s segment on the subject, we first go to Betty Jung, a Real Estate Broker in Portland who posted the top 10 things NOT to do when decorating small spaces like an in-law apartment or small residential home for aging in place.

A few of those mistakes are:
• Leaving your walls white: White walls won’t technically make your space larger and they lack personality.
• Using small-scale accessories: Large lamps, artwork, candles, vases, and accessories will create the appearance of a larger space with more height.
• Using short shelving and cabinetry: Using full-scale shelves and cabinets that go all of the way up to the ceiling will visually draw the eye upward, making the ceiling seem higher, and your space feel larger.
• Not lighting your space effectively makes it look smaller, and if you can’t see an area in your room, it’s as if it’s not there! Capitalizing on natural light, while also bringing in artificial light is imperative. Use light to highlight architectural details and artwork.

Meanwhile, over in Boise, Ed Byington is telling his clients about a great guide to plan for aging in place published by the Mature Market Institute (MMI) at MetLife. According to that publication, the first step in planning an aging in place space is evaluating the home itself.

Is the home set up to meet your needs or do you need to make changes? A physical therapist can often help evaluate the setting based on your care needs.

Once you identify areas that need to be addressed you can evaluate possible solutions. In some cases you can consider restructuring your living environment. For instance, if the bedrooms are upstairs and you cannot use the stairs, you may be able to convert a den or another room on the first level into a bedroom.

You can also consider a stair glide to get you from one level to another if converting another room is not possible. And if you cannot navigate stairs and they are the only access into the house, you may need to put in a ramp so you can get in and out.

You may also have to widen doorways or restructure your bathroom to allow you to navigate and safely use the toilet and tub or shower. Certainly there is a lot to consider, although the benefits of aging in place for those who can manage it are many.

To review the full Mature Market Institute report on aging in place, click here.

Homeowners Can Be Held ‘At Fault’ When Hiring Unlicensed Contractors for Remodeling

August 1, 2011 6:59 pm

With an increase in home remodeling, the California Professional Association of Specialty Contractors (CALPASC) is urging homeowners to think twice before hiring contractors who may be members of the underground or semi-underground economies for remodeling projects.

California law holds that a "significant residential remodel," defined as projects including demolition and rebuilding a significant portion of the house, and new construction fall under Cal/OSHA safety regulations. As such, the homeowner is treated as an employer and required to furnish a safe place of employment. Like other employers, homeowners hiring an unlicensed independent contractor, who may hire subcontractors, will be held responsible for the workers' safety (see California Labor Code Section 2750.5), and an injured worker can bring a lawsuit against a homeowner and use evidence of the homeowner's violation of the Cal/OSHA regulations to show the homeowner is at fault.

This is in contrast to "domestic household services," such as home maintenance, both inside and outside of the house, which are exempt from Cal/OSHA regulations as are projects where homeowners are doing the work themselves. 

CALPASC is all too familiar with the negative impact of the underground and semi-underground economies, where unlicensed contractors and subcontractors thrive, and is sending a warning flare to homeowners who often are unaware of the risks associated with remodeling projects and hiring unlicensed contractors.

According to CALPASC Chief Operating Officer Cees Molenaar, "Homeowners who are remodeling their homes often are in the dark about this requirement. They assume the contractors they hire are licensed professionals and carry the necessary insurance to abide by Cal/OSHA regulations. Unfortunately, today's growing underground and semi-underground economies create opportunities for contractors and subcontractors to take advantage of homeowners."

The underground and semi-underground economies consist of contractors who refuse to comply with state laws and regulations and conduct illegal business by hiring individuals without proper certifications, not training employees, under reporting payroll, not obtaining workers' compensation insurance or paying compensation premiums and more.

"In 2010, we implemented the LEVEL Program to work closely with state agencies in cracking down on contractors who intentionally cheat California out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and take advantage of consumers," says Molenaar. "There have been some successes in cracking down on those who 'skirt the law,' but we need homeowners to be a part of the solution."

Homeowners often are unaware of the consequences of hiring unlicensed contractors and assume homeowners' policies cover unlicensed contractors, which is not the case. Besides the obvious lack of professional ethics and not abiding by California's legal standards, unlicensed contractors often generate inferior work products and services and subject homeowners to financial exposure if an injury occurs.

In a recent press release issued by the Contractors State License Board (CSLB), consumers were urged to consider the following before hiring someone to work on their home:
• Hire only licensed contractors, and ask to see their license and a photo ID to verify their identity.
• Don't pay more than 10 percent or $1,000, whichever is less, as a down payment. There is an exception for about two dozen licensees who carry special bonds to protect consumers.
• Don't pay in cash, and don't let payments get ahead of the work.
• Get at least three bids, check references and get a written contract.

For more information, visit  

8 Money-Saving Tips for Back-to-School Shopping

August 1, 2011 6:59 pm

Summer is winding down and anticipation for a new school year is building. Back to school season means shopping for new clothes, school supplies, computers, textbooks and dorm room basics. The market research firm Morpace reported in 2010 households with school-age children spent an average of $404 on back to school items. To make the most of those dollars, shopping experts at have put together these 8 tips:

1. Wherever possible, look for bargains from sites that post deals and discounts.
2. Stick to the school district's lists of required supplies, and avoid the fancy stuff. Light-up erasers, pencils with feathers, and binders that play music are a distraction for teachers and students.
3. Some teachers send home a list of supplies for specific courses such as musical instruments, art kits, graphing calculators and sports equipment, so look for these items online where you can find deals for 50%, 60% and even 70% off of retail prices.
4. Start by gathering pencils, paper, scissors and other items that are still in good condition and sitting around the house. Also, clean-out the closets and hand down clothing to younger siblings, but be sure to mix in fun new outfits too so they don't feel left out.
5. Shop for clothing and supplies during a state sponsored tax-free shopping day. Find a list of states offering a 2011 back to school tax holiday.
6. Look for bargains on name brands when quality counts. Getting a great deal on a cheap backpack isn't so great when the zipper breaks in October. Name brand crayons, color pencils, markers, binders and dry erase supplies all tend to last longer,
7. Buy in bulk at online stores to save money this year and next, but be sure to send just the items needed to school saving the rest for future semesters.
8. Once all supplies are purchased, organize and label them with each child's name. This reduces the need to purchase additional school supplies later in the year.

For more information, visit

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