Your Consumer Advice Center

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Who Let The Dogs Out - How To Hire A Pet Sitter

I have 3 cats; don’t judge me … I’ve been banned from having dogs after I fell over mine and literally broke my neck.  In my paying job, I work at home, so the cats are with me all day long.  I do, however, go out of town on business fairly frequently to give seminars to companies and consumer groups, and when I go, I try to have someone stay with them, some who knows them and they know the person. 

A few weeks ago, I was going to a 3-day conference in Belton, Texas.  When I called my friend who regularly watches the girls to make reservations, though, she told me she was  completely booked.  Not wanting to leave the girls home by themselves for several days, I started looking around and found something new to me – companies that come into your home to look after your pets.  I interviewed several and found one particular company – Board at Home – that I felt really comfortable with.     

I did, however, make sure I followed the same criteria I use in choosing any company I hire to provide a service … especially when they’re coming into my home.

*  Business Personality.  I sat down and spoke face-to-face with the owner/manager of each company to get a “feel” for their personality, their business philosophy, level of experience, etc.  Each company more or less told me exactly what they thought I wanted to hear, but the point was the overall conversation, who tried to impress me the least, looked me in the eye, had fairly open body language and fidgeted the least.  I don’t really care how much actual experience they have in running a business if they’re enthusiastic about their field, are open and forthcoming in answering my questions and our overall personalities mesh, especially when they’re coming into my home.

*  Professional Insurance.  Does the company have insurance?  Whether it’s a contractor, a babysitter or a pet sitter, having liability insurance is a must.  If it’s a company that’s coming into your home while you’re away, you also want to see proof of bonding (a form of insurance that guarantees against theft by employees).  Here’s a general rule of thumb – if a company tries to talk you out of requiring insurance, telling you don’t need to worry about it, that it just increases the cost, or can’t give you at least the name of their agent, stay away – there’s probably a good reason they don’t have it.  Remember this, though – just because a company is bonded doesn’t mean you can be lax; still make sure to protect your valuables because bonds don’t cover the emotional or practical value of the missing item, only the cash value.

The company I hired did a great job, came in twice a day, played with each of the kitties, fed and watered them and the cost was pretty close to what I’d have paid had I taken them to a kennel.  It was also nice to know they didn’t have the trauma of not being in their home. 

So whether it’s dogs or cats, hiring a pet sitter doesn’t have to be a major pain - just be smart about it.

Got a comment?  Got something you’d like us to look into?  Write us at lonestarconsumer@outlook.com.

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Moving Ahead - Moving Without (Many) Tears

It’s getting close to the beginning of the summer and everyone will be trying to get moved before the summer ends and the kids get back to school.  More and more people have decided that rather than herniate their friends and family, they would rather hire a moving company for all or part of the move.

I recently spoke with the president of a large national moving company about the most common problems people have when hiring a moving company.  One of the first problems he told me that people have is deciphering how they’re going to be charged.  It’s very important to make sure when you’re shopping around, you compare apples with apples in terms of rates.  Most moving companies will charge an hourly rate and then add on extra charges for things like boxes, packing, mattress fees, etc.  Larger companies sometimes will roll the smaller fees into a general hourly price or will charge by the square foot or by the pound – if you don’t understand at first, make sure you do before you sign anything. 

Here’s a basic checklist when using a moving company:

Before the move:

*  Use companies that offer “guaranteed not to exceed” estimates and come to your home to give you an estimate.  Companies cannot reasonably give you a correct estimate unless they actually see what you’ve got.

*  Request an inventory sheet, even on a local move, to make sure everything that went on the truck has been taken off at your new location.

When packing:

*  If you have delicate items, pack them yourself, even if the company is packing everything else.  Also, know where those boxes are at all times, either by shipping them to your next home ahead of time or by keeping them with you.

*  Write the room on the box where it goes at your new location.  If you are taking specific boxes with you, write in large letters “DO NOT LOAD” on the side.

*  Make sure to tape all boxes closed, even if you’re only going down the street but be careful not to tape any wooden surfaces.

*  Disconnect any appliances or electronics that are being moved and make sure they’re ready for transport; this includes draining the washer and the waterbed before the movers show up.

On moving day:

*  Examine everything as it goes on and comes off the truck with the crew chief and indicate on your inventory sheet the condition of each piece at both ends of the move.

*  Make sure someone is at the old and new homes on moving day. 

*  Make sure you know what form of payment the moving company takes and have it ready for the completion of the move.  Don’t forget tips for the guys who actually have moved your stuff in and out.  In Texas.  In the heat.

*  If you have any questions, the crew chief is the first person you need to talk to.

Moving does not have to be the hardest day of your life.  Planning and preparation are the first keys of any move … even before you get your house keys.

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It’s Been Another Historic Week - Reflections on Chaos And First-Responders

It’s been one of those weeks we’ll be talking about for years to come, between the Boston Marathon bombing and the horrific explosion at the fertilizer factory just outside Waco, Texas. 

I started working at the NBC affiliate in Denver back in 1992, the same time I started at KOA, the biggest radio station west of the Mississippi, and a news radio station.  My first big-news newsroom experience was the Waco siege.  At the time, the adrenaline and organized chaos that ran through both newsrooms was very exhilarating. News director, assignment editor, producers, reporters — everyone was running around, trying to make sure we had enough reporters at the scene.  

I was still relatively new, so everyone was just moving around me; I should have taken the time to savor the quiet because it would be the last big news day I would be on the fringes.

Next came Oklahoma City.  We had moved the radio show to KHOW by that time, a smaller radio station but still focused on news and information.  We were on the air when the bomb hit.  I remember my own adrenaline starting to rush as we talked about which reporters were catching flights right away to be on the scene by the afternoon and we stopped everything for live coverage.  I didn’t have time to focus on the TV news images running in the background until the evening, when the devastation really hit me.

There were many more big stories but the last one i shared in at the newsrooms was Columbine; it’s one of the reasons we moved from Denver and I left the “official” news business.  My daughter went to a school not far from Columbine and we couldn’t get through to the school because it was on lockdown.  I tried as hard as I could to get my job done, but my thoughts kept going to my daughter - what if it were her school?  Is she ok?  Is she scared?  But I couldn’t get to her because I had a job to do - get people where they needed to be, make sure all angles were being covered, get the information to the viewers/listeners.

I walked away from the newsroom after that, but not the adrenaline.  It’s funny how it sticks with you.  When 9/11 hit, I was on my way out and it all stopped.  My thoughts went to the sources and how much info could I gather in as short a time as possible.  I scrambled for sources through the internet (limited though they were at the time), calling friends and family New York and New Jersey and generally going from channel to channel to glean as much info as possible.

A journalism professor in college said, “Once a journalist, always a journalist,” and I think he was right.  The adrenaline surge has calmed down a bit but the initial rush to find out as much info as possible in the first hours is still there.  I spent most of Monday going from news station to news station, website to website, trying to put everything together in a cohesive manner that my brain could comprehend.  I suppose it’s a bad habit by now, one I’m really trying to curb, but it may be something that hangs on the rest of my life.  

As a society, we may feel reporters and journalists are hard-hearted blood suckers who only want to feed on the pain of others.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The problem is that when you’re in the middle of a big story, you have to push everything to the back of your mind or you’ll crumble - or walk away, like I did - to save your mental and emotional health.  While lives are not necessarily at stake (although they could be) because of what you do, you’re as invested as any other firsts-responder and all you want to do is help get the info out as quickly and accurately as possible.  You’ll grab every bit of information as if it’s the truth and report it, apologize later if it’s wrong (which is still a sticking point for me), but nonetheless, you still see everything and are involved in everything the first-responders are.

In the end, it still boils down to the fact that life is very fragile and can be gone in the blink of an eye when we least expect it.  It doesn’t have to be an explosion or terrorist attack to take it away from you.  Hug your loved ones frequently and make sure they know you love them - everything else comes in second.

Thanks for being a part of my blog … we’ll be back to regular consumer info next week.

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Moving On Out

Angela and Miguel came to Austin a few months ago from the East Coast after the hurricane.  Both nursing students, they were able to transfer to UT and find an affordable apartment here in Austin for the remainder of the year.  They were thrilled to be in Austin and loved the wonderful hospitality they found here, but were only staying until the end of the year.

At the end of the lease, though, as they were packing to go back, they found the hospitality expired along with their lease.  Their landlord told them they would not be getting their $700 deposit back.  They also would be liable for extra charges for replacing the carpet and painting the apartment.  When they contacted us, they were pretty upset … that $700 was supposed to go toward their new place in New York.  Besides, Angela had spent 2 days cleaning the carpets and every inch of that apartment to make sure they would get their deposit back.

The good news is that Miguel and Angela were able to get their deposit back, between things they did when they first moved in, plus some additional help we were able to give them.  So what did they do right? 

First, the day they signed the lease, they walked through the apartment with their video camera, getting up close and personal with the appliances, the carpet and the bathroom.  They also made sure the video was dated.  

Throughout their lease, they made a list of every repair needed, the date they called and when the landlord responded.  When the toilet required snaking, Miguel made sure to take a dated picture of the chips in the toilet caused by the snake. 

Finally, a week before they left, they called the manager and asked her to walk through and let them know what needed to be fixed before they moved out.  They also videotaped the condition of the apartment after they moved all their furniture out and Angela was done with the final cleaning. 

Despite all their precautions, they still were in a bind, so we called the landlord and reminded them of what Texas law says: 

*  By law, a landlord cannot refuse to return a deposit without a valid reason.  Normal wear and tear is not considered a valid reason.  For example, carpet replacement and painting the walls are generally considered normal wear and tear.  If you put a large hole in the drywall or marked the walls with marker, that would be different, but most landlords, as a general rule, replace the carpet and paint the walls between tenants. 

*  Deposits must be returned within 30 days.  If part of the deposit is withheld, the landlord must give you an itemized list of deductions and a description of damages within that 30 days.  The deductions must be reasonable; they can’t charge you $100 to replace a $25 toilet seat. 

Angela and Miguel said they miss Austin but are very happy to be back home, despite the snow storms that have hit since they’ve been back.  

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A Horse Is A Horse, Of Course

I’m on a rampage today.  More horse meat was found in processed food in Europe, this time in frozen chicken nuggets.  But why are we surprised?  We know, intellectually, that processed food isn’t what we think it is … Included in the article, posted on my alter-ego Lonely Gourmet site, is my recipe for homemade baked chicken nuggets.

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The World Of Education Is Changing: A View From SXSWedu

My father was an educator his entire life.  He dedicated himself to ensuring all children, regardless of race or economic situation, had an opportunity to learn equally.  

Over the years, he and I had many conversations about the changing educational system in the United States and throughout our conversations, the topic of the changing public school paradigm was central.  Both parents and children are becoming more disconnected from one another and from the school model; my father was especially disappointed that public schools were becoming more of a glorified babysitting center rather than a place of learning.  Teachers who really want to impart knowledge and help children are being stifled in favor of preparing children for standardized testing.

It’s with this background that I’m attending the annual SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas.  Specifically, listening to an interview in the Compass Learning Bloggers Lounge with Tom VanderArk from GettingSmart.com has me wishing my father were here.

Tom VanderArk is at the center of potential change in the way public education will look in the coming years.  He has spent years looking at ways of integrating technology with learning and has some exciting ideas on how to do accomplish this integration with both existing and new schools, ideas that could very well save our educational system.

There can be no doubt that our current public educational system is failing and technology is the only way we can save them.  I’m most excited by Mr. VanderArk’s ideas of combining new technology with existing educational methods, while at the same time closing schools that are failing and opening in their place new, innovative schools featuring a combination of online and hands-on teaching methods to shift to a more personalized method of teaching.

As technology progresses, students are at the forefront of adapting to that technology in their daily lives; why should they leave the technology behind when they enter a classroom?  Engaging the students is critical to rebuilding our public educational system, which is critical to the future of society in general; without adequate education, all public sectors suffer, from the economy on down.

I’m excited about the future of education, especially with visionaries like Tom VanderArk leading the charge.  Let’s hope those in charge don’t get to scared by change and allow it to happen.

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Buddy Can You Spare A Dime? Payday Loans - Pro or Con?

Adele asked us to take a look at “payday loans.”  She said she had seen those commercials promising quick, easy loans and all you have to do to provide a pay stub but when she went in, she was very surprised.  We decided to go undercover and check out several payday loan companies and check it out.

First, what is a payday loan?  These are small, short-term, high-rate loans that are offered as a way to solve an immediate cash problem.  Most are due within 2 weeks or you have to pay a penalty to extend it.  It can be very expensive credit, though, often higher than credit cards; for instance, for each 2-week loan period on a $500 loan, you will pay $100 in fees and each 2-week extension brings another $100 in fees. 

Just how easy are they to get?  We went undercover to 3 places that offer payday loans – a pawn shop that also offers payday loans and 2 businesses that strictly offer payday loans.  The approval process didn’t seem to be a nightmare, but it wasn’t as easy as walking in with a pay stub and walking out with cash.  Here’s what we found:

*  In order to apply for a loan, all 3 asked for a most recent copies of bank statements, phone bills (either regular or cell is okay), pay stub, driver’s license or photo ID and a voided check from a checking account.

*  All put a $1000 limit on the amount available and not everyone qualifies for the limit; how much you get is based on your income.

*  Most don’t report your payment history to the credit bureaus, so you’re not necessarily building a credit history, even if you pay faithfully.

We all find ourselves on the short end of the paycheck from time to time, especially during these extra tough economic times.  So what can you do if you’re stuck for cash?  Here’s some advice from the Federal Trade Commission:

*  Think about alternatives, which is sometimes hard to do when you’re strapped and stressed.  Consider a small loan from a credit union or small bank, an advance from your employer or a loan from family or friends.  You can also look at an advance on a credit card.

*  Ask your creditors for more time to pay your bills.  Most creditors offer extensions for a small fee.

*  Make a budget.  I know that sounds old fashioned, but getting back on your feet as quickly as possible after being in this situation is the only way to avoid it in the future and only a budget can get this done.

*  Evaluate your spending.  If you regularly have more month than paycheck, you’re in over your head.  Start by cutting up the credit cards and paying them off ASAP.  Pay only with cash for a month or two to see exactly how much you have on hand and adjust your spending from there.

*  If you still decide to go with a payday loan, only borrow what you can reasonably pay back the next payday and still be able to eat.  Don’t settle for the first place you go, either.  Shop around and look for the place that offers the lowest APR.

Laws regulating payday loans change continually, as states attempt to stop predatory practices, so check with your local State Attorney General if you think you’ve been a victim of unscrupulous loan companies.  

The bottom line?  If there’s any way around it, even if it causes embarrassment, stay away from payday loan companies - you’ll be better off in the end.

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ShortFormBlog: IKEA's Swedish meatballs tainted by horsemeat scandal, too


  • 1,675 pounds worth of Ikea meatballs were prevented from reaching the shelves at stores throughout Europe after it was found that, like hamburgers and lasagna packages before it, they contained horsemeat. Among the countries affected include Slovakia, Hungary, France, Britain,…

The never-ending horsemeat scandal.  Organic, free-range meats, grass-fed and local are the best ways to ensure you’re getting what you think you’re getting.

(Source: foxnews.com)

Filed under consumers food meat consumer affairs consumer advice shopping

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You Have NOT Just Won A Million Dollars


No one in THIS country wants to give you money either.

In the past 5 days, I’ve gotten at least 10 prize-winning notifications, including one from Italy telling me my number has been declared a winner in a lottery, “proudly sponsored by the MIcrosoft Corporation, the Intel Group, Toshiba, Dell Computers, McIntosh and a conglomeration of other international IT companies.”  Did you catch it?

I’ve also been told someone in Gambia desperately needs my help to funnel money out of the country by providing them with my bank account info, that God directed a banker in the Ivory Coast to me for help getting his family’s funds out of the country, and a window in Zimbabwe asked another banker in Italy to contact me for my help preserving her husband’s assets.

All these emails are part of a continually circulating internet scam that started at least 15 years ago as the infamous, “Nigerian fax letter,” which asked you to fax a copy of your checking deposit slip and your company’s letterhead to help some government official get money out of Nigeria.

How can you tell these emails are fake?

First, ask yourself - “Why me?”  That automatically should ring a bell.  You’re not the only one receiving this email, no matter what it says.  And what’s so special about you?  Do you have lots of money?  Chances are you are like the rest of us - making it paycheck to paycheck, always one paycheck away from living in a van down by the river.  So why would they want you?

Also, many of these solicitations are from Africa … the continent so many celebrities want to help because people are so poor.  Think about it.

If you still think it’s legitimate, carefully read over the solicitation several times.  If it were legitimate, there would not be critical misspellings.  Take a look at the first example; notice how they spelled “Macintosh” (and by the way, the company isn’t called Macintosh - it’s Apple).  Companies pay boatloads of lawyers to protect their trademarks, so they would certainly make sure their company name were spelled correctly, if they were involved.  One of the emails I got had so many general typos in it, I was getting a headache.

So, here are some basic rules of thumb:

  • Never respond to an unsolicited email asking for any kind of financial or personal information, even if it’s a company you deal with regularly.  Resist the urge to respond immediately, no matter how urgent it sounds.
  • Never respond to an unsolicited email from someone you don’t know and especially don’t click on any links inside the email.
  • Contact the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ifccfbi.gov - this website is a partnership between the FBI and the National White collar Crime Center; their job is to get these guys.

The 21st Century has brought with it all kinds of new technological advances and more are to come.  Take advantage of them, by all means, but be smart about it.  If you wouldn’t talk to a stranger on a street corner in your home town, stay away from strangers in your email inbox or on the web.

Filed under computers internet security web security scams phishing consumer affairs consumers

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An Accident By Any Other Name

Jo, a single mom, was at church; she was late, so she parked at the back of the parking lot.  During the service, one of the attendants came and asked for her car keys; she didn’t think anything about it, she just figured she had parked wrong in her haste to get into church.  As Jo was walking out, though, was she surprised.

Ahead of her, Jo saw flames and smoke billowing into the air, coming from the back of the parking lot.  To her right, coming toward her down the street, was her car, the passenger door smoldering.  Halfway up the street, her passenger door burst into flames.  The car pulled back into the front parking lot and the attendants rushed over with fire extinguishers to put out the fire.  Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Jo learned that someone had pulled in next to her and this person’s car caught on fire in the firewall/front driver’s brake area, catching only Jo’s car on fire.  As she was gathering insurance information from the other driver, tires were exploding into the air, flames and smoke continued to soar and her little old car, on which she only had liability, smoldered.

Incredible?  Wait.  Another church member brought Jo home and she immediately called the other person’s insurance company, who gave her a claim number and told her someone would call her on Monday.  She also called her own insurance company, who told her that, because she only had liability on the car, the other person’s insurance would have to cover it.

Monday morning, Jo called the adjuster, only to be informed that, because the other person hadn’t intentionally caused their car to blow up, it was an accident, so there would be no coverage for Jo’s damages.  Incredulous, Jo said, “Isn’t that what insurance is for, accidents?”  The adjuster said there’s a difference between a traffic accident, where negligence of one party can be determined, and a “true” accident, where things just happen and insurance companies only cover for negligence-type accidents.  The adjuster suggested she sue the other party.

Jo called her own insurance agent, who agreed with the adjuster; her own company wouldn’t cover it either, even if she had comprehensive coverage and agreed that her only option was to sue the other driver.

Jo didn’t want to sue another church member and couldn’t afford to fix her car, so she drove around a while with her charred door.  Then, while she was on a business trip, congregation members got together and fixed her car, for which she says she will be eternally grateful.

The lesson for us?  Don’t assume your insurance pays for everything.  Check your coverage.  Make sure you know exactly what is covered and what’s not.  If you don’t understand what the policy says, find someone to explain it to you in terms you can understand.