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Consumer Chitchat

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Caroline Mayer
Washington Post Consumer Reporter
Thursday, January 12, 2006; 1:00 PM

Do you have a consumer issue that you'd like addressed? How about a tip or useful consumer Web site you'd like to pass along (please, no solicitations). Scam advice?

Washington Post consumer reporter Caroline Mayer recently launched The Checkout, a new blog that addresses these concerns and more.

Mayer was online Thursday, Jan. 12, at 1 p.m. ET to answer your questions.

The Transcript Follows.

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Caroline Mayer: Hello all; welcome to my chat--and welcome to The Checkout, the Post's new consumer blog. It's only been up since Jan. 3, so I hope you've had a chance to look at it. Let me know how you like it--and what you'd like to see more or less of.

I know what I'd like-your help, in spotting useful consumer information to share or scams you think need to be stopped. Please share now--or in future, by writing me at TheCheckout@washpost.com.

Meanwhile, as you will see on The Checkout, today I posted an item about online customer satisfaction. I'd love to hear your tales during this chat--why you had a good/bad experience and why. Also, I'd like to know your experience of you got a defective product from an online store. Personally, I've had only good results, but one of my colleagues just sent me an email to say she thinks its harder to get problems solved when you buy online. Any thoughts?

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washingtonpost.com: The Checkout

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Greenville, Pa.: Hi. My name is Kristen. I recently just paid off all of my credit debts. And in order for me to get a mortgage loan, I have to establish and rebuild my credit. Do you know some ways that I can do that..? Thank you...

Caroline Mayer: One of the best ways is to still keep using your credit card, or at least one or two--BUT ONLY if you pay them off every month on time. That will show a record of timely payments, a plus on your credit history.

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Virginia consumer: Is there any reporting being done about the delays in switching a cell phone number to an Internet-based phone system? I believe it's required by law to be possible, but it took us hours on the phone, 4 months of waiting, and approximately $400 wasted (because of double-paying for both the cell phone and the internet phone service) before we finally just gave up and lost the phone number. I'm not sure that was legal.

Caroline Mayer: This is the first I've heard of such a big time lag and problem, but doesn't mean it hasn't happened to others. Have you checked with the Federal Communications Commission to see what your rights are and if it can help you?

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Washington, D.C.: Carolyn:

If there's an opportunity can you let people know about the D.C. Office of the Attorney General's consumer protection hotline? (202-442-9828). We also have a Web site where they can submit complaints

Thanks,

Wendy, AAG

Caroline Mayer: Wendy, Thanks for writing in. I would venture most DC residents don't know about you and they should: The DC Attorney General's consumer protection unit helps a lot of consumers who's had problems with DC businesses. So, again, if you've got a problem call the D.C. Office of the Attorney General's consumer protection hotline? (202-442-9828). Check out the Web site as well.

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College Park, Md.: Hello. I bought a textbook through half.com last semester. The expected arrival date was repeatedly pushed back. I realized fairly soon that the book was probably not going to come, yet I had to wait until the end of the shipping window to file a claim, over a month after I purchased the book. I did eventually file a claim with half.com, back in mid-October, and at the time was instructed that the claim process could take 30 days and I shouldn't contact them until after that. Well, 30 days has (obviously) come and gone, and I have still not seen my money. I can't find anywhere on half.com's Web site where I can resubmit my claim or check its status...all I get is an indicator that I claim has been filed. I also couldn't find any kind of customer assistance hotline. Do you or your readers have any suggestions on what steps to take next? I know that I can dispute the charge through my credit card company, but half.com threatens to cancel your membership if you do that and I am concerned that I will have issues with the credit card company since the charge was made way back in August. Please help! I want my money back!

Caroline Mayer: Wow. I don't blame you--I'd want my money back too. It's hard to believe a company would condition a membership on you not complaining to your credit-card company. That should be a warning in and of itself. (I didn't know you had to be a "member" of half.com--I bought things there without being such)...

At this point, I'd say you've got nothing to lose but file a claim with your credit card company. Do you really want to buy from half.com again if it's not responsive to your claims?

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Washington, D.C.: About 5 years ago, I had mangled credit which I had been ignoring for at least 5 years before that. In 2001 I started getting it together and one of the things I did was pay off an outstanding cell phone bill. At the time I didn't have a bank account so I paid with a money order. I thought everything was fine until I pulled my credit report a year and a half ago and it was listed as unpaid. I went to the collection agency listed, told them I had paid it and it was removed from the credit report. Well now it is listed on my report again with a different collection agent (who has my proper address and said they sent notices but I have never received them). Unfortunately the phone company, AT&T, just merged with Cingular so no one at Cingular can even find a record of my account. What do I do to fix this and get it off my account short of paying $700 for something I have already paid? Thank you.

Caroline Mayer: If it's a five-year-old debt, it may well be past the statute of limitations--that all depends on where you live. So they shouldn't be hounding you...My best advice, at this point, is to consult a lawyer and see what you can do. If you don't want to, my only other caution is to watch your mail carefully. If you get some official notice re the claim being taken to court or arbitration, DON'T ignore it--if you do, the case could go to the debt collector by default and you'll be stuck, even if it's past the statute of limitations. Good luck.

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Alexandria, Va.: To the person with the cell phone number switching question: by law, cell phone providers must let you keep your number when you are switching to another cell phone company. I do not know of a law that requires them to let you keep your number when you switch from a cell phone to Internet-based telephony.

Caroline Mayer: Thanks. I don't know either about the Internet connection but can't assume why the law shouldn't be the same. That's why I'd check with the FCC; If a law was violated, they should know--and if so, you should file a complaint. The regulators are never going to know if something's wrong if you don't complain!

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washingtonpost.com: Filing a Complaint with the FCC (www.fcc.gov)

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Alexandria, Va.: I can share some names of places where I've received good and bad service, both online and offline.

Online:

- Newegg.com , which sells computer components and other electronics, has good prices, is upfront about shipping costs, and has good phone support if something goes wrong.

- Amazon.com has always treated me well, and on the few occasions that I've had problems, I complained and received a $5 coupon for my next purchase. Not bad.

Offline:

- REI, which sells clothes and equipment for outdoorsy activities, has an excellent return policy. If you're not satisfied, they'll take it back. None of the "15% restocking fee" or "30-day limit" nonsense.

- Nordstrom has excellent service. I bought a suit this December and was treated like royalty. Having salespeople work on commission does wonders for service.

- Toys 'R' Us seems to be sinking farther and farther down. I bought something there recently, and the grumpy-looking cashier perfunctorily rang me up. There were few, if any, employees on the floor to help customers.

- I have found that salespeople of CompUSA, Best Buy, Micro Center, and other electronics stores are either unhelpful or dishonest. I know a lot about computers, and I overhear the salesmen enthusiastically misleading uninformed customers about the necessity of purchasing the most expensive items.

Caroline Mayer: Thanks. That's pretty close to some of the findings that ForeSee saw--posted on my blog this morning.

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washingtonpost.com: The Checkout

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Defective on-line: I've had two good experiences w/Amazon sending replacement books when the ones I received had reversed covers, or messed up bindings. They took me on faith and sent the replacement out before they received the one I returned.

Caroline Mayer: Good to know. Thanks

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Freeport, Maine: It's probably not a bad idea to consider closing some of your existing credit accounts if you have too many, ie. more than 2 or 3. In order to close an account "officially," you should do a "hard close" -- that is when you cut up the card and mail it in with a written request to close your account. Doing it over the phone instead is a "soft close," and the accounts will still show up on your credit score....

Caroline Mayer: Dear Freeport,

You are absolutely right. If you want to close a credit card account just don't assume that not using it will close it. You need to notify the company--and best way to do that is in writing, although I've never personally ad problem with the phone.

But I have an additional question. I notice in my credit report that I have an outstanding open account for a store credit card even though the store went out of business years ago. There's no balance on the account, so I'm not bothered by it but it would be nice to get off my record. Question is how do you close an account for a business that you can't contact? Anyone have any suggestions?

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20906: I have had some wonderful experiences with on-line shopping in the last few years and only a few negatives. The very best was a small company in Washington State called YakTrax (they sell rubber coils you put on the bottom of your shoes, boots to keep from sliding on the ice). When I realized I had ordered the wrong size I called to see if it was too late to switch. Not only was the woman on the other end of the phone pleasant when I explained why I was calling but, get this: She took my name and number and ran out to the shipping department to see if my item had gone out yet or not! She called back within minutes and made the exchange for me. Awesome service.

On the other hand, I ordered an OTT lamp. Not only couldn't they tell me when my light would be shipped but they couldn't find my order even tho I had an on-line confirmation number. I did get my light but it was totally a surprise when it arrived.

Caroline Mayer: It's hard to tell from what you wrote where you ordered the light? But great to hear about the YakTrax. I may need to order some for myself!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Caroline -

I have a question about shopping security. I've read descriptions of using a one-time credit card # that is linked by VISA (for instance) to your permanent credit card number. If an online database is hacked the thieves do not get your permanent card number -- only the linked temporary one that is no longer active after it was used.

Do you think these worthwhile and are they easy to arrange? Do most credit issuers have this as an option? Should we be more concerned about the waiter/waitress at a restaurant than card info theft via online hacking? Thanks for your opinion.

Caroline Mayer: There are some security experts who think these virtual or one-time use credit cards are good ideas--the less information out there the better. But there are others who note that it's of limited value. As you note, you hand your credit card to waiters and store clerks all the time,based on trust. And the credit-card company limits your liability to a maximum of $50, so the damage is not great...It's all up to you and your comfort level. If you feel better with the extra time it takes (and it's not a whole lot) then by all means, do it.

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RE: Remove old Accounts: The burden of proof is on the company who has reported to the Credit Reporting agency. If they cannot prove that the disputed info is incorrect, the agency MUST remove the info BY LAW. So if a company has been bought by another, and did not transfer old accounts (most don't), dispute the info. One caveat though, removing old accounts may actually hurt your score as History is one component of the credit score equation.

Caroline Mayer: Thanks for the info. You are right. If they can't prove it, they must remove the claim--but some collectors unfortunately may remove it--and then sell the debt to another collector. So you'll have to be vigilant.

As for removing old accounts--if it's a negative one (in that something is claimed to be due, especially when it's not) isn't it in your interest to get it removed?

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Fairfax, Va.: I have found online shopping to be a very good resource for a number of items particularly books. The Barnes & Noble Site, particularly with the AAA discount goes to the point of being particularly good and efficient. I met with great disappointment at the overstock.com site during the recent holiday season. I had very good luck with them until they sent a package addressed to me with contents designated for another customer. It seemed like a simple error, but escalated into a need to start a claim with my credit card company which finally resolved the matter. Overstock's customer service people were seemingly friendly, but quite useless.

Caroline Mayer: Thanks. I had a good experience with Barnes & Noble too--got a defective DVD set); store sent me out a new replacement pretty quickly.

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Washington, D.C.: I'd be wary of closing any open credit accounts. You could actually harm your credit score by doing so. Not only would you decrease your total available credit, thus, increasing the percentage of available credit utilized but, you may also negatively affect the "average length of credit" portion of your credit score.

While it is possible that a potential creditor could reject a loan application because an applicant had too much available credit, in every case I have seen, the creditor will simply request that the applicant close some of the open accounts. Pretty easy fix.

Caroline Mayer: Good advice. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: I have to give a shout-out to Orbitz. When I bought plane tickets online recently and immediately realized I had purchased them for the wrong day, I canceled and rebooked them. Orbitz, like most other sites and airlines, normally charges something like $100 for canceling or changing tickets. But since I did it within 2 hours of purchase, they didn't charge me that! A friend recently did -not- have a similar experience when she booked a ticket on the wrong day with Expedia. So yay, Orbitz! Keep it up!

Caroline Mayer: I like hearing good stories like Orbitz. Wonder what they would have done though if you had made your discovery about two days after your purchase.

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Ebay: Just a word of advice for ebay shoppers: some vendors offer items for sale that are available from retailers at much cheaper prices. For example, I was about to buy a TV stand from Ebay, and decided to shop around. I figured out that the seller was acting as "middleman" - if I ordered it from Ebay, he would just order that product from Walmart (or wherever), jack up the price and ship it to me. The vast majority of ebayers are honest, but it pays to be careful!

Caroline Mayer: You always need to do research when shopping on Ebay--not just prices but also check out the seller as well.

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N.Y.C.: Hi. I do most of my shopping online - groceries, furniture, electronics, gifts, etc. I have had very few bad experiences, and no problems with customer service. Example: I bought an Mp3 player online that broke. The company (Creative) was fabulous and replaced it with no hassle at all. My all time favorite online vendor is Overstock.com. They have great items, cheap shipping (I bought a leather club chair from them and the shipping was only $2.95!!!) and their customer service is above and beyond. I messed up an order and they called me to alert me and were very helpful. I keep ordering from them because I know that it will be hassle-free. My main advice is to make sure to always keep receipts and pay with a credit card if you are using Ebay so you can get a refund if you get scammed. I have purchased about 200 items from ebay and have only been scammed once (minor - item promised as new was used)

Caroline Mayer: So some good words about overstock--plenty for us to think about!

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Manassas, VA: Good on-line service:

1. Disney Shopping -- if it arrives damaged, you call the 1-800 # and it's addressed

2. Land's End -- pre-Sears buy, great service, can't say about now.

3. Amazon -- ditto previous comments

Good off-line service:

1. Locally owned shops -- they (ex. Opera House Gourmet)have a vested interest in your return business that is more personal than a Sears or Best Buy

2. Home Depot -- helpful,staffed

Bad off-line Service

1. Giant Food -- #1 offender. Never fully stocked, not clearly marked, never enough floor staff Izzy must be rolling in his grave going there but no good local alternatives

Caroline Mayer: You're right about local stores..And they know they've got to be good. Cuz we could all buy online if it wasn't for their great personal service.

As for Giant, I hear similar comments from a lot of "former" Giant customers.

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20906: I ordered the light from a company called OTT. It is one of those pure spectrum lights (getting older you know and need better light). The yaktrax are truly awesome. Rather than having spikes there is a maze of coils on the rubber that easily fits over shoe/boot. Yaktrax.com FYI.

Caroline Mayer: Thanks

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DO NOT close "old" credit cards: Your FICO score is based in a large part on the age of your credit accounts. If you have a zero-balance card that you've been holding onto and are thinking about canceling, DON'T. Put it in a drawer, freeze it in a block of ice, but don't cancel it. Use it once a year for a small purchase (so they don't cancel it for you) and pay it in full. Otherwise, your credit score will GO DOWN.

Caroline Mayer: Yes to all--but it's hard to use an old store credit card when the store is closed and no longer in business. It seems crazy to me that my credit score is determined in part by holding on (at least figuratively) to a card that is totally absolutely worthless. Yes, I know. It just shows the vagories of the credit score!

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Columbia, Md.: I did a lot of on-line shopping for the holidays -- Lakeside Collection, Kohl's, Old Navy, The Gap, Disney Store...

My only complaints is that the Old Navy and Gap clothes come in plastic bags and don't have tags, so I had to wrap the bags with the items. All the Kohl's items had tags, so if someone needed to return the item, they could.

Caroline Mayer: Good point. It's these little things--bags, tags--that online retailers are going to have to consider in the future. Although for years the plastic bags have been standard in most clothes bought through catalogues-before we ever heard of the Internet.

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Worst offline Hall of Fame Award....: Would have to go to CVS, with Giant as a close 2nd. What's not to hate - poorly stocked shelves, dirty stores, long lines and surly employees!

Caroline Mayer: I'm sure you're not alone in your thoughts.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Caroline, couple online shopping experiences to report on. Bestbuy.com with an in-store pick-up was a debacle. Wrong products, unhelpful store employees and unsympathetic phone customer service. My transaction is currently in a Credit Card dispute which might end up going in Best Buy's favor because there's no way to prove that I didn't actually pick-up the item. I simply refused it because it wasn't what I had ordered. The whole thing is incredibly frustrating.

Another bad one I've uncovered is PCMall.com. Their return and restocking fee policy listed on their Web site is in very general terms and nothing close to reality. Wait times for phone service were consistently over an hour (although they do give out direct extensions if prodded and most call back) and it wasn't until I threatened BBB and FTC complaints did they honor the policies outlined on their Web site.

A good one was apple.com. Outstanding user interface, quick, simple ordering and great phone customer service.

SVMcards - gas card distributor - was easy to deal with and despite their barebones Web site they delivered as promised.

The other usual suspects (i.e. amazon.com) all delivered on-time and as promised.

I think e-retailers with poor customer support are soon going to find the errors in their ways when repeat purchases are down. A snazy Web site is only half the battle.

Thanks for the great blog.

Caroline Mayer: Thanks for your comments. I think you're right. Now that the online retailers have figured out how to snare us to buy their goods, many who don't have good customer service are going to find they will have to improve it to keep us there.

As for Best Buy--whether online or in store, I have gotten a lot of complaints from readers this past month--maybe because everyone was buying electronics for the holidays? Maybe not...

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Orbitz ditched me: As a counter point to your pro-orbitz poster, when I arrived at my Orbitz booked, NYC hotel, they told me they would not honor the reservation. Orbitz said it was the hotel's fault, the hotel blames Orbitz. All I know is I've never had this kind of problem with the other services (expedia, travelocity).

Caroline Mayer: Wow. Not a nice situation. I hope you were at least able to find another room nearby and not at an outrageous price.

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Alexandria, Va.: I've had great online/catalog experiences with The Wine Enthusiast. Once I got a vodka serving set with about half of the shot glasses broken upon arrival. It was a Christmas gift, and they shipped a replacement to a different address prior to me returning the broken set. Another time I ordered a large wine rack and it came with a bent part that would not allow it to be assembled properly. They picked up the original rack and delivered the new one all at once, so I did not have to figure out how to return a 60lb, unwieldy box.

Caroline Mayer: Great to hear.

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Caroline Mayer: I wish I could keep chatting with you all but unfortunately, I've got to write a story for tomorrow's paper, so have to run.

Please keep in touch, email me your concerns, comments, questions--it's TheCheckout@washpost.com

Cheers.

Caroline

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