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Get What You Want . . . Online

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 1997; Page D05

Being a smart consumer is getting easier thanks to the free flow of information on the Internet, where the number of consumer-friendly Web sites is increasing faster than you can say "caveat emptor."

Whether you need legal insight into your consumer problem, want to know how to file a consumer complaint, want to find a low-interest credit card, learn how to be an environmentally conscious shopper, or track down a corporation's customer service department, you can probably find it online.

To point your cursor in the right direction, this column occasionally will review Web sites that help educate consumers. Here are three from the federal government:

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: Periodically revisiting this easy-to-explore Web site is a must for consumers who want to stay current on the never-ending manufacture of hazardous and injury-prone products. CPSC's jurisdiction covers some 15,000 products, from lawn mowers to baby cribs to hair dyers -- not drugs, food or automobiles, but the "things" of everyday life.

From its unadorned home page, click on the "Consumer" link to find announcements of product recalls and consumer alerts, listed monthly, going back through June 1997. Other CPSC publications, accessible by general category, can inform you on topics ranging from home playground safety tips to chain saw kickback hazards to the carbon monoxide facts. Many of the commission's general warnings (lawn darts, gas heaters) come seasonally, when consumers are at greatest risk; most are available here in Spanish as well.

Use the site's "Library" link or search engine to look up past product recalls; click on its "Public Calendar" to check out the hazardous hot spots ahead. CPSC encourages children to explore its "For Kids" section, where youngsters can learn and express themselves about safety issues affecting their lives, among them in-line skating injuries, bicycle safety, even how to be a better babysitter. Consumers who experience first-hand an unsafe product or product-related injury can report it directly from the "Talk to Us" link.

U.S. Federal Trade Commission: The FTC site's "Consumer Protection" will help make you scam-conscious and far more suspect of the truth in advertising. Here, the FTC's actions are fashioned into informative articles, covering the low-down on high-octane gasoline to the latest on "Made in the USA" labeling proposal. And although they get tedious, you can witness democracy in action in the FTC's public comments sections where thousands of the correspondences it receives from consumers are scanned into the site.

The "ConsumerLine" link connects you to a collection of the FTC's brief and informative "Consumer Alerts!" and "Education Campaign" publications, covering such issues like pyramid schemes and telemarketing scams. The full on-line text of the FTC's Consumer Resource Handbook is also available here.

Consumer Information Center: Whether you need information and sound advice in buying cars, roasting a turkey, mortgage refinancing, pension rights, or classic books for children, the U.S. government has probably researched it and published a brochure. This super site provides the text on-line of all those government publications you previously had to write to Pueblo, Colo., to get.

Want to buy U.S.-owned properties the right way? Want to find out the quality of your tap water? Want advice on teaching your kids the value of a dollar? It's all here. Plus, the CIC-dedicated search engine makes it easy to head straight for a specific topic; the same page links to seven of the most popular Internet search engines and the valuable Government-Wide Search Service.

Got a consumer complaint? Found a top-notch consumer Web site? E-mail details to or write to Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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