More Consumer Alerts

Recognizing a business that gets it right

Customer service is something you can appreciate when you get the good version. But far more often, it is the source of complaints. So, in this holiday season, it’s time to celebrate an example of remarkable customer service, and take a brief break from the usual hassle of overcoming bad service.

Off-the-mark gift? A few retailers have made returns easier

In a season in which everyone is buying, it’s pretty important to understand returning.

Gift cards work well — in most cases

While gift cards are a popular gift for those who are hard to shop for, buyers should beware.

State survey finds wide price range among groceries

If you’ve ever had a disagreement with someone over whether there’s really a difference in prices at different grocery stores, a survey by the state Office of Consumer Affairs should settle it.

While shopping online, watch out for bogus deals

The biggest shopping period of the year is upon us. That means consumers need to be extra vigilant.

Free airfare may have a price

Free certainly can be expensive if you’re not paying attention to the fine print.

Resist temptation: Free trial offers can really cost you

Free trial offers are everywhere. They’re nothing like the free samples you might find at a BJ’s Wholesale Club store or a Trader Joe’s. Those are free.

In this case, assisted living agreement needs adjustment

A reader who lost a sister did not want to lose a hefty down payment to an assisted living facility the sister never moved in to.

Uncashed checks can be claimed, if state got the funds

Money behind dormant checks moves from financial institutions to the state. So going to the Abandoned Property Division does the trick.

The plausible sounding tale can entice you

There is something about the desire to get easy money — whether it’s millions of dollars or just a few thousand — that some people can’t resist.

Watch out for trouble

Your job as a good consumer is to watch for those errors and try to get them fixed.

Don’t get stuck in customer service limbo

When you are stuck in customer service in a situation you are convinced you are right about, remember to escalate.

Solution to faulty driveway may require trip to court

As of Aug. 1, the limit in small claims court rose from $2,000 to $7,000.

DSL hookup proves tricky

Running a wire to connect the outside box to a new-built home or condo is something that ought to have been done by the builder.

Satellite subscribers face stiff penalties for early cancellation

Among the persistent themes in the world of consumers over the years has been the steady barrage of complaints against satellite TV companies.

For results, take your complaints to the top

If you’ve run into a jam at the retail or warranty level and it’s clear a reasonable effort is not being made to resolve the situation, escalate your complaint.

Implied warranty gives consumers in Mass. protection

Massachusetts has some consumer protections you just don’t find everywhere and consumers who get into a jam ought to know that.

With no warranty, buyer gets little help when product fails

Isn’t it wonderful to know the old adage about the customer always being right has been turned on its head?

Travel insurance might be only way to get airfare refund

Q. Our connecting flight was pulled out of service midway (smoke/wiring issue) and no connecting flight to Albuquerque or other options were available to get us there for two days.

Glitches in recorder, service

Once a company's products failed you a few times, it’s time to move on to another company.

Getting rid of recalled cribs

The dangers of recalled products with as long a life as cribs can remain for years after a recall if the owners either ignore it or never hear about it at all.

Verizon passes along telephone pole tax

Massachusetts cities and towns charge local property taxes on Verizon telephone polls and wires, but let the company pass the cost to consumers.

Weeding out Census scams

The Census does not collect any data from citizens via the Web and will not request information via e-mail. So, if you get an email from the Census, it is a scam.

Read the fine print to avoid surprise fees

Consumers don’t read what we agree to. When we get what seems like a deal, we don’t ask questions, read the terms of agreements, or do enough due diligence.

Before you book a room, check the terms

It is reasonable to expect some sort of refund for something you never used. But if you book a discount hotel room online, you may be out of luck.

Check your mover's track record

Moving is stressful all by itself, but not properly screening the company you’re going to use to help with your move can be an invitation to disaster.

Tax software passes costs on to you

The most popular tax software programs charge a filing fee for state taxes. This is a business tactic, not a state fee.

Card switch can rankle customers

Credit card companies sometimes switch credit card brands on customers without warning based on deals with card companies.

Pay-by-phone fees for cards linger

The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act was supposed to stop pay-by-phone fees, but a loophole remains.

Getting tech help can be a challenge

Calling technical support to solve a computer issue should be easy, but the experience can often lead users into a frustrating run-around.

Making a claim for travel damage can be one bad trip

Airline policies on claims for luggage damaged in transit mean the deck is stacked against the customer.

Keep an eye on your credit card bills

Surprising and unwanted charges can sneak onto your credit card bill if you're not careful about reviewing your statements - sometimes for thousands of dollars.

Holding contractors accountable

Choosing a contractor that is registered with the state's Consumer Affairs office isn’t a guarantee of getting a good contractor, but it does provide some protection and it gives you a place to go for intervention

Mysterious phone charges common

Third-party companies can slip unwanted charges onto your phone bill without your consent. Here's how to push back and get the charges reversed.

Some warranties aren’t worth cost, hassle

Read a product's warranty closely. It can be filled with language intended to nullify many claims. Typically, such warranties are not worth buying.

Don't say 'I do' to wedding scams

Future brides and grooms, prepared to spend considerable sums on their weddings, are prime targets for both legitimate business and scams.

Stores build reputations on returns

Stores have clamped down on returns because of theft problems. And in Massachusetts, retailers can have a wide range of return policies as long as they are disclosed.

Checking scams led 2009 fraud

Phony check scams topped the National Consumers League list of most reported frauds last year, accounting for more than 42 percent of complaints.

State has little sway over cable charges

Several readers have written in about issues with their cable rates. Even though the state regulates the industry, its regulation of billing is actually very limited

FICO lapse scary, but not an epidemic

It's scary to learn someone is poking through your personal financial information, and worse when you learn they got it through people who score your credit.

'Fridge purchase leaves buyer in the cold

After multiple delays in delivery, a buyer canceled a Sears refrigerator purchase. But his refund didn't show up on time, either.

Claiming a warranty on a bankrupt brand

After Linens ’n’ Things shut down last year, consumers wondered about their warranties on items purchased there.

Complaints need to reach the right person

A lengthy delay or lack of response in remedying a problem may indicate a breakdown in communication.

Can manufacturers replace a defective TV with a used one?

Several readers have written in with similar questions regarding having new televisions, computers, and appliances that weren’t working properly replaced per the warranty with refurbished models rather than new ones. All raised issues of legality.

Cracking code on discontinued TV proves problematic

Q. We bought an ILO brand HDTV in 2005 in advance of the changeover to digital broadcast. We subscribe to Comcast, and during the last four years we have had to use two remotes to turn on and change channels on our TV. We have asked Comcast on many occasions for the input code for their remote control for our TV. No luck.

College Board’s no-refund policy is not negotiable

Q: How can The College Board have such a monopoly on college entrance exams and all related items and be so inflexible and unforgiving when it comes to refunds. I have a daughter who was recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and has been very sick as a result. In the midst of all of our issues she signed up for an SAT test she can’t take.

Subscription firm has difficulties

Q. My daughter paid $40 for a subscription to American Cheerleader when she was approached by a Worldwide Subscriptions Corp. salesperson at the Natick Mall. After hearing about the “cash only’’ requirement for this order, I became suspicious, made some phone calls, and decided to cancel this subscription, which the receipt specified one had three days to do.

Size of price discrepancy dictates what you pay

Q. I recently purchased a package of paper towels. They were in a bin where sale items are traditionally placed. There were six rolls of towels in each package and they were priced with a red sticker that read $4.19. As this is a store that is usually overpriced and rarely has sales, I was surprised to see both a sale and a markdown.

New bank rules could have headed off fee problem

Q. I have been caught in a web of events leading from a mistake in June that has led to hundreds of dollars in fees. It is not a case of not having the money in the bank or being unable to pay the fees. We are longtime Bank of America customers.

Stores must be cautious when customers forget their cards

Q. When I went to pay my credit bill at a Macy’s recently, I discovered that I had forgotten my Macy’s charge card. The clerk asked for identification. I presented my driver’s license. She also asked for my Social Security number. I told her that I was uncomfortable with that.

Independent ATMs pose more risk than you think

If you’ve ever wondered about those ATMs you see in bars and neighborhood stores that aren’t affiliated with a bank, what Robert Siciliano demonstrated probably won’t inspire much confidence. Siciliano, a Boston-based security expert for Intelius, an identity theft protection company, decided earlier this fall to buy one of those ATMs.

Despite 16 phone calls, she got no help from Verizon

Q. On Aug. 31, I began to receive calls from a collection firm for a Verizon bill. Since I had no past-due bills, I called Verizon to ask for the bill’s date and contents, but was told Verizon purged its records once the bill went to collection. The collection firm placed the bill in dispute and requested copies of all my records, which I sent in late September.

Complaints about Dell coupons are common

Q. I bought a Dell Inspiron 15 in August. A few weeks later, I received a pamphlet from Dell with a coupon for $250 off a $799 or larger purchase of a Dell Inspiron.

Scanning ID at purchase legitimate only in a few cases

Q. When I went to pay cash for a six-pack of beer at a liquor store in Grafton, the clerk asked to see my driver’s license. I am over 60 years old and look every day of it. I thought the request odd, but showed him my license. He took it, read it slowly, then flipped it over and, using a scan gun, scanned the barcode on the license. Data clearly registered on the clerk’s computer screen, and he examined those data carefully.

Why some items never go on sale, and why that's legal - for now

Q. There are some brands of goods that absolutely never are discounted or on sale. Even when there is a storewide sale, these products are excluded by the fine print in the sale ad. Presumably the manufacturer is orchestrating this. I thought there were fair trade laws that make this practice illegal. What am I missing?

Cruise lines' airfare deals may contain hidden costs

Q. Eight of us are going on a cruise from Fort Lauderdale. We made all arrangements through Princess Cruise Lines. The bill had to be paid in full by the end of July. We paid, and then they sent us our flight arrangements. We were told “every effort is made to obtain the best air schedule.’’

Extended warranties often not worth it because of loopholes

Q. I bought a four-piece leather living room set from Jennifer Convertibles in 2006. It consisted of a love seat, couch, a chair, and an ottoman. I also purchased the extended warranty to protect my investment. In early 2008 the chair started to discolor. ...

If a company is dragging things out, it’s best to raise a stink

Q. I have a service contract on a GE washer. The contract is for four years ending in 2012. The washing machine covered under this contract was included with the sale of our house in Dedham in June. The General Electric Co. service contract states: “You may cancel your Contract at any time for any reason. ...

Policy on gluten-free meals a hassle for this passenger

Q. I will be traveling with my husband for vacation on an airline. This is my first major trip since being diagnosed with celiac disease and hypoglycemia. We used frequent-flier miles and are going first class. We did this so that I would be able to eat adequately on such a long ...

Giving credit to a friend is dangerous

Q. In 2007, my wife was trying to do a favor for a friend who was down on her luck financially. I strongly advised her against it, but she signed up for a credit card with a second user being this woman. My wife told Chase that she wanted a strict cap on the credit limit of this card set at $1,000.

At the fair, carnival tricks of entirely different sort

I was enjoying a gloriously sunny day last week at the Spencer Fair - a pretty big deal event in central Massachusetts - when I saw something familiar - in a not-so-good, suspicious way, that is. Hidden among the many cattle, food vendors, racing pigs, and the trapeze act was an enticement. It probably didn’t look so scary to most people.

Retailer says it's crucial to learn from blunders

Q. I went to the Lane Bryant website to buy a gift card for my daughter-in-law’s birthday. It would not accept my greeting message for the card, but then the transaction seemed to go through. A few days later, I got another message saying the order was canceled because of credit card refusal.

Canceling PayPal account won’t resolve mix-up

Q. Recently I bought a guitar amplifier on eBay at a price agreed to by the seller. However, by the time the seller saw the payment, someone else used “Buy it Now.’’ The seller refunded my money, but because he chose the wrong option, PayPal fees were deducted. After a couple hours on the phone with PayPal, he got them to refund the fees to me. Unfortunately, they ...

Customer hesitant to complain about microwave woes, again

Q. I have a microwave, which is still under warranty, and has previously broken three times. General Electric did not resolve my issues when I called to complain. Then they did not answer my letters. I have already paid more than $500 for repairs since the warranty only covered part replacement. There is obviously something wrong with this microwave, and GE refuses ...

Despite hassles, Mass. has some of best gift card laws

Gift cards have proven to be quite a problem for a lot of readers. Letter writers regularly ask what happens if you’re left holding a gift card from an establishment that has gone out of business.

Customer service problems mar dealings with Verizon

Q. I would like to get some help to find out why Verizon kept refusing to provide DSL high-speed Internet service to my phone line. Quite a few of my neighbors have DSL service. I have called Verizon numerous times and can never get beyond the person from their customer service number. Every time ...

Rescuing car, insurance money from the shop after an accident

Q. Over a month ago, my year-old BMW was hit while parked on Beacon Street in Boston. It was towed on that day to Herb Chambers Collision Center in Braintree on advice from Herb Chambers BMW, where I had purchased the car.

Government not held to same rules on credit cards

Readers have been peppering me with questions and comments over the past couple of weeks - particularly on two subjects, so it’s time to address them wholesale.

Can sub shop really impose unappetizing credit card fee?

Q. For years, I have eaten lunch daily at a local sub shop with co-workers. We spend an average of $30 to $40 dollars per week. The other day, I went in there by myself and ordered a salad and cold drink and put the charges on my Visa card. I then questioned the owner about a 30-cent extra charge that was placed on my Visa. His policy is that any credit card order under $10 dollars gets charged the extra 30 cents. ...

Theater’s closing leaves ticket holders in the lurch

Q. North Shore Music Theatre requested subscriptions for the 2009 season earlier than usual. I used my American Express card to pay for the subscription (about $700) in October. Early this year, the theater said it was canceling the 2009 season unless it raised $5 million.

Can auto repair shops charge for ‘environmental’ services?

Q. I brought my 1990 Acura Integra to Prime Acura in Walpole for some adjustments and repairs. I was charged $283.50 for labor, $42.62 for parts, and $24.88 for environmental charges. My problem is with the environmental charges. A manager told me the state allows auto dealers to charge a percentage of the bill for that. To top it off, the dealer then charged sales tax on the environmental charges.

Sick over after-hours charge for emergency room visit

Q. I went to the emergency room of the Milton Hospital at 6 a.m. on a Sunday. When I got the bill from the physician it stated “$30 additional for after-hours.’’ Is it legal to charge extra like that in an emergency setting?

Breaking up with DirecTV can be hard if service is bundled

Q. Recently, we received an offer from Verizon: Three services - phone, cable TV, and high-speed Internet - bundled together in one package. So we agreed to switch from Comcast. Verizon was quick to switch the phone over, and later the same day, DirecTV installed a dish on our roof. But no Internet service. After several days without any Internet service, I told Verizon to cancel everything - that we'd go back to Comcast.

Sometimes, a hit to your credit score is unavoidable

Q. I have good credit, but a lot of debt. I'm managing it, I'm paying it down, but it's going to take time. The balance on one of my credit cards is all from a balance transfer, and the interest is very low and fixed. Until this past week, my credit limit on this card was more than double the ...

Product warranty remains even if retailer goes away

Q. In October 2008, I purchased a Black & Decker 12-cup SmartBrew coffee maker (DCM2500) at Linens 'n' Things. The coffee maker started to leak from the bottom of the brewing unit and did some sparking as well. I called Black & Decker to see what they could do as the unit was only six months old and had less ...

Advertising sale items

When a product is advertised, particularly at a deeply discounted price, it would be good form to have the product available for purchase. Generally, the law requires such form.

It's easy to find abandoned property in state records

Q. My question is concerning lost property (stocks, bonds, bank accounts, etc.). My mother-in-law, a retired schoolteacher, passed away over 12 years ago. She left a very complicated, diverse estate, and because of family issues at the time, many of her properties ended up in transfer companies or Massachusetts Abandoned Property. My husband and I worked hard to find everything ...

Answers from GM

A GM bankruptcy could curb any credit card incentives consumers may have earned.

Rebate limbo

When a retail promotion doesn't pan out, raise a ruckus and raise it fast.

Invitation to trouble

Leaving a signed check to fend for itself is an invitation for trouble.

Rebate checks from a bankrupt firm unlikely

It's hard to be optimistic when a company you made a deal with files for bankruptcy protection, shuts down every store, and liquidates its assets.

Consumers can get results by taking a problem up the chain

When dealing with big institutions, flying your complaints up the flagpole can get results.

As economy worsens, Internet scams increase

When times get tough, the temptation to seek deals on the Web rises, the ability to filter them declines, and the number of online crooks usually swells.

Frequent fliers may lose out if they don't keep up on the rules

While it would be refreshing for companies to work with consumers to help them solve their problems, such a happy outcome is rarely the case.

Before plunking down cash, ask about the return policy

Q. In October 2005, I went to New York and did some shopping. However, after returning home I decided to return some merchandise, which was done promptly. I was told that I would only get a store credit. Is there any way I could get the $1,640 in cash that is owed to me? Anonymous, Belmont

You should never shell out money to claim a prize

If you get a check in the mail claiming you have won a contest you never entered - with instructions about sending money first - rip up the check.

Sometimes customers have to get a little pushy to get a refund

Being an aggressive advocate for oneself shouldn't be necessary, but unfortunately is when trying to get a refund.

Scam artists already using the stimulus plan as bait

Scammers being who they are - those with a business plan built around conning others out of their money - are now seeing the federal economic stimulus plan as a hook to rip you off. It is an ideal setup: everyone knows the government is putting gobs of money out there, but most people aren't too sure about where it's coming from and how to get it.

What to do about sudden deluge of unsolicited 'trial' packages

You may receive unsolicited mail for a variety of reasons. but you should never have to pay for it.

Prison inmate wonders what to do about digital TV conversion

Q. I am a Massachusetts prisoner who currently receives analog broadcasts, and I would like to use/receive the $40 government coupon for a digital converter box.

Defending your credit score requires more vigilance now

It used to be so much easier to just run up debt on your own terms. But now the rules of the game are changing, and consumers are the last to know: Credit lines are getting cut, interest rates and fees are rising, and credit cards are being canceled by banks.

Tiny charges on bank cards could presage bigger problems

Fraud experts are concerned about these charges - from 21 cents to 48 cents - that have appeared on cardholders' accounts in at least 46 states. The fear is someone is trying to find usable card numbers so that they can use the cards to make bigger charges at some future date.

Lengthy rebate waiting periods may be a sign something's shady

Q. We bought a piano with a $3,000 rebate promise from CashBack America. The instructions were long and complicated, but we managed to meet all the requirements (including a waiting period of 35 months - or longer - and a 30-day filing window). When we mailed our application for the rebate, it was returned to us marked "Moved, no forwarding ... (Globe Correspondent, 1/25/09)

Mysterious credit card charge may have hit millions of users

Several Internet complaint boards are filled with comments from credit card customers from coast to coast who have noticed a mysterious charge for about 25 cents on their statements. (Globe Correspondent, 1/11/09)

Store bankruptcy complicates problem with new furniture

Q. We have had an ongoing issue for 1 1/2 years. We purchased furniture in May 2007; no payments for one year, interest deferred. First delivery: structural defect. Replacement delivery: nonmatching color issues. Last delivery: imperfections on fabric. A repair person came out in January 2008 to try and address our issues. The imperfections could not be repaired to our ... (Globe Correspondent, 11/30/08)

Extended product warranties are rife with potential pitfalls

Q. I purchased a computer three years ago with an extended warranty plan. It expires this month. I started having problems with the computer and called for help. Another company had taken over the warranty. They sent a technician from a different company to repair the computer. After three visits from the same technician they resolved the problem by replacing ... (Globe Correspondent, 11/23/08)

Weighing the costs of oil heat against electric and gas heat

Q. I have electric heat and hot-air heat in my home. I have not used the electric heat for many years but have heard that at this time it is cheaper than oil - is this right? Over the years I have removed some of the baseboards, but some remain so I am thinking of using a combination of oil ... (Globe Correspondent, 11/16/08)

What, if any, protection can be expected with annuities?

Q. In April 2008, I rolled over my 457 group single annuity deferred certificate (IRA annuity). I am aware that 457s are insured by the FDIC up to $250,000. Is the annuity covered by any similar insurance? Where can I find out? (Globe Correspondent, 11/9/08)

Credit card companies should abide by rules about grace periods

Q. My husband and I have an American Express Clear credit card account. We do not incur late fees or finance charges and I pay the balance in full each month. Our AMEX "Clear" account billing cycle consistently ends the eighth or ninth of the month, which AMEX customer service states is the day it is mailed. Usually, the bill ... (Globe Correspondent, 11/2/08)

Have a question for Consumer Alert?

Have you ever felt wronged by a company selling you a product? Confused about a new policy at one of your service providers? Consumer Alert tries to find the answers to readers' questions. E-mail your question to