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August 18, 2014

Is it a News Story or Is it an Advertisement?

Filed under: Business,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:48 am

 Every day, MrConsumer scours the Internet to find the 25 or so stories that we feature in Consumer World each week. And it should come as no surprise that Google News is a primary source. Last week, when searching for news stories one day, this was what Google News presented:

Google result

The very first result looked like a great story to bring to the attention of Consumer World readers — “10 Ways You’re Throwing Money Away Daily.” Upon clicking the link, one is brought to that story on the LA Times website:

latimessmall1
Click on picture to expand to full size,
click resulting picture if necessary to enlarge,
and scroll to the top.

It is a very long story offering all these tips, with appropriate graphics for each one. Tip #3 caught our eye, suggesting that money could be saved on eyewear by purchasing a vision plan:

eye tip

The link presented in the tip takes the reader to VSP — Vision Service Plan — where it purports to show dramatic savings on a pair of eyeglasses. And one can enroll in the plan right there.

Pretty clearly, this whole long story providing savings tips had a single purpose — to drive readers to this insurance plan. But it was a news story, right?

Scrolling back to the top of the page, the secret is revealed:

*MOUSE PRINT:

disclaimer

There it is. “Advertisement” in tiny letters (actual size). Did you catch it when you first looked at the full graphic above? Do you think that most people caught it?

This whole “story” that went on and on, page down after page down about eight times, was actually an ad, and not editorial content presented by the LA Times. This is called “native advertising” where the content is made to fit it more with the surrounding content on a webpage and appear less like an advertisement.

We wrote to the LA Times and explained how something like this could mislead readers. We asked some very pointed questions about this manner of presenting advertising with such a small disclaimer, how it wound up in Google as a news story, and if they were going to try to fix the problem. They responded:

“…the advertisement in question is clearly labeled as such and the only path for readers to find that content was intended to be via an latimes.com panel that is also clearly labeled as advertising. However, your inquiry brought our attention to the fact that although this ad – and others of the same ilk – is not included in our News SiteMap and the page has “noindex nofollow” directives, there appears to be a technical glitch with Google News. We are working with Google to find out why the content is indexed incorrectly and have the issue fixed as soon as possible. In the meantime, we have removed the advertisement from our site to eradicate potential for further confusion.” — V.P. Communications, Los Angeles Times

While we are gratified that the paper acted so quickly to remove the advertisement, they seem not to have a problem with such a small disclaimer at the top. We hope they will reconsider that position, and if they continue to display advertisements that look identical to news stories, that they will take further steps to more clearly identify and differentiate that kind of content.

• • •

August 11, 2014

What Major Appliance Manufacturers Don’t Want You to Know

Filed under: Electronics,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:12 am

 When you read a manufacturer’s description of a major appliance’s features, everything sounds rosy. But when you read reviews of that very same appliance by consumers who have owned it for a while, used it, and learned its quirks, you sometimes get a totally different picture. Sometimes, they are horrifying, and they make you question the quality of major appliances today.

In 2012, we presented some excerpts of customer reviews of two expensive refrigerators, and the tales of woe and terrible problems described would make anyone afraid to buy any new frigerator. So, in advance of Halloween, we’d like to scare you again, this time by looking at some washing machine horror stories.

Here are edited excerpts of reviews written by (un)happy customers about a few front loading washers and one laundry center. (Obviously, we have taken note of the worst reviews. Often, some consumers will give the very same model five stars, which just adds to the confusion.)

*MOUSE PRINT:

washer “I could wash my clothes in a river and they would come out cleaner than when I wash them using the supposed sanitary cycle. Nothing ever rinses out of the clothes first wash, nothing ever washes off the clothing material, and it takes 4 or 5 washes for the items to be reasonably clean.”

Samsung Model #WF45H6300AW, $949, reviewed at HomeDepot.com. NOTE: At BestBuy.com this model has an average rating of 4.5 stars and is generally well-regarded. Sometimes a lemon gets by factory inspectors.

Frigidaire“I have the washer and dryer that are under a year old. The washer pauses its self around 5 times per cycle, it takes 12 hours to do a load of laundry and it comes out soaking wet. Problem started 6 months in.”

“This model is plagued by electronics issues. The first one we bought had a defective motherboard. It died right after the 1 year warranty ended. Since it cost almost as much to repair as to buy a new one, we bought a second of the same model. It just broke as well, this time the door switch burnt out.”

“We just got it delivered and installed and it won’t work. We put the first load of laundry in and pressed start. The lights flashed briefly, and then it turned off. It does this every time. Really disappointing.”

“Apparently, the washer eats socks which then fouls up the mechanics of the machine resulting in an expensive repair. This morning, for no reason at all the machine just began turning on.”

Frigidaire Model # FAFW3801LW, $699, reviewed at HomeDepot.com, BestBuy.com, Lowes (46 one-star reviews).

Kenmore“I am currently on my 2nd laundry center since Dec 2012. First one broke in under 90 days. This second one is now being repaired for the 3rd time since March of 2013. The cost of parts alone is almost the cost of the machine. Do not even consider this machine.”

“Stay away from this center! We had the unit replaced after the first was a lemon within 6mos of purchasing. The second is also a dud. … The washer, where to start… the technician is now on my Christmas list. This washer has been rebuilt 5 times. The seal at the base of the tub constantly detached and spilled gallons of water onto my wooden floors and into our subflooring. I now have not have a working unit since [two months ago].”

“I give it one star because I don’t believe the system will allow me to give it zero. Not only does the dryer rip buttons off my dress shirts with regularity (even on delicate setting), I’ve already had to put in two trouble calls for it. The second repair call came after the main, internal drain hose for the washer disconnected (apparently due to an inherent design flaw), spilling multiple gallons of water on our floor. The resulting flood ruined the carpet in two rooms, and forced us to have a number of oriental rugs professionally cleaned. Worse yet, both times we put in repair calls under our warranty service, it took almost two weeks for a technician to arrive.”

Sears Kenmore Laundry Center (made by GE), Model # 61532, $1052.

The lesson in all this is that the manufacturer is not going to tell you about all the problems that people report to them — the undisclosed mouse print, if you will. Why haven’t major appliance makers improved their products year after year much like the car industry? Instead, they seem to be producing more lemons than Sunkist, and some of the problems seem to be engineering and design flaws.

To protect yourself, you are going to have to search out reviews from real owners of these major appliances. Weigh the bad reviews against the good reviews and keep your fingers crossed.

• • •

August 4, 2014

Boy, Do They Have (Beach) Balls

Filed under: Humor,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:36 am

 John S. wrote to Mouse Print* about a beach ball he just purchased at Dollar General.

It was in a package that in big type indicated it was a 16-inch beach ball.

Upon closer examination of the fine print, however, John got an unexpected surprise.

*MOUSE PRINT:

beach ball

The ball is really only about a 10-inch ball when inflated.

Who in their right mind measures a ball in its uninflated state to come up a product description? (A manufacturer who wants to make you think you are buying a bigger ball than your really are, apparently.)

• • •

July 28, 2014

New Program Trades Your Privacy for Rewards

Filed under: Electronics,Internet,Telephone — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:21 am

 With great fanfare, Verizon Wireless launched its new reward program last week called Verizon Smart Rewards.

You collect points for signing up, for being a loyal customer, for amounts paid on your bill, for signing up for paperless billing, etc. And those points can be used for discounts on meals, merchandise, gift cards, entertainment and more.

This is what the homepage for Smart Rewards looks like at launch:

Smart Rewards

It explains how the program works: you sign up, your earn points, and you redeem rewards. Simple. Oh, they left out just one thing. See that sentence at the bottom that we outlined in yellow?

*MOUSE PRINT:

May require enrollment in Verizon Selects, which delivers more relevant advertising using anonymized information about customer use of Verizon products and services, interests and demographics.

You have to enroll in some advertising program called Verizon Selects? Huh?

Well, delivering relevant advertising is the result of the program. What you really are agreeing to is to allow the company to observe your Internet surfing habits on your smartphone, where you shop, what apps you use, what your location is, where and whom you call, and more. In essence, in return for getting rewards, you are allowing Verizon to track you.

But it doesn’t say that there. What a silly (or very deliberate) omission. And when you go to the registration page, all the introduction says is:

Verizon Selects personalizes the content and marketing you may receive from Verizon and other selected companies.

Still, you have not been informed what this Verizon Selects thing really is. It tells you the result of their tracking — getting more relevant advertising — not that it is a program to track you. Only when you scroll down to the terms and conditions agreement section, do they spring it on you, and ask you to agree to it.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Verizon Selects
[size reduced to fit space]

It seems to us that Verizon should be upfront about the precondition that you must agree to be tracked in order to sign up for the rewards programs, and clearly disclose that on the first page of the offer.

Customers will have to decide whether they think the rewards they are offering are worth allowing the company to track your smartphone usage. Incidentally, Verizon tells us that once you sign up for the rewards program and the tracking program, you can cancel the tracking part and still keep earning rewards.

Note: Edgar Dworsky is a member of Verizon’s Consumer Advisory Board.

• • •

July 21, 2014

If You Can’t Trust Consumer Reports to Keep Your Info Private…

Filed under: Autos,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:07 am

  Consumer Reports offers a Car Pricing Service for $14 that provides car buyers with the invoice price of vehicles, as well as an even lower price — the Consumer Reports “bottom line” price — that subtracts out all dealer incentives, holdbacks, and rebates. It is a handy report for arming you with information to negotiate a deal more effectively.

R.L. of Massachusetts recently complained to Consumer World that immediately after signing up for the Car Pricing Service, she was inundated with telemarketing calls and emails from car dealers.

Here’s what happened. Not wanting to place her order online for a report on a 2014 Toyota Highlander, R.L. called the auto price customer service number at Consumer Reports at 800-880-4874. They took her contact information, email, phone number, etc. and said she would be receiving an email. She asked the representative to hold on to make sure she could access the report. She quickly breezed through its various sections. Just after R.L. hung up the phone, it rang. It was a local car dealer offering to sell her a 2014 Toyota Highlander. R.L. told him basically what he could do with his car and she called back Consumer Reports to complain that they had shared her personal information with car dealers. Consumer Reports responded “we don’t share that,” according to R.L., and told her that she could complain to “corporate” about the issue.

R.L. says that on the day she placed her order for the Consumer Reports pricing report, she received 15 to 16 phone calls from dealers from as far away as Florida (at least that’s what the caller I.D said), and about a half a dozen emails. By a point 10 days later, she said she had received another half dozen to a dozen phone calls and a total of about 30 emails. R.L.’s phone, incidentally, is on the do not call list.

According to a disclosure on the Consumer Reports website, the company does not share your email when buying one of these reports.

*MOUSE PRINT:

car pricing service

At the bottom of the ordering page is a link to their privacy policy (which actually takes you to a “privacy policy highlights” page). The full privacy policy is summarized in relevant part below:

*MOUSE PRINT:

If you (the consumer) disclose your personal information to third parties, their privacy policies govern, and not those of Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports only provides third parties with enough information for them to carry out the service for which they were hired. Other than that, third parties are seemingly authorized to only use anonymous data from Consumer Reports in most cases.

In the case of the Car Pricing Service, Consumer Reports jointly provides the reports with a company called TrueCar. And they have recently begun offering a free bonus when you buy a car pricing report — access to the Consumer Reports Build & Buy Car Buying Service operated by TrueCar. Build & Buy shows you discounted prices that local car dealers are offering on the car that you were just researching. As described, it is a service that the consumer can take advantage of if he/she so chooses, rather than a service that somehow automatically inundates users with sales offers.

*MOUSE PRINT:

…your identity is hidden from them [dealers]. If you choose, you will then have the option to send your contact and vehicle information to any of the dealers, and the dealers’ identities will be revealed to you.

What appears to have happened to R.L. is this: while she was perusing her car pricing report, she unknowingly entered “Build & Buy,” clicked a “next” button, and that sent dealers her telephone number and email address.

Before you criticize R.L. for poking around without reading, you have to see how Consumer Reports presented these pages to her, along with the representations they made.

The top of the first page of the Car Pricing Report looks like this:

car pricing 1

Most people would be interested to see what real dealers are charging, so the temptation to click “View Dealer Pricing” is strong given its prominence on page one.

After clicking twice, you are brought to this page asking you to verify your contact information:

build & buy 1

Only the most observant person would recognize that they left the Consumer Reports Car Pricing Service and were now in Consumer Reports Build & Buy. The consumer is assured that the reason they are being asked to enter their name, telephone and email is this:

In order to ensure your dealers honor your Guaranteed Savings, we collect your basic information.

There is no disclosure there whatsoever that the reason they are collecting your contact information is so that dealers can call and email you after you go a little deeper into Build & Buy.

So one innocently fills out the form, and then you see prices for your chosen car from three local dealers:

build & buy 2

Since the dealers’ names are not disclosed yet, the natural inclination is to click the “next” button which is labeled “Get Your Certificates.” These certificates have the location of the dealer and the discount price each one has guaranteed to offer you. Only if you catch the third bullet on the left do you see what really is going to happen next.

*MOUSE PRINT:

By clicking next, your information will be shared only with the dealer(s) you select. Your personal dealer representative(s) will call you within 24 hours to discuss availability.

You just, maybe unwittingly, gave this service permission to send your telephone number to a bunch of dealers. And although you didn’t give explicit permission to share your email, they will also be sending that to the dealers.

Incidentally, it appears that only these three dealers will receive your contact information. And Consumer Reports cleverly has the box pre-checked for each one to get your information.

Whewwww!

Mouse Print* asked Consumer Reports to explain why R.L. started getting so many phone calls and emails after signing up for their pricing service considering their privacy policy seemed to forbid sharing of her personal information. And we also asked, if her contact information was being improperly shared, what they were going to do to correct the situation.

Consumer Reports explained how their site works and what likely happened to her. They also offered this statement:

…we provide a seamless connection to a customized Build & Buy service, powered by TrueCar, that connects consumers directly with auto dealers to get competitive prices from local dealers who are hel​d​ accountable for high customer satisfaction. Consumer Reports does not share any personal​ly​ identifiable information with third parties unless that is explicitly stated and required as is the case with our Build & Buy service. We regret any inconvenience that [R.L.] may have had as a result of ​using our product and have reached out to TrueCar to ask that [R.L.] no longer be contacted by any participating auto dealers. — Director of Communications and Social Media

R.L. explained to us that she was so upset that her information was shared with third parties because it was Consumer Reports that was doing the sharing — the last company she would expect to not respect her privacy.

Here’s our take: In an effort to make it appear that Consumer Reports was providing services itself to consumers to help them with car purchases, they rebranded services provided by a third party — TrueCar. Despite tiny disclaimers explaining the deal that Consumer Reports has with TrueCar, most people would have no idea that an independent third party was providing the actual service. So few consumers would realize that parts of Consumer Reports’ privacy policy allowing information to be shared with third parties actually applied in the case of these services.

Worse, explicit statements on the sign up page for both services said the consumer’s email would not be shared (Car Pricing Service) or misleadingly said that contact information was only being collected so that the saving promised would be honored by dealers (Build & Buy).

Consumer Reports/TrueCar could certainly provide the exact same Build & Buy service without passing on the consumer’s identity and personal contact information to car dealers. Both the consumer and the dealer could get written confirmation of the dealer’s name, the specifications of the consumer’s desired car, the price promised, and a code number representing that individual potential customer. Then, if the consumer chose to visit a particular dealer, the dealer could verify the offer by matching the code number given to the consumer with the one in their system.

We urge this most respected of consumer organizations to take a hard look at how they are presenting these car buying services, so that every user clearly understands when their personal information is going to be shared, and what the consequences of this sharing are — potentially a deluge of phone calls and email offers from local car dealers.

• • •
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