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October 31, 2011

Allstate’s Free Lifetime Membership in Roadside Assistance

Filed under: Autos — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:00 am

Wow, what a seemingly great offer from Allstate: call to get a quote on car insurance and you will get a free lifetime membership in their Roadside Assistance program. MrConsumer could stop spending over $50 a year for AAA membership!

Here is their TV commercial:

If you could not read the fine print disclaimer in the ad, a visit to Allstate’s website reveals the true nature of this auto club offer.

*MOUSE PRINT:

So what you really get for free on an ongoing basis is a phone number to call for a towing service.

Thanks, Allstate.

• • •

October 3, 2011

OnStar Amends Privacy Policy to Snoop (More) on You

Filed under: Autos,Electronics — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:49 am

We have all seen the OnStar commercials where a poor soul has had a traffic accident and a reassuring voice comes over the loudspeaker asking the driver if everything is okay or if they need help. That’s the kinder, gentler OnStar.

The more invasive OnStar is the one that is changing its privacy policy and terms and conditions statement, effective December 2011, to do a little extra snooping on its customers, and even on people who discontinue the OnStar service! [Current privacy policy, revised privacy policy.]

*MOUSE PRINT:

In addition to the other reasons they collect data such as diagnostic trouble codes, oil life remaining, tire pressure, fuel economy and odometer readings; information about crashes involving your vehicle, including the direction from which your vehicle was hit, which air bags have deployed, and safety belt usage about your vehicle, they have allowed themselves the ability to collect:

“the location and the approximate speed of your Vehicle based on the Global Positioning System (“GPS”) satellite network” “for any purpose, at any time, provided that following collection of such location and speed information identifiable to your Vehicle, it is shared only on an anonymized basis.”

Some critics suggest that GPS information is never anonymous, because GPS coordinates can pinpoint places such as your home address.

*MOUSE PRINT:

They also disclose for the first time that they keep tracking your car even if you cancel your OnStar service.

“Unless the Data Connection to your Vehicle is deactivated, data about your Vehicle will continue to be collected even if you do not have a Plan. It is important that you convey this to other drivers, occupants, or subsequent owners of your Vehicle. You may deactivate the Data Connection to your Vehicle at any time by contacting an OnStar Advisor.”

On September 27, after much public criticism and a call for an investigation by a New York congressman, OnStar decided to retract this part of their planned changes to their policy.

All the other changes will be implemented including that they now say they can share your data with their own affiliates for “marketing purposes,” and have removed the section about requiring your consent first:

“ONSTAR WILL NOT OTHERWISE DISCLOSE, SELL, OR RENT INFORMATION SPECIFIC TO YOU OR YOUR CAR TO THIRD PARTIES FOR THEIR INDEPENDENT USE WITHOUT YOUR CONSENT.”

OnStar certainly provides great lifesaving services, and while their privacy policy gives you the ability to opt-out, their data collection practices and plans to give or sell your data to law enforcement agencies and marketing companies may nonetheless be disturbing to some. One such person is Jonathan Zdziarski, who discovered these changes and writes persuasively about it.

• • •

September 5, 2011

Car Rental Taxes and Fees Explode

Filed under: Autos — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:47 am

Wow, can you imagine renting a car in Boston for only $57 a week during the peak of summer? That is the price that one price checking site found.

Unfortunately, the actual price you pay is nowhere near $57 because of all the taxes and fees that get added to the base rental price of the car.

*MOUSE PRINT:

All the taxes, fees, and surcharges add up to $66.74 — an amount that is more than the price of the car rental itself.

• • •

August 23, 2010

Last Minute Car Renters Benefit from Hidden Price Drops

Filed under: Autos,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 4:51 am

Unlike airlines that charge customers higher fares the closer to the departure date you make your reservation, some car rental firms actually lower the price as the rental date draws nearer.  They don’t advertise that fact, they just do it quietly.

Example: MrConsumer helped a friend book a 12-day rental starting on August 22 from Logan airport in Boston. At the end of July — approximately three weeks in advance — the total rate including taxes was in the high $400s for Alamo — and that was using a coupon and a group discount.

Exactly two weeks before the start date of the rental, just for the fun of it, MrConsumer checked prices again at Alamo on a new reservation, using a better coupon — $40 off a 10-day rental.  Between the coupon and a new price reduction, the exact same rental dropped to $420.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Not bad, a savings of about $60.

Checking prices again exactly one week before the rental was scheduled to begin revealed another price drop of close to $100. It was now down to $337.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Wow, that’s a total savings of almost $150 compared to the price that would have been charged on the earliest reservation. 

And, checking the rates one day later, the price dropped to $317.

Now, on August 17, just five days before the rental, the price dropped again:

*MOUSE PRINT:

We are now under $300 for the rental, an almost $200 savings compared to the price quoted at the end of July.

It can’t get any lower, can it?

*MOUSE PRINT:

Wow.. as of Wednesday, August 18 — just four days before the rental — the price dropped over $30 to $267. Will the discounts ever end?

Two days before the car rental was scheduled to begin, the price dropped one last time, albeit by only $7.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Just to finish the price history of the rental, the day before the actual rental, the price jumped up to $414.91.  And on the day of the rental itself, the price was $434.68.  Amazingly, the highest price Alamo offered was the first one — for the reservation made over three weeks before the actual rental date. The total savings for MrConsumer’s friend amounted to over $220 by making weekly, and then daily checks of prices as the rental date drew near.

Surprisingly, in this case, it was substantially cheaper renting at the airport than from an in-town location. (The opposite is usually true.) Compounding the problem of high rates is that string of junk fees and taxes that boosts the price substantially, no matter how low the published rate is per day.

Because no one knows if prices are going to go up or down in any particular case, or with any particular car rental firm,  it is still wise to book early (using all the discounts and coupons you can find), but check again repeatedly  as the rental date approaches.  If you find a lower price, book the new reservation, then cancel the old one.

• • •

August 16, 2010

Toyota: Spends $1 Million an Hour on Safety?

Filed under: Autos,Business,Finance — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 4:43 am

Unless you have been asleep for the past month or two, you probably have seen the bright red Toyota commercial touting their commitment to safety:

It says:

“At Toyota, we care about your safety. That’s why we’re investing a million dollars every hour to improve our technology and your safety. It’s an investment that has helped Toyota win multiple top safety pick awards for 2010 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. No other brand has won more. These top safety picks and all our new safety innovations are available at Toyota.com/safety . “

The average TV watcher will likely take away the message that Toyota cares about safety, has won a lot of safety awards, and is spending a million dollars an hour to improve safety.

Mouse Print* asked the company how they arrived at the million dollars an hour figure.

*MOUSE PRINT:

“The $1 million figure represents Toyota’s total global spending on R&D to enhance the safety and technology of its vehicles. [Toyota] projects $760 billion yen [to be spent in FY2011] on R&D. Breaking down the calculations, 90 yen to the dollar equals $8.44 billion, which works out to $2,318,310 per day or $965,962 an hour, rounded to $1 million an hour. In any event, any fluctuations in the yen would impact the exact final figure.”

The key issue is not so much that they rounded up the figure to a million dollars an hour (exaggerating the amount spent by almost $30 million a year) but rather that the number is TOTAL spending on research and development, not just on safety issues. The company could not provide a number for the actual amount just spent on safety, but it certainly is less than the total spent on R&D, and therefore is not $1 million dollars an hour.

When this discrepancy and interpretation of the commercial was pointed out to Toyota, they responded:

“As the commercials mention, the $1 million figure represents Toyota’s R&D spending on new technology and safety, much of it allocated to quality and safety features.”

If you parse the key sentence in the commercial, it does indeed say that they are spending $1 million an hour to “improve our technology AND your safety.” But by using the term “safety” seven times in 30 seconds, and displaying the words “safety” or “safe” on the screen for much of the commercial, listeners are likely to get the net impression that Toyota is spending a million dollars an hour to “improve our technology FOR your safety.” We don’t think the average consumer would take away from the commercial that the company is spending some number less than a million dollars an hour on safety.

In Massachusetts, we have an advertising regulation that provides:

“An advertisement as a whole may be unfair or deceptive although each representation separately construed is literally true.”

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