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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.

• • •

July 7, 2014

When Good Rebates Go Bad

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

 Newegg offered an amazing price a few weeks ago on a refurbished 32-inch Samsung HDTV — only $159.99 after a $30 mail-in rebate. And if you used a particular American Express card offer, you saved another $15.

As with most rebates, to get the $30 back you had to mail in the UPC code from the box. Unlike regular TV boxes printed with a picture of the TV, etc., the carton the Samsung TV was shipped in was plain brown. And there was no UPC barcode to be found. There was only the UPS shipping label, and an internal Newegg item number barcode (not the manufacturer’s).

ups label

Upon closer scrutiny, it appears that Newegg’s shipping department placed the large UPS label over the UPC code label. Have you ever tried to remove one of those large labels from cardboard? Of course this could have been a freak occurrence but for the fact that another consumer complained about the same shipping department mishap.

If by some chance the purchaser was able to remove the UPS label through careful surgery, this is what they would find:

*MOUSE PRINT:

UPC

What a relief! Not so fast. The joy is about to end. A quick check of the rebate form reveals the next problem.

*MOUSE PRINT:

rebate form

The UPC code number required for the rebate to be submitted does not match the UPC code number actually on the box!

A representative at the fulfillment house that processes rebates for Newegg fully understood the issue, but said there was nothing they could do about it. Consumers would have to submit whatever they could as proof of purchase, get denied, and then take up the battle with Newegg directly to (hopefully) get their $30 back.

The consumer who complained to Consumer World said he got the same answer when calling customer service at Newegg directly. Each individual purchaser would have to fight their own battle.

Imagining that hundreds of these TVs were sold during two sales in May and June where the erroneous UPC code was printed on two separate rebate offers, MrConsumer contacted executives at Newegg in an attempt to find a global solution for these customers.

In short order, Newegg’s Senior PR Manager had good news. They were going to find a solution. And a few days later, they sent out this email to purchasers of that Samsung HDTV:

newegg apology

Unfortunately, the company didn’t address the problem of obstructed UPCs in this notification. But, at least most purchasers of this TV won’t have to fight an individual battle to get their $30 back.

• • •

June 16, 2014

Drinkable Sunscreen?

Filed under: Health,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:59 am

Harmonized Water  Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to slather oily sunscreen all of your body when you go to the beach?

Sensing a business opportunity, a company called Osmosis Skincare and its founder Dr. Ben Johnson, created “Harmonized Water.” You are directed to add 2 ml. of this specially infused water to two ounces of regular water, and drink it an hour before going out in the sun.

The makers claim:

“Achieve UV protection before the sun even hits you with our innovative new technology that isolates the precise frequencies needed to neutralize UVA and UVB.”

“Allows for increased sun exposure (30x more than normal)”

How exactly does this work?

“It helps to balance tissue disharmonies by delivering beneficial radio frequencies to the cells using water as a carrier. The frequencies we use have been determined by a proprietary math formula that allows us to reverse engineer most substances to determine their actual vibrational rate. We then imprint these frequencies on water molecules by forming standing waves (waves that pulse from rest). We can communicate to the cell with a language that is better recognized and more specific than the frequencies of commonly used remedies.”

Did you follow all that mumbo-jumbo?

According to scores of testimonials on the company’s website, the product really works (surprise)! However, the American Academy of Dermatology felt compelled to issue a public warning about this product last month:

*MOUSE PRINT:

Recently, there has been media coverage about “drinkable sunscreen” that claims to provide sun protection through the ingestion of water that allegedly has been infused with electromagnetic waves.

The American Academy of Dermatology (Academy) wants to alert consumers that this drink should not be used as a replacement for sunscreen or sun-protective clothing. There is currently no scientific evidence that this “drinkable sunscreen” product provides any protection from the sun’s damaging UV rays.

Sunscreen is the only form of sun protection that is regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 has been scientifically proven to prevent sunburn and reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging caused by the sun. The Academy continues to recommends that you still seek shade, wear sun-protective clothing and wide-brimmed hat, and apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. For more sun protection tips, visit www.SpotSkinCancer.org.

So, save your $30 for three ounces of this suntan miracle.

• • •

May 26, 2014

Barclaycard Ring: A Transparent (?) Social Credit Card

Filed under: Finance,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:49 am

barclaycard ring  From the lost archive of unpublished Mouse Print* stories…

To appeal to 20- and 30-somethings, Barclays Bank introduced a new credit card in 2012 called the Barclaycard Ring. They said it was “the first social credit card to be designed and built through the power of community crowdsourcing.” In other words, cardholders will have input into the features, benefits, and pricing of the card.

A bank official put it this way: “Through simple and transparent terms [emphasis added], we want to pull back the curtain that has traditionally separated banks from their customers and give our community a say in weighing economic tradeoffs that can create a better cardholder experience.”

Their website went on to say: “Being candid starts with using straightforward language without the confusing legalese. But we’re taking it a step further. For the first time ever, we’re going to give you a look at our profit and loss statement, [emphasis added] which shows you how we make money from Barclaycard Ring. And with Giveback™, you’ll even get to keep some of the profits for yourself.”

This credit card sounds like something created by hippies (oops, MrConsumer is dating himself) rather than a stodgy, money-grubbing bank, doesn’t it?

*MOUSE PRINT:

The terms and conditions statement for the card, which indeed has been simplified, explains how cardholders will (or won’t) be able to see the bank’s profit and loss statement:

This profit sharing feature is not based on the actual profits of the program. Instead, the Giveback™ program contains a transparent calculation that is used to determine what will be shared with the community members and which may or may not approximate actual profits. The Giveback™ program and the profit sharing features are offered at our sole discretion. We may discontinue the program at anytime.

Oh, so you really don’t get to look at the profit and loss statement, and the bank can decide on its own to stop the profit sharing plan. Nice.

2014 Update: Checking the bank’s first annual report, and the quarterly ones through March 2014, it appears the card has not returned any money under their profit sharing Giveback program. (They have given a small amount to charity, however.) It appears that they require their annual return to exceed 3% before they rebate money to cardholders.

*MOUSE PRINT:

The bank makes a big deal about offering a low 8% variable APR, as well they should. When you look at the fine print, however, how that rate is calculated gets a little murky.

The APRs on your account will be determined each billing cycle by adding a margin to the Prime Rate (which will be the highest rate published in the Money Rates column of The Wall Street Journal on the last business day of each month). See your Cardmember Agreement for more detail.

Excuse me, I thought this bank was supposed to believe in transparency. Exactly how much above the prime rate is the bank going to charge? It would be nice to disclose it in advance.

2014 Update: The bank now discloses on the homepage and in its terms and conditions that a margin of 4.75% will be added to the prime rate in order to come up with the actual finance charge that will be assessed.

Lastly, the bank maintains a message forum for cardholders where a recent topic of concern was whether the bank was going to raise its 8% rate. A product manager for the credit card addressed that issue in a blog post, saying in part:

The last thing we want to do is change the APR that the community likes so much. My legal team will never let me say never, but our intention is to never change the 8% variable APR.

Hello? (to both the product manager and cardholders.) This is a VARIABLE rate card, which by definition does not have a fixed rate, but one that changes monthly, according to the prime rate and the terms and conditions.

Barclays has come up with a very clever marketing scheme which will no doubt attract a certain type of user. For his part, MrConsumer will just stick with his 2% back card from Fidelity/Bank of America, and let them keep the rest of the profit, if any.

• • •

April 21, 2014

Buy a Box of Cheerios, Relinquish Consumer Rights?

General Mills Backtracks After Consumer Backlash

Filed under: Food/Groceries,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:21 am

 The New York Times last week published an eye-opening story about General Mills, the big cereal maker. It noted that after being stung in court by a consumer class action, the company updated its legal terms to say that any beef you have with the company can only be pursued through informal negotiations or mandatory arbitration — no lawsuits (other than small claims) allowed.

It announced these changes at GeneralMills.com, in fine print at the top the page:

*Mouse Print:

General Mills

The key part of the new legal terms provides:

*Mouse Print:

In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our websites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest, redeeming a promotional offer, or otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering, you are agreeing to these terms.

ANY DISPUTE OR CLAIM MADE BY YOU AGAINST GENERAL MILLS ARISING OUT OF OR RELATING TO THIS AGREEMENT OR YOUR PURCHASE OR USE OF ANY GENERAL MILLS SERVICE OR PRODUCT (INCLUDING GENERAL MILLS PRODUCTS PURCHASED AT ONLINE OR PHYSICAL STORES FOR PERSONAL OR HOUSEHOLD USE) REGARDLESS OF WHETHER SUCH DISPUTE OR CLAIM IS BASED IN CONTRACT, TORT, STATUTE, FRAUD, MISREPRESENTATION, OR ANY OTHER LEGAL THEORY (TOGETHER, A “DISPUTE”) WILL BE RESOLVED BY INFORMAL NEGOTIATIONS OR THROUGH BINDING ARBITRATION, AS DESCRIBED BELOW.

So, merely printing a coupon for a GM product, “liking” them on Facebook, or perhaps just buying a single package of Cheerios, Yoplait yogurt, Gold Medal flour, or a can of Green Giant peas will automatically mean that you give up your right to individually sue the company, and cannot participate as a member of a class action lawsuit.

The company is letting people opt-out of these provisions, but once you use any of the companies’ websites or print another coupon, for example, you are on the hook again.

While one could interpret the language of their agreement to only be triggered when a consumer uses their websites, downloads a coupon, or otherwise interacts with the company, the broad nature of the restriction — possibly being triggered by a purchasing a product — will surely come under legal scrutiny. How can you be held to an agreement you never saw or actually agreed to?

When asked to comment on the company’s new anti-consumer policy, all the Jolly Green Giant would say is:

However, the company had a change of heart over this past weekend, cancelled the new terms including all references to arbitration, and posted this statement on their blog:

“As has been widely reported, General Mills recently posted a revised set of Legal Terms on our websites. Those terms – and our intentions – were widely misread, causing concern among consumers.

So we’ve listened – and we’re changing them back to what they were before.

We rarely have disputes with consumers – and arbitration would have simply streamlined how complaints are handled. Many companies do the same, and we felt it would be helpful.

But consumers didn’t like it.

So we’ve reverted back to our prior terms. There’s no mention of arbitration, and the arbitration provisions we had posted were never enforced. Nor will they be. We stipulate for all purposes that our recent Legal Terms have been terminated, that the arbitration provisions are void, and that they are not, and never have been, of any legal effect.

That last bit is from our lawyers.

We’ll just add that we never imagined this reaction. Similar terms are common in all sorts of consumer contracts, and arbitration clauses don’t cause anyone to waive a valid legal claim. They only specify a cost-effective means of resolving such matters. At no time was anyone ever precluded from suing us by purchasing one of our products at a store or liking one of our Facebook pages. That was either a mischaracterization – or just very misunderstood.

Not that any of that matters now.

On behalf of our company and our brands, we would also like to apologize. We’re sorry we even started down this path. And we do hope you’ll accept our apology. We also hope that you’ll continue to download product coupons, talk to us on social media, or look for recipes on our websites.” –Kirstie Foster, Director of External Communications

Nothing like bad press to convince a company to do the right thing.

Lost in the controversy about mandatory arbitration is the other thing that General Mills just did — they changed their privacy policy. The new little ditties they added include their collection of information about you from social networks and other third parties; how they combine that data with their own information to target market to you; and that if your browser sends a “do not track” command to them on your behalf, they will ignore it.

When asked to comment on their privacy policy changes, all the Pillsbury Doughboy would say is:

• • •
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