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November 2, 2020

When You Stop Saving With Savings Bonds

Filed under: Finance — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:21 am

Please Help Support Mouse Print*

Edgar Dworsky For 25 years, Consumer World, the creator of Mouse Print*, has served readers with the latest consumer news, money-saving tips, and independent investigations. It is your generosity (and not advertising nor corporate contributions) that keeps Mouse Print* and Consumer World available as free consumer resources. So MrConsumer turns to you and humbly asks for your support again this year. Your gift will be most appreciated.


Remember when U.S. savings bonds were a popular gift? You could give someone a $50 savings bond, but only pay $25 for it. It would grow over time to eventually reach the face value. Savings bonds have fallen out of favor by most investors because of very low interest rates and their long maturity periods.

Recently, MrConsumer finally decided it was time to cash in some old savings bonds from 1966, 1969, and 1995. He had long since forgotten which savings bonds continued to earn interest and which did not. As it turns out, that was an expensive lesson to learn.

US savings

*MOUSE PRINT:

The series “E” bonds from the mid-60s stopped earning interest after 30 years. This means that while the $25 bond pictured above actually was worth just over $123, it hasn’t earned a penny of interest since the mid-90s — some 24 years ago. Duh.

And a $100 series “EE” saving bond from 1995, which still had five more years until it matures, was only worth $111.56 due to a variable interest rate of only 1.02-percent currently.

So take a tip from this experience — check the value of your savings bonds with this handy tool and quickly cash in those that mature and stop earning interest.




• • •

August 24, 2020

Scammers Rake in Millions But Only Have to Repay Thousands When Caught

Filed under: Finance — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:04 am

Please Help Support Mouse Print*

Edgar Dworsky For 25 years, Consumer World, the creator of Mouse Print*, has served readers with the latest consumer news, money-saving tips, and independent investigations. It is your generosity (and not advertising nor corporate contributions) that keeps Mouse Print* and Consumer World available as free consumer resources. So MrConsumer turns to you and humbly asks for your support again this year. Your gift will be most appreciated.


The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced a series of proposed settlements it made with several companies that had been accused of charging upfront fees to students when signing up to use their debt relief services. However, under the telemarketing sales rule, a fee can only be charged after a debt is settled or renegotiated.

In total, these companies (along with two others who have not agreed to settle) allegedly collected more than $11.8 million in illegal fees. And while the settlements call for judgments in the full amount of money improperly collected, the amount of restitution and civil penalties that these companies actually have to pay may leave you speechless.

*MOUSE PRINT:

In one case, where the full $11.8 million was assessed against this particular defendant, here is all it has to repay:

full payment of this judgment will be suspended upon satisfaction of the obligations in Paragraph 14 of this Section and …

14. Within 10 days of the Effective Date, Defendant must pay to the Bureau, by wire transfer to the Bureau or to the Bureau’s agent, and according to the Bureau’s wiring instructions, $25,000 in partial satisfaction of the judgment as ordered in Paragraph 13 of this Section.

And to add insult to injury, here is the amount of civil penalties the company has to pay for violating the law.

*MOUSE PRINT:

…by reason of the violations of law alleged in the Complaint, and taking into account the factors in 12 U.S.C. § 5565(c)(3), Defendant must pay a civil money penalty of $1 to the Bureau. This amount is based on Defendant’s limited ability to pay as attested to in his financial statements listed in Section VIII above.

One dollar? That’s the penalty for this multimillion dollar violation?

According to the CFPB, what defendants are required to pay is based on their current financial condition. So $25,000 is all the bureau is requiring. But what about that measly dollar in fines? According to the law, as long as the CFPB assesses even the most minimal of fines — like $1 — that will entitle the bureau to pay some amount of additional restitution to aggrieved consumers taken from their Civil Penalty Fund (a victim compensation fund). It has not yet been determined if each victim will be made whole. (The CFPB failed to provide us even with a sense of what percentage of their losses victims historically are able to collect from the fund.)

It is unfortunately too typical that victims get ripped off, and the alleged masterminds of these schemes get to pocket most of the money even after being caught.




• • •

June 15, 2020

PayPal Sending Out Unsolicited Debit Cards

Filed under: Finance — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:42 am

Please Help Support Mouse Print*

Edgar Dworsky For 25 years, Consumer World, the creator of Mouse Print*, has served readers with the latest consumer news, money-saving tips, and independent investigations. It is your generosity (and not advertising nor corporate contributions) that keeps Mouse Print* and Consumer World available as free consumer resources. So MrConsumer turns to you and humbly asks for your support again this year. Your gift will be most appreciated.


MrConsumer got quite a surprise in a letter from PayPal recently. It announced that the company was going to send him a business debit Mastercard to accompany his PayPal account. Say what?

PayPal letter

*MOUSE PRINT:

“If you don’t want this card, log in to PayPal at PayPal.com/nothanks… and we won’t ship it.”

So, one has to opt-out to stop them from sending the debit card.

But isn’t sending an unsolicited card illegal, you ask?

Federal law bans the sending of an unsolicited credit card to a consumer. But this was a debit card being sent for a business account.

Under federal law, an unactivated debit card can even be sent to a consumer unsolicited.

As a side note, remember, federal law does not generally extend the same credit card or debit card protections to business cards… therefore you have more rights with consumer cards.

So PayPal did nothing wrong legally. However, we think it is a better business practice to ask if customers want a card rather than automatically sending it out to them.




• • •

May 25, 2020

Get an Extra Year Warranty on Refurbished Items Free

Filed under: Finance,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:33 am

Please Help Support Mouse Print*

Edgar Dworsky For 25 years, Consumer World, the creator of Mouse Print*, has served readers with the latest consumer news, money-saving tips, and independent investigations. It is your generosity (and not advertising nor corporate contributions) that keeps Mouse Print* and Consumer World available as free consumer resources. So MrConsumer turns to you and humbly asks for your support again this year. Your gift will be most appreciated.


One of the great bargains that shoppers can get is when an electronic item is refurbished. Sometimes these are even brand new products but sold in plain brown boxes so as not to compete with the manufacturer’s own regular line.

The downside of buying a refurb is that it typically only comes with a 90-day warranty. And to add insult to injury, most credit cards with an extended warranty benefit (that doubles the manufacturer’s warranty) excludes refurbished items. Grrrr.

*MOUSE PRINT:

No refurbs

However, while perusing the fine print of the recently published credit card benefits booklet for the Chase Freedom Visa card, MrConsumer discovered a terrific change. While the standard language excluding used and pre-owned items is still there, Chase made an exception and is now covering refurbished goods that come with a warranty.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Refurbs allowed

And as an added bonus, unlike most policies that merely double the manufacturer’s warranty, which on a 90-day warranty only would add three months, the one from Chase Freedom adds a full year extra.

Thanks, Chase.




• • •

March 16, 2020

Is it a News Story or an Advertisement?

Filed under: Business,Finance,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:00 am

Please Help Support Mouse Print*

Edgar Dworsky For 25 years, Consumer World, the creator of Mouse Print*, has served readers with the latest consumer news, money-saving tips, and independent investigations. It is your generosity (and not advertising nor corporate contributions) that keeps Mouse Print* and Consumer World available as free consumer resources. So MrConsumer turns to you and humbly asks for your support again this year. Your gift will be most appreciated.


More and more online news sites seem to be blurring the line between bona fide news and stories that seem more like advertisements.

Last fall, we demonstrated how some Tribune newspapers published product reviews naming the “best” products in a particular but sometimes obscure category, while the publisher quietly earned a commission on the sale of each one shown. Making money may have been a big motivation behind the columns.

Now Business Insider, a popular online site featuring business news stories, is publishing some articles that seem more like promotions than news features.

For example, last week they published this story:

Ally -10 more accounts

Starting in the second paragraph, the reporter touts Ally Bank and the 11 high-yield savings accounts that she has opened there:

I earn interest on the money that’s sitting in that account, and it feels like I won a prize every time I check it.

My husband and I have 11 high-yield savings accounts with Ally, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ally’s online interface makes it easy to see how much I have saved for each goal, and how much I’ve earned in interest this year — currently $44.31.

Say what? You have 11 accounts at Ally and all you’ve made is a measily $44? (We wrote to the reporter to ask if all that was really true, but she did not respond.)

In the story, not a negative word is said about Ally. The reporter mainly extols the virtues of high-yield savings accounts and the one at Ally Bank, but ignores the fact that more than three dozen other banks tracked by DepositAccounts.com pay higher rates of interest on savings accounts than Ally does.

Toward the end of the story, there is an embedded advertisement. Can you guess what bank is being advertised there?

*MOUSE PRINT:

Ally ad

That fine print says that a company called SmartAsset has placed this ad and earns revenue from it, as one might expect.

Business Insider then posts a disclaimer but only after the end of the story:

*MOUSE PRINT:

disclaimer

So Business Insider gets a cut of the commissions when readers open an Ally Bank account. Or perhaps 11 of them.

What is surprising is that back in October, Business Insider published two other similar pieces about Ally Bank where different reporters each touted their experiences with the same bank (and did not include criticism, nor any comparisons to other banks with high-yield accounts):

“I opened a high-yield savings account with online bank Ally to earn 20 times more on my money, and it’s safe to say I’m obsessed”

and

“I ditched my bank when I got married to earn 200 times more with an Ally high-yield savings account, and now I’d tell anyone to try it”

Exactly how many first person testimonial articles touting Ally Bank is Business Insider planning to publish? Could all these stories really be more about making money for Business Insider, Smart Asset, and Ally Bank rather than serving readers with a useful, objective analysis of high-yield savings accounts and the pros and cons of various providers?

Apparently a marketing theory gaining traction suggests that publishers can increase their their income by filling webpages with more “commerce content” — product-centric stories rather than traditional news stories or sponsored stories or ads. When viewers read these positive stories and if tracking reveals they bought the product or service, the publisher is compensated. According to one company in this business, Skimlinks, the most advanced publishers can derive 25-percent of their revenue this way.

The problem for readers is poor disclosure. Publishers should be upfront and disclose financial ties right at the top of stories, so we can better distinguish articles designed to sell us stuff from conventional editorial content.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has two sets of guidelines that call for clear and conspicuous disclosure — one when commercial content is made to look like conventional editorial content (Native Advertising Guidelines) and the other when there is a financial connection between a presenter of information and the subject of that information (Endorsement and Testimonial Guidelines).

We asked all the parties involved (Business Insider, Ally Bank, and Smart Asset) to explain what’s going on here. Are these bona fide news stories or advertisements? Who provided the story and who is paying whom? And do any of them think that readers are being put on clear notice of the underlying commercial nature of them?

Business Insider did not respond directly, but through SmartAsset provided this statement:

Business Insider’s personal finance reporters covered Ally as a product they would recommend, which is their standard practice. In lieu of affiliate links – which are common when it comes to “commerce content” – SmartAsset was used to sell ads against these stories. Any ad revenue generated by such coverage occurred independently of and only after the reporters’ decision to write about Ally.

For its part, SmartAsset (the company which placed the Ally ad), said it did not write the stories, nor pay Business Insider to write them. It only shares revenue with them.

Lastly, Ally Bank said it was not aware of the three stories above before they were published. It says it neither paid Business Insider nor SmartAsset to run them. It does pay SmartAsset to list its deposit rates on various websites.

So, what’s a savvy reader to do? Look more closely at content (stories, blog posts, etc.) even on respected news websites. Ask yourself why is this being posted? Is it truly conveying objective information, including both pros and cons? Are other competing products or services compared? Is there an ad or link within the content directly related to the subject of the story? Are there any disclosures that might reveal a hidden financial connection?

For our part, we will be bringing the concepts and issues related to “commerce content” to the attention of the FTC as they explore what changes should be made to their testimonial guidelines. You can participate in their process here.




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