Thursday, December 30, 2010

High Speed Internet? Not really.

According to an FCC study, high speed internet providers advertise speeds 50% higher than what they actually deliver.  The study states it is because of end-user limitations, congestion, network quality and bandwidth distribution.  In other words, during peak hours (hours in which the most people are online) speeds lag as more and more information is sent over the network. This isn't a new finding.  The New York Times ran an article on the situation as early as 2006.  A United Kingdom consumer watchdog administered a similar study in 2007 and found that internet speeds were about 1/3 advertised speeds. Techdirt has condemned the practice for more than 6 years.

Advertised broadband speeds are inherently misleading because they use the words "up to."  When advertisements boast super-boosted-turbo speeds of "up to 15mbps" the speeds actually fluxuate wildly.  Because the only information on which consumers can base their purchases is "15mbps," they often believe those are the speeds they will receive (most of the time) when they are on the internet.  This is not true at all.  During peak hours--from about 5p.m. to 11p.m.--speeds drop exponentially as people home from work stream videos, hop on Call of Duty: Black Ops or download music. People rarely see the advertised speeds while they are online.

In some congested areas, as with Downtown Kansas City, over-utilization of cable networks will slow broadband speeds to a crawl.  It makes it impossible to finish a Youtube video without the loading bar stalling.  Cable companies invariably blame the problems on the consumer's home network or the modem, but they often are not the problem. The City of Los Angeles got sick of lousy service and sued Time Warner.  Several more Californian customers felt they were deceived by ads claiming speeds "up to" a certain amount and sued Hughes Communications for not providing service anywhere near the advertised speeds. The consumers won.  Australian authorities got sick of the misleading advertising and told broadband providers to knock it off.

If you feel you are not getting the internet speeds you pay for, you can test your speeds at such sites as www.speedtest.net or  www.speakeasy.net.  If your broadband speeds are far below what you pay for, contact your provider.  If they are unable or unwilling to address the problem, you can file a complaint with your local BBB or consumer protection division such as your state Attorney General.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Scams of the Week: Dec. 27, 2010

Imperial Recovery Partners, LLC - You may know them better as Regent Asset Management. You know, the company that was recently sued by the Colorado Attorney General for collecting without a license, that collects debts that don't exist, that calls people (who don't have debts) and threatens to throw them in jail if they don't give up their money.  If you get a call from them or someone calling himself Tom Parker, hang up the phone.  If you have already given your bank account to them, alert your bank immediately.  They have been calling from the following numbers: 1-866-351-9793 and 1-877-519-5039. Also note that this company is not affiliated with Imperial Recovery out of Lexington, KY.

Mylikes.com - According to their page, they pay people to promote products they already like (People with Twitter accounts should be aware that promoting a product you don't use as if you do is illegal). Their earnings claim of $50/month isn't outrageous and this company does pay some tweeters, but it's not as easy as they make it sound.  Most of their online reviews turned sour once they implemented new rules and qualifications and stopped paying people for referrals.  People have signed up, spammed their followers and haven't gotten anything in return. Maybe they'll turn it around, maybe not.

Melissa Theuriau Ads - If you are on Facebook. Huffington Post, or countless other blog/news sites, you have likely seen this news reporter's picture along with outlandish claims of breaking news about making money from home or the benefits of acai berry.
Her name is Melissa Theurieu and she is a French reporter. If you see any advertisements with her face, it is from, at best, an unethical company using the unlicensed likeness of a foreign news personality.  At worst, the ads are from scammers or con-artists.  All of the ads are false-advertising. If any of the ads have English text, you can be rest assured that the image has been doctored. Just don't click on them. Ever.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Angel Flight Central - A Good Charity Just Got Better

I am SO happy to announce that Angel Flight Central (AFC) is the latest local charity to meet all 20 BBB Standards for Charity Accountability.

It's great when any charity demonstrates its commitment to transparency and accountability by going through the BBB evaluation process.  To me, it is particularly wonderful when an organization uses a BBB evaluation as a road map for improving how it operates. 

About a year ago, the BBB sent AFC a letter because the BBB had been receiving inquiries from the public. We routinely request information from organizations when we get inquiries about them. The letter arrived at AFC's offices just as the organization was undergoing major changes in its management.  It wanted to become a better, more efficient, and more transparent organization and the BBB Standards gave AFC a blueprint for how to do that.

After much hard work on AFC's end, our initial evaluation was concluded this past July with AFC meeting 19 of the 20 BBB Standards and promises from them to get back to me in a few months with information that would meet the last Standard.  I was positively delighted to receive news last week that AFC has, indeed, done everything it needs to fall into compliance with all 20 BBB Standards.  I know how hard AFC has worked this past year.  The underlying goal of our Standards is to help organizations meet their missions.  I know that because of AFC's hard work, they will be able to help more people facing difficult circumstances and in need of travel assistance.

Nice job, Angel Flight Central.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Scams of the Week: Dec. 20, 2010

Defrag Malware - We've probably all seen those fake virus scans that pop up from time to time, claiming that your computer is infected and you should download their software immediately.  Instead of fixing anything, they just load up your computer with a bunch of malicious little programs designed to steal your personal info.  Well, now there is one that claims to scan your hard drive for disc errors, invalid paths and other such stuff. It does the same thing, however. It load your computer with bad junk and steals your info.  More at CNET.

Lindsay Lohan and "your own email@facebook.com - Anything that says "check out this video of Lindsay Lohan (insert: doing something inappropriate here)" is a phishing scam.  Don't click.  There are several variations; all of them lead to a hacked Facebook account. Click Here for more  The same goes for claims that you can get your own email ending in @facebook.com.  The message system on Facebook is already a form of email, so there will probably never be a fully functional Facebook email. There are several phishing comments stating that you can get free iPads, free iPhones, and other free iSomethings. These too, are scams. Don't click the links!

Amazon.com shipping scam - You may receive an email that appears to originate from Amazon.com, but ends up downloading malware onto your computer which can steal personal info such as passwords.  Check the email for distinguishing markers that can only relate to you and the orders you may have placed.  The scammers are counting on us automatically trusting the source. Give emails quick scans before clicking on anything. Click here to read more.

Innovative Wealth Builders - Well, "scam" is pushing the boundaries, but their product is nothing like what they represent it to be on the phone. Here's what the report form the BBB of Western Florida has to say: "BBB has received a pattern of complaints concerning misrepresentation in selling practices, failure to honor promised refunds in a timely manner and failure to issue refunds after being told that a refund would be issued."
They currently have an F rating and making calls to homes throughout the country.  If you truly wish to lower the interest rate on your credit cards, you should speak with your CC company directly or contact a non-profit such as Consumer Credit Counseling Service for assistance.  You can also check with the BBB to find out if they have a history of complaints.  Occasionally debt negotiation services are on the level, but the industry is dominated by conmen and price-gougers.  Any company that guarantees they can lower your interest rate, be very skeptical.  Your credit card companies are not obligate to anything of the sort and do not have to cooperate with third parties.

Microsoft Sweepstakes - It's an oldie that's just making the rounds again.  An email claims that you've won a sweepstakes from Microsoft.  They don't have sweepstakes and if they did, they'd advertise heavily. Click Here for more.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

City Union Mission - Newest Charity Seal Recipient

I'd like to congratulate City Union Mission on meeting all 20 BBB Standards for Charity Accountability and demonstrating a superb commitment to effectiveness and transparency in its work with the poor and homeless of Kansas City.  City Union Mission has also chosen to participate in our Charity Seal Program, as a way to let its donors and other stakeholders know about its strong commitment to accountability.

The best part of my job is meeting ordinary people who do so much for their communities.  I thank City Union Mission for the work it does in our city. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Five Mistakes to Avoid When Donating to Charity

Five Mistakes to Avoid When Donating to a Charity
Be a smart donor this holiday, says BBB of Greater Kansas City

Kansas City MO - December 14, 2010 – Every holiday, billions of dollars are donated to worthy causes and now more than ever charities need the support of donors to help those who are struggling. The BBB advises donors on how to avoid five common mistakes in order to ensure their dollar stretches the farthest in these tough economic times.

“With so many people out of work and in need, it’s extremely important that you maximize the impact your holiday donations have by avoiding the common giving mistakes,” said Kyle Marie Boeglin, Director of Charity Review for the BBB of Greater Kansas City. “A smart donor takes a hard look at a charity’s programs, finances and governance before making a donation. While almost all charities have the best of intentions, not all organizations meet standards or are well managed.”

The BBB recommends that donors avoid these common mistakes when donating to a charity this holiday:

1.Assuming that only “low overhead” matters. How much money a charity spends on the actual cause—as compared to how much goes toward fundraising and administration—is an important factor, but it’s not the whole story. A charity with impressive financial ratios could have other significant problems such as insufficient transparency, inadequate board activity and inaccurate appeals.

2.Failing to do your research before you give. Even good friends may not have fully researched the charities they endorse, so don’t just take their word for it. Expertise is available. Go to www.bbb.org/charity to verify that a charity meets the BBB’s 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.
3.Succumbing to high-pressure, emotional pitches. Giving on the spot is never necessary, no matter how hard a telemarketer or door-to-door solicitor pushes it. The charity that needs your money today will welcome it just as much tomorrow.

4.Assuming that the charity wants any item you donate. Worn out, unusable or unwanted donated goods cost charities millions of dollars each year because the organization has to bear the cost of tossing the unacceptable donation. If you have questions about an item’s acceptability, call the charity and ask.

5.Mistaking a charity’s identity. With so many charities in existence, their names can blur in a donor’s mind and similar-sounding organizations are common. Be sure you know which charity you’re supporting and that it’s not a case of mistaken identity.

Donors can check out BBB Wise Giving Alliance evaluations on national soliciting charities for free at www.bbb.org/charity.

For more information or to schedule and interview with a spokesperson on charitable giving, contact Kyle Boeglin at 815.421.7800 or charityreview@kansascity.bbb.org

Monday, December 13, 2010

Scams of the Week

Forex Trading - Forex (foreign exchange) scams are becoming more prevalent as economists and TV personalities predict a dire economic forecast.  Forex scams claim that people can make excellent financial gains by exchanging dollars for other currencies then back to dollars for a profit.


Much of the time, forex scams just take investors' money and they are never heard from again.  Even if an investor's money makes it into the foreign currency exchange, profit is unlikely.  The currency exchange is a zero-sum market.  To simplify: it's designed to give back what you put in and that's it.  It is not for profits to be made. Click Here for More Info.

Health Inspector Scam - Con men are calling businesses claiming to be health inspectors in order to get personal information.  It hasn't picked up traction in Kansas City, as local businesses quickly saw through it, but it will probably make its way back again. On some occasions, the con men attempt to get businesses to wire money for inspection fees to Canada or the UK. If anyone calls claiming to be a health inspector asking about your business's sensitive information, inform them that you will have to call them back, look up the number for you state health office and call it.  Click Here for More Info.

Facebook Phishing Scams: Players of the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops are finding themselves the target of phishing scams. Links to extravagant videos are sent to them through facebook and then ask for permission to access their Facebook accounts.  This is not the only group of people to be hit by this type of scam, but it's one of the latest.  Don't grant permission to access your Facebook account unless you're absolutely sure it can be trusted.  Many scammers will use your Facebook information to access other sites you use because so many people use the same passwords for many accountsClick Here for More Info.

Another Facebook Scam was set up to get the ladies. A message sent to Facebook users makes claims about "free makeup." It is the same thing as the other Facebook scams designed to access your account. Click Here for More info.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Does Changing Your Profile Pic on Facebook Make a Difference?

So, lately I've noticed that several of my Facebook friends have changed their profile pics to 1980s cartoon characters.  The idea, I suppose, is that if I change my profile pic of my really cute 8-month-old baby to one of a Smurf, those who see it will be reminded of their own childhoods and think about how awful child abuse is and spur them to help.  Because my really cute baby apparently makes them think of Cheez Whiz or something.

But does taking a stand on Facebook actually make a difference?  Do people who change their profile pic really take action or cause others to do so?  At least one source, Live Science, says no.  Child abuse is an enormous tragedy.  It's also very complex.  How does one busy Average Jane even start fighting child abuse.  Will the Smurf in my profile pic catch a drunken dad's fist before it slams into his son's nose?

Is the campaing well-intentioned?  Yes.  Of course it is.  And it is likely producing some small results.  Right now I am using my time to talk about the issue when I could be talking about something else, like Britney Spears. That does matter.  But if you want millions of people to make a difference, break it down in small steps.  Live Science suggests that Facebook users who change their profil pic donate a dollar to an organization that fights it. It would be an easy way to raise $250,000 - enough to put some sort of dent in the problem.

And this is just funny:

BBB Online Auction

The Kansas City Better Business Bureau is hosting an auction with lots of nice items including travel packages, collectibles, accessories, clothing and more. Please visit the site and check out the good: http://www.biddingforgood.com/bbbkc

Bidding ends on Dec. 12, 2010 at 10:00pm CST.

JoCo Petitions Against Midwest Air Care

Johnson County Prosecutor Stephen Howe has taken action against a Lenexa duct cleaning company, Midwest Air Care. Howe's petition to the court alleges that Midwest Air Care participated in five counts of deceptive acts and practices and two counts of unconscionable acts and practices.

The petition alleges that Midwest Air Care failed to properly inform customers that it was not licensed to apply pesticide within the state of Kansas, set a price for an advertised special then failed to provide additional pricing before performing work, falsely represented an invalid "notice of cancellation," refusing to adhere to their 100% workmanship guarantee, falsely claiming to be properly certified through the NADCA, and performed work in an unprofessional manner and inappropriate to industry standards. District Attorney Howe is is seeking fines and penalties against Midwest Air Care of $10,000 for each count and $20,000 each deceptive act performed against an elderly victim.

Midwest Air Care was the prime motivator for our article earlier this year about deceptive air duct cleaning advertising.  They were also subject to an ad-review performed by the BBB that began in August, in which we asked them to cease their misleading advertising.  The ad-review went unanswered.  If they had taken our ad-review more seriously, they might have avoided a consumer protection lawsuit.

Entertaining Fraud Education

Like CSI?  Then you would enjoy spending a few minutes learning about consumer fraud on the United States Postal Inspection website.  The Postal Service isn't just about getting your letter to Grandma's house.  It's a crime-fighting agency, too.  Watch the videos on their website and be wildly entertained while learning how to protect yourself from fraud.

Of course, the BBB is here to protect consumers, too.  If you want to speak to a real-live person about consumer fraud and how to protect yourself, give us a call.  We are here to server you.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fake Collection Agency Indicted

A collection agency that has bounced back and forth between the Kansas City Area and Denver was indicted by the Colorado Attorney General on Dec. 1, 2010. Regent Asset Management is accused of violating Colorado consumer protection laws and engaging in unlicensed collection of debts.

Regent came to our attention in June of 2009 when they quickly began tallying complaints.  Consumers claimed that Regent was collecting on former US Bank debts that had been paid off months or years earlier.  As consumers contacted their bank, they found that no debt existed.

The Kansas City BBB questioned US Bank representatives and executives about the debts and were informed that US Bank had no affiliation or even familiarity with Regent Asset Management. The BBB of Denver provided data to assist the Colorado Attorney General's investigation of Regent.

If a collection agency calls you about a debt you are unfamiliar with, search our BBB national database to find out if the company has a history of complaints or government action taken against them for violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The company may not be a collection agency at all, just a group of scammers looking to steal your money.  If the information on their report is inconclusive, feel free to give your local BBB a call for advice.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Nonprofit Technology Network

Aaron and I had a blast at the 2010 Philanthropy Midwest Conference.  One of the many nuggets of information we gleaned was that there's a whole organization devoted to helping Nonprofits better utilize technology to fulfill their missions.   So check out the Nonprofit Technology Network and see how they can help your favorite organization.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Wouldn't we all like Billionaires on our Boards?

When thinking about the composition of a charity's board of directors, a common rule of thumb is that 1/3 of the board should be people who have money and generously contribute to the organization.  Another third should be people who might not have a lot of money themselves, but are good at asking for contributions from other people.  The rest of the board should be people who may not have money or know people with it, but who have the energy it takes to get things done in an organization.

According to Philanthropy Today, three board members of New York's Museum of Modern Art  (commonly known by it's stylish acronym, MOMA) are billionaires.  I think it's safe to say that MOMA does not have any funding problems.  Yay for art.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Importance of Middle Management

Most small businesses know when to bend the rules to satisfy customers.  They know when something doesn't work and can quickly fix it.  Bigger companies rely on their middle management to carry out company policies and resolve customer disputes before they involve the executive levels.  Executives can focus on running their business and their subordinates can manage problematic situations before they get out of hand, and before the customer files a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

The colossally-sized businesses are in a more difficult position.  The executives are far removed from consumers and rely on multiple levels of customer service to resolve disputes.  Often, middle management is asked to carry out the company policies without exception.  This can create problems when customer service agents are reading their scripts and their managers are forbidden from reasoning through a situation.  Sometimes, when managers bend the rules to protect the company, they are disciplined.  This is often because the uppermost tier of managers wants to avoid any problems, such as lawsuits and shrink, by not allowing their employees to do anything outside their scripted responsibilities.

This creates an impossible situation for customers whose problems are not answered by the scripts.  They fall through the cracks of customer service. This is when middle management is essential. They have to know when and when not to take extra steps to resolve a dispute. It does no good to have a manager that must follow the same script as his or her subordinates. It is a redundant step in dispute resolution that further frustrates customers, making it more difficult to satisfy them.

At the very least, a customer service manager should have extra knowledge and better explanations for the policies in customer service scripts. It is an important business investment to have management that is allowed to reason through disputes and be able to recognize when resolutions don't fit tightly within company policies.  They can save business owners many unnecessary headaches.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Jobs Coming to Kansas City

Financial times are still hard in our area, but they seem to be getting better.  From my middle class suburbanite perch, I can see lots of positive economic happenings in our area.  I've already posted about Trader Joe's coming to our area.  There are other bright spots, as well.  Has anyone been to Oak Park Mall lately?  I don't go shopping if I don't have to, but on a recent search for new business attire to wear to the Philanthropy Midwest Conference , I found several neat shops either in the works or recently opened.  In fact one store manager of a new kid's clothing store offered me a job on the spot as I was walking by.  Thankfully, my employment needs are being met ride now, but the offer sure was nice.

Other economic bright spots in our area include the decision by a clean-tech company, Exergonix, to build their headquarters here and create 275 new jobs. Apria Healthcare is consolidating its operations and bringing 300 jobs to it's Sprint Campus headquarters.

Of course, job growth isn't always a sign of good things in our economy.  Convergys Corp, an Olathe company that provides 'collections support' to the automotive and financial industries, is looking to hire 150 employees.  I suppose this just proves the old adage that one person's misfortune can be another's opportunity.

Is your company hiring?  What bright spots in Kansas City's economy can you see from your perch?  Please share in the comments.

Friday, November 12, 2010

If You Don't Answer Your Complaints, You'll Get A Bad Grade

Good Morning America ran a story this morning that says that parts of the Wolfgang Puck food empire got an F rating because he refused to pay.  Well, the real reason, AND ONLY REASON, that his cooking utensil company has an F is because his company won't answer his complaints.  He has two unanswered complaints. First of all, after that interview on Good Morning America, I'm sure that we will never accept Wolfgang Puck as a BBB Accredited Business.  However, if he answers his complaints, and remains unaccredited, he will have a much higher grade.  That is all there is to it.

So, Wolfgang, if you're listening: stop ignoring your complaints and answer your complaints.

[Edit: I just watched the whole Wolfgang Puck interview and he really just has no idea what we do or why he has an F.  He just assumed it was 'pay to play'.  He said he never talked to us, but the BBB sent his company at least two letters per complaint. So, I suppose this blog will be an explanation to him. I also changed the sentence that says he's ignoring his customers.  His company is ignoring complaints made by his customers.]

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Holy Smoke BBQ Joins the BBB!

This is big news for me.

I love Holy Smoke BBQ.  Kansas City has countless good barbecue joints, as you already know, and was recently featured on the Food Network's Diner's, Drive-Ins and Dives for our barbecue...because our BBQ is awesome smothered with awesome.  I haven't had every barbecue around, but two years ago, Holy Smoke knocked Perry Foster's BBQ of Warrensburg, MO out of my numero uno spot for the best barbecue in all the land.

I saw that they joined up with us and had to share. If you decide to give it a try, I recommend the Big Al sandwich and the beautiful burnt ends. Delicious.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

BBB Charity Seal

Do the local charities you support have the BBB Charity Seal?  Well, they should.  This is why:  The BBB Charity Seal ensures donors that an organization meets the BBB's 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.  To meet our standards, organizations must be transparent, effective, and soundly manage their finances.  If your favorite Kansas City charity doesn't have the BBB seal, ask them why. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Philanthropy in Other Countries

Permit me to put on my nerd hat here.  With a background in international studies and nonprofit management, this is the kind of thing that I love.  Our world is so interesting.

I've blogged before about the wonderful generosity of Kansas Citians. Americans in general are a pretty generous bunch.  Much of the reason we have such a thriving nonprofit sector in this country is because we have a society set up to support it.  The nonprofit sector in this country provides services - health care, assistance with basic needs, animal welfare, support of the arts, etc. - that in other nations are provided for solely by government or for-profit businesses. We Americans feel that the nonprofit sector, in all its transparent diversity, is the best way to deliver many of the things our culture values.  We have a tax system that supports individual donations to charity and we have trust in our nonprofit institutions. 

We are unique.  Not every country has what it takes to support a 'third sector.'  I recently heard about how Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, arguably two of the most famous American philanthropists, are reaching out to China to help them develop their own charitable sector. With China's rapid growth has come new wealth and  an opportunity for individuals to make a positive impact on their country through philanthropy. What I love about Gates and Buffet's approach is that they aren't aiming to spread the American model of philanthropy, but want to help China develop its own, culturally appropriate, philanthropic sector.  It's up to the Chinese to figure out how the nonprofit sector will work in their country.  Gates and Buffet just want to help move the conversation along.

As another example of philanthropy abroad, take a look at the website for Mexico City's Procura (there is a button on the site that will translate it into English).  I worked with this organization for a summer during graduate school.  What they are doing in Mexico, really trying to build a nonprofit sector from scratch, is amazing. 

If you know of other home-grown philanthropic movements abroad, I would love to hear about them in the comments section.  And if you have a question about nonprofit organizations close to home, send them my way. You can always find a current list of our BBB Charity Reports on the Kansas City BBB's Website.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Charity Mailings

This blog post last week from US News and World Report about expensive charity mailings reminded me of the disconnect that the public sometimes feels with charities.  I think most of us have at some point received an unsolicited 'goody' from a charity seeking a donation. And I'm sure it annoys me as much as most people, maybe even more.  To be honest, I don't really mind getting address labels (click here for fun ways to use them.), but one charity often sends me worthless faux-gold coins about the size of quarter. What on earth do you do with one of those?  What is it's point?  For the life of me, I can't figure out what to do with a worthless gold coin.  Why on earth would a charity bother to mail me something like that?

Well, the truth is that it is a calculated risk on the part of the organization.  What that charity wants, more than anything, is for me to get a mailing from them and open it up.  If a letter addressed to me is unusually heavy, or somehow different than the other junk-mail pieces I habitually toss into the recycling bin, they know I will probably open it up.  And if I open it up, I'll read it.  And if I read it, I may just send them some money because how could I not read about the horrible plight of gorillas in Africa, hungry seniors in Kansas City, or contaminated rivers in Colorado and not feel compelled to open my checkbook and send them, say $20?  Well, I can because I'm cold and heartless. Aactually, no, I'm just a smart donor with a plan for my charitable giving.  One that does not include giving to charities who send me worthless gold coins. 

The most expensive donor for a charity to acquire is a first-time donor.  Studies show that people who give to a charity once are much more likely to give again. And if your first gift was $20, your second gift may be $50, and before you know it, you may be writing the charity into your will.  It is a calculated risk on the part of some organizations to spend lots of money to send expensive mailings to thousands for potential donors, but charities wouldn't do it if it didn't pay off in the long run. 

In the meantime, if you would like to get off a charity's mailing list, the best way to do it is to call them and request that they remove your address from their records.  You can also tell charities that you regularly fund to not share your name and contact information with outside organizations.

If you have questions about charity mailings, leave a comment and I'll respond.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Busting Hi Def Myths

I had forgotten about "upselling."  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, upselling is the practice of selling items related to large purchases.  Marketing geniuses long ago figured out that people willing to spend big will likely spend even more to protect their investment. I used to upsell items back in my retail days selling leather jackets.  We were told not to let people leave the store without telling them that they needed to buy leather protection spray.

Upselling has grown prominent at electronics stores.  Large purchases there can run thousands of dollars. By focusing on the customer's desire to protect his investment salespeople try to upsell all sorts of things.  Most of what they try to sell are not bad purchases, such as antivirus and protection plans for laptops, wireless controllers for gaming consoles, and some Blu Ray movies with that new Blu Ray player.  On the other hand, a surefire bad purchase is a high priced HDMI cable.  These are sold at all electronics stores and can run as high as $300.  Salespeople push them with the sale of most Hi Def equipment like Blu Ray players, gaming consoles and especially HDTVs



Customers walking into electronics stores are likely to notice at least one wall full of HDTVs.  These beauties tantalize with their elegant flatness and perfectly clear demo reels. The lure of HDTVs is made all the stronger by the presence of Blu Ray players, Playstation 3s, X-Box 360s and streaming HD rental services like Netflix, Zune, and Apple TV.  If that's not enough, HDTVs usually drop in price before the holidays. I, for one, wasn't able to resist. I went out and bought my first HDTV last month.

Buying an HDMI cable with an HDTV isn't a bad idea.  HDMI cables aren't bad in and of themselves.  They're handy.  They carry both digital sound and digital video to the television. With them, you have no need for left and right audio cables or Red/Green/Blue components.  It's all in one; just plug and play.  Just the expensive cables are bad.  When a salesperson mentions superior quality HDMI cables, know that there is ZERO difference in picture quality from the cheapest to the most expensive.

Popular Mechanics, Endgadget, Consumer Reports, PC World, Gizmodo and Cnet have thoroughly debunked superiority claims by HDMI manufacturers but that hasn't stopped some electronics stores from exploiting our lack of audio/visual savvy in order to make more money.  When salespeople bring up anything akin to "picture degradation," know that they are lying to you or their boss has lied to them.  Whatever the case, you will be on the receiving end of lies.  Digital signals do not degrade.  The signal either gets to your HDTV or it doesn't.  If a digital stream doesn't reach the television, the picture will not be fuzzy, like it is with bad cable reception, it will show up as a bunch of indistinguishable squares or a big blank screen.  You won't be able to watch anything.  There will be no reduction in contrast, black level, hue, or anything else.  Picture degradation through HDMI is impossible.

HDMI manufacturers have also established a new myth in order to sell more expensive products.  They started "rating" cables for 120hz, 240hz or even 480hz. These statements are nonsense.  The signal carried by an HDMI cable is 60hz.  Always. Newer HDTVs have 120hz refresh rates (the picture refreshes 120 times every second a.k.a. 120 frames per second) but it has nothing to do with the signal going to the TV.  The more unscrupulous manufacturers count on the complexity of digital entertainment systems to trick us into buying products that we do not need and are horribly misrepresentative of the technology.

HDTVs with 120hz refresh rates were created because of a frustrating side-effect from watching non-digitally filmed movies.  Movies shot on film (Godfather, The Matrix)  run at 24 frames per second--for the purpose of simplicity, we'll just call it "24hz." Movies filmed in digital format (Star Wars: Episode III, Avatar) run at 30hz. Because older HDTVs interpret the signal at 60hz, it must repeat frames from the video to appear fluid.  It is not a problem for digital films because all 30 frames are repeated once, fitting perfectly into 60hz.  That obviously doesn't work with films shot at 24hz--the television must interpret the signal by repeating some frames once and others twice.  This effect, called 3:2 pulldown, makes the video jump during scenes with excessive movement.  Therefore newer HDTVs were created that could interpret films with 24hz or 30hz without 3:2 pulldown.  The simplest solution was to create a television that processed information at roughly 120hz.  That way it could show 30hz movies by repeating frames 3 times and 24hz movies by repeating frames 4 times, leaving no jumpy effect.  Hurray innovation!  What should you take away from all that technobabel? 120hz "rated" HDMI cables have absolutely no effect on picture quality. *For a more detailed explanation of 3:2 Pulldown, with more accurate terminology, click here.

If the HDMI cable is durable and the plugs on the end are sturdy, it will work the exact same no matter how expensive or inexpensive.  Instead of buying a $200 cable, I would suggest something more useful, like a Blu Ray Player...or 10 movies...or 20 movie tickets....or 400 candy bars (but don't buy the candy bars AT the movies; with $200, you could only afford a few).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Trader Joe's is Coming to Kansas City

I'm a transplant from Washington, DC.  When people ask me what I miss about my former home, what often comes to mind is not the buzz of our nation's capital or its abundant natural beauty.  No, more often than not the answer is Trader Joe's.  More specifically, I miss being able to eat like a sophisticated foodie on a budget more suited to WalMart.  Missouri has several of these stores . . . they just happen to be in St. Louis. Ask any manager of a St. Louis-area TJ's and I am positive they will recall countless pleadings from Kansas Citians to get a store on our side of the state.

Well, apparently Trader Joes has heard our call and is coming.  Finally. And the Ward Parkway store will be dangerously close to the BBB offices. Score! 

Before this announcement, I had heard that Lincoln/Omaha was getting a pair of Trader Joe's stores.  Seriously?  Nebraska getting a Trader Joe's before us? Thankfully, our TJ stores were announced soon after and order was once again restored to the world.

So we in Kansas City have something really fun and exciting too look forward to in 2011 (besides the Royals' next season.  It will be our year.)  And after watching my 6-month-old devour a plate full of pancakes, I highly recommend their pumpkin pancake mix.  A big thanks to my mom and dad for sending us a box of it from the Albuquerque, New Mexico Trader Joe's.  They live in Denver and I won't use this post to boast about how we got a Trader Joe's before they did.  No, I won't boast one bit.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

You Should Attend the 2010 Philanthropy Midwest Conference

Nonprofit Connect's  2010 Philanthropy Midwest Conference is coming upon us quickly!  It's happening November 8-9 at the Overland Park Convention Center. For nonprofit professionals in Kansas City, this is THE event.  This will be my third year attending the conference and every year I come away with something that directly benefits my work at the BBB.  You should be there, too.

Hurry and register by October 8th to get the early-bird discount.

Don't work in the nonprofit sector? The conference provides a great opportunity for businesses to market themselves to organizations accross the midwest. Check here for more info on that.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How to Get Lien Releases From Closed Businesses

Callers question us every few months about lien releases from companies that are out of business.  I finally got sick of not having answers and gave a call to the Department of Revenue Motor Vehicle Division.

Here's what the DOR representative told me.  If the lien holder for your vehicle went out of business, you can contact the Secretary of State where the company was located and ask for a Certificate of Fact.  Present the certificate to the Department of Revenue and they will release the lien.

In my vast experience with businesses that disappear, I know the Secretary of State often has no idea when companies cease to exist.  What then?  At that point, you must take information suggesting the closure of a business to a circuit court.  If the information is sufficient, the Judge will  rule that you are the owner. You can present the court order to the DOR and they will treat it as a lien release. Viola!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Happy People Give More to Charity

A study by the UK-based Charities Aid Foundation, bucks the notion that only the wealthy give money to charities.  Apparently, it's not wealth but happiness that is the greatest influence on an individual's choice to give to charity.  This is a good thing.  If charities relied solely on the small proportion of people with gobs of money to throw around, well, they'd be waiting awhile. And a lack of economic diversity in funders would likely affect diversity in terms of mission, too.

But wait, aren't wealthy people naturally happier?  I mean, I'd probably be a little less stressed if I didn't have to worry about how I'll send three boys to college (well, actually, me and dear husband are first wondering how we'll feed three teenagers.  Hierarchy of needs and all that.) And a brand-new suped-up minivan would definitely make me happy.   But another recent study, this one out of Princeton, found that wealth is not a predictor of happiness.  

So, ten years from now when my family is happily subsisting on a diet of rice and beans bought in wholesale quantities, we'll probably still be giving to charity.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hail Bombardment Causes Influx of Home Repair Businesses

Stormchasers are just part of the biz.  When a major storm hits an area masses of home repair companies relocate to the damaged area. Sometimes the area gains a good company they otherwise wouldn't have had. Most of the time, however, stormchasers sweep through the area and onto the next badly damaged section of the country.  It leaves consumers who used their services in a tight spot.  For instance, what do consumers do if their new roof leaks and the guy they hired is off in Minnesota chasing another storm or maybe he returned to Louisiana where he lives?  What are the chances he will come back and fix the problems?  Maybe he'll hire a local company to come out and fix it--a company the consumer never hired.  Maybe they make it worse.  Honestly, who knows?

Consumers who have hail damage to their homes, vehicles, or any other property, need to take a few minutes to arm themselves against the onslaught of Door-to-door salesmen heading their way.  The Better Business Bureau is here to help.  A few news organizations in the area have recruited our expertise.  You can find some info here from KCTV5 and here is our blog entry about door-to-door roofing sales. Below is a video containing tips and an interview with the BBB.



If you have hail damage, you will surely get some visitors.  Don't be nervous. You don't have to do business with anyone who stops by your house.  Get the salesperson's card if they propose a good deal, but check up on the company.  Give us a call for its reliability report and get a few other estimates. Once you compare prices, you may find out the first guy's deal wasn't so good.

Better Business Bureau of Greater Kansas City
816-421-7800
info@kansascity.bbb.org

Friday, September 17, 2010

Identify Work-At-Home Scams, Schemes and Frauds

I've been allowed to work from home on occasion.  I hung out in a T-shirt and pajama pants while I wrote articles, designed fliers, updated files and made phone calls.  I threw a load of laundry in the washer. I listened to music as loud as I wished and no one complained.  It's great. That's why so many people want to do it. According to some reliable studies, more and more people are working from home. There's a difference, however, in occasionally working from home for a national organization such as the BBB and stuffing envelopes for some guy that says you can make $1000 a week.

If you've perused the internet for work-at-home opportunities, you've probably run across many of our articles warning you against them.  You've also seen more than a few "F" ratings for them.  The "businesses" that ask people to stuff envelopes, assemble pamphlets and CD cases or offer home data entry positions, are always assigned "F"s by the Better Business Bureau.  The work-at-home industry generates an astounding amount of complaints and the BBB tells thousands of people every year that these companies are inherently dangerous.

There are simple rules to follow in avoiding work-at-home scams, such as "don't pay up front."  If any work-at-home opportunity presents itself as an investment toward your future wealth, just ignore it.  Paying up front will guarantee that you not only don't make money, but you also lose money.  On many occasions, people that call us for the reliability reports about work-at-home companies are so desperate to believe their financial problems will be solved that they argue with me.  I'm trying to save them money, to help them, and they tell me I'm wrong.

I realized somewhere along the line that I could explain why these companies are inherently problematic and people hang up more satisfied with what I had to say.  I also realized that people are looking on the internet for these jobs and NOT calling me (you should...I'm helpful).  I wanted to arm internet users with information needed to be absolutely sure that work-at-home gigs are scams.

We'll start with envelope stuffing. Envelope stuffing opportunities don't even bother with a legitimate premise-- such as data entry, which in some cases is at least a real job. "Stuffing envelopes" is not a job.  Envelope stuffing ads claim that you will be paid $1-$5 per envelope mailed.  Most of the ads give examples of people who've made thousands by doing this in their spare time.  Based on how much they say you'll make per envelope, it seems obvious that you could make thousands by doing this in your spare time.  I mean, if someone were slow at stuffing envelopes, he may be able to mail two per minute.  If he had only four spare hours a day to mail them out, he would still be able to mail out 480 envelopes in one day.  Even if he were paid the lowest amount $1/envelope, he'd be making nearly $500 per day!  Of course it sounds great.

But think about it.  If I could make $500/day by mindlessly stuffing envelopes while plodding through my Netflix queue, I would not be writing this article.  I'd be home making myself rich, and so would everyone else.  There would be no such thing as a day job because we'd all be nauseatingly rich from stuffing envelopes.  That's the first sign that there will be some kind of catch.  No one will pay that much to have envelopes stuffed and mailed.  There are real mailing services that charge to process mail.  They could mail out 10,000 envelopes per day for less than $500.  The same goes for anything a business asks you to mail: rebates, billing, fliers, reports, etc.  No one is going to pay you to mail from home; you're not cost-efficient.  It couldn't happen.

Speaking of cost-efficiency, let's get back to data entry.  Plenty of people get paid to plug information into company's system, but they usually have to be onsite. There's a reason for that.  When data entry personnel are located in one spot, they are easier to monitor.  A manager can make sure they are all entering data.  If the data entry professional was at home, they obviously couldn't get paid hourly, how would they prove it?  So these Enter-data-from-home offers say that people will be paid per "report" or "words entered."  But how much per report?  One dollar? two?  How long are the reports?  How much per word? A cent?  Not many people type as fast as I do.  I can enter up to 100/minute on a good day, but if I'm typing a report, making sure my fingers are in the right spot, then pausing to look at the numbers, then losing my place on the page, I type about 60 words/minute. Lets say I can type for 4 hours straight without getting carpal tunnel (let's make it 50 words/minute to account for my coffee break).  That's still 12,000 words. At the 1 cent per word payscale, its $30/hr.  Believe me, data entry personnel don't make thirty bucks an hour.  They also type at least as fast as I do.  It's really just more cost-effective for companies to make their employees come into work and pay them $8.00 to $12.00/hr.  Businesses will not do something that costs them more money for our sake.

Here's the bottom line about most work at home schemes.  They can't afford to pay you what they say they can.  They make absurd claims about how much you can earn and EVERY TIME we ask them to substantiate their claims, they fall short.  If it sounds like you're getting the better end of a deal, you should ask yourself why in the world anyone would offer it up.  The answer is usually "they're lying to you."







Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Name for Corn Syrup

Apparently, the term 'high fructose corn syrup' (HFCS) is no longer politically correct.  The new name of the sweetener, according to the Corn Refiners Association, will be 'corn sugar.'  It appears that consumption of HFCS is down - a lot - as consumers look to avoid food products that list it as an ingredient.  Studies have shown sugar consumption to be a major player in the incidence of obesity and there is a fair amount of debate about whether HFCS is worse for the body than, say, table sugar. 

For more in this issues, read this article from the Associated Press. As a mom who reads labels, and limits the amount of sugar - in any form - that my kids consume, 'corn sugar' is just another ingredient I'll be on the look-out for.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Scoundrels! The Lot of Them!

Like most people, I find con men reprehensible.  Taking the hard earned money of people in financial desperation is pretty low.  However, also like most people, I have a fascination with the brilliance of some of their ideas and the cunning required to pull them off.  Such is the case with Victor Lustig's brazen idea to sell the Eiffel Tower.  And he did. Twice.  Then there was Gaston Means, a man so sly that he fooled every branch of the United States government into believing he had "secrets" worth paying for.  Before he was finally imprisoned for grand larceny, he wriggled his way out of a murder conviction and probably charges of treason.

The ability to outfox others is a long-standing worldwide fascination.  It has been a popular subject for books and movies for decades. The Sting, a story of two top-notch con men won the Academy Award for best picture in 1973.  The international best-selling Tom Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith focuses on a ruthless and murderous con man who has inspired five movies. Steven Spielberg's 2002 hit Catch Me if You Can is based on the short but no less brilliant criminal career of Frank Abignale, Jr, a check forger and impersonator who stole millions before he turned 21.  Hustle, a series beginning in 2004, is still running strong on BBC.  There's the obscenely popular Ocean's 11, 12, and 13.  Leverage, a TV series about con men with hearts of gold is in its third season. American Greed highlights the biggest, most incredible scams in the country.  It breaks cons down step-by-step, so we may be appropriately impressed by the warped intelligence of con men.  

If you're like me, you're curious about the minds behind these crimes.  I want to know why they think they can do what they please and throw it in our faces.  Most books and movies give con men engaging character arcs or make their victims into the real bad guys, people even more horrible than the con men. It makes the protagonists likable. Of course, that is not usually how it works.

BBBs are now among the first targets of con men.  To lend themselves an air of legitimacy, they desperately attempt heighten their ratings with the BBB and even try to become Accredited.  Because of this, I speak with them from time to time and I can tell you what real con artists are like.

First of all, there is a hierarchy.  The guys in movies and books like Gaston Means and Victor Lustig are perched on the uppermost tier.  I'll start with the lowest wrung of con-artistry, who are obviously the most common.  These are the guys who knock on doors and tell elderly people that they need their trees trimmed.  Once they collect money, they disappear. I speak with these people rarely.  They don't try to be legitimate very often.  They change their names and move around.  Their personalities differ greatly and sometimes people from this tier move on to greener pastures of deception.  The rest seem destined to live out their lives pulling low-rent con jobs or in prison.  They are comprised primarily of two different types of personalities: the placater and the bully.  A placater is someone who tells their victims exactly what they want to hear all the time.  It's an impossible facade to maintain forever.  Placaters eventually disappear once their lies become too difficult to keep track of.  The bully screams and yells about being wronged, threatens to sue, pulls dirty tricks to get what he wants and refuses to admit his crimes once he's caught in the act.  These people sometimes result to violence.

 The next tier up is full of small-time guys who were smart enough to move past door-to-door scams and present themselves as "consultants" or "entrepreneurs." These guys are usually very nice. Too nice.  It is apparent that they are trying to convince me of just how nice they are. I immediately get the impression that they are trying to sell me something.  They are affronted by criticism and act wounded by doubts about their intentions.  They play up the sympathy card and present themselves as friends.  They act like they are normal guys just trying to make a good living in a hard world.  Paper trails are usually what bring them down.  They can only act friendly and pathetic so long before someone puts the pieces together.

The next level is where the real con artistry begins.  In fact, the top two tiers (this and next) overlap.  In this group, the con men are successful not because they are super-geniuses (most aren't), but because they don't believe what they are doing is wrong.  These guys have managed to convince themselves that some stealing is ok, that  victims of investment fraud have entered into it at their own risk so they deserved to have their money stolen, that tricking people into buying worthless products and services is just good business.  They can justify anything.  They also have a pathological need to defend themselves, similar to the previous group, but more pronounced because they actually believe what they are saying.  They cannot allow anyone to see through their polished and carefully constructed "nice guy" and "honest business" images.  They will demand the last word and endlessly argue about their virtues.  In my experience, once they realize they have not fooled me, they throw tantrums. It's pathetic, really. (Even though Bernie Madoff stole more money than anyone in the history of fraud, I consider him to be in this category.  He convinced himself long ago, in the 80s, that stealing is not really wrong.)

The final and uppermost tier of con men is made up of sociopaths.  Men who may or may not recognize right and wrong, but don't care one way or the other.  This is the group where Charles Ponzi and Gaston Means reside.  They are cruel and cunning, brilliant and charming.  They possess surprising patience and instinctively know when they do and do not need to lie.  When they lie it is imperceptible.  They are hard to catch in lies, and if I manage that, it's even more difficult to keep them cornered.  The easiest way to identify people from this group is their inability to be outraged.  I have spoken to three people from this category (that I know of) and they never raised their voices.  When I told one of them that he was misrepresenting his service and that his business was not on the level, he did not hang up the phone or yell at me. He did not defend his honor or the company, he simply kept talking in a conversational tone, essentially attempting to fool me with sophistry.  Most business owners get a bit testy when their reputation is challenged. Not these guys.  Their chilled indifference to morality is alarming.

There is some good.  Career con men get caught.  They always get caught.  They can keep up their facades for a while, but they break down.  In this country, we have the wonderful consumer protection agencies such as the FTC and state Attorneys General.  We have privately owned consumer watchdog groups and non-profits like the BBB, and also an overwhelming majority of people who want a fair marketplace.  Normal people are the ones who get investigations going, who spot something inconsistent in a business deal and report it.  Internet communities exchange stories about shady tactics, shoddy workmanship, and questionable behavior from businesses.  Twenty people exchanging identical stories of misrepresentation is a pretty good indicator that the business has ethical issues.  Con Men can't get away forever.

It's extremely important for people who have been scammed to report what happened.  That's how bad guys are caught.  We, nor the consumer protection agencies, will never know about it unless con men are reported.  Victor Lustig, the guy who sold the Eiffel Tower, managed to do it again because the original person he scammed was too embarrassed about being deceived.  If you've been conned, don't let them get away with it. Report it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Giving to Police and Firefighter Organizations

Dilbert.com

Most people appreciate the work that the brave men and women who work as police officers and firefighters do for our community.  My boys met a 'real life' firefighter last weekend and their reaction was much like mine would be if I ever met Bono.  Police and Firefighters deserve that kind of rock-star status.  And we like to help them when we can.  Like with all organizations, prospective donors should educate themselves before donating to an organization that purports to help our first responders.  Here are some basic guidelines to follow:
1. When responding to a fundraising appeal, make sure you make your check out directly to the organization and don't give cash.
2. Don't feel pressured to make a giving decision on the spot. An organization that needs your money today, will need it just as much tomorrow or the next day.
3. Don't believe promises that your donation will give you 'special treatment' from the police and firefighters in your community.
4. Ask about the organization's tax-exempt status.  Make sure your gift is tax-deductible.
5. Ask questions about the organization and its finances.  A telemarketer, for example, should be able to tell you how much of your donation will actually go to the charity.

The Kansas City BBB has reports on two local Police and Firefighter organizations, Kansas State Troopers Association and Police Benefit Association of Kansas City.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Online Privacy

At the BBB, we take consumer privacy very seriously. In fact both our business and charity standards require that BBB accredited organizations, on their websites, inform consumers about what information they collect and who they share it with.

I came across this fantastic article on NPR about online privacy. It explains the different ways companies track you, what they do with the information they collect about you, and the difference between a 'cookie' and a 'beacon.' It is worth a read.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Impartiality of BBB Complaint Handling

I got a call yesterday from a lady who was contemplating filing a complaint against a business.  When she questioned me about the complaint handling process, she asked me, "How do I know you'll be impartial?"  Because we are funded by our Accredited Businesses, she wanted to make sure we wouldn't unjustly side with an Accredited Business over a consumer.  I've been asked this question three times in the last two years.  Apparently, it is asked commonly enough to be listed in our FAQ.  The answer is brief and accurate, but I think it needs more explanation to satisfactorily answer the more skeptical individuals.  The answer listed in our FAQ states:

"BBB's value to the business community is based on our marketplace neutrality.  Our purpose is not to act as an advocate for businesses or consumers but to act as a mutually trusted intermediary to resolve disputes and provide information to assist consumers in making wise buying decisions.  Businesses have supported BBB for more than 90 years because a trustworthy marketplace is in everyone's best interest."

Despite this explanation, I get plenty of comments from customers who claim that we "always" take the company's side and just as many comments from companies claiming we "always" take the customer's side.  Obviously, just by getting one comment from each side disproves both. And while I could endlessly cite supporting evidence of our impartiality, it would do nothing to give people a clear understanding of why we are impartial. I find that people are more likely to trust others if they understand and accept their motives.

First of all, and most importantly, consumers must trust that we are impartial for them to use our services.  Of course consumers are not going to use a resource they do not trust and if they did not value our resources, if consumers did not trust our reliability reports and did not use us, we would have zero impact on how companies operate.  Why would businesses listen to anyone who consumers do not value?  It is essential for us to maintain the trust of consumers.  We must do everything in our power not to jeopardize that trust.  It is much easier to be trustworthy than to maintain a trustworthy facade.

But, we must also maintain the trust of the business community.  We cannot expect businesses to become accredited if they feel they are held to unrealistic and unfair standards. If companies feel that no matter what they do, they will have unsatisfactory reports, they will never become BBB accredited.  Companies will get complaints. That's the nature of business.  How a company handles those complaints has the greatest impact on its reliability report. We expect companies to respond to complaints in a professional manner, provide appropriate supporting information and documents if necessary, and show willingness to address the issues within the complaints filed by their customers.  We believe most companies and consumers would agree that those are reasonable expectations.  If a company believes it is well within its rights to stonewall a customer, blow off the BBB or provide a wholly insufficient response, they would be right, but it would guarantee themselves an unsatisfactory record for all the world to see.

Most complaints are amicably resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.  Complaints typically result from miscommunication, oversight or confusion and are easily remedied. On the occasions that resolution is not reached, one party will probably be left dissatisfied.  There are two sides to every argument. Whenever it's not a simple miscommunication, one side is wrong.

Monday, August 30, 2010

American Shingle Collapses

We never approved of the way American Shingle's door-to-door salesmen operated.  We've had complaints and heard horror stories about inappropriate behavior, escalating altercations, misleading sales claims, and on several occasions taking advantage of the elderly.  The company asked their customers to file claims with their insurance carrier and allow them to negotiate with the insurance company.  It is an unnecessary, abnormal and dangerous sales tactic.  For a long time, American Shingle addressed their complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau and maintained a satisfactory record. Despite their repeated attempts, however, we would not allow them to become BBB accredited. Their sales tactics were too problematic. Once American Shingle's bad habits started to wear off on our local businesses, we issued an alert, warning against these sales practices.

American Shingle President Carlton DeWayne Dunko opened with an aggressive plan to simultaneously establish his business in several states. To extend a company's resources across several states in this way is dangerous unless handled by an accomplished businessperson.  Perhaps Dunko had seen the success of BBB Accredited Aspen Contracting, a company that burst onto the scene in 2006 and now operates in 37 states.  It has continued to grow, regularly announcing the opening of new locations.  Aspen had the right idea when they opened many physical locations and established a local presence with sixteen offices across the nation (probably more by now).

 Instead of allowing the company to grow naturally, American Shingle outgrew its revenue and relied on overly-aggressive sales tactics to assure roofing jobs. It did not work.  American Shingle began paying for old roofing jobs with the payments from the new ones.

We received calls and inquiries, dozens by the day, about American Shingle.  Being naturally curious because of my position, I began asking questions about the company, their sales tactics and their work.   I continued to do this and by May, I could tell that not all was well with American Shingle.  By June, I was convinced that American Shingle was sinking and I began contacting consumer protection agencies, just to get a feel for the atmosphere.  I was somewhat surprised to find that most agencies I spoke with only had a passing knowledge of the company.  By the end of July, it seemed that everyone knew about them.  Linda Wagar from Fox 4 began her investigation of the company, as well as news organizations in Tennessee and Georgia.  The Kansas Attorney General's office, an incredibly tight-lipped group, even said "We're aware of them" (That's as good as you can get from them.  They're like the Russian guys in crime movies that don't say much but get their point across with presence).

Tennessee was the first state to feel the financial squeeze that American Shingle had gotten itself into and issued a warning  against them.  They just stopped putting on roofs.  In the Kansas City area, the company postponed telling their customers by reestablishing a date to install roofs.  The installation, of course, will never come because American Shingle was evicted from their Lenexa location before any work began on area roofs.  According to Fox 4, some 400 Kansas City area homeowners have paid to have their roofs replaced and received nothing.

In one of the most self-delusional or disingenuous comments I have ever heard, Dunko actually said,"It wasn't the hard-earned paycheck that I took, it was the check that their insurance company provided." I'm not sure if he realizes who pays the insurance policy, or that once an insurance company shells out money for a roof, they won't do it again, but Dunko's comments are either a desperate attempt to salvage an irreparably tarnished reputation or just...well, stupid.  He's facing several investigations for American Shingle as well as other companies, so he must have some grasp of how unfair his business practices were.  Everyone from the Secret Service and state Attorneys General right on down to county Sheriffs are investigating American Shingle for financial misdeeds. He could easily face jail time for his actions.

Right now, our local consumer protection agencies are taking complaints on the company so that they can better determine what action to take.  If you have dealt with American Shingle and wish to file a complaint, you can contact the Kansas Attorney General's office: (785) 368-8447, Missouri (573) 751-3321 or if you live in Johnson County, Kansas you can contact the ever-vigilant Johnson County Prosecutor's Office (913) 715-3000.

CLICK HERE for Linda Wagar's story about American Shingle on Fox 4

Nonprofit Resource - The Foundation Center

This is a bit of a follow-up to my previous post about grants. Do you work with a nonprofit searching for grants? The Foundation Center, an organization committed to connecting nonprofits and grantmakers, can be an excellent resource for you.

Locally, you can access the Foundation Center's resources at the Kansas City Public Library.
Happy grantwriting!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Farrah's Car Sale Scam on "Teen Mom"

My girlfriend is a big fan of the show "Teen Mom."  Because of that, I'll sit in front of the TV with her while I write, and she keeps me updated on the lives of these 18 year old parents.  It is an occasionally interesting show, to see how these kids cope with parenthood.  When the show amplifies the drama, my attention wanes and I only periodically glance at the TV.  The latest episode caught my attention.

Last week, my girlfriend told me that Farrah, one of the moms, was scammed while selling her car.  I'd heard of many scams against people who are buying a car, but never selling.  I sat down and watched the show.  I came in as Farrah listed her car on Craigslist. My girlfriend is a notorious channel-changer, so I'm not sure what I missed, but the next thing I knew, Farrah was on the phone with her bank and her account was -$2600.  As soon as I heard that, I knew what had happened.  I speak with people on the phone who've encountered similar scams.  And sometimes, I have to tell them that they've lost their savings.

I'm sure it went down something like this.  Farrah listed her car for $5000, seemingly unaware that her car was not worth it, and she quickly got an offer.  I assume the offer was from outside the country, probably Canada.  They seem to have told her that $5000 was no problem and they would send her a check for the car and the shipping costs to send it to Canada. They probably said that the taxes and getting the car through customs was expensive and the fees could only be paid by the seller.  The scammer likely told Farrah to send the money to a "handler" of some sort. Whether the handler claimed to be an IRS agent or customs agent doesn't matter; it was actually the scam artist or an accomplice.  This is a variant of more common wire transfer scams.

Around the internet, people have been a little too hard on Farrah for her mistake.  Scammers find people that have some trust in others and then manipulate it.  Scam artists are convincing and charming, believable and adaptive.  The good ones can role with most situations and maintain their trustworthy facade.  Anyone and everyone can be persuaded, especially an isolated and emotionally distraught teenager.  In a recent US Weekly interview, Farrah said that she felt stupid for what she did.  And while it is now recognizable as a bad decision, it's more difficult to see at the time. It happens to many others.

I ran across a commenter or two on different websites discussing the scam and they were shocked to find out this happened to people who were not senior citizens.  Some people believe that to be ripped off, one must have mental problems such as senility.  This is NOT the case.  Most victims of scams have full mental capacity. The reason that the elderly are targeted more often is because they are isolated.  They have sometimes outlived all their friends or spouses that used to give them advice.  They might be in financial straits because they live only on a meager social security check.  Financial burdens lead people to make desperate decisions.

To con artists, Farrah is an appealing victim, though she didn't know it when they stole her money.  She lost her child's father in a car accident.  She was forced to rid herself of her parents, who were abusive and at times incapable of rational thought.  She found herself living on her own for the first time, without her parents' guidance, without a partner to advise her, in financial desperation and perpetually distracted by the needs of her daughter.  Single mothers are as desirable targets as the elderly, but they're more assailable.  Single mothers use email, Craigslist, Careerbuilder, cell phones and other technologies, giving scammers more opportunities to contact them.  Farrah is the type of person I most often have to tell that they lost their money.  It's horrible, but it happens.  It doesn't mean that the victim should feel ashamed.

If you or anyone you know gets caught in a similar scam, you should immediately contact the Federal Trade Commission (1-877-FTC-HELP) and the police department of whatever state or province the money was wired to.  If the money was wired to Canada, contact Phonebusters (1-888-495-8501) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Fraud Division (613-993-6884).  It is difficult to track these scam artists down, but the quicker you act, the better your chances.

Monday, August 23, 2010

4 out of 10 Professionals Want to Quit

That number does not, by the way, include me. O.k, Dave?

With that out of the way, check this article from the Kansas City Business Journal. Apparently, people get back from vacation and realize that being overworked and underpaid is a bad deal. I recently heard about some companies making a move to offer their employees unlimited paid vacation. Now I doubt those employees are looking for jobs elsewhere.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Donate Like a Billionaire

From our friends at the BBB Wise Giving Alliance comes five ways to donate like a billionaire. Click here to read the full article. Here's one tip: Billionaires don't give to charities just because they like their names.

For more information on giving to local charities, click here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Air Duct Cleaning Advertisements

The Kansas City Better Business Bureau began looking into the advertising practices of local air duct cleaning companies.  Around the same time, the BBB of Sacramento finished an in-depth year long investigation of the same industry.  We began researching complaints against air duct cleaning companies that advertised inexpensive cleanings, offering specials for as little as $39.95.  In the Kansas City Area, one can expect to pay a few hundred dollars, but no where near as low $40 to $80.

Ward Holman, owner/operator of Air Vision Duct Cleaning of KC, an A+ rated BBB Accredited Business and three-time Angie's List Super Service Award winner, has heard so many stories about these companies that his website states: "I'll tell you why there's no such thing as a $59 duct cleaning--even on a small home!"  We called Holman and asked why there is no such thing and, in the end, it's pretty simple.

"Because they can't make any money," Holman says. "They stay in business because the coupon looks pretty good. Eighteen vents for this price and the homeowner only has nineteen vents. It can't be that much more...A guy starts touring the house, does a quick inspection and they always find mold."  Mold is uncommon, but not unheard of, in air ducts.  "They seem to find it on every job," Holman says. "They start adding up prices and suddenly it costs $575.  The homeowner says something about the cost and the guy says he'll call his boss...he tells the homeowner that the 'boss' says he'll do it for $475.  I'm not saying a house can't get big enough to cost $500, but not every job."

If an Air Duct cleaning company finds mold and increases the price by a few hundred percent, get skeptical.  If you are concerned about mold, you can contact a laboratory to do a proper test for mold.  On site air duct cleaners are not equipped to determine if your ducts are actually infested with mold. Their equipment can only tell, at best, if mold spores are in the air.  Mold spores are virtually always in the air, which makes the test irrelevant.

The best way to combat bait and switch advertising is to check up on any company you might do business with.  For a list of BBB Accredited Air Duct Cleaners, click HERE.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Accredited Charity Spotlight - Children International

From time to time, I like to write about one of the fantastic BBB accredited charities here in Kansas City.

Today, I'd like to put your attention on Children International, a nationally soliciting organization headquartered here in Kansas City.
Through their sponsorship program, Children International assists more than 335,000 children in 12 countries. They help children overcome the barriers of poverty by providing assitance in the following areas: annual health exams, access to medical care, nutrition education and counselling, school supplies and fees, clothing, and household items.
For more information on the BBB's charity accrediation program, visit our website or email me at charityreview@kansascity.bbb.org.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Return Policies - Read the Fine Print

This is on our blog feed from our friends at the Council of Better Business Bureaus - to the right of our posts - but I think it's important enough to make it a thrilling post of my own.

We all shop. We have to. It's not my favorite hobby, but because I don't happen to have a grocery store, clothing boutique, and toy store in my living room, even I am compelled to browse a retail establishment at least once a week. Usually on Saturdays. Unless I run out of ranch dressing on a Wednesday. Then I have to venture out in the middle of the week because the world might just possibly end if there is no ranch dressing in my house. But I digress.
Occasionally, we all buy something that just doesn't work out once we get it home. I might discover that the brand of ranch dressing I bought has an ingredient in it that would turn my 3-year-old purple. Or you realize that the dress that looked great in the store is, in fact, hideous in natural light. Whatever the reason, we often have to take things back.

A lot of people assume that there are laws regulating store return policies. But that is not the case. It is up to the individual businesses to establish, and post, their own return policies. And it is up to us as consumers to read the fine print. If I bought that ranch dressing on an end-cap clearance section for 15 cents, there may very well have been signage on that shelf along the lines of "These items may not be returned. All sales final." Or, if you ripped the tags off that dress before you realized how ugly it is, you may just have to donate it to Goodwill and pray someone out there has the right coloring for that gown. As consumers, we have to be smart about what we buy.

So read that fine print.