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    6 lessons for women in or near retirement

    Kathryn Larson and Elizabeth Marner-Brooks are both women of retirement age. Though the choices they made on the path there are different, they both offer lessons for women who are preparing to retire or have already done so.

    Larson, 73, of The Villages, Fla., says she lived below her means for many of her working years. In her mid-40s, the divorced operating-room nurse taught herself about investing. She had no pension, so for the last decade or so that she was employed she maxed out her 401(k) contributions. She hired a financial adviser. She semiretired in 2003 with a nest egg of less than $250,000 but continued to work periodically for a decade. In 2011 she moved to The Villages, a 55-plus community that she finds to be safe, fun, and reasonably priced. “I’m very happy,” she says.

    Marner-Brooks, who says she’s north of 65, was divorced first from a man who earned a lot, then from one who borrowed a lot. The second divorce left Marner-Brooks, who teaches oral communication skills at a college in New York City, broke. For four years she survived on food stamps and lived in temporary quarters. In 2010, the year after she declared bankruptcy, Marner-Brooks landed a job as a census taker and slowly turned her life around. Recently she got a rental apartment in the Bronx, with her son having signed as a guarantor. She is out of debt and beginning to save. Life still isn’t easy, but she defends her choice to stay in the pricey Big Apple with its culture and public transportation. “New York is senior-friendly,” she says.

    What do these tales have to teach to other women? Here’s my take:

    • Educate yourself about personal finance. Larson learned that relatively early, Marner-Brooks a lot later. Investing basics include saving regularly, diversifying among low-cost index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), rebalancing periodically, and not selling during downturns. Savvy Ladies, a not-for-profit that is based in New York City and helped Marner-Brooks gain control of her debt, is an educational resource to try. Among other programs, it offers women free personal-finance advice from certified financial planners. 
    • Learn your Social Security claiming options. As divorced women, both had to figure out how to survive financially on their own. That said, divorced women should understand how they can claim Social Security spousal benefits off an ex’s work record. If you were married for 10 years or longer, you’re entitled as early as age 62 to spousal benefits based on your ex’s work record, even if he hasn’t yet claimed. Marner-Brooks discovered that two years after her second divorce, she would be able claim off her first husband’s earnings, increasing her monthly check by a couple hundred dollars. Contact your local Social Security office or go to SocialSecurityChoices for articles on various claiming methods.
    • Be resourceful. Larson benefited from a career that’s in demand, so she could work as needed after her “official” retirement. Not having that option, Marner-Brooks had to figure out how to find other suitable work. Second careers and part-time jobs keep many senior women afloat; for ideas, go to Encore.org and Life Reimagined at AARP

    The Consumer Reports Retirement Planning Guide offers lots of great advice on making your second act fulfilling and financially secure. 

    • Be flexible and realistic. Larson tried different living situations before deciding on an affordable older home in The Villages. Marner-Brooks is loyal to New York City but found lower-cost living in a safe neighborhood outside of Manhattan.
    • Count on other women. Larson says her girlfriends are key to her happiness in retirement. Marner-Brooks received financial advice and help from Savvy Ladies, which is run by women. The ability to network and cooperate may in fact be a woman’s most valuable skill in retirement, says Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate for the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards in Washington, D.C. For example, she notes that more and more retired women are organizing shared-housing arrangements. “When we don’t have a lot of money, we need to turn to social capital,” she says.
    • Don’t be an enabler. Nothing can mess up retirement plans like losing a big chunk of savings, yet a surprising number of people allow others’ needs to sap their resources. Among retirees responding to a 2013 Consumer Reports survey, 14 percent reported providing significant financial support to one or more adult children. “We’re the caretaking gender,” Blayney says. “But when we take care of ourselves first, we’re in a better position to take care of others.” 

    — Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

    This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    New report warns of senior investor hazards

    With even the best certificates of deposit still yielding less than 2 percent, the days of "living off the interest" for retirees are long gone. But the problem for retirees isn't confined to the new normal of paltrier yields. Low interest rates are also creating an environment that may make senior investors more susceptible to unsuitable investments, according to a new report from Finra and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

    In the "National Senior Investor Initiative" report issued in April, the SEC and Finra examined how dozens of brokerages engaged with senior investors in 2013. Among other findings, the report concluded that a significant percentage of brokerages examined recommended potentially unsuitable "non-traditional" investments, such as structured products and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), instead of more traditional investment options like stocks, mutual funds, and bonds. 

    If you suspect financial elder abuse, there is plenty you can do.

    Even in the case of traditional investments, senior investors were sometimes steered toward unsuitable investments, like purchasing a less appropriate share class of a mutual fund, and investments that lacked liquidity.

    Throughout the report, FINRA and the SEC focused on "suitability," a standard of obligation that currently applies to broker-dealers that is considered less potent than the fiduciary standard to which Registered Investment Advisers must adhere. But those standards may soon be changing for some types of accounts that broker-dealers currently manage, like Rollover IRAs. The Department of Labor has issued a proposal that would require all investment advice that relates to retirement assets meet the stronger fiduciary standard.

    Chris Horymski

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Spring fixes to protect your home from the elements

    After a rough winter in many areas of the country, spring has been no fling. Insurance claims for damage from hail, wind, and sewer and sump pump backups spike in the spring, according to Traveler’s. With snow shovels stashed, now’s a good time to inspect your house for any damage that occurred over the winter and to take steps to prevent further harm from the elements. Here’s how.

    • Check the trees on your property and prune any limbs that are within 10 feet of the house.
    • Inspect your roof to make sure no shingles shook loose during the winter.
    • Check the soffits to make sure they’re secure enough to withstand high winds.
    • Repair any damaged gutters and downspouts to ensure that water is directed away from your foundation. Clear them of debris.
    • Make sure your sump pumps and drains are in working order and that the backup battery is operating properly.
    • If you’ve suffered sewer backups in the past, consider having a plumber install a backflow valve.

    A wet spring can be the start of moisture buildup in your basement leading to the development of mold and mildew. Your first step is to find the source of the moisture and fix any leaks or other conditions you discover. Then invest in a good dehumidifier. Here are some of the best from Consumer Reports tests.

    Best dehumidifiers from our tests

    Large. The 70-pint Kenmore Elite 54571, $330, leads our Ratings of large-capacity dehumidifiers, which we recommend for large or very wet spaces, like that dank basement. In addition to acing our water removal and energy efficiency tests, the Kenmore features a built-in pump that can expel water to an elevated location, like a utility sink or open window. The Danby DDR60A3GP is another top-rated large-capacity dehumidifier with a continuous-drain feature that’s easy to operate.

    Medium. Kenmore also has the top-rated model among medium-capacity dehumidifiers with its 50-pint Kenmore 54550. Also consider the recommended GE ADEW50LR, $200, sold at Walmart and the Frigidaire FAD504DWD, $220.

    Small. If you're only trying to dehumidify a small area, the 30-pint Sunpentown SD-31E, $230, actually had the highest overall score of all tested models.  The 30-pint Frigidaire FAD301NWD, $200, is another good choice for smaller spaces but it was a little noisier than the Sunpentown so perhaps not the best bet for a bedroom.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Getting out your gas grill? Here's the drill.

    Some folks grill all year long but if you’re just getting out your gas grill now, give it a few quick checks to make sure it’s ready for another barbecue season. Even if you cleaned it up before you put it away, it may need a few tweaks to keep it performing at its best. If you end up kicking it to the curb, Consumer Reports has just tested another batch of gas grills sized to fit your cooking needs.  

    • Check for gas leaks by mixing a small amount of dishwashing liquid and water in a spray bottle. With the hose connected to the propane tank, spray the hose and connections and turn on the gas. If bubbles appear, you need to replace the hose or fix a loose connection.
    • Fire up the grill and watch the flame—it should be blue. A yellow flame is a sign of clogged air inlets or burners that need adjusting.
    • If your grill is hard to light or the flame isn't as strong as it should be, check for blockages in the tubes that lead to the burner. Clear obstructions with a wire or pipe cleaner.
    • Use a stiff wire brush to clean both sides of the grates but don’t use soap. Porcelain-coated cast-iron grates require a nylon brush. To loosen caked-on grime, soak them in a shallow pan with a mixture of water and white vinegar.
    • Before your next barbecue, oil the grates by folding two paper towels into a tight pad, dipping them in a bowl of neutral-flavor vegetable oil, like canola, and dragging the pad across the heated grates.

    The best gas grills from our tests

    Small gas grills (18 burgers or fewer)
    Weber Spirit E-220 46310001, $450
    Broilmate 165154, $200
    Napoleon Terrace SE325PK, $600

    Medium gas grills (18 to 28 burgers)
    Weber Spirit SP-320 46700401, $600
    Char-Broil TRU-Infrared 463435115 (Walmart), $260
    Kenmore Elite 33577, $950

    Large gas grills (28 burgers or more)
    Brinkmann 810-6550-S (Home Depot), $350
    Napoleon Prestige Pro 665RSIB, $2,600
    Kenmore Elite 3358, $1,800

    More great grills. For more choices, see our full gas grill Ratings and recommendations.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The science behind smartwatch scratch resistance

    Durability is a greater concern for smartwatches than for any other personal electronics device. Sure, cellular phones can take a beating, but at least you can protect them in a case. Smartwatches, by design, are exposed to the elements, and vulnerable to any hazards that your arms encouter. With millions of customers now taking delivery of the new Apple Watch, that’s going to leave a lot of people wondering just how gingerly they need to treat these expensive electronic timepieces.

    For the Apple Watch, the question of durability translates pretty directly into cost, since the base-model Apple Watch Sport is made from different materials than the more expensive Apple Watch version. The $350-$400, aluminum-bodied Sport model has a face constructed from what Apple describes as “Ion-X” glass, which is essentially a hardened glass that is constructed in a manner similar to the Corning Gorilla Glass found on many smartphones. (In fact, Apple’s description of how Ion-X glass is made is almost identical to Corning’s description of how Gorilla Glass is made.) The stainless-steel Apple Watch ($550-$1100) and gold Apple Watch Edition ($10,000-$17,000) models have a sapphire-crystal face, a super-hard material that is used on high-end watches from manufacturers such as Rolex and Breitling.

    Since a base-model Apple Watch is a $200 premium over a base-model Apple Watch Sport, it raises the question: Just how much tougher is the sapphire crystal than the Ion-X glass, and is it worth the extra money?

    Looking for a new digital timepiece? Our Smartwatch Buying Guide can help get you educated in a hurry.

    There are several ways to test material hardness. One of the most accessible is a 203-year-old scale created by the 19th-century German geologist Friedrich Mohs, which compares the scratch-resistance of minerals relative to each other. The Mohs scale, as it is known, uses ten minerals of increasing hardness as reference points. It rates talc as 1 and goes all the way up to diamond at a 10 rating. (You can see a chart of the entire scale at the bottom of this article.) The idea is that each mineral on the scale can scratch every mineral ranked below it. Consumer Reports has a Mohs hardness kit that we use in our test labs. It contains a series of picks to represent each level of the Mohs scale.

    "The Mohs scale uses common materials, so it's easy to understand," says James A. Harrington, a professor of materials science and engineering at Rutgers University. We consulted with Harrington to ask about the science of glass and sapphire. "When it comes to their structure, glasses and crystals are as different as apples and oranges," he says. Harrington describes glass as like "a frozen liquid" whereas sapphire is an incredibly hard solid with a high melting point.

    Sapphire is a form of corundum, a mineral that occurs naturally, but can also be manufactured synthetically. (Ruby gemstones are just corundum crystals with red-colored impurities.) Corundum rates a hardness of 9 on the Mohs scale, just under diamond.

    We attached the picks from our Mohs kit to a rig that we used to test all the smartwatches that will be in our upcoming smartwatch Ratings. That rig is designed to apply the same amount of force for each trial. We swap the picks out for each step up the Mohs scale.

    So how'd Apple's watches fare? The sapphire crystal performed as expected, which is to say very well. It's sapphire face survived a 9-rated pick from our kit. The Apple Watch Sport made it up to a 7-rated pick without damage, but was scratched by an 8-rated pick.

    So the face of the Apple Watch is definitely harder than that of the Apple Watch Sport. But the performance of the hardened glass of the Sport model is pretty impressive as well. An 8 on the Mohs scale is equivalent to topaz, just one step below sapphire, and it means that it takes quite an abrasive material to scratch Apple's glass. (We also tried a completely unscientific attempt on the Sport model with a steel key, and it didn't scratch the glass.)

    One last note. We've seen an early video of a blogger taking sandpaper and a knife blade to a glass face component purportedly from an Apple Watch Sport. In that video, his knife didn't scratch the Ion-X glass, but sandpaper did. It turns out that Corundum is a commonly-used abrasive that is often found in sandpaper. ("You can find it in Home Depot," says Harrington.) So it's not that suprising that sandpaper would scratch the glass of the Apple Watch Sport. The lesson: Keep your belt sander away from your Apple Watch Sport, and keep your diamond rings away from your Apple Watch.

    —Glenn Derene

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Stop taking Mucinex Fast-Max liquid medicines

    If you have a bottle of Mucinex in your medicine cabinet, you may need to throw it away. Earlier week, drugmaker RB recalled certain lots of over-the-counter Mucinex Fast-Max liquid products, including Night-Time Cold & Flu, Cold & Sinus, Severe Congestion & Cough, Cold, Flu & Sore Throat, Day Night Severe Cold and Night-Time Cold & Flu, and Daytime Severe Congestion & Cough Night-Time Cold & Flu.

    After receiving a confirmed report of mislabeling from a retailer, the company issued a recall stating that while the products are correctly labeled on the front of the bottles and list all active ingredients, they may have an incorrect corresponding drug facts label on the back. The mislabeling could put consumers at risk for unexpected side effects or an accidental overdose of the drugs’ ingredients, which include acetaminophen (pain reliever/fever reducer), dextromethorphan (cough suppressant), (expectorant), phenylephrine (decongestant), and diphenhydramine (antihistamine). A side effect of diphenhydramine is that it can make you drowsy.

    Back in December, we raised some concerns about Mucinex Fast-Max pills, and other combination medicines, citing that the multi-symptom products can put consumers at a higher risk of doubling up on medicines. For this reason, our medical experts recommend using single-ingredient drugs whenever you can.

    Read more on what you can do about drug recalls

    For more information on the Mucinex recall and a list of the lot numbers involved, see www.mucinex.com/recall. You can find the lot number and expiration date by looking on the back of the bottle or package. If you have one of the products listed, stop using it. Instead, dispose of it safely in the trash. (Don't flush.) Mix the liquid with a substance that makes it less appealing, such as coffee grounds, kitty litter, or saw dust. Then place the mixture in a container that won’t leak, such as a sealed plastic bag, and toss it in your household trash.  

    If you've already taken one of the products included in the recall and have concerns or have experienced adverse effects, contact your doctor and report it to the FDA's MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program at www.fda.gov/medwatch

    As a rule of thumb when taking any over-the-counter medication, first read carefully the Drug Facts label, usually on the back of the bottle or packaging. If that information is unclear or inconsistent, speak with a pharmacist or your doctor before taking it. 

    —Ginger Skinner

     

    This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    First test results of the Apple Watch and Apple Watch Sport

    We've had the stainless-steel Apple Watch and aluminum-bodied Apple Watch Sport for less than a day, and as we promised in a story from this morning, some early results are already coming out of our labs. Today, we subjected several of Apple's smartwatches to durability testing using a water-immersion tank and a scratch-resistance test for the screens. We also tested the fitness features, including step-count and heart-rate monitoring accuracy. You can see some of the results in the video above.

    Still to come, we'll have detailed results on the functionality of both models, including readability of text in darkness and bright light, ease of pairing, and various other usability tests. Also, the Apple smartwatches are undergoing user-experience testing with volunteers to see how non-engineers feel about the devices. We'll include results from all of these tests when our complete smartwatch ratings post next week.

    —Glenn Derene

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 04/25/15--02:59: How to pick perfect produce
  • How to pick perfect produce

    There’s nothing quite like the biting into an apple plucked straight from the tree. Or is there? While fresh picked is a plus for highly perishable corn or peas, which lose their sweetness quickly, every crop is different. With proper storage after harvesting, growers can often keep some fruits and vegetables looking and tasting good for a year. That’s the reason why you can buy a Washington State Fuji apple in March every bit as luscious as the day it left the orchard in October.

    The crucial time in the quality chain is immediately after harvesting, and quality can deteriorate quickly without gentle handling, refrigeration, and careful control of the storage atmosphere and humidity. 

    You might not be able to preserve that field-fresh flavor forever, but we have tips to help you size up and extend the longevity of a handful of notoriously finicky fruits and vegetables. First, choose a supermarket like Wegmans, The Fresh Market, or Whole Foods Market, which makes quality produce a top priority. Next, follow these guidelines:

    Bananas

    They’re picked before they’re ready to eat, then stored in giant sealed rooms filled with ethylene gas that jumpstarts the natural ripening process. If you buy a banana that’s too green, it might never ripen. Once it’s deep yellow, however, quality can tail off quickly. You can halt the ripening process by placing the banana in the fridge. The skin will blacken, but the color won’t affect the flesh.

    Worried about pesticides in your produce? Consumer Reports has important information.  

    Cauliflower

    Left unrefrigerated at any stage and the snow-white vegetable will develop brown spots. That’s an automatic don’t buy; it means the cauliflower is about to turn bad.

    Tomatoes

    Cold kills. Refrigeration causes the water inside the tomato to expand and individual cells to burst, resulting in a mealy taste and texture, according to the Florida Tomato Committee. In addition, a tomato produces a flavor enzyme as it ripens. When the fruit’s temperature drops below 55, the enzyme stops producing additional flavor. The longer the tomato is kept cold, the more the existing flavor will deteriorate. At home, store the tomatoes stem side up to avoid bruising to the delicate “shoulders.”

    Strawberries

    They’re supposed to be picked fully ripe, and no further ripening takes place, the California Strawberry Commission says. So avoid berries with a white top or tip; They’re spots that didn’t ripen – and never will. Look for a bright red color, a natural shine and fresh looking green caps. Keep the berries refrigerated (ideally in their original carton) and dry, and they should last three to five days. Wash gently just before eating. They’ll taste much sweeter if eaten at room temperature.

    Pineapple

    This is another fruit that’s picked ripe. The leaves in the crown should be fresh and green, the body firm. Color is not an accurate indicator of internal ripeness, nor is the ease with which the leaves pull out. Color is only a guide because growers use different varieties grown under different conditions.  Fruit imported from Latin America, for instance, is grown under tropical conditions and will be more green and ripe compared to those from Hawaii, which tend to turn yellowish as they ripen.

    Michael Conway, agricultural manager for Dole, says medium to large size fruit is generally best. The “eyes” or irregular segments that comprise the skin or shell of the fruit, should be large and flat rather than small and pointed. Thump the fruit a couple times using a snapping action with the thumb and index finger.  You want to hear a hollow sound, which indicates firm flesh rather than dull thud which means the internal flesh is watery.

    Avoid fruit with a moldy spot on the stem end. This is a good barometer of freshness or how long the fruit has been sitting on the shelf.  And finally, smell the base for a pleasant aroma of pineapple.  If there is no or only a faint aroma than the fruit might not be ripe.  On the other hand an overly sweet smell would suggest the fruit is overripe.

    Avocados

    They ripen—or soften—after harvesting. Firm or green fruit can take four to five days to ripen at room temperature. Refrigeration can slow the process. To speed it up, place the avocados in a brown paper bag with an apple for a few days. The bag will help trap the gasses produced by the fruits to expedite ripening. The advice comes from the Hass Avocado Board. Hass is one of the most common avocado varieties. Color isn’t always the best indicator of ripeness. Pressure is the optimal gauge. If the avocado yields to firm but gentle fingertip pressure, the Hass folks say, it’s ready to eat. If it feels mushy or quote soft, it might be past its prime.

    Watermelon

    Unlike some other melons, watermelons are fragrance free. The Watermelon board recommends choosing a melon that’s heavy for its size (92 percent of a watermelon is water), firm, symmetrical, and free from bruises, cuts, and dents. The key indicator of ripeness is a buttery yellow spot identifying where it sat in the field, according to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. A white or green underside means it was picked too soon. The organization doesn’t put too much stock in the “thump and shake” method of judging ripeness.

    Cantaloupe

    Color, softness, and fragrance are keys to maturity. A ripe cantaloupe won’t have a stem attached. A slight indentation at the stem end suggests the melon separated easily from the vine, another good sign, as is a bit of give when you press the blossom end. The color of the skin behind the veins or “netting” on the rind should be golden not green.  Like a watermelon, a good cantaloupe should be heavy for its size. And it ought to have a notably sweet aroma at the blossom end.

    Peaches

    They shouldn’t have a green appearance, which reveals the fruit was picked prematurely. The South Carolina Peach Council says to look for a background hue that’s a creamy shade of yellow. “Do not be fooled by a heavily blushed color,” according to the Council. “This red coloring is only an indicator of the type of peach and is a result of the amount of sunlight the fruit received while on the tree.”  At the store, scope out those that are fragrant and firm ripe, meaning they give a little when you carefully press the fruit with your palm. Peaches can be stored on a counter or shelf until they are ready to eat; then refrigerate them. Never store ripening or firm fruit in the fridge; It will turn the peach into a “dry, brown, mealy-tasting mess,” the Council says. 

    —Tod Marks

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to transfer your files to a new computer

    Getting a new computer? Great. Transferring your files and applications from the old to the new? Not so great. We put together this quick guide to help you make a switch with ease.

    1. Back up your files before you move them. You should be doing this already, but just in case: Make sure all your files, folders, music, photos, and other items are safely backed up on an external drive, in the cloud, or on a USB flash drive. Do that before you start setting up the new computer. If you need a little help getting started, take a look at our computer backup guide.

    2. Transfer your files. Both Microsoft and Apple supply utilities for transferring files from one computer to another. Winodws users can run Windows Easy Transfer. It's built into Windows 7 and later, but if you have an older version of the operating system, you can pick it up free here. If you've got a Mac, Migration Assistant is the tool you need. It's built into newer versions of Mac OS, or you can download it here. Migration Assistant will switch your files, settings, and so on to the new Mac, but it will also transfer your applications. If you’re an iTunes user, Apple provides detailed instructions on how to get your music to the new computer. Finally, if you're moving from a PC to a Mac, or vice versa, look for the appropriate editions of Easy Transfer and Migration Assistant to help you do that.

    Getting ready to buy a new laptop, desktop, or Chromebook? You'll find plenty of valuable advice in Consumer Reports Buying Guides.

    3. Install your applications. Windows Easy Transfer won’t move your applications to the new computer, but it will provide a list of those you should move over. Even with that list, this step could present a few challenges. First, you probably installed a lot of your older software from CDs. Many new computers—especially laptops—don’t have CD drives. If you find yourself in that situation, the simplest solution is to hook up an external CD drive (you should be able to find one for $70 or less) and install your software from there. That external drive might come in handy later for watching movies or listening to music. An alternative is to put the software CD into your old computer, copy the application to a temporary directory, copy that to a flash drive, then install it on your new computer.

    If you can’t find your CD or you downloaded software directly onto your computer from the Internet, it might also be helpful to use a tool such as Magical Jelly Bean. It will look on your old computer for all the product keys for applications you’ve downloaded.

    Depending on how old your software is, you’ll probably have to upgrade it so it’s compatible with your new operating system. Check with the vendor for updates. In some cases, you might want to buy the newest version of the application, especially if it includes better security and more features than older ones.

    4. What about that old printer? Ports and connectors have changed in the past few years, so if you buy a new computer, you might also need a new printer. New Macs, for example, now have Thunderbolt ports instead of Firewire. You can buy an adapter, but that might slow down communications between your printer and computer. If the ports and connectors from your old printer and your new computer are compatible, you can keep your printer. But check on the manufacturer’s website to see if there are any updates for the drivers. If you’re moving from Windows XP to Windows 8.1, you might find that many manufacturers decided not to update their drivers, so your device may no longer be compatible.

    5. Keep your data to yourself! Avoid ID theft and protect personal data when getting rid of an old computer. Take the hard drive out of your old computer and use it as a backup drive. If you’d rather not do that, you’ll need to thoroughly scrub the data off the hard drive. Download the data-wiping software at DBAN.org and follow the instructions to create a bootable CD that you will then use to wipe the drive clean. DBAN works on both Macs and PCs.

    —Donna Tapellini

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The best pharmacy deals you probably overlooked

    This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

    Every major chain pharmacy and big-box store offers discount generic drug programs, but many people don't take advantage of them. When filling a prescription, always ask whether your drug is on the pharmacy's discount list.

    Good to know: Our secret shoppers learned that you shouldn't count on pharmacy employees to tell you when you’re better off paying with cash instead of insurance—so be sure to ask if you're getting the store's lowest possible price.

    CVS/Pharmacy Health Savings Pass

    Get select generic drugs for $12 for a 90-day supply. The fee is $15 per person, per year, to join. But members get 10 percent off their annual flu shot and in-store health services and screenings.

    Kmart Prescription Club

    This program offers different discounts depending on the drug. Some prescriptions are just $5 for a 30-day supply or $10 for a 90-day prescription. Others range from $12 to $36 depending on the drug. Kmart also offers up to 20 percent off select brand-name drugs; a 20 percent discount on flu shots; and 10 percent off all other immunizations.

    Kroger $4/$10 Generics

    It's simple to remember: No fees, no restrictions, and hundreds of drugs offered at $4 for a month's supply and $10 for a 90-day fill.

    Rite Aid Rx Savings Program

    Hundreds of generic drugs are discounted to $10 for a month's supply or $16 for a 90-day prescription. It's free to enroll. You'll also receive at least a 15 percent savings on select brand-name drugs and pay $20 for certain generic oral contraceptives. Plus get a 50-count supply of Rite Aid Truetest diabetes test strips for $30.

    Sam's Club Plus

    A Sam's Club Plus membership will cost you $100 a year, but it pays off in pharmacy discounts: five select prescriptions free of charge (not offered in all states); up to 30 percent off select brand-name drugs; and 40 percent off many generics that are not part of the $4 generics program; free health-screening offers and more.

    Target $4 Generics

    No strings attached. Hundreds of generics discounted to $4 or $9 for a month's supply. Ninety-day prescriptions for $10 or $24.

    Walgreens Prescriptions Savings Club

    For an annual fee of $20 per person, or $35 per family, you get access to three levels of discounts—$5/$10, $10/$20, and $15/$30— for 30 day/90 day fills. You'll also save 10 percent off in-store health care services; 5 to 20 percent off most immunizations, plus discounts on nebulizers and diabetes supplies.

    Walmart $4 Prescription Program

    No annual fees. Pharmacy offers two types of discounted drugs: $4/$10 or $9/$24, plus free shipping on many 90-day prescriptions.

    Find out more about great drugstore deals and other tips.  

    Smart Rx tips

    Prices can vary from state to state. Also, certain programs are offered only to people without insurance or for drugs not covered. They may not cover drugs funded by Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs. To get the best deals, follow these tips:


    Check out loyalty programs. Most stores have free membership programs that offer extra savings and coupons.


    Protect your privacy. Program terms may require you to check a box giving the pharmacy or third parties such as drugmakers and insurance companies permission to contact you with offers and promotions. Ask whether you can join the program or get the discount if you don’t check that box.


    Use one pharmacy. It’s smart to fill all of your prescriptions at one store, so the pharmacist can flag any potential drug interactions or allergies. So if a program offers a deal on a drug you take regularly, make that your go-to spot.

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    2016 Buick Envision fills gap in brand’s SUV lineup

    The midsized Buick Envision, currently on sale in China and shown with a new engine at last week's Shanghai auto show, is destined to slot between the little Encore and the large, three-row Enclave here next year.

    Based on hardware that underpins the next-generation Buick Verano and Chevrolet Cruze sedans, the Envision will effectively form the basis of the next Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain SUVs.

    Slightly smaller than the current Equinox, the new Envision will use new turbocharged four-cylinder engines from the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu, including a 160-hp, 1.5-liter and a 250-hp, 2.0-liter. The Envision shown in Shanghai used a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission new to GM, but American models may get a six- or eight-speed automatic instead. An all-wheel-drive system will be available that distributes torque on demand.

    Befitting a luxury brand, the Envision boasts an elegant looking interior, with a dual-panel panoramic sunroof, multifunction steering wheel, and dual-zone automatic climate controls.

    Expect a full suite of active safety features, like those added to the Equinox for 2016, along with adaptive cruise control to automatically maintain a safe distance from cars ahead and automatic parking assist that can parallel park for drivers who don’t have confidence to do it themselves.

    The Envision is expected go on sale in the United States next fall.

    —Eric Evarts

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    10 cheap housecleaning tools that will keep your home spotless

    You don’t have to hire a cleaning team or purchase professional-grade cleaning supplies to rid your home of dirt and dust. We asked Consumer Reports’ experts and a panel of pros for advice on the best housecleaning supplies. We found 10 cheap cleaning supplies that can handle many of your housecleaning chores.

    Turns out, you can purchase the full set of items on the list below for $58.20 to $115.55, based on the lowest online prices at Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Walmart.

    Get more tidying-up tips with our smart person’s guide to spring cleaning, use these 5 ways to brighten and declutter your home, and find safer cleaning supplies. Also take a look at our buying guide for all-purpose cleaners

    Lambswool duster

    Price:  $5 to $19 (depending on size)

    Best for:  Dusting large surfaces, such as walls.

    Tips:  Smoosh it into hard-to-reach spaces, such as recessed lighting and radiators. It’s gentle on furniture and delicate knickknacks. Use it instead of a feather duster; vacuum it after each use.

    Microfiber cloth

    Price:  $1.00 to $1.60 (per-unit price in multipacks)

    Best for:  Dusting and polishing surfaces and furniture.

    Tips:  Use it dry or slightly damp, but don’t drench it in cleaning solution. Use the soft, fluffy cloths to hold dust and minimize the chances of scratching surfaces. Use the less-absorbent, flat-weave cloths for cleaning and polishing glass and hard surfaces.

    Scrubby sponge

    Price:  $0.75 to $3.00 ea.

    Best for:  Getting gunk off pots and pans.

    Tips:  The sponge should have one abrasive side and one soft side. Be sure to use the right amount of abrasiveness for the surface you’re cleaning. Pink and yellow sponges tend to be less abrasive than other scrubbing pads. Check labels for recommended uses.

    Angled broom

    Price:  $6.00 to $18.00

    Best for:  Sweeping dust from floors and corners. The slant allows you to get into corners to dislodge dust.

    Tips: Don’t pair it with a dustpan! Instead, use a hand-held vac to suck up the sweepings.

    Squeegee

    Price:  $3.60 to $15.00

    Best for:  Cleaning glass windows and shower doors.

    Tips:  After applying cleaner to the glass with a cotton rag or a sponge, scrub the surface. Then wet your squeegee to, well, squeegee it off. Use only on wet surfaces—a dry surface will scratch.

    Spray bottle

    Price:  $8.00 (three 24-oz. bottles)

    Best for:  Storing cost-effective DIY cleaning solutions. Some of the top-rated cleaners in Consumer Reports' testing include Pine-Sol Original All Purpose Cleaner and Green Works All-Purpose Cleaner.

    Tips:  Label your bottles! It’s too easy to forget what’s in them. You can also try color-coding them by adding a few drops of food coloring.

    Sponge mop and bucket

    Mop price: $6.65 to $15.00; Bucket price:  $18.00 to $20.00

    Best for:  Spiffing up floors.

    Tips:  Use hot water to dissolve the dirt. Of course, never wring out a dirty mop in your bucket of water. Use a double-pail bucket for a clean and dirty side. When you are done, flush the dirty water down the toilet.

    Toothbrush

    Price:  $0.95 (per brush, in multipacks)

    Best for:  Getting into hard-to-reach spots—think window mullions, shower-door tracks, switch plates, and faucets.

    Tips:  Use a moistened brush to help trap dirt in the bristles.

    Grout brush

    Price:  $1.25 to $5.00

    Best for:  Cleaning grout lines between tiles.

    Tips:  First, spray cleaner on the grout. Give it time to break up grime, then scrub using a back-and-forth motion. Rinse and wipe clean.  You can also use it for cleaning shower-door tracks and around the base of the toilet.

     

     

    Extendable microfiber duster

    Price:  $7.00 to $10.00

    Best for:  Collecting dust and cobwebs from ceiling fans, crown molding, and other high places.

    Tips:  Dust, shake debris onto floor, vacuum it up. Repeat. When you’re done, follow manufacturer’s instructions for washing the microfiber head.

    A version of this article also appeared in the March 30, 2015 issue of How to Clean (practically) Anything.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    New online tools from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is having a busy 2015. Since its creation in 2011, much of its energy was focused on constructing rules for the financial industry to follow, as required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. But this appears to be the year where a number of the rules are implemented. In many cases, the rules also include practical, interactive tools consumers can use to make financial decisions, as well as register complaints.

    The CFPB's "Know before You Owe" project offers consumers tools for the big-ticket items in life, buying a house and paying for college. For those shopping for a new home or refinancing their home, a new online tool is designed to help homeowners check the current home financing rates in their state, based on their credit score and type of loan sought. Know Before You Owe also offers an online worksheet that allows prospective students to compare higher education costs among up to three different colleges.

    Read more about how the CFPB found that forced arbitration is detrimental to consumers.

    If you have a problem with an existing financial product, the CFPB can advocate on your behalf. By logging your problem in the CFPB Consumer Complaint Database, the CFPB will contact the bank or financial servicer. Currently, the CFPB accepts complaints for more than 10 different categories, including mortgages, student loans, bank accounts, credit cards, and vehicle leases.

    —Chris Horymski

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Survival guide to buying a used car

    Buying a used car is fraught with risk. Unlike a new car that is factory fresh and backed by an extensive warranty, used cars have typically been driven for thousands of miles over several years. Their usage and service histories can be a mystery, and there is always the concern that the car was traded in due to an emerging problem. But, by following a few key steps, you can survive the harrowing used-car buying adventures, while getting a great deal.

    Check our lists of the best and worst used cars and visit our complete used-car buying guide for more detailed advice.

    Eric Evarts

    Use online tools, such as those available at ConsumerReports.org, to determine the cars that meet your basic needs and budget. Then whittle the list down by studying their overall road test scores when new, crash test and dynamic safety performance, and reliability. Done right, this will establish a workable list of truly promising models. You will need to take some test drives to see how the cars measure up for your personal comfort and needs, then it is time to shop for the individual model to purchase.

    Who’s selling a used car can make as much of a difference to its quality as the make and model.

    New-car dealers tend to sell late-model used cars (two- or three-years old) that often carry the remainder of the original factory warranty. Generally, dealer cars are higher quality due to age and their ability to readily make repairs.

    Auto superstores have huge lots and scores of cars to sell. CarMax, auto malls, and rental-car sales lots sell numerous brands under the same roof and have their own large-scale reconditioning operations. They also put age, condition, and mileage limits on the cars they’ll sell.

    Independent used-car dealerships are apt to handle any car make, and the vehicles can run the gamut from almost-new to junker-in-waiting. Favor the dealerships that have been around for a long time and have a good reputation locally.

    Independent mechanics and body shops often have a sideline business selling a few used cars. They may not have a large selection, but it costs them little to fix cars up. That means their prices can be better than those you’ll find at a dealership.

    Private owners may sell their cars for less, but there are limits. Businesses that sell cars required to offer some kind of warranty by law and have the expertise to spot problems. Private sellers can’t provide the same security. All the private transactions are assumed to be ‘as-is.’

    Before you go check out a car, ask the seller some direct questions by phone or email to make sure it’s worth your time:

    • “What's the car’s condition?”
    • “How about the body and interior?”
    • “How many miles has it been driven? And in what conditions?”
    • “How is it equipped? Any aftermarket upgrades?”
    • “Had any body work done?”
    • “Do you have service records?”
    • “Does the car have any open recall?”

    Specific questions for private sellers:

    • “Have you owned it since it was new?”
    • “Why are you selling the car?”

    Learn more about asking the right questions.

    Once you locate a car you’re interested in, make sure you know what it’s worth. The seller will want to know you’re serious about buying and may ask questions to gauge whether you have money to spend. And if you like the car after driving it, you may want to make an offer.

    For any used car there are two prices: retail and wholesale. Retail is what you should expect to pay for the car at a dealership. You may also find trade-in, or wholesale values listed for cars, but you shouldn’t expect to be able to buy one at that price. The price you pay will likely be somewhere in the middle.

    You can find retail and wholesale prices for most models at Websites such as consumerreports.org, Kelley Blue Book, and the National Automobile Dealers Association. Then gauge the local market by checking current ads on Autobytel, UsedCars.com, AutoTrader.com, or eBay Motors. Remember though, an asking price is not a transaction price. Using several sources will put you in a stronger negotiating position with sellers.

    No matter how much you spend, driving home in a car with hidden problems is every used-car buyer’s worst nightmare. According to Carfax, a service that provides vehicle history reports, about 20 percent of cars on the road have had some sort of accident history. There’s no substitute for hiring your own mechanic to inspect any car you’re serious about buying. But there are a few things you can check yourself to see which cars may be worth taking to a mechanic:

    • Inspect each body panel for scratches, dents, or rust. Masking-tape marks under windowsills or fender edges indicate paintwork.
    • Look for uneven panel gaps around the fenders, doors, hood, and trunk can indicate shoddy repair.
    • Be sure the paint color and finish are uniform, and check inside doorjambs for dull-looking overspray.
    • Check for moisture fogging in the lights, or for a water line in the engine compartment, which could indicate previous flood damage.
    • Make sure the tires have even tread wear. New tires may hide problems.
    • Inspect the door hinges and the bolts that hold them; rust on these parts may be a clue that the car has been submerged.
    • Do the sniff test. A musty, moldy smell in the interior or trunk could indicate water damage.
    • Check the tailpipe for black, greasy residue, which could indicate that the engine is burning oil.

    Learn more about avoiding used-car disasters.

    If you want to get the best price, don’t fall in love with a car. There will always be another. And never negotiate under pressure, especially when a salesperson tells you that a deal is only good today. If you’re working with a dealership, negotiate one thing at a time; don’t let the dealer lump your trade-in, purchase, and financing into one monthly number.

    Once you have a good idea of how much you’re willing to pay, begin by making an offer that is realistic but 15 to 25 percent lower than this target number. Name your offer and wait until the person you’re negotiating with responds. If you have to raise your offer, do it in small increments. State clearly when you have reached your last offer, and stick to it. Don’t be afraid to say your offer is fair, final, and good for 24 hours only. If the seller won’t budge, be prepared to walk away rather than pay more than you know is a fair price.

    Learn more about used car negotiation.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Room air conditioners that keep their cool

    The latest batch of room air conditioners in Consumer Reports’ tests meet tougher energy requirements so in addition to keeping you cool they help you keep your cool over rising utility bills. Small window air conditioners are the biggest sellers and we found five to recommend that cost in the $200 range. We also tested more than a dozen portable air conditioners but unfortunately, most struggled to cool a room. Here are the details.

    Window air conditioners

    Small. Our top small window air conditioner, the GE AEM05LS, $210, gets excellent marks for cooling a room of 100 to 300 square feet, is fairly quiet, and bounced back from brownout conditions when power is iffy. And at that price we named it a CR Best Buy, which combine performance and value. Four other small GE models made our top-picks list including the GE AEH06LS, $160, from Sam's Club,  and the GE AEL06LS, $180 from Home Depot. We also like the Friedrich Kuhl SQ05N10B but at $580 it costs almost three times as much as the others. If you like that brand, consider the Friedrich Chill CP05G10, $220. It’s a little noisier than the Kuhl but quiet enough.

    Almost all the room air conditioners in our tests have digital controls and remotes. We did test three small units with mechanical dial controls and although they get very good scores for comfort, none performed well enough on our ease of use tests to make our list of picks.

    Medium. GE also tops our tests of mid-sized air conditioners, which cool rooms of 250 to 400 square feet, followed closely by the LG LW8014ER, $240, a CR Best Buy, and the Friedrich Kuhl SQ08N10, $700. We also took a look at the Quirky Aros, $250, made in part by GE, and it was indeed a little quirky. The air blows out the top instead of toward you, which is a nice option if you’re sitting in front of it. And the Quirky Aros has a sleek, modern look with solid rather than accordion-style side panels. But its scores for noise and energy efficiency were lackluster.

    Large. The same brands dominate our picks of large air conditioners, which cool 350 to 650 square feet, with the LG LW1214ER, $350, and Friedrich Chill CP10G10A, $400, leading the pack followed closely by the GE AER10AT, $250, a CR Best Buy.

    Portable air conditioners

    If you live in an apartment that doesn’t allow window air conditioners or have casement or another type of window that can’t accommodate a window unit, your only option may be a portable air conditioner. We tested three small and 13 large portable air conditioners and the best got a score of 55 out of 100. The worst scored 27. But if you absolutely need one, the bigger units (9,000 to 15,500 BTU) were marginally better than the small (5,500 to 8,500 BTU) and the dual hose models bested single hose units.

    Try the Friedrich ZoneAir P12B, $600, if you have no other choice. But like the other portables in our tests, we found that most operate at only 60 percent of their claimed capacity. For more good cooling choices, see our full air conditioner Ratings and recommendations.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How much security software do you really need?

    The Internet is teeming with malware that can infect your computer, and it's important to use security software to protect yourself. To evaluate these products, Consumer Reports visited 75 dangerous websites in a secure testing environment. We also infected our test computers, which were running Windows 8.1, with more than 100 pieces of malware. Included in those malware files was the Cryptolocker virus, which encrypts photo, video, and document files, then demands the user buy decryption software to get their files back. Once all the test machines were infected, we got to work trying out four free and 14 fee-based security-software packages.

    You’ll find detailed test results for the software in our Ratings. We also came to some conclusions that will help you decide which program will work best for you. Here’s a rundown.

    • Free software, such as Avira Free Antivirus 2015, is good enough for most users. It provides ample protection against websites that deliver malicious software, and was quick to identify new types of malware. If you decide to go with free software, make sure you download it from the official manufacturer website, and double-check that you’re not grabbing a fee-based product by mistake.
    • The freebies do lack a few essentials. First, they provide little or no protection against phishing, where cyberthieves try to trick you into giving up credentials such as your password and log-in. That’s easy to fix with a free toolbar like McAfee Site Advisor or Netcraft. These add a bit more protection than most browsers provide. Site Advisor, for example, puts site-legitimacy icons right into search results. Depending on how well your e-mail program sorts out junk mail, you may also want to add anti-spam to your free security package. We like SPAMfighter.

    Check our security software buying guide and Ratings for more information.

    • For most users, Windows’ firewall offers enough protection, keeping malicious software from being downloaded onto your computer. The Windows firewall is turned on by default for Windows XP and later. But there are some users who can benefit from the two-way firewall included in a fee-based suite such as Symantec’s Norton Security. For example, if you use remote-access software, your computer is vulnerable to attempts to grab data from it.
    • If something’s wrong with your computer’s security, clear warnings are essential to helping you mop things up. We evaluate such warnings and include the results in our Ease of Use score—both ESET Smart Security 8 and Avira Free Antivirus 2015 scored well in this area.
    • Fee-based packages include features that are lacking in free software. If you’re looking for parental controls, or want to fight excessive spam, check out ESET and Symantec’s packages, as well as Bullguard Internet Security and G-Data Internet Security.
    • We tested Windows versions of these security-software packages. Apple computers are less vulnerable to malware, but Mac users should still protect themselves, to keep from spreading malware when exchanging files.

    —Donna Tapellini

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Beware potential problems with Facebook's new person-to-person payments

    In March, Facebook announced the launch of a payments feature for its Messenger application. It allows users to send each other money with just a message, just like this image from Facebook’s press release about this new service.

    In order for the transaction to go through, of course, you have to have money available to send or an account available to receive it. That means that you have to give Facebook your debit card information. Here’s how the Facebook press release explains it: “The first time you send or receive money in Messenger, you’ll need to add a Visa or MasterCard debit card issued by a US bank to your account. Once you add a debit card, you can create a PIN to provide additional security the next time you send money. On iOS devices you can also enable Touch ID. As always, you can add another layer of authentication to your account at any time.”

    For related information on this subject, read Apple Pay virtual wallet looks like an also-ran.

    But we were wondering, what happens if things don’t work out with a payment? Let’s say your buddy sends you money to cover his share of dinner, but – oops! – he didn’t have enough money to cover it. Well, Facebook’s Payment Terms for Person-to-Person Transfers (we found them here:https://www.facebook.com/payments_terms) say that you might be on the hook for your buddy’s mistake and maybe even for fees and other hassles that you might not expect.

    Facebook’s Payment Terms say, for example, “If you receive and accept a P2P transfer you are liable to us for not only the payment but also any fees that may result from a later invalidation of that payment for any reason, including without limitation if you lose a claim or a chargeback, or if the payment is reversed.” According to their terms, they can come after you: “You agree to allow us to recover any amounts due to us by debiting from your electronic value balance. If your electronic value balance is insufficient to cover this amount, we reserve the right to charge your funding instrument or take any other legal action to collect the funds to the full extent allowed by applicable law.”

    In case you think that the headline here is an exaggeration, Facebook’s Payment Terms spell it out: “P2P use is at your sole risk and we assume no responsibility for the underlying transaction of funds, or the actions or identity of any transfer recipient or sender. Disputes regarding funds are between you and the sender of a payment. If a sender files a claim for a chargeback after a P2P transaction, we are not responsible for determining the veracity of claims or the disposition of the payment.” In other words, you’re on the hook for the company that you keep. (Choose your FB friends wisely!)

    Finally, look out for fees. Here’s this from the Payment Terms: “Use of P2P may subject you to fees including without limitation those from third parties, such as reversal charges or other fees for insufficient funds if your attempted payment is rejected.

    —Christina Tetreault

    A version of this article previously appeared in the Consumer's Union website Defend Your Dollars.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    As Corinthian Colleges chain closes, Consumers Union presses for tougher standards, student relief

    The controversial for-profit college chain Corinthian Colleges is closing its 28 remaining campuses following a year of fines and allegations of falsified job placements and graduation rates, predatory lending schemes, and abusive debt-collection tactics.

    Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has pressed for tougher standards for for-profit colleges, and asked the federal government to provide help for students who were enrolled at Corinthian, which once operated more than 100 campuses under the names Everest Institute, Wyotech and Heald College.

    The fact that Corinthian won’t enroll another student is good news.  But we can’t forget the former students who were pulled in with phony claims of job placement, then saddled with a mountain of debt.  The Department of Education should do everything it can to bring some relief to the thousands of students who were harmed by Corinthian.   We need tougher standards and enforcement to ensure that for-profit colleges provide the training and career services they promise, rather than just focus on aggressive recruiting and boosting their revenue.

    Students whose school closes while they are enrolled, or soon after they withdraw, may be eligible for discharge of their federal student loan.  More information from the U.S. Department of Education is available here.

    Media Contact:
    David Butler, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or dbutler@consumer.org

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  • 04/28/15--02:59: Phishing for security codes
  • Phishing for security codes

    Identity thieves already have a lot of information about you—your name, address and phone number, your credit card number and the card’s expiration date. But there’s one number they don’t have and that they need to enable them to freely spend your money: the three- or four-digit security code on the back of your credit card. 

    Savvy con artists have come up with a way to trick you into revealing it.

    Read 9 steps to protect against credit card fraud now for more ways to ward off thieves.

    Here’s how the scam works: The scammer says he’s calling from your credit card’s security or fraud department. Some suspicious activity on your card has raised an alert, he says. He makes up a bogus transaction and asks if you’ve authorized it. Of course, you didn’t and you say so. He responds that he will open a fraud investigation, gives you a case reference number, and tells you to call the phone number on your credit card if you have any questions.

    Everything sounds legit, right?

    Here’s where the fraud kicks in. There’s just one more thing, he’ll say. He needs to verify that you’re in actual possession of the card. To prove it, all he needs is for you to tell him the security code. In fact, that’s all he needs to start using your card.

    If you get a call like this:

    • Don’t give the caller any information about your account—even if he already knows some of the details.
    • Hang up the phone. Call the customer service number on the back of your credit card. Talk to the fraud or security department and ask about the unauthorized charges the caller told you about.
    • Report the suspicious call to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint or 877-FTC-HELP.
    • Tell your friends, family, neighbors, and others about it. By spreading the word, you can help someone you care about avoid falling for a scam.

    Identity thieves will try a lot of different tricks to get your personal information. One fundamental rule to remember: If you didn’t initiate the contact using contact information you know is trustworthy, don’t give anyone your personal information.  

    Catherine Fredman

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    Ultimate frequent-flyer guide

    About 100 million consumers belong to one or more airline frequent-flyer programs. If you’re one of them, you know how many hoops you need to jump through to get where you want to go. There’s the difficulty of using your points to find seats for departures and returns, the purgatory of connecting flights, and the one-sided rules that can be changed at an airline’s whim, which happened this year when Delta and United devalued the mile-earning power of most members. Never mind that the “free trip” you’re “rewarded” with isn’t really a freebie at all—it’s built into the price of everything you buy that earns miles. Or that the airlines milk millions in profits each year from accrued miles you’ve paid for but never use.

    But you don’t need to get angry—just smart. Our exclusive analysis of 70 million passenger trips over the past two years provides the info that can improve your chances of scoring a reward seat to your dream destination—info the air­lines would prefer to keep to themselves.

    We’ve compiled statistics on reward-seat availability for the 25 most popular U.S. award routes on the five biggest airlines. They show you the chances of getting a “free” ride and will also help you make a decision about which rewards program to join. We’ve also calculated the value of a reward seat for each airline and trip so that you can tell which ones are—or aren’t—offering you a good deal.

    And because there are always gotchas, we advise you on how to sidestep some of the big ones.

    In your quest for award travel, you should start with the destination, then work backward. After you decide where you want to go, figure out which airline program gives you the best chance of getting there.

    Download our chart (PDF) to find out which of the largest airlines booked the most award tickets for the 25 most popular U.S. award routes in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2014, the latest 12 months for which figures are available. (The figures come from a Department of Transportation ticket database.) Although availability varies by day, flight, and destination, our analysis reveals some general trends. The chart has details on how to use the data and how we crunched the numbers.

    Among hundreds of routes studied, not just the top 25, Southwest offered the most award tickets of any big airline: 11.9 million, or 11.5 percent of total passenger seats. The Dallas-based carrier also did some Texas-sized butt-kicking of rivals by providing the highest percentage of award-seat availability on 72 percent of the 25 most popular U.S. award routes.

    “The most frequent pain point for consumers is having all these miles they can’t use,” says Jonathan Clarkson, director of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program. “We don’t hear that much around here.” He says the airline’s high availability of rewards is possible because it has fewer restrictions. “Every seat is available as an award seat, even the last seat on the day before Thanksgiving.”

    In contrast, JetBlue booked the lowest percentage of award seats among the five biggest carriers on all routes studied: only 892,000, or 4.5 percent. The airline says that improvements in its TrueBlue program last year will “take time” to show up as increased award redemptions. “If you fly only once or twice a year, as many of our customers do, the ability to earn an award ticket is not high,” says Michael Stromer, vice president of digital loyalty and customer insights at JetBlue. “With our removal of mile expiration dates, people will be better able to build point balances over the couple of years it can take to earn enough for an award.”

    Overall, our broader analysis of all routes found that the airlines were less tightwadish than you might expect. On average, almost 10 percent of passengers on the largest airlines flew on award tickets. Better yet, the big players opened the gates for many of the most in-demand routes. On the hot Los Angeles-New York run, for example, United flew 12 percent of its passengers on award tickets, Delta 14.5 percent, American 21 percent, and Southwest 23 percent.

    One surprise: Despite an improving economy, which tends to fill seats that would otherwise be available for award travel, we found the opposite, mostly. The airlines booked 26.9 million one-way award trips in fiscal 2014, almost 3 million more than over a similar period that ended Sept. 30, 2013. Four of the five carriers increased awards; the one exception was United, which booked 253,000 fewer awards and let redemptions drop from 10.2 percent to 9.8 percent of all tickets.

    American, JetBlue, and United didn’t comment on our findings. Southwest said its own data “corresponds pretty well” with ours. And Delta said our analysis “does not include the full value story for our customers” because it doesn’t cover SkyMiles international awards on Delta and 27 mostly foreign partner airlines.

    Judge the various programs based on the following:

    How good is the airline?

    Don’t let award-seat availability wag the dog. Look for an airline highly rated by Consumer Reports. Among the five biggest carriers, JetBlue and Southwest had the best overall score for such factors as cabin service, seating comfort, and overall satisfaction. That’s according to over 16,000 subscribers who assessed more than 31,732 domestic round-trip flights taken from 2012 to 2013.

    What’s the value of your points?

    The miles or points you earn are a currency. But unlike euros or dollars, not all miles are created equal. Their value varies by airline and is usually based on the number of points charged for a particular flight, travel dates, and advance purchase.

    What you don’t know about the value of points can hurt you

    For example, in fiscal 2014, about 12,200 American AAdvantage members each redeemed 12,500 to 30,000 miles to fly each way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the No. 3 award route. But because the cheapest average airfare for that short-hop route was $104 each way (at JetBlue; see chart), they obtained a value of only 0.3 to 0.8 cent per redeemed mile. You should get more for your miles than that, but the frequent flyer pay-with-miles pricing schemes can make it difficult to know whether you’re getting a good deal.

    In our chart, we solved that problem for you by figuring out the dollar value of the points you pay for each trip. With mileage reward credit cards, the most common method by which infrequent flyers earn miles, you usually earn one mile or point for each dollar you spend. The value equals 1 cent per mile. We used the lowest average airfare of an airline serving each route—that was Southwest’s or JetBlue’s, usually—as the bottom-dollar benchmark of worth. We then divided the benchmark price for each route by the average number of miles needed for an award to get the cents per redeemed mile value. With 1 cent per mile the break-even point of value, we recommend that you try to come out ahead of that by using your miles on trips worth 1 cent per mile or greater. (We used an average to account for the fact that “saver” awards can be booked in advance for far fewer miles than “anytime” rewards, and because we don’t know the proportion of saver vs. anytime awards on each route, we thought the average number of miles needed a more fairly expressed value.) Of course, the fewer miles needed for a saver award, the greater the per-mile value. But airlines also tightly limit the number of saver awards, so that better value is actually more difficult to get.

    We found good news and bad: JetBlue awards provided a good value on all of the routes it serves, but it operates only on 10 of the 25 top routes. Southwest gave customers a good deal on 88 percent of its routes; United did so on 60 percent. Delta and American, on the other hand, provided good award value on 38 and 36 percent of their routes.

    Breadth of service

    The more destinations served by your airline, the more award options you have. American, Delta, and United take the title here, with their huge networks of U.S. and international service to 326 to 373 destinations worldwide plus international partner airlines. JetBlue and Southwest are puny by comparison, with service to fewer than 100 mostly U.S. cities and some Caribbean and Mexican destinations; international award options are significantly limited.

    Extra fees

    United ladled on the most, with charges for making reservations by phone, booking last minute, changing plans, cancelling a trip, and redepositing points after you cancel—a whopping $475 if you had to pay for all of them. Southwest charged no fees, and the others racked up a couple of hundred dollars’ worth.

    Top 5 destinations

    Rank

    Destination

    Airline with highest award %

    Total round-trip award tickets to that destination

    1

    New York

    Southwest (12.8%)

    643,860

    2

    Los Angeles

    Delta (11.7%)

    633,990

    3

    Las Vegas

    Southwest (10%)

    616,220

    4

    Miami

    Southwest (13.7%)

    515,060

    5

    Orlando

    Southwest (9.3%)

    472,430

     

    Most programs put hurdles in the way of your desired flight. Here’s how to circumnavigate them.

    Time your purchase

    Shop for award tickets several months ahead of your departure, when more unsold seats are available. But don’t forget that award ticket holders can change their plans, meaning that their seats might become available again. Also be aware that the demand predicted by the airline pricing software doesn’t always materialize. So in some cases, you might have more luck cashing in your miles only a few days before you want to fly.

    That’s what IdeaWorks, a consulting firm in Shorewood, Wis., found last year when it made 7,640 award-booking queries using the websites of 25 U.S. and foreign carriers. Shopping three to seven months in advance, the testers scored 100 percent award-seat availability on Southwest, 92.9 percent on JetBlue, and 71.4 percent on United. American and Delta trailed, with 55 percent.

    But when the IdeaWorks team went back and tried only five to 15 days before departure, United’s rating jumped to 80 percent and the others declined. United apparently has policies that add more seats closer to departure, which ensures that they aren’t empty when the aircraft door closes, IdeaWorks concluded. Late booking can come with extra fees and higher point costs, though.

    Pick up the phone

    Can’t get a seat? Ditch the Internet, where 90 percent of award bookings are made. “The ticket agent is more skilled and has more flexibility than you when it comes to creating flight itineraries with the airline’s reservation software,” says Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com. “They can also override a restriction on an award seat and release it.” Reservations by phone, however, usually come with a $25 fee.

    Pile up miles faster by switching programs

    This year, Delta and United changed their rules to peg the earning of miles to dollars spent for tickets instead of miles flown round trip. Consequently, most general-level SkyMiles and MileagePlus members will earn less and elite members, who fly more frequently, will earn more. So the 2,186 round-trip distance from New York’s JFK to Miami, for example, would have earned you that many miles before, but a $300 Delta round-trip ticket price will now earn a SkyMiles member only 1,500 miles, a 31 percent devaluation. You can jump ship to American, which still let members earn miles based on the miles flown as we went to press, but AA gave us no assurances that it wouldn’t change its earning scheme. Better yet, switch to Southwest Rapid Rewards, where you’ll earn six points per dollar spent on the lowest Wanna Get Away fares and 10 points per dollar spent on higher Anytime fares.

    Trade credit cards

    Maybe you hate your airline’s service or its award availability, but you’re handcuffed to the program’s credit card. Keep the old card (so you don’t hurt your credit rating by closing the account), but give your points-earning business to a general frequent-flyer rewards credit card not wedded to a single airline. That plastic will help you pay for travel on any airline, so you can choose your true favorite. There are no blackout dates, so availability isn’t an issue. Among such cards are Capital One Venture, BankAmericard Travel Rewards, and Discover it Miles.

    Never buy points

    You can buy the additional miles you need from some airlines, but don’t. They cost about 3 cents per mile, clearly a losing proposition. Instead, use the miles you do have to buy a one-way ticket covering half of your round trip, which all big five airlines now allow.

    Award rules are not on your side

    Where consumer rights and protections are concerned, airlines hold all of the cards.

    The Department of Transportation says it “does not have regulations” that directly govern frequent-flyer programs, except for the requirement that airlines disclose their own rules.

    Those rules are universally one-sided:

    American says “mileage credit does not entitle members to any vested rights.”

    United says it has the right to change the terms and conditions, rules, or mileage levels at any time, with or without notice. Delta “has the sole right to interpret and apply” its program’s rules.

    Southwest Rapid Rewards members “do not acquire property rights in accrued points and awards.”

    And JetBlue reserves the right to change or cancel its program rules at any time, “in its sole discretion, without notice to or liability to you.”

    Dissatisfied? “You should complain directly to the company,” the DOT advises.

    There’s one federal consumer protection you do have, however. Whether you buy a ticket with credit, cash, or miles, if the flight is canceled or significantly delayed, and the carrier doesn’t offer prompt rerouting at no additional charge, you’re entitled to a full refund of miles or points if you choose to cancel the trip.

    This article also appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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