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Consumer Reports

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    LifeLock accused of misleading consumers—again

    With data hacking and security breaches an everyday reality, who can you trust with your personal financial data? "I trust Lifelock," says talk radio host Rush Limbaugh about his major advertiser, the identity protection company whose services cost $120 to $360 a year.

    But should you? That's something worth considering after the Federal Trade Commission alleged that the company made false claims in its advertising, falsely claimed that it provided continuous identity protection alerts and failed to provide comprehensive information security, according to documents filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Arizona.

    "We disagree with the substance of the FTC’s contentions and are prepared to take our case to court," the company's executives responded in a prepared statement. "Based on the evidence, we do not believe that anything the FTC is alleging has resulted in any member’s data being taken."

    Shady history

    Lifelock has a history of shading the truth. It paid $12 million in 2010 to settle charges that it falsely claimed to provide a “proven solution that prevents your identity from being stolen before it happens.” The FTC found otherwise saying that the ID theft prevention service did not prevent identity theft and did not provide many of the protections claimed. 

    The latest charges assert that Lifelock violated that 2010 settlement agreement "by continuing to make deceptive claims about its identity theft protection services, and by failing to take steps required to protect its users’ data."

    Specifically the FTC says it caught Lifelock "falsely advertising" that it protected consumers’ sensitive data with the same high-level safeguards as financial institutions; failing to establish and maintain a comprehensive information security program to protect users’ credit card, social security, and bank account data; and falsely claiming that it protected consumers’ identity 24/7/365 by providing alerts “as soon as” it received any indication there was a problem. 

    Further details were not available, because the FTC filed them under seal, and the court has not yet decided which portions can be unsealed.

    For more detail on how to protect your data, check our Guide to Internet security.

    What can you do if you've lost faith in your identity protection service?

    Do it yourself

    Identity protection services can cost $110 to $360 per year, but you can do most of what Lifelock offers for little or no expense. If a breached retailer offers free credit monitoring, consider taking it. But beware that it could create a false sense of security because credit monitoring does nothing to stop fraud on your existing credit accounts. Also, don’t click on any links offering free ID protection. Such a deal could be a phishing attempt.

    Get a security freeze

    A freeze can prevent potential creditors from seeing your credit file and giving a crook new credit in your name. Such new-account fraud is relatively uncommon, but freezes are generally recommended if your Social Security number was stolen. You must request a freeze with each of the big three credit bureaus for fees from $2 to $12 per freeze per bureau, though they’re free for victims of identity theft. They can be temporarily lifted when you need to apply for credit yourself, for similar fees.

    Monitor your accounts online

    Keep an eye on your latest account activity by signing up for online access to your bank and credit-card accounts or by using a mobile-banking app. Internet banking isn’t hackproof, but the convenience of banking digitally outweighs any security risk. Smart-phone banking also allows you to watch your account in real time wherever you go. Automate some of this chore with account alerts that send an e-mail or text message when potentially fraudulent activities occur.

    Watch your credit report for free

    Monitor your credit reports for fraudulent new accounts and incorrect information. You can get plenty of credit reports absolutely free, so never pay for them. Start with three freebies per year (one from each of the big three credit bureaus) from annualcreditreport.com. Some states also entitle you to three more for free. You can also get a free credit report from each bureau after you file a 90-day fraud alert, which you should do every three months if your financial information was stolen in a breach–and whose identity hasn't be stolen? That gives you another 12 free reports. Opt for 90-day fraud alerts, not the seven-year extended fraud alert.

    Follow standard security precautions

    Use antivirus, antispyware, and anti-phishing software and a firewall on your personal computer, smart phone, and other devices connected to the Internet, and keep them up to date. Be suspicious of "phishing" attempts by any stranger initiating contact with you to request your private informtion via e-mail, phone, regular mail, or in person. Never click on links in unsolicited e-mail or respond to pop-ups on your computer that request your username and password. 

    Whether or not a breach captures your passwords for online accounts or e-mail, we think it’s worth changing them periodically. Consider using an online password management service, such as LastPass, that generates and stores encrypted passwords. Consumer Reports tested LastPass and found it to be a good option. Stop credit bureaus from selling your name to lenders who send preapproved offers that crooks can steal from your mailbox by opting out of these solicitations for free via optoutprescreen.com or 888-567-8688.

    —Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal 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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    Is your home security system a scam magnet?

    Got a sign in your front yard warning would-be burglars that you’re protected by an electronic alarm system? Instead of providing a shield, that sign may make you a target for home security scams.

    Summer is high season for burglaries, with the highest percentage of break-ins occurring during July and August.  Since most burglaries occur during the day, when occupants are out, it’s natural to rely on a security system to safeguard your home. But those warning signs posted in your window or on the lawn could work against you.

    To learn about how to protect yourself from summer scams read, "Summer Scam Alert: Avoid vacation, home improvement, and alarm system scams."

    Here's why.  Scammers often look for signs of existing installations, especially older-looking signs, which may have the date of the original installation printed on the back. Then they strike, with a variety of approaches: 

    • Fraudsters claiming to be remote access technicians from the security company mentioned on the sign may call to tell you that “the company computer” has noticed recent glitches in your system and they're sending someone to repair it. Their goal: To con you into letting them into your house on the pretext of “fixing” or “examining” the existing security device. In fact, they’re tampering with the alarm system so they can return and burglarize your house.
    • Unscrupulous sales agents imply that they’re from your existing security company and that they need to “upgrade” or “replace” your current system. Their goal: To pressure you into signing a new monitoring contract, at inflated prices and with a five-year term or longer. Victims who sign these deals often find they can’t get out of the contract without paying a penalty.
    • Scammers may claim that your original system installer has gone out of business and that they’ve taken over the contracts. Their goal: To convince you to buy new equipment and sign new contracts again, at a higher price and long-term lock-in. 
    • Some con artists take a deposit for a new security system – and then are never heard from again. 

    Legitimate security companies do not simply send a repairman unannounced to your door. Similarly, if your monitoring company has gone out of business, you would be notified of a change by mail, not by telephone and certainly not by someone simply showing up.

    Protect yourself by taking the following steps:

    • Get references. Ask the salesperson for names of previous customers, especially people in your neighborhood whose address you can check for legitimacy. Be sure to contact them to find out information about the equipment and the service.
    • Do a background check. Demand information about the contractor’s license—the number, the state where they’re registered and the name under which the license is filed. Check these out before taking further action.
    • Get it in writing. Insist that all estimates for service and equipment be in writing, specifying the equipment, who will install it, how it will be maintained and, of course, the cost.
    • Re-read the contract. Ensure that everything you’ve agreed to is written into the contract. Check the fine print for commitments you might inadvertently miss, such as monitoring fees, the term of the contract and your right to cancel the deal.

    If you have regrets, you can change your mind. The FTC’s Cooling-Off Rule gives you three business days to cancel the deal if you sign the contract in your home or at a location that is not the seller’s permanent place of business. You do not have to give a reason. And you can change your mind even if the equipment has already been installed. 

    Catherine Fredman

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

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  • 07/22/15--11:59: Best off-road vehicles
  • Best off-road vehicles

    At the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center, we have the ability to systematically evaluate the off-road capability of SUVs and 4WD pickup trucks. Ascending our "Rock Hill," a 23-degree slope of boulders set in cement, reveals differences in axle articulation, suspension travel, traction, approach and departure angles, and more. It also provides a repeatable course that does not change after successive runs.

    This may not the most extreme off-road situation a dedicated 4x4 enthusiast can encounter. However, it is an honest simulation of a realistic rugged, rocky trail that one might find in the Southwest and other parts of the country, if the owner chooses to venture into the wild.

    Our list below highlights the most capable vehicles currently on sale that we've evaluated. (And yes, we do have a couple more in the fleet that are ready to face our rock hill.) The list shows that fancy off-road-oriented, four-wheel-drive systems can help, but they aren't the be all end all for  off-road capability. For example, while the Land Rovers make use of very sophisticated off-road electronics, they’re matched by vehicles with more rudimentary systems, like a Toyota Tacoma TRD

    Infiniti QX80

    The Infiniti QX80 may be a big, luxurious fullsize luxury SUV with a plush ride, but it’s no softy when it comes to off-road capability. It is based on the legendary Nissan Patrol SUV—a truck that’s as revered the world over for its dirt prowess as the Jeep Wrangler. So, the QX is built with durable body-on-frame construction and a very capable four-wheel-drive system. The default drive mode is “Auto,” which means this rear-drive biased truck will send torque up front when needed. But when the going gets tough, lock the center diff into a 50/50 torque split between the axles. Need more? The QX80 has a generous low range ratio of 2.7:1, which helps the big truck crawl with excellent control. If wheels do begin to slip, there’s a traction control system that automatically uses the brakes to slow any unruly wheel. It may not look like an off-road bruiser, but the QX80 will go just about any place it will fit.

    Jeep Grand Cherokee

    The Grand Cherokee has an off-road legacy that stretches back more than two decades. Over that time, owners have gravitated toward this SUV for its blend of off-road capability, civilized pavement manners, and upscale interior trimmings. The standard four-wheel-drive system will handle enough for most. But in order to get really dirty, opt for the Off-Road Adventure II package. It bundles all the best gear Jeep offers. The multi-mode (Snow, Sand, Mud, Auto, and Rocks) four-wheel-drive system with a generous 2.72:1 low-range ratio allows you to go from highway to trail with the twist of a knob and the push of a button. And it works in concert with the adjustable Quadra-lift air suspension that can provide a whopping 10.4-inches of ground clearance and 20-inches of water fording. So equipped, the Grand had no trouble cresting our rock hill and is “Trail Rated” by Jeep to tackle exotic off-road destinations like Moab Utah. Just as important, thus equipped, it has skid plates to protect underbody essentials.

    Jeep Wrangler

    The Wrangler is an off-road icon without peers. The Jeep Wrangler is the off-road SUV of choice amongst hardcore 4WD enthusiasts. The solid-axle suspension on both ends brings simplicity, ruggedness, and low cost. Plain-vanilla Wranglers may struggle here and there. But the top Rubicon model adds an incredible list of very hardcore equipment that includes front and rear electronic locking differentials, as well as the ability to disconnect front anti-roll bars to free up even more wheel travel. A Wrangler Rubicon can, as the name suggests, handle the demands of the famed Rubicon Trail. That capability and heritage has many happy enthusiasts overlooking the Wrangler’s  on-road deficiencies.

    Land Rover Range Rover

    Today’s Range Rover may be lighter, sleeker, and more refined than any that has come before, but it’s lost none of the famed off-road prowess. Part of the key to its cultured adventuring is the Terrain Response system 4WD system—one of the smartest of any vehicle—and height-adjustable air suspension. Just toggle through the four modes and the Rover tailors all its system (engine, transmission, differentials, and more) to the chores at hand. Raise the body via the air suspension for seriously rough terrain. To further bolster capability, an Extra Duty package adds adaptive dampers and the ability of Terrain Response to switch automatically between modes as it notices changes in road conditions. The package also incudes a specific Rock Crawl mode and even an off-road cruise control system of sorts called All-Terrain Progress Control. The air suspension is fully independent and has more than a foot of wheel travel at the rear and more than 10-inches up front. For comparison, most SUVs make due with around 8 inches. And more wheel travel means the tires maintain traction even when the suspension is fully extended. The transfer case has a low range ratio of 2.93:1, which is lower than any SUV in its class. And there’s even an optional locking rear differential. All this means the Rover can crawl slowly and easily over the biggest boulders or ford streams as deep as 35 inches—should you choose to subject your near six-figure ultra-luxury SUV to such things. And the icing on the cake is that occupants are comfortable with a minimum of rocking and bouncing.

    Land Rover Range Rover Sport

    Here is a quick, responsive SUV that can almost match the performance of its German rivals on pavement, but it can easily walk away from them in the dirt. Its Terrain Response system is nearly as capable as the one in its big brother—the Range Rover, provided you got the optional low-range transfer case. But according to our testers, even without that hardware aboard, the Sport had enough grunt to conquer our rock hill, but watch those low-profile performance tires since it’s easy to damage them. Some of that capability is of course due to the 10 inches of wheel travel at each corner of the Sport’s height-adjustable independent suspension. That’s slightly less than the flagship Range Rover, but it is still more than most SUVs. The optional electronically controlled rear differential can vary the lockup depending on conditions. And like the larger Rover, the Sport can wade into a river nearly three-feet deep.

    Lexus GX 460

    The Lexus GX 460 is one 4WD luxury SUV that doesn’t require specialized optional equipment to be capable off road. The GX may wear the plush trimmings of a Lexus on the inside, but underneath there’s a full frame and a transfer case with a Torsen center differential that can be locked into a 50:50 torque split for rough going. And when the dirt road turns into a serious trail, the Lexus has a set of 2.52:1 low-range gears. But the real magic of the Lexus GX is in its suspension. The Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) uses hydraulically controlled anti-roll bars to either reduce the amount of roll in the chassis on road or increase it for off-roading. So in slow speed off-road situations, when maximum wheel travel is needed, the KDDS system loosens its grip on the suspension and lets the tires dip down easily into ruts. It works incredibly well. And when the GX runs out of wheel travel, the excellent four-wheel traction control system will arrest a spinning tire and divert torque to the wheel (or wheels) that do have traction. Like the Range Rover, this Lexus also has an optional off-road cruise control system called Crawl Control. It allows the driver to simply steer as the vehicle maintains speed up and down a trail in low range. It works well and is a great tool for novice four wheelers.

    Nissan Frontier

    In the midsize pickup truck class, the Frontier is the elder statesman. It’s been around virtually unchanged since 2005. But the lack of modernizing doesn’t limit its off-road talents. Underneath the metal is a narrower version of the same frame and suspension that’s underneath Nissan’s massive Titan fullsize pickup. So those parts are quite stout for a truck this size. Four-wheel-drive models have a simple part-time system that stays in 2WD until you chose 4WD. In low range, there’s a solid 2.61:1 gearset. The ultimate Frontier for four-wheeling adventures is the Pro-4X model. This off-road package includes equipment like an electronically locking rear differential, upgraded Bilstein shocks, and big 265/75R16 tires that are designed for deep sand. It all makes this Nissan an affordable underdog performer in the dirt.

    Nissan Xterra

    The Xterra is one of the last affordable SUVs with real off-road capability. Like the Frontier upon which it’s based, the Xterra uses a version of the larger Titan’s F-Alpha chassis. And you can feel the solidity in that structure when driving off road. But be aware, not all Xterras are 4WD. There are 2WD models that have the looks but lack the traction. The Xterra uses a big Dana 44 solid axle suspended by coil springs for its rear suspension, while the Frontier uses leaf spring packs. The dedicated Pro-4X package with an electronically locking rear differential, as well as Bilstein shocks and beefy 265/75R16 tires. So equipped, this is one of the few SUVs that have the chops for some fairly extreme trails. The package even includes some cool off-road lights on the Xterra’s roof rack.

    Ram 1500

    Tracing its roots back to the original Power Wagon of the 1940s, the Ram has some heavyweight 4WD heritage. And in modern times, it has carved a niche as an innovator. For instance, the Ram is the only full-sized truck that offers a light-duty diesel. And that torque-rich 3.0-liter Ecodiesel V6 is a perfect match for slow-speed off-road driving. Helping it further, the Ram’s coil or optional air rear suspension rides smoothly over rough terrain. Our testers praised the Ram’s optional On-Demand 4WD system for its ease of use. On all but the most extreme trails, just leave it in 4WD Auto and let the system send torque to the front axle when it needs to. On more difficult off-road climbs, there’s a 2.64:1 low-range ratio in the transfer case. To satisfy dirt-bound explorers, the model line now includes a Rebel off-road package that uses a 1-inch taller version of the Ram’s air suspension to make room for massive 33-inch tires. That version, our testers say, will swallow anything in its path, yet won’t beat up the driver.

    Toyota 4Runner

    Since the very first 4Runner arrived here back in 1984, Toyota has remained committed to advancing this SUV’s off-road capability. The current 4Runner is a serious trail machine—when optioned properly. But even the basic 4WD model has rugged body-on-frame construction and an old-school lever to operate the transfer case. However, Trail models are equipped with a locking rear differential and can be optioned with a smart Kinetic Dynamic Suspension that automatically allows the suspension to flex more when off road. Trail models also use an off-road cruise control system called Crawl Control. Just set your speed, steer over the rocks and ruts and the 4Runner takes care of everything else. Those that are engaged in baja-style higher-speed off-road driving will opt for the TRD Pro model. This 4Runner has a taller, long-travel suspension. The 4Runner TRD Pro is one of the best off-road packages available on any vehicle.

    Toyota Sequoia

    The Sequoia’s tough body-on-frame construction comes from a chassis it shares with Toyota’s full-sized Tundra pickup. The Sequoia’s 4WD system has a limited-slip center differential that can lock into a traditional 50:50 torque split when needed. So for most driving situations, that Torsen diff will proportion torque seamlessly—without driver involvement—to the axle that needs it. When locked into its 2.61:1 low range, the Sequoia has the gearing (thanks in part to the optional 4.30:1 axle gears) to crawl slowly up some very difficult climbs. The Sequoia isn’t available with a locking differential, but the brake-based four-wheel traction control system has the ability to arrest a spinning tire and send torque across the axle very effectively.

    Toyota Tacoma

    Over decades, Toyota pickups have earned a reputation for durability—and admittedly, rust. Peek underneath and there’s a robust chassis that shares most of the 4WD componentry, including the lever-actuated transfer case with 2.56:1 gears, with the 4Runner. Even the cheapest bare-bones 4WD Tacoma has excellent ground clearance and is a talented performer in the dirt. But opt for the TRD Off Road package and Toyota delivers protective skid plates, dedicated Bilstein shocks, and an electronic locking differential. Just push that diff-lock button and the Tacoma can give Jeeps a run for their money on the most treacherous trails. But the top Tacoma is the TRD Pro. This model, like the 4Runner version, has a long travel suspension designed to handle Baja-like high-speed desert terrain. At the other end, Toyota has a budget-conscious 2WD Prerunner package that rides on the 4WD’s suspension—so it has the clearance for mild off-roading.

    Best and worst new cars

    See our best and worst section to help filter down your purchase considerations including best new cars under $25K, best and worst new car values, and most fun to drive.

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

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    Consumers Union praises CFPB action against Discover Bank for illegal student loan servicing practices

    WASHINGTON – Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, today applauded the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s action against Discover Bank for illegal student loan servicing practices.

    The CFPB is ordering Discover to refund $16 million to affected consumers.  The company must also pay a $2.5 million fine and make improvements to its billing, reporting and collection practices.

    In a statement the bureau said Discover and its student loan affiliates “overstated the minimum amounts due on billing statements and denied consumers information they needed to obtain federal income tax benefits,” and they “engaged in illegal debt collection tactics, including calling consumers early in the morning and late at night.”

    Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for Consumers Union, said, “Students and families who are paying for college deserve better treatment from their loan servicers.  This action against Discover sends a strong message that the bureau is serious about holding loan servicers accountable for abusive practices that unfairly punish people who are trying to repay their loans.  Discover acquired hundreds of thousands of student loans from Citibank, and it failed to provide sufficient customer service after the transition. These are the kinds of systemic problems we see in this industry, and this action makes it clear that the whole system needs better oversight.”

    Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, said,  “Your student loan servicer has a basic obligation to give you an accurate account of what you owe, tell you what benefits are available, and work with you to ensure your payments stay on track.  This action shows how Discover utterly failed to fulfill its most basic responsibilities -- overstating bills, withholding crucial information from customers, and harassing people day and night.”

    This order comes as the CFPB considers steps to ensure that all student loan borrowers have access to adequate student loan servicing.  Consumers Union recently filed comments with the CFPB about the serious need for “rules of the road” to prevent unfair and deceptive practices.

    For the past two years, Consumers Union has been collecting stories from students and families about their personal experience taking out loans to pay for college.  CU has shared many of these stories with the CFPB as it considers steps to clean up the student loan servicing system.  People across the U.S. told Consumers Union about the enormous frustrations of dealing with student loan servicers, particularly the challenges of getting timely, accurate information and the difficulty in finding affordable repayment options.

    Consumers Union’s full comments to the CFPB about student loan servicers, including highlighted stories from consumers, are available online here.

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

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    Protect your Chrysler, Dodge, or Jeep from hacking

    Plenty of buzz has been made about the recent Wired.com story about hackers taking over a late-model Jeep Cherokee. But lost in the social buzz, story-sharing, and blame-gaming is what owners can do to protect themselves from the technical vulnerability. (Read “Can Your Car Get Hacked?”)

    As in-vehicle infotainment and connectivity has evolved, our cars have increasingly become mobile computers. As such, it is natural they will require software updates, much like your phone/tablet/PC does. Some of these updates enhance performance and safety, while others might address vulnerabilities. (Are you concerned about car hacking? Share your thoughts in the comments below.)

    The key takeaway: If you own an impacted vehicle with 8.4 Uconnect (with or without navigation), a fix is available. But you need to be proactive and make sure it gets done.

    In advance of the Wired story, Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles issued technical service bulletins (TSB) that includes “improved radio security protection to reduce the potential risk of unauthorized and unlawful access to vehicle systems” in order to prevent unauthorized “attempts to access vehicle systems through their open entry points.” While most TSBs are manufacturer-to-dealership communications that detail how to correct problems, in an unusual move, these TSBs include instructions on how owners can download and install a software update that close the potential entry points.

    Read our special report on how to get your car fixed for (almost) free.

    Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles has a website where you can enter the Vehicle Identification Number of your car and download the update. You’ll find your VIN on the vehicle title, vehicle registration card, insurance card, and the small metal plate at the base of the windshield on the driver’s side.

    Vehicles included in TSBs (08-072-15 and 08-035-15 REV. A):

    If you’re unsure how to handle the download you can have your dealer complete the update at no cost. Contact Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles Vehicle Care at 877-855-8400 with any additional questions.

    We performed the updated on our Chrysler 200C test car. It took about four minutes for us to download the 690 MB file to a flash drive. Once the drive was inserted into the USB port in the car, a verification screen appeared. From there, our car took 17 minutes to update. The whole process was quite straightforward.

    Car hacking has made headlines this year, exposing newfound vulnerabilities in modern cars. Much like the computer industry, automakers will need to keep pace with the risks. Don’t be surprised if updates such as this may become more common.

    In addition, just yesterday, Senators Markey and Blumenthal introduced a bill to toughen vehicle security and privacy standards; Consumer Reports is taking a close look at proposal.

    Learn more about keeping your car safe from hacking.

    Jon Linkov and Seung Min ‘Mel’ Yu

     

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

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    6 cheap and easy ways to boost curb appeal

    Is your house making a good first impression? If the door and areas around the front are looking like they need work, it could put off potential buyers, not to mention visitors. But it’s easy to upgrade your house’s curb appeal without spending a bundle. Consumer Reports asked home stagers (who prep properties to maximize sale prices), designers, color experts, and real estate pros for the best under-$50 fixes that make a big impact.

    Freshen up the front door

    Cost: $40 or less
    Go for the unexpected, says Debbie Zimmer, director of the Paint Quality Institute. “A deep, almost eggplant purple works well with white or pale blue siding and on contemporary wood-stained homes,” she says. Another hue that she loves is yellow—think mustard or pale yellow, not school bus! “ It complements classic red brick or painted siding,” she says. And red is a great choice for traditional white siding and black shutters. Think barn, not candy apple. When picking door colors, consider your siding, roof, and neighbors’ homes to ensure a harmonious look.

    Tips from the pros

    • Follow the 60-30-10 paint ratio rule if you’re worried about going too bold, says DeAnna Radaj, a design pro based in Charlotte, N.C. “Sixty percent is the main color, on your siding. Thirty percent is the roof and trim—stick with neutrals for those. The last 10 percent—front door, shutters, and other details—is where to have fun.”
    • If you’re going bold on your entryway, take a more muted approach on the garage door, especially if both face the street. That keeps the focus on the front door.


    Get a new mailbox and numbers

    Cost: $10 and more
    Bland or worn-out house numbers and mailboxes can easily be replaced to bring the front of your house back into focus. If the ones you have are functional but dated or mismatched, consider investing in a can of spray paint. Unless it’s dented, there’s no need to replace a mailbox, says Rick Harris, a real estate broker for Coldwell Banker in Ashland, Ore. Radaj painted her mailbox, house numbers, and even the planters on her front porch. “I picked the color of the trim of the house—a warm brown— and went with a metallic paint that matched it,” she says.

    Tips from the pros

    • Make numbers big enough to see from the road. Create cardboard cutouts in the dimensions you’re considering, then hang them up, step back, and see what works best.
    • Put numbers near a light. “There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to find a house at night when the numbers are in the dark,” says Debra Gould, president of the Staging Diva website.

    Refresh the hardware

    Cost: around $15 and up
    If your hardware is in shoddy condition, replacements will make a huge difference. A new doorknob starts around $30; a kick plate ranges from $15 to $30, depending on the metal. Door knockers start around $13.

    Tips from the pros

    • Make sure all of the metal hardware on the door matches. “Many big-box stores sell series of products that work together,” Harris says. That’s a safe bet if you’re unsure; when your hardware has a uniform look, it shows thoughtfulness and ties the whole look of the house together.
    • Buy hardware that’s in sync with the architectural style of your house. “You don’t want really contemporary brushed-nickel accessories or a funky doorknob on a colonial house,” Radaj says.

    Lighten up

    Cost: $15 to $50
    Nothing warms up an entry and makes it feel welcoming like a few lights, especially once twilight falls. To brighten a porch, doorway, and walkway, Radaj uses LED lights intended for outdoor use. Our tests have shown that they instantly brighten, even in frigid temperatures, and can last for years. If you already have the fixture, it’s just a matter of switching the bulb. The $25 Feit Electric A19/OM/800/LED did great in our tests.

    Tips from the pros

    • Light a pathway. An easy, inexpensive way to do it is with solar-powered lights, which need no wiring. Just remember that they need to be installed in a sunny spot to function—and they don’t throw off the brightest light.
    • Avoid candle-lit lanterns on a porch or walkway. Instead, use pillar and votive lights that run on batteries. They can be tucked into lanterns for a pretty glow and can be set on a timer.

    Switch the doormat

    Cost: around $10 and up
    You can use a doormat to add a pop of color to your entry, Zimmer says. But if you have a door in a bold hue, keep the house numbers, mailbox, and doormat in a timeless style and stick with black. That will look great and won’t compete with the color, Gould says.

    Tips from the pros

    • Size it right. The doormat should cover about three-quarters of the width of the doorway.
    • Go for textured types that catch dirt from shoes.

    Hide a shabby porch or stairs

    Cost: $45 to $50
    If you haven’t gotten around to painting your front porch or deck, try throwing an outdoor area rug over it. Plunk down a bench and some plants, and no one will notice. A runner made for outdoor use can disguise a not-so-pretty stairway.

    Tips from the pros

    • Buy outdoor rugs with a nonslip backing for safety.
    • Choose a colorful pattern if you want to make the rug the focal point and detract from a not-so-pretty setting.

    Exterior paint picks from Consumer Reports

    —Adapted from ShopSmart magazine

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

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    Should you upgrade to Windows 10?

    We’re just a few hours from the official launch of Windows 10. If you haven’t already reserved your copy and are still on the fence about whether to upgrade, our step-by-step guide can help you decide. Follow along as we ask all the right questions.

    1. Do you have a Windows PC or a Mac? Windows users, move on to the next question. Mac users—don’t laugh! There are some among you running a virtual Windows machine, like Boot Camp, within your Apple computer. If you’re one of those with a foot in both worlds, see “Good to go?” below.

    2. What version of Windows are you running? Your inclination to upgrade or not might depend on the version of the OS you're currently using.

    • Windows 8.1. Microsoft made some much-needed improvements to Windows 8 when it released Windows 8.1. But Windows 10 looks even better. Perhaps you haven’t reserved your copy of Windows 10 because you don’t like to jump into things at the early stages. Waiting a bit is never a bad idea. See the question, “Feeling cautious?” below. On the other hand, if you think you might be ready to pull the switch now, see “Raring to go?”
    • Windows 7. If ever there was a happy Windows user, it’s you. Microsoft says extended support for this version of Windows will last until 2020, so there’s no shame in sticking with it for now. But just in case you’re tempted….see “Raring to go?” below.
    • Windows Vista. Do we really have to ask if you want to upgrade? Vista just might be Microsoft’s most-derided operating system ever. Unfortunately, there’s no direct path that will take you to Windows 10. But you should be able to easily upgrade to Windows 7 or even 8.1 first. Take a look at Microsoft’s “Install, upgrade & activate” page to find out how.
    • Windows XP. If you stick with XP, you’re putting your data at risk! Microsoft is no longer issuing security updates for this version of Windows, so you'd be wise to upgrade. But a direct upgrade to Windows 10 is not an option for you. In fact, the machine you’re using is probably ancient. If you’re ready to buy a new system, see “I’m ready to buy a new PC” below. If you’re still attached to your hardware, at least upgrade—immediately—to Windows 7 or 8.1. Take a look at Microsoft’s “Install, upgrade & activate” page.

    3. Feeling cautious? There’s no need to rush into anything (unless you’re a Vista or XP user). Wait until the first service pack or point upgrade is released for Windows 10, but don’t hold out beyond July 29, 2016—Microsoft is only offering that free upgrade for exactly one year.

    Consumer Reports' Buying Guides can help you make the perfect choice if you're in the market for a tablet or computer.

    4. Raring to go? If you're a Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 user, you should have a Windows 10 icon in your taskbar. When you click on it, you can check the compatibility of your hardware and applications, and reserve your copy of Windows 10.

    5. Are you ready to buy a new PC? Starting tomorrow, there should be lots of Windows 10 systems available. Among the vendors revealing their W10 lineups: Acer, HP, and Dell. You should also still find plenty of Windows 8.1 PCs in stores (that's also what you’ll find in our Ratings until we get the new systems in). You can upgrade it to Windows 10 once you get it home, or stick with 8.1 if you prefer. You might get one at a good price as stores try to unload older non-Windows 10 models. Take a look at our Ratings for help in making the perfect choice. 

    —Donna Tapellini

     

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    When will you get the Windows 10 upgrade?

    Ready, set, go! With Windows 10 about to hit computers everywhere, here's how the rollout of Microsoft's latest operating system will work, according to the company.

    To manage demand, Microsoft says it will do a phased rollout of the new OS. Windows Insiders, regular folks taking Windows 10 for a trial run, will be the first to get it. From there, Microsoft will start notifying people who reserved Windows 10, slowly scaling up after July 29. Microsoft isn't commenting on how long the rollout will take.

    Microsoft has already downloaded the files needed to install the Windows 10 upgrade to some people who reserved their copy ahead of time. So the files you need to install the new OS might be hanging out on your computer right now. Otherwise you should get them soon.

    You won't be able to install the Windows 10 upgrade, however, until you get the word from Microsoft. The company will begin rolling out the installations at midnight tonight. (Check out these 6 reasons to upgrade to Windows 10.)

    As the Windows 10 upgrade rollout continues, a Microsoft spokesperson says, the company will “listen, learn, and update the experience for all Windows 10 customers.”

    Reserve your free copy of Windows 10.

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  • 07/28/15--12:59: Trick out your dorm room
  • Trick out your dorm room

    Surround yourself with our high-rated tech to get the most out of your semester. Whether it’s for cramming a paper the night before it’s due or to take a study break, these electronics are affordable and could help reduce some of the stress of school. Got your own must-have electronics suggestions? Let us know.

    Calla Deitrick

    The fundamentals

    Smartphone: Samsung Galaxy S 5 ($500)

    The 5.1 inch touch-screen Samsung Galaxy S 5 runs on the Android operating system and has many of the standard features that you expect from a smartphone, as well as more unique features like the ability to handle a quick, unintended dip in the water and Multi Window that allows you to run two apps simultaneously in a split-screen view. A great battery life, a display you can see easily in bright light, 16 GB of storage, and a 15.9-megapixel camera that shoots excellent HD videos are a few more features that make this smartphone outstanding. The Samsung Galaxy S 5 was one of our highest performing phones in our Ratings and should be a reliable companion on campus. And while it's far from cheap, the S 5 is considerably less expensive that the newer S 6 or an iPhone.

    Laptop: HP Spectre x360 -13t Touch ($900)

    The 13.3-in convertible HP Spectre x360 makes an outstanding option for students for its performance and speed with a core i5-52000 processor and 4GB of memory. The laptop runs on Windows 8.1 (upgradeable to Windows 10 for free) and has a touchscreen and a 128 GB solid-state drive to sweeten the deal. The laptop is a breeze to carry around campus because it’s both thin and light, plus it has a long battery life of 16 hours so you don’t need to panic if you aren’t near an outlet.

    For Apple Lovers: Go for the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display for $1,300.

    Printer: Epson Expression Premium XP-620 printer ($90)

    When you’re rushing to class before a deadline and there’s no time to run to the school library, having a reliable printer could make all the difference. This highly rated all-in-one inkjet printer can print wirelessly and produces excellent quality photos and good quality pages of text. The printer is versatile and has scan and copying functions, and it can print on both sides of a page; there's also a memory card readers. For a printer that could save you and your research paper in a pinch, the Epson Expression Premium XP-620 is a solid choice.

    The entertainment

    Headphones: Grado Prestige SR60e headphone ($79)

    Unwind and enjoy your music without disturbing your roommate and neighbors. For a very good sound quality that has a warm character and won’t break the bank, these headphones are an excellent choice. The home/studio style open-air on-ear headphones won’t block out external noises, allowing you to maintain some connection with the outside world. If you want an old-school look that delivers on sound, these headphones are worth the investment.

    If you prefer ear-insert portable earphones, consider the Sennheiser CX 215 headphone that also has very good sound quality and only costs $30.

    Wireless speakers: Bose Soundlink Color Wireless Speaker ($130)

    Transform your dorm into a party space on the weekends with these easy to use wireless Bluetooth portable speakers. The speakers have good overall sound quality and intuitive controls. They can connect with two devices at the same time and remember the last eight devices they paired with. With their small size, selection of five different colors, and relatively low price, the Bose Soundlink Color Wireless Speakers make a great option for students who want to add convenience and music to their lives. 

    TV: LG 22LF4520 TV ($170)

    Have your friends over for a movie without needing to fight to see the screen. This 22-inch LCD HDTV, which has 1080p resolution, delivers excellent high-definition quality and color accuracy without taking up half of your dorm room. The TV has one HDMI input, one VGA, and one USB port. And the price is very, very right.

    Streaming media players and services: Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40)

    For any student, Netflix is a lifeline. When you need to turn off your brain and binge on some television, the Amazon Fire TV Stick is an easy way to stream from Netflix, or your favorite services such as Hulu, Showtime, HBO Go, or Amazon. The stick is easy to set up and comes with a relatively simple remote that operates via Bluetooth. The stick is small, has an HDMI jack, mini USB port, and supports a 1080p output. The streaming picture quality is very good and the price makes it an easy decision.

    Video-game console: Microsoft Xbox One ($500)

    If you would prefer to go for broke (perhaps literally) and buy a console that can support streaming (Netflix!) and your favorite games, then you may want to consider Microsoft’s newest console. The Xbox One comes with a built in Blu-ray player and has a Kinect sensor that allows you to use motion-control and voice commands (although if you buy the console without Kinect you’ll save over $100). The console has many entertainment apps to choose from as well as the ability to video chat with your friends or family by making Skype calls in HD.

    For a more economical choice, consider the older Microsoft Xbox 360 for $200.

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

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    Persil takes down Tide in Consumer Reports' tests

    Tide has been Consumer Reports' top-rated laundry detergent for years, and that has helped make it the country’s best-selling detergent. But Persil, from German manufacturer Henkel, is challenging Tide’s supremacy. Persil ProClean 2in1 formula edged out Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release in our latest tests. Here’s how the two products compare:

     

    Tide

    Price per load: 25 cents

    Compatibility: HE washers only.

    Cleaning power: Tough on all stains.

    Fragrance: A fruity-floral blend that many Americans equate with cleanliness.

    Where to get it: Just about anywhere, including the black market, because Tide’s popularity has made it a commonly shoplifted and resold good.

    Assessing the cap: Fill lines are easy to read, and its scrubbing bristles help with pretreating.

    Persil

    Price per load: 25 cents

    Compatibility: All machines.

    Cleaning power: Tough on all stains, with a slight edge over Tide on blood.

    Fragrance: Described by the manufacturer as clean, crisp, and “European.”

    Where to get it: Henkel signed an exclusive partnership with Walmart, but it plans to expand distribution to other retailers later this year.

    Assessing the cap: Difficult-to-read fill lines make it easy to overdose.

    —Daniel DiClerico

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    Can the Ninja Kitchen System Pulse make dough?

    Food choppers are handy for small food-prep tasks, like dicing vegetables, chopping nuts, and grating chunks of cheese. When it comes to kneading dough, however, we generally think of stand mixers or full-sized food processors. So we were intrigued by the Ninja Kitchen System BL201, a $65 chopper that promises to "knead fresh cookie and pizza dough in seconds." Consumer Reports decided to put the claim to the test.  

    Cookies. We started with Nestle’s classic Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe. The Ninja’s 5-cup container couldn’t accommodate the full recipe, so we halved it. That solved the space issue, but the dough ended up dry and crumbly, more like shortbread dough than the moist, buttery texture that yields chewy chocolate chip cookies. Upon closer inspection, we noticed small globs of butter that had not properly creamed with the sugar. The cookies that came out of the oven were also inconsistent—some dome-shaped and puffy, others flat and dense.

    Next, we tried a chocolate chip cookie recipe from the Ninja website. While similar to Toll House’s, the ratio of ingredients differed slightly, as did the order in which they were incorporated. The butter and sugars combined more evenly, giving the dough a smoother consistency. The cookies themselves were better, too, though they didn’t quite live up to buttery, chewy ideal of the best chocolate chip cookies.

    Pizza. For the pizza dough, we again started with a common recipe, this one from the Joy of Cooking. As with the cookie dough, it had to be divided in half. The results were mediocre—dense and tough, instead of smooth and elastic. We then tried Ninja’s flatbread pizza dough. The results were much better, as the dough developed adequate gluten, rose nicely, and had a relatively chewy texture.

    Bottom line: the Ninja Kitchen System Pulse can make decent cookie and pizza dough, especially if you use the manufacturer’s recipe. But the small container can be a bit of a nuisance on large, multi-batch jobs, and the end results might never be as good as those produced by your favorite recipe in one of our top-rated stand mixers or food processors.

    Sara Brown, Senior Technician

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

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    The problem with customer service

    Almost everyone has to deal with customer service at some point. In fact, 88 percent of the people surveyed recently by the Consumer Reports National Research Center had done so in the past year—to question a bill, request a repair, return ill-fitting merchandise, and more.

    And many of them didn’t like the experience and had a problem with customer service. Half of the people we surveyed reported leaving a store without making their intended purchase because of poor service. Fifty-seven percent were so steamed that they hung up the phone without a resolution. Women were more annoyed than men, as were people over age 45.

    (Looking for customer-service advice? Find out what works for career customer-service experts—including Consumer Reports “acquisition” pros—on the job or at home.)

    We live in a world of instant connection, where owners of Amazon Kindle Fire tablets can instantly summon a tech adviser live onscreen by tapping a “Mayday” button, for example, and Neiman Marcus customers snap photos of shoes in magazines to automatically search for them in the store’s inventory. So why are we still so frustrated?

    “Many companies today are simply awful at resolving customer problems, despite investments in whiz-bang technologies and considerable advertising about their customer focus,” said Scott Broetzmann, president of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting. “Customers spend valuable time and invest considerable effort—and get little in return.”

    Satisfaction with service is actually no higher than it was in the 1970s, according to research from Arizona State University. The latest version of the school’s “customer rage” study found that companies are doing all the right things but in all the wrong ways. Think 800-numbers with overly complex automated response menus, agents with limited decision-making authority, and understaffed call centers.

    Do we take those survey results as a sign that service is improving or that we’ve grown desensitized to brusque treatment?

    All of that chaos can cause nasty behavior. There has been a significant increase in incidents of consumers yelling, even cursing, at reps, the ASU study revealed.

    But it may also breed futility. The same study found that the number of Americans who think that complaining is worthwhile has fallen to 50 percent, from 61 percent, since 2011. Perhaps that’s why, when we compared some common service-related irritants (see below) with the results of a similar survey we conducted in 2011, we found that people were actually less piqued overall.

    Jack Abelson, a retail-industry consultant, speculates that younger consumers, especially millennials, have never experienced top-flight care, so they don’t know what they’re missing. Other experts suggest that we’re less irked now that we’re becoming accustomed to serving ourselves, whether it’s at a grocery store checkout line or banking online.

    “Companies are making it easier for customers to use simple solutions, like FAQs,” said Shep Hyken, a customer-care consultant. There are also online how-to videos that enable customers to get info quickly.

    The Better Business Bureau logged fewer complaints last year than in 2013, and nine of the 10 most trouble-prone industries saw declines (cable and satellite TV services were the exception). The reason for the drop, the bureau says, is increased proactivity by consumers, who are now more likely to check out a business first rather than complain later, and their new ability to lodge a complaint or post a review directly on the BBB site.

    Prevention may be better than a cure, so try to be picky about where you do business.

    Consumer Reports Rates our own customer service

    As hard as it is to admit, we know that even we fall short sometimes. Looking back at more than a year’s worth of correspondence with our subscribers, we saw that some took us to task, especially for:
    • Extended phone waits
    • Failure to respond to e-mail
    • A phone number that’s difficult or sometimes impossible to find
    • Recorded messages that say we’re busy, followed by an automatic disconnect.
    “We are aware of our customers’ pain points and are committed to creating an excellent experience,” said Carolyn Clifford-Ferrara, vice president of operations. “We’ve significantly improved our phone wait times, with the majority under 30 seconds. Most e-mails now get a response within 24 hours. We’ve also added the Customer Care phone number on our website, and we’re making it easier to find in Consumer Reports magazine.” That starts now, so take this down: 800-333-0663.

    What Americans hate most about bad customer service

    The Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 1,016 adults about the pain points listed at right using a scale of 0 to 10, from “not annoying at all” to “tremendously irritating.”

    A Silver lining? Whether they interacted in person, by phone, or by e-mail, fewer Americans were agitated over lousy service than they were in 2011, when we conducted a similar study. The percentage of those whofumed over various practices declined in almost every category, most notably the rudeness of salespeople and the inability to get a live person on the line.

    The top irritants

    Percentage highly annoyed

    Can’t get a live person on the phone

    75

    Customer service is rude or condescending

    75 (For in-store experiences, rudeness was highly annoying to 71 percent of respondents.)

    Disconnected

    74

    Disconnected and unable to reach the same rep again

    71

    Transferred to a representative who can’t help or is wrong

    70

    Company doesn’t provide—or hides—customer-service phone number

    68

    Long wait on hold

    66

    Many phone-menu steps needed

    66

    Repeatedly asked for the same information

    66

    Proposed solution was useless

    65

    Salesperson ignored me

    64

    Unsure whether on hold or disconnected

    62

    Can’t speak with a supervisor

    62

    Phone menu doesn’t offer needed option

    61

    Voice-recognition system works poorly

    61

    Sales pitch for unrelated goods or services

    60

    Salesperson is too pushy

    60

     

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

     

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    Frustrated by customer service?

    We asked career customer-service experts—including Consumer Reports “acquisition” pros, who pose as regular consumers to sign up for services and buy the thousands of products we test—what works for them on the job or at home.

    (Read our special report on why company promises and new technology haven’t made the customer-service experience much less painful.)

    1. Pick up the phone

    Eighty percent of those who participated in our national survey contacted a company that way. Half of them said it was the most effective way to resolve an issue. Real-time contact is often more efficient than e-mail, where there can be a wait of 24 to 48 hours for an answer, said Sharon Parker-Odom of Carmel, Ind., a Consumer Reports Facebook fan who worked in customer service for 26 years, three of them in call centers. Need a company’s number? Look under “investor relations” or “news,” or try websites such as Dial a Human and Get Human.

    2. Cut your hold time

    Try a free Web service like Lucy Phone, where you enter a company’s name or number, then give the service your phone number. It calls you back when a rep comes on the line.

    3. Bypass automated menus

    The old ploy of pressing “0” (with or without the “#” sign) sometimes works. Another option: Forget support entirely and press the prompt for “sales” or “to place an order,” when companies are likely to roll out the red carpet. Dealing with a TV provider or telecom company? Leapfrog service and go directly to customer retention, where agents are empowered to negotiate.

    4. Show—and ask for—empathy

    Many customer-care reps are low-paid workers subject to poor treatment, and their opinions are rarely sought. If you’re in a store, act with sensitivity if you notice one of them being abused by another customer. When making your case, end with the words, “Can you help me?” He or she might not have the authority, so instead of making insults, politely ask to speak with a supervisor. You also might want to say, “Don’t you agree?” or “Would you want that done to you?”

    5. If nothing else works, escalate

    We never suggest that you become uncivil, but if you’re stuck, be forceful. Companies rely on voice-recognition software to detect anger, sarcasm, and inflammatory phrases like “you people,” and will swiftly transfer you to an operator.

    6. Try live chat

    The option, if available, is just as effective as using the phone and is often faster. It also results in a transcript for follow-up purposes. Chat reps tend to be more senior than phone reps and have greater decision-making authority, said John Goodman, vice chairman of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting.

    7. Build a case

    You don’t have to be a lawyer to get satisfaction, but it helps to think like one. One of our shoppers was recently surprised when Verizon FiOS pulled the Weather Channel from his TV package, replacing it with the company’s own version. When he asked why it was removed, the response was a terse, “We’re just not doing it anymore.” So our shopper went Perry Mason: “ I signed a two-year contract; you changed the lineup and altered our agreement. The way I see it, that contract is null and void.” The representative ended up giving him a discount on his bill.

    8. Tell your (Facebook) friends

    Many companies actively monitor social-media sites to intercept problems before they go viral and do greater damage, so you’re likely to get a quick response, Goodman said.

    9. Take it to the top

    Contact the president’s or CEO’s office and ask to speak with an assistant. Or write the chief executive directly. Less than 2 percent of consumers do that, Goodman said, so executives pay attention.

    10. Seek outside help

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers assistance with problems involving financial products and services such as loans, leases, debt collection, credit cards, and banks. File a complaint at consumerfinance.gov/complaint, and the federal agency will forward it to the company and work to get a response within a specified time frame. You can also share your story to help protect other consumers.

    11. Cancel and come back

    Cable companies used to trip over each other trying to snatch a competitor’s customers with enticing incentives. These days, they seem to have no qualms about letting you walk. But believe it or not, that can work to your advantage. When the half-price HBO promo ended for one of our shoppers and the cable company refused to extend it, he dropped the package. “Once I quit, they offered it to me again—in the same phone call,” he said. Another shopper dropped Cablevision completely when his bill skyrocketed. After he quit, the company was willing to deal to regain his business.

     

    What we learned while on hold

    Consumer Reports mystery shoppers posed as ordinary consumers, called a handful of companies, and documented their attempts to get them to answer some simple questions. For comparison, we also phoned the notoriously bureaucratic Internal Revenue Service.

    “Why doesn’t my laptop battery hold a charge like it used to?” Shoppers found the number for Apple in fewer clicks than those who searched for HP/Compaq. A shopper in New York who called HP/Compaq said: “If you want a number, you must enter all this personal information into their online form and submit it. Then they present you with a number to call. All that to ask a simple question. Even then, I never got a simple answer.” (Tip: Tech support couldn’t diagnose the problem without model and serial numbers, so be sure you have them.)

    “Can I take our small dog on the flight?” Our Texas shopper placed nine calls to Spirit Airlines before she could get past a fast busy signal. She eventually got the information through menu prompts, but when she pressed the touchpad to add a pet to her reservation, she was put on hold for 26 minutes before giving up. At Virgin, transferring to a live rep was usually a bit easier. When a shopper had a lengthier wait, she was given the option of leaving a callback number for a rep to reach her. Another shopper simply said, “taking dog on plane” and was transferred to an agent, who was thorough and cordial.

    “My mom lives on her own, and I pay for some of her care. Can I claim her as a dependent on my taxes?” Our shoppers took various routes when calling the IRS, but all hit the same wall. One waded through five options in 3 minutes before getting a real person, who promptly hung up. Others didn’t get past automated menus, which said that questions about dependents would be answered by a live person only until tax day, April 15 (shoppers called in June). They were then directed to an interactive online tax assistant before the calls ended with an abrupt disconnect. One shopper said, “I hope everyone who has a tax question has a computer.”

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

     

     

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    Hospital Ratings - Avoiding MRSA and C. difficile Infections

    Our hospitals have turned into breeding grounds for dangerous—even deadly—infections. Consumer Reports has expanded its hospital Ratings and now includes information about two common and deadly infections: MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and C. difficile (Clostridium difficile). Consumer Reports’ new Ratings of more than 3,000 U.S. hospitals show which do a good job of avoiding these infections, and which do not. The numbers are staggering: every year in the U.S., 648,000 people develop infections during a hospital stay, and 75,000 people die as a result. That’s more than twice the number of people who die each year in car crashes. Many of these illnesses and deaths can be traced back to the use of antibiotics, the very drugs that are supposed to fight the infections. While some hospitals are taking steps to reduce infections and inappropriate antibiotic use, others appear to be making little effort. Below are detailed information for 28 local markets:

    About Consumer Reports
    Consumer Reports is the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit, consumer organization working to improve the lives of consumers by driving marketplace change. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has achieved substantial gains for consumers on health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other issues. The organization has advanced important policies to cut hospital-acquired infections, prohibit predatory lending practices and combat dangerous toxins in food. Consumer Reports tests and rates thousands of products and services in its 50-plus labs, state-of-the-art auto test center and consumer research center. Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, works for pro-consumer laws and regulations in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. With more than eight million subscribers to its flagship magazine, website and other publications, Consumer Reports accepts no advertising, payment or other support from the companies whose products it evaluates.

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    Consumer Reports Investigation Reveals How Hospitals Can Make Patients Sick

    New Ratings for avoiding MRSA and C. diff infections for more than 3,000 U.S. hospitals;            Advice for hospitals and patients on how to avoid infections

    CR September 2015 CoverYONKERS, NY — Hospitals are thought to be sterile, safe environments where sick people get better, not sicker.  But that’s not always the case according to a new investigation by Consumer Reports into hospital-acquired infections. 

    Consumer Reports has expanded its hospital Ratings and, for the first time, includes information about two common and deadly infections: MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) and C. diff (clostridium difficile). 

    Every year an estimated 648,000 people in the U.S. develop infections during a hospital stay and about 75,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  That’s more than twice the number of people who die each year in car crashes.

    The latest hospital Ratings are included in the report, “How Your Hospital Can Make You Sick,” available at ConsumerReports.org/cro/hospitalinfections2015.  This is the second piece in a three-part investigative series focused on America’s antibiotic crisis. The introductory article explained how the overuse and misuse of antibiotics is leading to the rise of superbugs. The final installment will examine the role antibiotics play in the U.S. meat supply.

    “High rates for MRSA and C. diff can be a red flag that a hospital isn’t following the best practices in preventing infections and prescribing antibiotics,” said Doris Peter, Ph.D., director of Consumer Reports’ Health Ratings Center. “The data show it is possible to keep infection rates down and in some cases avoid them altogether.”

    MRSA infections claim the lives of more than 8,000 patients each year in the U.S. and sicken almost 60,000. C. diff is even more prevalent. Each year, about 290,000 Americans develop a C. diff infection in a hospital or other health care facility and at least 27,000 of them die, according to the CDC. 

    To develop Ratings for MRSA and C. diff, Consumer Reports analyzed information hospitals reported to the CDC. The MRSA and C. diff Ratings are now part of Consumer Reports’ hospital Ratings, which also include central-line associated blood stream infections, surgical-site infections, and catheter-associated urinary tract infections. These scores, in addition to the new data for MRSA and C. diff, make up a larger composite infection score for individual hospitals. 

    Consumer Reports’ Ratings reflect how hospitals performed in a snap shot of time, based on data hospitals reported to the CDC between October 2013 and September 2014, the most recent public data available. The data are updated quarterly.

    To earn Consumer Reports’ very top rating in preventing MRSA or C. diff, a hospital had to report zero infections - 322 hospitals across the country were able to achieve that level in the MRSA Ratings, and 357 accomplished it for C. diff, showing it is possible.  Hospitals distinguish themselves when they earn high ratings against both infections: 105 succeeded in that.

    Several high-profile hospitals got lower ratings against MRSA, C. diff, or both, including the Cleveland Clinic (OH), Johns Hopkins Hospital (MD), Mount Sinai Hospital (NYC), and Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center (CA).

     Only nine hospitals received higher Ratings in avoiding not only MRSA and C. diff infections but also for avoiding the other infections included in Consumer Reports’ Ratings: Northwest Texas Healthcare System (TX), Jupiter Medical Center (FL), White County Medical Center (AR), Centennial Hills Hospital Medical Center (NV), Biloxi Regional Medical Center (MS), Johnston Memorial Hospital (VA), Lima Memorial Health System (OH), Western Arizona Regional Medical Center (AZ), and South Baldwin Regional Medical Center (AL).

    Twelve hospitals earned lower scores for avoiding all five infections: Brooklyn Hospital Center (NY), Decatur Memorial Hospital (IL), Floyd Memorial Hospital and Health Services (IN), Fremont-Rideout Health Group (CA), Little Company of Mary Hospital and Health Care Centers (IL), Mercy St. Anne Hospital (OH), Riverview Medical Center (NJ), Rockdale Medical Center (GA), St. Petersburg General Hospital (FL), The Charlotte Hungerford Hospital (CT), UF Health Jacksonville (FL), and Venice Regional Bayfront Health (FL).

    “Hospitals are directly responsible for many of these infections and should be able to prevent them,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Reports’ Safe Patient Project. “While sick patients should not be expected to have to advocate for safe treatment, speaking up can help to protect them from superbug infections.”

    Good hospitals focus on the basics: using antibiotics wisely and keeping their facilities clean.  These practices combined with federal mandates for public reporting of some infections have already led to reduced rates of certain infections.  But Consumer Reports believes hospitals need to do more including:

    • Consistently follow established protocols for managing superbug infections, such as ensuring that all staff use gowns, masks, gloves, and other protections appropriately.

    • Being held financially accountable, including covering all costs for treating infections patients pick up during their stay, even costs after discharge.

    • Have an antibiotic stewardship program.  That should include mandatory reporting of antibiotic use to the CDC.

    • Accurately report how many infections patients get in the hospital.  And, the government should validatethose reports.

    • Promptly report outbreaks to patients, as well as to state and federal health authorities.  Those agencies should inform the public so that patients know the risks before they check in. 

    While it is important for hospitals to do their part in preventing infections, patients can also be their own advocate. That entails doing the following:

    • Question the use of antibiotics. Talk to doctors about only using antibiotics when necessary and, when needed, prescribing drugs that are appropriate for their specific infection.

    • Insist on a clean hospital room.  If it looks dirty, ask for it to be cleaned.   Patients should ask anyone entering their hospital room to wash his or her hands.

    • Consult Consumer Reports’ hospital Ratings when making healthcare decisions for themselves and others.

    Consumer Reports is committed to helping wipe out “superbug” infections through a coordinated effort of the organization’s broad resources and channels.  Consumers can follow the conversation on Twitter at#SlamSuperbugs

    Click here for detailed information for local markets.

    About Consumer Reports
    Consumer Reports is the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit, consumer organization working to improve the lives of consumers by driving marketplace change. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has achieved substantial gains for consumers on health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other issues. The organization has advanced important policies to cut hospital-acquired infections, prohibit predatory lending practices and combat dangerous toxins in food. Consumer Reports tests and rates thousands of products and services in its 50-plus labs, state-of-the-art auto test center and consumer research center. Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, works for pro-consumer laws and regulations in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. With more than eight million subscribers to its flagship magazine, website and other publications, Consumer Reports accepts no advertising, payment or other support from the companies whose products it evaluates.

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    Best everyday products for college students

    When children are in elementary school, teachers typically send home a list of school supplies that parents should buy. When they go off to college, students need some of the same everyday items but this time you have to come up with the list. Keep in mind that students will be moving into unfurnished spaces and will want familiar things such as paper towels, tissues, batteries and laundry detergent within easy reach. The experts at Consumer Reports scoured our labs and found some extraordinary everyday products.

    Paper towels

    In Consumer Reports tests of paper towels, Bounty soaks up the first three spots. When Bounty introduced the Bounty DuraTowel claiming that it’s a “cloth-like, durable paper towel that leaves surfaces three times cleaner than a used dishcloth,” our testers were anxious to try it. We pitted the DuraTowel against regular Bounty and found that it was stronger and lasted about 30 percent longer in our scrubbing tests. But it also cost more: $4.04 a roll vs. $2.62 for Bounty Extra Soft and $2.24 for Bounty Giant. You can get good paper towels for a lot less including Great Value Strong & Absorbent from Walmart, $2.09, and Kirkland Signature Premium Big Roll from Costco, $1.47.

    Facial tissues

    The results of our facial tissue tests, which measure both strength and softness, are nothing to sneeze at. Three varieties of Puffs and two of Kleenex made our list of top tissue picks. If you’ve got the sniffles, consider tissues with a lotion such as Kleenex Lotion Aloe & E, at $1.36 a CR Best Buy. But don’t try to clean your glasses with them. For that try our top-rated tissue, Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong, $1.69. Brands from Walmart, CVS, Target and Costco also did well in our tests and typically cost less.

    Laundry detergent

    While they weren’t designed specifically for college students, and we don't recommend them for families with small children, laundry detergent in pods and packs have made it easier for beginners to get their clothes clean. With single-use detergents, there’s no more pouring or measuring or lugging jugs of detergent down to the laundry room. In our detergent tests, Tide Pods Plus Febreze, 33 cents a pack, performed very well at removing stains and can be used in both high-efficiency and traditional washing machines. For half that you can buy All Mighty Pacs Oxi, 17 cents per use, another good performer. Our top detergent picks also include powders and liquids.

    Batteries

    Gone are the days of Walkmans and portable CD players but students still need batteries for remotes, clocks, flashlights and cameras. In our tests of AA batteries, Duracell Quantum AA Alkaline, $$1.00 per battery, and Duracell Coppertop AA Alkaline, $1.00 a battery, topped the group of alkaline batteries. But for just 27 cents a battery, you can buy our CR Best Buy, Kirkland Signature AA Alkaline at Costco. In our tests of lithium batteries, Energizer Ultimate Lithium AA, $2.50, and Energizer Advanced Lithium AA, $2.25, topped our tests but cost much more.

    Toilet paper

    Dormitories provide their own toilet paper but for students living off-campus this everyday staple is a necessity they may not be used to buying. In our toilet paper tests, White Cloud Ultra Soft & Thick from Walmart scored excellent in and strength and very good in softness and at 25 cents per 100 sheets is a CR Best Buy. If you don’t shop at Walmart, we also tested brands from Target, Walgreens and Costco, although none made our recommended list.

    —Izabela Rutkowski

    Back-to-school guide: Find more shopping tips and top-rated products.

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

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    5 products on deep discount in August

    If you're wondering what products are typically at their lowest price this month, wonder no more. Consumer Reports product research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of items that are typically discounted most deeply in August.

    Our tough lab tests also result in smart shopping tips that will help you find the models that are right for you.

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

    Air conditioners

    August is one hot month, so you'll probably be relieved to hear that retailers consider this the end of the season for air conditioners, and put them on sale–despite the fact that it's also the peak shopping month for these chill boxes.

    Just keep in mind that while prices are low, inventories are likely to be thin, so you may not find a wide selection. Our air conditioner buying guide and Ratings will help you spot the right model. (Need a whole-house system? Check our central air conditioning buying guide.)

    Shopping tips

    Size it correctly. This will ensure that the unit will work properly and it will save you money on energy costs. An air conditioner that's too small won't do a good job cooling a room and will also use up more energy than necessary while trying to do so. One that's too big will also waste energy and will cool the area so quickly that it doesn't have time to remove enough moisture, so it leaves you with a cold, clammy space.
     
    Note the noise. Models that scored excellent or very good in our noise tests (we measure how loud they are on both low and high settings) are so quiet that the only sound you might hear is the fan running. But air conditioners that scored only fair for noise could disturb light sleepers when set on low and are distracting on high.
     

    Backpacks and other back-to-school items

    Just in time for back-to-school shopping, you'll find great deals on backpacks. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children wear a pack with two straps because a backpack with a single shoulder strap across the body does not distribute weight evenly.

    You'll also find heavily discounted school items for the kids, as well as home office supplies. For those heading back to college, door-room gear, including bedding, lamps, and small appliances, are also heavily discounted.

    Shopping tips

    Check a backpack's fit. Ideally, the bottom of the backpack should align with the curve of the lower back, and not fall more than four inches below the waistline. A backpack's shoulder-strap anchor points should also rest 1 to 2 inches below the top of the shoulders. These additional shopping and fitting tips will help you find the right backpack for your child, and check out our backpack buying guide.

    Stock up. Crayons, notebooks, pens, pencils, glue, and other office supplies are often available for less than a dollar in many places, so now is the time to stock up for your students and your home. Don't forget to compare in-store deals to those you can find online, and to take advantage of student discounts.

    Want to know what's on sale the rest of the year? See our calendar of deals.

    Dehumidifiers

    August is also the month when you can find great sales on dehumidifiers, which can take that sticky feeling out of a damp basement or crawl space. Humidity is not just uncomfortable; levels above 50 percent can breed dust mites, mildew, and mold, which may worsen allergies and asthma. Our dehumidifier buying guide and Ratings show that the best dehumidifiers aren't necessarily the highest priced.

    Shopping tips

    Consider where it will go. Noise is a concern in living spaces. Our noise measurements from four feet typically range from about 55 to 67 decibels for the models we test. That's about the difference between the sound of loud conversation and the din of street traffic.

    A new model may save you money. Because of new federal energy standards, almost every dehumidifier in our latests tests scored very good or better for energy efficiency. That means you'll see savings in operating costs compared with older dehumidifiers.

    Outdoor furniture

    Many items are discounted toward the end of a season. With fall on the horizon, you're likely to find great deals on outdoor furniture. Patios, porches and decks are being turned into “outdoor rooms” with places to cook, dine or just enjoy the garden. Buying the right furniture can help you transform your outdoor space into a place you’ll want to hang out until winter's chill forces you indoors. Some well-made sets are reasonably priced, but you do have to know what to look for in outdoor furniture.

    Shopping tips

    Consider the material. For example, choose untreated natural wicker only if it will be protected from the elements. Otherwise go with outdoor plastic wicker. Resin plastic is a good choice for poolside or in salt air, but strong winds can knock lightweight pieces around, so choose sturdy chairs, and ones that are wider, allowing guests to get comfortable.
     
    Try it out. Before you buy sit in the chairs and pull them up to the table. Check that the seat height is fine, and your knees don’t touch the table. You’ll want chairs that are roomy with comfortable armrests. Cushions should be well padded, water resistant, and fit well. And be sure the legs of the table don’t get in the way.

    Snow blowers

    If the weather in your area is hot and sticky now, you might find it rather pleasant to contemplate the snowstorms in your future. Need some help clearing away the white stuff? You'll find great deals on snowblowers this month, although the deepest discounts will likely be on last year's models.

    Shopping tips

    Don't fall for sales pitches. Manufacturers and retailers also push bigger engines--typically expressed in cubic centimeters of piston displacement (ccs)--and wider clearing swaths. But as our Ratings show, size isn't everything when it comes to snow blowers. Some smaller machines can out-clear and out-throw the big boys for less money.

    Look for important features. For example, it's a good idea to check out floor samples. Make sure you're comfortable with the height of the handle and with the chute adjustment. Look for a critical safety feature that stops the spinning auger or impeller when you release the handlebar grips. For more tips, see our snow blower buying guide and watch the video below.

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

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    Refrigerators packed with freshness features

    Grocery shoppers are demanding more fresh foods, and retailers are responding by making more room for produce, meats, and other “perimeter foods” along the outer edges in stores. The freshness trend isn’t only having an impact on the layout of American supermarkets; it’s also influencing refrigerator design.

    Take the Samsung Chef Collection RF34H9960S4, above, a top-scoring model that stands out for its special four-door configuration. The unit’s bottom-right chamber can switch from freezer to refrigerator for families who would rather have more room for produce than Popsicles. “Our data show that most people are keeping that flex chamber in the refrigerator mode most of the time,” says Justin Reinke, director of refrigeration product marketing at Samsung.

    More freshness features

    Another freshness-enhancing feature we’ve seen more of in our labs is dual-evaporative cooling. With standard refrigerator design, the fresh-food compartment is cooled with air from the freezer. “Dual evaporators let us create two unique climates,” says Michael Mattingly, a product manager for refrigeration at GE. Our tests confirm that refrigerators with them are better at maintaining optimal humidity in the fridge. And they also keep ice cubes from tasting like fish and other smelly foods.

    Some other freshness claims are more difficult to verify. Whirlpool, for example, has been putting filters inside many of its crisper drawers. That’s supposed to extend freshness up to 25 percent by absorbing the ethylene gas that certain fruits and vegetables give off, accelerating the ripening process. Kenmore’s AirTight Crisper has a special gasket and dimpled surface that the company claims will help retain moisture in produce.

    Then there’s the novel door-in-door compartment on several new Kenmore, LG, and Samsung fridges. It lets you access beverages, condiments, and the like without reaching all the way into the refrigerator’s main compartment. In theory, that can preserve freshness by reducing temperature swings. We can’t guarantee the claim, but the new door is definitely a cool new place to keep the ketchup.

    Refrigerator shopping tips

    Refrigerators that maintain a uniform and consistent 37° F in the fridge and 0° F in the freezer will keep your food the freshest. Here’s what else to consider as you shop:

    Pick the style. Bottom-freezers keep fresh food items at eye level. Side-by-sides have narrow door swings and require more bending. Top-freezers cost the least but are the least stylish. Built-in fridges sit flush with cabinets, but they’re pricey and hold the least overall. Cabinet-depth French-doors and side-by-sides offer a streamlined look for less.

    Check the specs. If you’re doing a full kitchen renovation, any size refrigerator will probably do. If not, carefully measure the height and width of the existing space; add an extra inch or so for air circulation, and make sure the door swing won’t create a problem with other appliances, neighboring cabinets, or walls.

    Choose the features. Through-the-door ice and water dispensers are convenient but they add to the cost, and models with that feature tend to be more repair-prone. Pullout shelves, split shelves, and deep door bins help with storage. Stainless-steel is sleek, but it shows fingerprints; newer matte finishes, like slate and graphite, minimize the mess.

    Kitchen Remodeling Guide

    Find more ideas and top-rated materials and appliances in the Kitchen Remodeling Guide.

    This article also appeared in the August 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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    Deflating reality of run-flat tires

    Run-flat tires promise to remove a key travel worry—being stranded roadside. However, the ownership experience can be both expensive and frustrating, as we have heard from owners.

    A reader recently recounted a nightmarish run-flat tire tale that captures the potential downsides to this technology and mirrors other feedback we have received. (Even a staff member here has had his own run-flat adventures.)

    This consumer wrote us about driving his dream car, a 2012 BMW 550i, on a long trip. When a tire-pressure warning light illuminated, he pulled off the highway, stopped, and discovered a flat tire. Ready to tackle this misfortune, he looked for a spare tire in the trunk, but there was none to be found.

    Without the option to solve the dilemma on his own, he called BMW roadside assistance, only to be told there was no spare tire since the car comes with run-flats.

    Because the flat was caused by a sidewall failure, the owner was told not to drive on it.

    Late on a Sunday night, far from home, the driver spent two and a half hours waiting for a flat-bed tow to get the expensive car to safe ground, followed by an unexpected night in a hotel.  

    The disappointed owner got his car back on the road the next day and was fairly satisfied knowing flats are a rare event. But he felt that he would have bought a different car with regular tires instead of the run-flats, had he known.

    Check out our tire ratings, including models available in run-flat configurations.

    Since the initial troublesome experience, the owner was stranded four more times, accumulating a total of eight road-hazard flats in less than 30,000 miles. Adding insult to injury, in the best of times, the owner found the run-flats to be stiff-riding and noisy. Plus, they cost a bundle to replace (claimed $500 apiece), and even at that, replacements are hard to find. (The Bridgestone Driveguard is an aftermarket run-flat tire currently in-test at Consumer Reports and is widely available, unlike some original equipment run-flats.)

    Although eight failures is extreme for any car, the issues related to comfort and replacement are not unique to this individual. We’ve heard similar complaints from many others. In this case, a BMW dealer suggested he buy tire insurance for a mere $2,500—an astronomical sum that sounded ridiculous at the time. To be fair, the owner confided that a BMW dealer did make some concessions on the cost of some of the replacement tires, but he no longer has confidence in his beloved car.

    The owner suggests that anyone buying a car with run-flats inquire about tire insurance and negotiate the price down to make the car deal happen. We estimate that about 15 percent of the cars sold last year came with run-flats, so be sure to ask the dealer what kind of tires are on the car before you buy it. Many cars today come with just a tire repair kit, rather than a spare tire. Be sure you are getting what you expect when you buy a car, and if it doesn’t include a spare, ask if one is available.

    Have you experienced the benefits, or frustrations, with run-flat tires? Share your insights in the comments below.

    Gene Petersen

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

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    Walmart's best and worst toilet paper

    You can buy Consumer Reports’ top-rated toilet paper at Walmart or you can wander farther down the paper goods aisle and buy the toilet tissue that did the worst in our tests. Sure it costs a lot less—6 cents per 100 sheets compared to 25 cents—but in this case, you get what you pay for.

    Tops in our tests was Walmart’s White Cloud Ultra Soft & Thick. It’s soft to the touch, strong when you need it, and falls apart fast once tossed in the toilet. It’s our only toilet paper pick and also a CR Best Buy. But in our toilet paper tests, Walmart’s dubiously named Great Value Bathroom Tissue was neither soft nor strong, and it didn’t disintegrate well. It scored a lowly 9 out of a possible 100.

    The TP challenge

    Judging by our latest tests, it’s still pretty hard to make toilet paper that’s both soft and strong. Most of the softest toilet papers weren’t very strong. And some of the strongest toilet papers were too strong, which can cause plumbing or septic problems once you flush. Three varieties of Charmin—Ultra Soft, Ultra Strong, and Basic—and two varieties of Quilted Northern—Ultra Plush and Ultra Soft & Strong—took longer to disintegrate than any of the other 21 toilet papers we tested.

    Not a Walmart shopper? Our next best toilet paper, Nice Premium Ultra, is sold at Walgreens and costs 33 cents per 100 sheets. It was so-so in strength but very soft and disintegrates well. We also tested toilet papers sold at CVS, Target, and Costco but they ended up in the middle of the pack or worse. At your supermarket, choose Scott Extra Soft, 20 cents, which was okay in strength and softness and excellent at disintegrating. Its brandmate, Scott 1000, 9 cents, however isn’t very strong or soft but it won’t hurt your pipes.

     ­–Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman (@cklehrman 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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