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    Echo Trimmer Can Be Tricky to Start

    Cordless outdoor tools reduce the hassle of maintaining gas-powered gear. But when Consumer Reports tested the $240 Echo CST-58V2AHCV, a 58-volt straight-shaft string trimmer sold at Home Depot, we were plagued by a battery issue for days. Then our testers stumbled upon a fix that the manufacturer later confirmed resolves the issue. Here are the details.

    The problem occurred while we were testing two different samples of the Echo CST-58V2AHCV with fully charged batteries. When our tester pressed the power-on trigger, the motor would cut out a second or so later, stopping the spinning of the trimmer head. This occurred over and over for a total of more than 250 tries between the two trimmers.

    In discussions with TTI, which manufactures Echo’s cordless 58V line, we learned that all tools in the 58V line can potentially run into the same problem. In addition to the Echo CST-58V2AHCV, which uses a 2-amp-hour battery, a 4-amp-hour version, the Echo CST-58V4AH, $270, has also experienced the problem, according to some user reviews on Home Depot’s website. TTI told us that batteries made since February do not have the problem, but stores selling the 58V line have not pulled older products off the shelves.

    The other 58V Echo tools, such as the leaf blower, hedge trimmer, and chain saw, use the same battery system. But the tools most likely to have the problem are the two string trimmers. We had no such issues with the $270 Echo CBL-58V2AH leaf blower when we tested it.

    Once we got past the battery issue, we found the Echo CST-58V2AHCV notably aggressive, outperforming other cordless string trimmers in tall grass and weeds. It was also superb at edging thanks to its small debris guard, which let our testers see what they were cutting. But that same aggressive cutting, coupled with the unit’s 13-pound weight, dragged down its score for trimming grass quickly and neatly. The 4-amp-hour version is heavier still.

    Our testers discovered the fix by chance. Pressing the check battery button, a last-ditch attempt to get the trimmer working, made all the difference. While this button ordinarily indicates the battery’s charge status, in this case it also served to keep the battery from switching into protection mode and cutting off power to the motor. The next time you fully charge the battery, however, the problem can reoccur.

    If you still want to buy this trimmer, we recommend you wait; as of today, there are no plans to offer a battery swap. And if you already own either version of the trimmer, you’ll need to press the check battery button at least once after you’ve fully charged the battery. We think Echo should offer a fuss-free battery swap wherever the 58V line is sold.

    Need a new string trimmer?

    The Echo CST-58V2AHCV is just one of the newly tested string trimmers that we'll be adding to the nearly 90 models already in our string-trimmer Ratings in the coming weeks. For a gas-powered model, consider the Stihl FS 38, $130. For a lighter-duty model, take a look at the Homelite UT33600A, $70. Both have curved shafts. Among cordless models, consider the straight-shaft GreenWorks 21142, $90, and the Ryobi RY24210A, $130. Unsure about your options? Check out our string trimmer buying guide.

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

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    How should you react to a robocall?

    Robocalls drive people to distraction or, in the case of Stefanie Sellars, revenge.

    After registering with the National Do Not Call registry, blocking known telemarketing numbers, and complaining to the phone company—all to no avail—Sellars of Simi Valley, California, tried a different approach to thwart the tsunami of unsolicited pre-recorded calls. “I handed the phone to my toddler.” That wasn't the only strategy she tried. After picking up the call, she’ll sometimes let the phone languish on the counter until the call hangs up.

    Sellars has a special treat for live telemarketers. “I told the callers that I wrote a song called ‘I Love Milk,’ and proceeded to sing it to them until they hung up. I am thinking about asking them to hold while I crank up some Metallica or give the phone to the dog.”  She dreads the coming election season and its onslaught of solicitations but figures, “they can tell the dog whom to vote for.”

    Read more about "How Robocalls Scam the Do Not Call List."

    Sellars isn’t the only person to respond creatively. Other consumers keep a whistle or loud horn by the phone, press the proper key to connect with an operator and blast it in his ear. Another consumer likes to hold for a live person and whisper, “It’s done but there’s blood everywhere,” then hang up.

    Such tactics may provide personal satisfaction, but they’re a bad strategy if you want to stop receiving robocalls, says Lois Greisman of the Federal Trade Commission. Neither pressing #1 to complain to a live person nor pressing #2 to be removed from the calling list will do the trick.  Merely by responding you indicate that there is a real person picking up the phone. Your number is then added to a “hot list” of live respondents, to be put in a queue to call again—and again.

    Those interruptions are not just infuriating. They’re also a vector by which scams enter consumers’ homes. Telemarketing fraud is estimated to cost consumers $350 million a year—and it often begins with a robocall. You may think you're smart enough to spot a scam but why tempt fate?  

    “Our advice is very basic,” says Greisman. “Hang up.”

    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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    Survey Shows Many High-Tech Car Features Go Unused

    While automakers are spending billions of dollars loading up their vehicles with technologies of all kinds, many owners are not using them and would rather use their smartphones instead, according to the first-ever J.D. Power 2015 Driver Interactive Vehicle Experience (DrIVE) Report.

    The market research firm found that at least 20 percent of new vehicle owners have never used 16 of the 33 technology features that DrIVE measured. For the consumer, this means they are paying for something they are not using, said Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver interaction & HMI research at J.D. Power.

    The report looked at driver experiences with in-vehicle technology features during the first 90 days of ownership and was based on responses from more than 4,200 owners and lessees of 2015-model-year vehicles.

    Features that owners did not use

    43 percent—In-vehicle concierge feature such as OnStar.
    38 percent—Mobile connectivity, such as a factory installed Wi-Fi hot spot.
    35 percent—Automatic parking system, which aids in either parallel or perpendicular parking with limited interaction by the driver.
    33 percent—Head-up display.
    32 percent—Built-in apps such as Pandora. 

    "Tired and impatient, car buyers just want to get out of the dealership, often without becoming fully oriented with all of their new car's features," says Tom Mutchler, Consumer Reports' automotive human factors engineer. "But many high-tech features aren't immediately obvious or intuitive, especially when trying to decipher their use for the first time when driving."

    The report also found that there are 14 technology features that 20 percent or more of owners said they do not want in their next vehicle. These included Apple CarPlay, Google Android Auto, in-vehicle concierge services, and in-vehicle voice texting.

    The most frequently given reasons for not wanting a specific feature in their next vehicle was that it was not useful in their current vehicle and that it came as part of a package owners did not want.

    Perhaps surprisingly, Gen Y owners (born from 1977 to 1994) want even fewer of these technology features built into their vehicles: At least 20 percent of them do not want 23 of the technology features, specifically those related to entertainment and connectivity systems.

    "This suggests that these buyers would rather just use their familiar smartphone for these functions," says Mutchler. "That's a risk, because built-in systems' larger screens and simplified displays can make them safer to use than a phone when driving."

    The in-vehicle technologies that most owners do want built into their vehicles are those that enhance safety and the driving experience, according to the study.

    Blind-spot warning and detection was the top technology that people wanted: 87 percent of respondents said they wanted it in their next vehicle whether they had it or not in their current vehicle; among those who currently had it, 96 percent wanted it in their next vehicle.

    Cheryl Jensen

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

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    How to tame the energy hogs in your home

    Ever wonder where all of your energy dollars go? Knowing where your home’s biggest energy hogs are can help you focus your efficiency efforts. Tens of millions of homes have underinsulated attics, leaky ductwork, and other energy problems. Even many newer, more efficient homes have outdated appliances and lighting. Here’s a breakdown of energy use and costs in the average residence, along with steps you can take to bring your costs in check. There will be some regional variation—for example, cooling costs, and potential savings, will be much higher in warmer climates. Here are 20 ways to save, starting with the biggest energy hogs in your house.

    Heating: 43 percent

    • If you have a forced-air system, having your duct­work sealed by a pro can save you hundreds each year because 25 to 40 percent of conditioned air (hot and cold) is lost to leaks.
    • Plug drafty windows and doors with caulk or weather stripping.
    • Insulate the attic adequately. The typical residence needs 11 inches of fiberglass or rock wool or 8 inches of cellulose insulation.

    Water heating: 16 percent

    • If your water heater is among the 41 million units in the U.S. that are more than 10 years old, consider an upgrade. This fall Energy Star is working with utilities and retailers that offer rebates to ­consumers who make the switch. Go to energystar.gov/waterheaters.
    • Wash your clothes in cold water. Our top-rated laundry detergents deliver superb cool-water cleaning in our tests.
    • Install low-flow faucets and showerheads throughout the home. They’ll save water as well as energy.

    Appliances: 9 percent

    • Consider trading in an older refrigerator. A current Energy Star refrigerator uses 50 percent less energy than a refrigerator from 2001. Of course, you should retire the old model rather than keeping it running in the basement or garage.
    • Older washing machines are also worth trading in, especially after a tougher new federal standard that took effect in March 2015. If your old unit is more than 10 years old, it’s costing you about $180 more per year than a new one.
    • Run the dishwasher only when it has a full load, and use the “rinse hold” feature sparingly because it uses 3 to 7 gallons of hot water each time.

    Cooling: 7 percent

    • If your home has central air that’s more than a decade old, a reliable new system could be up to 40 percent more efficient. Work with a reputable contractor who will size the system correctly; you might be able to downsize if you’ve made other efficiency upgrades, such as new attic insulation.
    • Install a programmable thermostat, which can automatically adjust the temperature in your home for maximum savings and comfort (in summer and winter).
    • Don’t replace windows just to save energy. But if your windows are failing, choose new windows with a low-E coating that reflects heat yet lets light in.

    Lighting: 5 percent

    • Switch to high-efficiency LEDs, which use up to 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs. Find the right bulb in our lightbulb Ratings.
    • Place dimmable fixtures on dimmer switches. They’ll enable you to save even more energy by maintaining lower light levels.
    • For outdoor fixtures, save energy with a motion sensor or a photocell that turns the lights on at dusk and off at dawn.

    Electronics: 4 percent

    • Ask your cable company to upgrade the set-top boxes in your home to ones that meet the latest 4.1 Energy Star specification, making them 35 percent more efficient on average.
    • Unplug computers, stereos, and video game consoles. They draw power even when they’re off.
    • Trade in that decade-old flat-screen TV. Based on our tests, it costs about $66 per year to run, compared with $25 or so for a new high-efficiency television.

    Other: 15 percent

    • Plug your laptop’s AC adaptor into a power strip that can be turned off. That saves energy because the transformer in the adaptor draws power even when the laptop isn’t attached.
    • If you have a stand-alone freezer with manual defrost, still a common feature, don’t let frost build up more than ¼ inch, because that will affect the efficiency of the unit.

    Source for energy-use breakdown: Energy Information Administration. (Total doesn’t equal 100 because of rounding.)

    This article also appeared in the October 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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    Best and brightest energy-saving lightbulbs

      Standing in a store’s lightbulb aisle, facing rows of LED, CFL, and halogen bulbs, with terms such as lumens, color rendering, and Kelvin temperature, is enough to make you long for the days of good old incandescents. With no sales associate in sight, you’re reduced to hoping you get lucky and another shopper who happens to be an electrical engineer or a rocket scientist will amble by. But usually it’s just you and a bunch of bulbs.

    Once you crack the code, though, it’s not so intimidating and you’ll be able to focus on what really matters: how much you’re willing to spend and how bright a bulb you need.

    LEDs get most of the attention these days—as well as all of the top spots in our lightbulb Ratings. Manufacturers continue to invest in LED development, and those lightbulbs have become sophisticated electronic devices. But they’re expensive. For the price, though, you can expect a bulb that lasts 23 years or longer.

    CFLs have improved, too. The best of them are quick to fully brighten, and they provide bright light. They’re also less impaired by frequently turning them on and off than earlier versions were. CFLs are a lot cheaper than LEDs and can last seven to 10 years. Yet even though CFLs are much better than they were a decade ago, the best aren’t as good as the top-rated LEDs.

    There is a third choice: halogen bulbs. A type of incandescent, they instantly brighten, they’re dimmable, and some cost less than $2. But they use a lot more energy than LEDs and CFLs. Some have a color filter that improves the light’s color, but it also reduces light output. And they usually last only about a year or two—so you’ll be back in the lightbulb aisle a whole lot sooner.

    Battle of the bulbs: Pros and cons of two energy-saving lightbulbs

    If you can live without instant brightness, also consider these other well-performing CFLs from our tests: Feit Electric Ecobulb Plus 60W, $2.50, a CR Best Buy, and the even brighter Feit Electric Ecobulb Plus 100W, $2.30.

    1) When used 3 hours per day. 2) Based on electricity savings, using the national average energy rate, and bulb savings when compared with a 60-watt incandescent.

    All shapes and sizes

    Although they don't look the same, all of these LEDs are for use in lamps and replace a 60- or 75-watt incandescent. Manufacturers are introducing various shapes to improve efficiency and light distribution, help manage heat, and lower costs. The Feit Electric and Philips Slimstyle did well in our tests; the Nanoleaf did not. The others are being tested.

    This article also appeared in the October 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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    The vacuum cleaners that were top dogs in Consumer Reports' pet hair tests

    You'd expect any vacuum cleaner with the word pet in its model name to ace Consumer Reports' tough pet fur test in which cat hair is embedded into carpet piles. And most of the pet vacuums in our current Ratings did just that. Unfortunately, some of those that excelled at pet hair removal were lackluster at other tasks. In fact, only one of the full-size pet vacuums made our recommended list, the bagged upright Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Pet UH30310, $150. It was excellent at pet hair removal and cleaning bare floors and very good at cleaning carpet.

    If you want an all-around top performer, don't be swayed by pet hair names and claims. The Miele Complete C3 Marin, $1,100, and the Kenmore Progressive 21714, $400, are at the top of our list of canister vacuums and both are excellent at pet hair removal. Our top upright, the Kenmore Elite 31150, $350, was very good on that task but two of its brandmates, the Kenmore 31140 and the Kenmore Progressive 31069, aced it. They both cost $200 and are CR Best Buys.

    Of the pet models we tested, we found eight that were excellent at pet hair removal but had subpar performance on other tasks. Unfortunately, we also found some real dogs among the pet models. The canister Dyson Cinetic Animal, $550, was only fair at removing pet hair and was also mediocre at cleaning carpet although it did well on the bare floors test. The canister Dyson Ball Compact Animal, $450, scored only 34 out of a possible 100, but did a decent job at picking up pet hair.

    Two hand vacuums in our tests also make pet hair claims. The Shark Pet Perfect II SV780, $60, our top hand vacuum was very good at picking up pet hair but the Bissell Pet Hair Eraser 33A1, $35, got our poorest marks for pet hair.

    Judging vacuums at Consumer Reports continues all year long and we're always looking for a champ among the vacuums we test. Luckily, we usually discover a few top dogs. To see how other vacuums fared see our full vacuum Ratings and recommendations.

    Mary H.J. Farrell

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

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    Is it safe to reuse marinade for meat and fish?

    Q. After I marinate meat, fish, or poultry, is it OK to use the marinade during cooking or as a sauce?

    A. A marinade that has been in contact with raw animal proteins may contain harmful bacteria, so never reuse it without following these recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: Bring the marinade to a rolling boil in a pan, then boil it for 1 minute, while stirring constantly. Then it can be used as a sauce. But to be totally safe, make extra marinade and set part aside before dunking your meat in the rest.

    Acids, oils, herbs, and spices in your favorite marinades lend delicious flavors to meat, fish, and poultry. Beyond tasty, marinades make meat more tender because they typically contain acids from vinegar, citrus, tomato juice, beer, or wine that unwind tightly-coiled animal protein fibers.

    And note: Heavily charred meat, fish, and poultry can expose you to potentially cancer-causing compounds such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs), but some evidence suggests that using a marinade can reduce the risk.

    Read our special report on ground beef and get six safety tips for your next cookout.

    To marinate safely follow these steps:

    1. Refrigerate it. Don’t marinate at room temperature. Put marinating meat or fish in a covered container and put it in the refrigerator.
    2. Time it. Don’t go too long; over-marinated animal proteins may become too mushy—or too tough. Marinate in the refrigerator in a covered container for up to 24 hours for dense meats, 2 to 24 hours for poultry and just 15 to 60 minutes for seafood.
    3. Wash up. Don’t reuse containers or utensils that have touched raw meat before washing them carefully first.

    A version of this article also appeared in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

    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 Buy Pet Insurance?

    Pet owners will probably incur at least one $2,000 to $4,000 bill for emergency pet care at some point during their pet’s lifetime, says Louise Murray, D.V.M., a veterinarian and vice president of the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City. Pet insurance might help owners avoid having to choose “economic euthanasia”—letting a beloved animal go because they can’t afford that big a bill. The plans can help offset some or most of the costs of paying a veterinarian to diagnose, treat, and manage a pet’s illness or injury. Providers include the ASPCA, Healthy Paws, PetFirst, Petplan, Trupanion, and VPI Pet. Most plans cover cats and dogs, but a few also insure birds and other animals.

    An injury can happen at any time. Pet owners Mark Bobrow and Isabelle Duvernois knew their cat Roscoe was badly injured when they noticed that the lower part of his left hind leg was hanging at an odd angle. “He and our other cat, Woogie, were jumping in and out of a hole below our box-spring mattress,” Bobrow says. “We think he caught his leg in a spring, panicked, and yanked his leg out.” Roscoe, who had just turned 6, broke his leg in two places and tore ligaments in his ankle. His surgery, which included placing pins in the fractures and mesh around the ligaments, and his hospital stay, pain meds, and other costs totaled about $6,500, which the couple paid out of pocket

    Is Pet Insurance The Answer?

    Like human insurance, pet plans include deductibles, co-pays, and monthly premiums, and have coverage limitations. You foot the bills yourself and wait for reimbursement. The average accident and illness monthly premiums start at $22 per month for a dog and $16 per month for a cat, but the costs rise depending on your pet’s breed (purebreds cost more to insure because they are more susceptible to some hereditary conditions), age (plans usually cost more annually as your pet ages), ZIP code (the higher cost of vet care in some areas is factored into your premium), and the coverage you choose. Medical treatment for dogs costs more than for cats. Some plans, like ones from the ASPCA, limit coverage to “usual and customary costs” based on veterinary pricing in your area. VPI posts a long schedule on its website outlining the maximum payouts for each illness or injury.

    If you’re considering a policy, look for free quotes, terms and conditions, and a sample policy on insurers’ websites. Consider coverage with simple, percentage-based payouts and no reliance on judgments of what’s “reasonable,” to avoid your own future headaches. Find out how your premiums might increase as your pet ages.

    For example, one plan that Healthy Paws says is popular includes a $250 annual deductible and reimburses plan holders 80 percent of covered expenses. It has no annual limit on claims, and coverage includes accidents, diagnostic treatment, emergency care, hospitalization, prescriptions, and surgery, but it does not cover pre-existing conditions, annual checkups, vaccinations, spay or neutering, or dental care.

    For a 1-year-old mixed-breed cat in the Yonkers, N.Y., area, the plan will cost just over $240 the first year. By the time your cat is 7 (assuming prices don’t rise further in the meantime), the coverage will be $327 that year. If you have a dog, you’ll pay $372 the first year to buy the plan for a 1-year-old mixed breed; it’s $461 if that young pooch is a golden retriever.

    If you’re unlucky enough to have a pet with a costly chronic condition or an illness, or a relatively young animal like Roscoe in need of major care, you might get a positive payout from a plan. If the Healthy Paws plan mentioned above was purchased for Roscoe when he was 1, for example, it would have cost his owners $1,409.61 by the time of his accident, assuming one monthly payment was made when he turned 6, and it would have covered $5,000 of his bills. But it’s a roll of the dice; many policies may not be worth the cost over many years for a generally healthy animal.

    Another Alternative

    If the idea of paying for pet insurance doesn’t appeal to you, set up a dedicated savings account for unanticipated health care costs. Dog owners spent an average of $235 last year on routine vet visits and $551 on surgical visits; for cats, the averages were $196 and $398, respectively. You can add enough money each year to the fund to roughly cover those costs, just in case. 

    Additional Ways To Save

    • Ask your vet what vaccines you can skip. Some protect against serious disease, but ringworm is a mild condition and its vaccine isn’t that effective, Murray says.
    • Guard against parasites. Flea and tick infestations can cause life-threatening anemia. An inexpensive topical flea and tick solution can keep the critters at bay.
    • Spay or neuter your pet. Doing so can prevent health problems, including uterine, ovarian, and testicular cancers. Many local shelters or chapters of the ASPCA provide low-cost or no-cost spay or neuter surgeries. 

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

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    Not-So-Smart Samsung Refrigerator Vulnerable to Hacking

    Security wouldn't seem like a big worry with Internet-connected refrigerators. After all, what's the worst that can happen if your smart fridge gets hacked—melted ice cream? However, now researchers have reported a serious vulnerability in Samsung refrigerators, one that allowed them to steal users' Google log-in credentials.

    The researchers were taking part in a challenge—set up by Samsung itself—to hack into a RF28HMELBSR smart fridge during the DEFCON hacking conference held in Las Vegas earlier this month. Samsung’s smart-fridge technology connects the appliance via Wi-Fi to various apps, including Google Calendar. The researchers, who work at a U.K. cybersecurity firm called Pen Test Partners, discovered that the fridge didn’t validate SSL certificates, a security-authenticating device, when it connected to remote servers such as Google's. And that left users vulnerable to having their credentials stolen by anyone able to access their Wi-Fi networks.

    Samsung released a software update on August 25 meant to plug the vulnerability. According to the company, refrigerators will be updated automatically when they are connected to a network. Now, there's no evidence that such a hack has occurred in Samsung refrigerators out in the real world, but the incident does highlight some of the security and privacy challenges posed by the Internet of Things, which encompasses everything from smart door locks to Internet-connected TVs to self-programming thermostats. If you own smart appliances, there are a few things you can do to increase your safety.

    First, make sure your router has WPA2 encryption enabled, so the hacker can't "sniff" the password and connect directly to your Wi-Fi. Also, the weaker the connection between your router and the smart device, the easier it is to break into your Wi-Fi network. So, if possible, place your router close to your smart device. Use strong passwords on devices such as security cameras. And, finally, make sure the benefits of Internet connectivity are things that matter to you—if you don't care about a Google calendar appearing on the door of the refrigerator, simply don't connect the appliance to your network.

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

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    A New Weapon to Fight Robocalls

    Robocalls, meet RoboKiller.

    The winner of the 2015 Federal Trade Commission’s “Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back” contest, RoboKiller is an app that smothers robocalls on landlines and mobile phones. Creators Ethan Garr and Bryan Moyles rely on universally available call forwarding to screen incoming calls, and use audio-fingerprint technology to determine if the call is from a human or a robot. “We’re about 98 percent effective,” says Garr.

    Consumers dial a simple code to forward their calls to RoboKiller. When a call comes in, the system analyzes it for audio clues that identify whether the caller is a human or a robot—“chunks of silence, delays, how the sounds are made, how the sounds scale,” Garr explains. “All these details go into our algorithm, which weights them and scores the result as human or robot.”

    Read more about the reason for the flood of robocalls and how you can combat them in "Rage Against Robocalls." And find out what works best against these annoying calls in our robocall blocker review.

    If the call is from a robot, Garr says, “we kill it and put it in our SpamBox.” (That’s RoboKiller’s term for a “honeypot,” an information system used by government, private and academic partners to lure, collect and analyze robocalls.)The SpamBox utilizes consumer-controlled whitelist and blacklist filtering and provides personalized setting options. RoboKiller also analyzes data to identify “legal” calls such as notifications of school closings or your pharmacy alerting you to a prescription refill. Consumers can access the SpamBox at any time to update their whitelist settings.

    If the caller is human, the call is returned to your smartphone. “That’s the one requirement,” says Garr. While calls can be forwarded from any type of phone, he notes, “You need a smartphone” to receive the calls. In the future, though, consumers will be able to port their phone numbers to RoboKiller, so the call can be returned to a landline.

    Garr and Moyles work for TelTech, a New Jersey-based app developer, whose TrapCall caller ID unmasking device helped protect consumers from this year’s notorious IRS phone scam. “We saw people get hurt from the IRS phone scam and we learned that robocalls were part of that problem. That’s where we came up with the genesis of the idea for RoboKiller,” Garr says.

    RoboKiller is currently available in a free beta format for iPhones and Android phones. Garr and Moyles are donating their $25,000 prize money to a Kickstarter campaign to further develop RoboKiller. “What will make RoboKiller successful is people using it,” says Garr. “This has the potential to solve the problem of robocalls on a mass scale. We’re improving every day.”

     

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

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  • 08/26/15--13:30: New LG 4K OLED TVs Get HDR
  • New LG 4K OLED TVs Get HDR

    If you don't think LG Electronics is bullish on OLED TV technology, consider this: The company is tripling its OLED lineup in 2015. Among the highlights is a new fleet of flat-screen EF9500 UHD models, the first OLED TV line to come with high dynamic range (HDR) capability.

    Because LG has the OLED market all to itself, though, prices, especially for larger-sized UHD sets, are still comparatively steep. The 55-inch EF9500-series model will arrive next month with a $5,500 tag, for example, and the 65-inch set will stretch to $7,000. Those prices mirror the ones for the current curved EG9600-series models, including the 55-inch set in our current TV Ratings.

    If you want to go really big, the 77-inch EG9700-series model costs a staggering $25,000. By comparison, you'll pay a pittance if you're willing to go smaller and stick with 1080p resolution: LG's least expensive OLED, the 55-inch EC9300, sells for just $2,300. We tested that set last year.

    Like the previously released curved-screen models, the new EF9500 sets are super-thin and they come with the company's webOS smart TV platform. They also feature built-in HDR capability, the company says, so they can handle both streaming content with HDR and HDR content from 4K UHD Blu-ray players.

    LG is expected to release an update soon that will enable the EG9600-series TVs to handle streaming HDR content as well, but it doesn't look like they'll support Blu-ray HDR.

    As we've said before, we're big fans of OLED TV technology. We believe it has the promise to replace plasma as the top choice for discerning TV viewers. Make sure you check out our comprehensive TV Ratings (available to subscribers) for a full evaluation of LG's 55EG9600 UHD OLED set.

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

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    Smeg Pro-Style Ranges Not So Hot

    Smeg is an Italian appliance manufacturer that makes pro-style ranges, among other things. The name is short for Smalterie Metallurgiche Emiliane Guastalla, which sort of helps you understand why the company goes by Smeg. “Technology with style” is the company’s tagline so when the testers at Consumer Reports had to reach for a Sharpie to write common oven temperature settings near the knobs of the Smeg ranges in our tests, things started to get really interesting.
     
    We tested the $3,000 Smeg C30GGXU1 30-inch gas range and the $3,200 Smeg C36GGXU 36-inch gas range. Those prices are low by pro-style standards; if only the performance was better. The Smeg C30GGXU1 scored 45 out of 100. The oven is small, there’s no self-clean feature, and baking and broiling were unimpressive. Range-top heat was fast, but we were unable to simmer tomato sauce on the largest burner when it was set to low.

    The Smeg C36GGXU was even worse and landed at the bottom of our ratings of 36-inch pro-style ranges, scoring 23 out of 100. “Some previously tested pro-models have floundered in our tests, so while the Smeg scores are disappointing, they aren’t shocking,” says Tara Casaregola, the engineer who oversees Consumer Reports’ tests of cooking appliances. “What was kind of shocking to us was the design of the oven controls, if these models are intended for the U.S. market.”
     
    Casaregola used a Sharpie to mark off temperature settings we needed—325°F on the smaller range and 350°F on the larger (or choose from 285°, 330°, 390°F and up). No matter how neatly you print, writing with a Sharpie on the front of one of these ranges cheapens the look. And the unusual oven timer knob has five-minute intervals, up to an hour, with a quick buzz alerting you that time’s up. It reminded us of an old wind-up egg timer.

    Shopping for a Pro-Style?

    We did find some winners. The KitchenAid KDRS407VSS was the best of the 30-inch models we tested and made our top-picks list. It’s $4,000 and is a dual-fuel range, pairing a gas cooktop with a small electric oven. Among 36-inch pro-styles, the dual-fuel KitchenAid KDRU763VSS is tops and $6,000. We also recommend the $7,500 GE Monogram ZDP364NDPSS. See our full range Ratings and recommendations for all the details. Any questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

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

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    Claim check: Shiseido WetForce sunscreen

    On the back of the box, the very pricey ($40 for a 3.3 ounce bottle) Shiseido WetForce Ultimate Sun Protection Lotion SPF50+ makes the following promise: “Providing powerful protection for your skin, this innovative protective veil actually becomes even more effective when it comes into contact with water.” The claim on Shiseido’s website goes further, saying that soaking in water for 30 minutes enhances the product’s ultraviolet (UV) protection by 20 percent.

    If you're going to be swimming or sweating, you want a good-performing water-resistant sunscreen, so we decided to investigate this claim by testing WetForce’s SPF (sun protection factor) in a laboratory. SPF is a measure of how well a sunscreen protects against UVB rays—the type that cause sunburn. First, our experts applied the sunscreen to dry skin on one area of our test subjects’ backs, let it dry, and then exposed that section to laboratory UVB light. Then we applied the sunscreen to a different area, let it dry, and had the subjects sit in a tub of water for 30 minutes. When they got out, we put that second area under the same UVB light. The next day, our experts examined both areas for sunburn.

    We also subjected WetForce to the standard testing we perform on all sunscreens—measuring its UVB protection after the amount of time the product claims to be water resistant (in this case it was 80 minutes) and testing for protection against UVA rays, the type that cause wrinkles and skin cancer. (See our video on how we test sunscreens.)

    What we found: The average SPF of Shiseido WetForce Ultimate Sun Protection Lotion SPF50+ was the same whether the testers’ skin was dry or exposed to water for 30 minutes. There was no increase in UVB protection.

    In our standard sunscreen testing, WetForce did earn an Excellent rating for UVB (meaning it protects very well against sunburn), but just a Fair rating for its UVA protection. Combining the scores from our UVA and UVB testing with other performance factors, Shiseido WetForce Ultimate Sun Protection Lotion SPF50+ received a score of 40, which earned it a Fair rating for overall performance. (Our top rating is Excellent, followed by Very Good, Good, Fair, and Poor.)

    We sent Shiseido a copy of our test results and methodology and asked the company for a response. Shiseido said in an e-mail: “It is our policy not to comment on testing done outside of the auspices of our company.” They also said that our findings may vary from theirs because of differences in test protocols.

    Our bottom line: Given that our tests showed no improvement in UVB protection, Shiseido’s better-when-wet claim is misleading—and even potentially harmful if consumers interpret the claim to mean they don’t need to reapply the sunscreen when they get out of the water. At $40 for a 3.3 ounce bottle, Shiseido WetForce Ultimate Sun Protection Lotion SPF50+ is one of the most expensive sunscreens we’ve tested. We think that’s a high price to pay for a sunscreen that earned only a Fair rating overall in our tests, especially since we found several products that cost far less and performed better. For example, Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50 costs $10.50 for an 8-ounce bottle and received an Excellent rating for UVA and UVB protection. But whatever sunscreen you choose, be sure to reapply as soon as you get out of the water—or every two hours you’re out in the sun.

    —Consumer Reports

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    The fight over your electric bill

     Energy efficiency has come a long way from that evening in February 1977 when President Jimmy Carter put on a cardigan and told Americans to turn down their thermostats. Thanks to more energy-­efficient practices and products, ranging from refrigerators to lightbulbs to central air conditioning, the average American spent $2,500 less on energy in 2014 (adjusted for inflation) than he or she would have if no improvements had been made, according to a June 2015 report by the American Council for an Energy-­Efficient Economy.

    But every dollar saved by consumers is one less in revenue for power companies. That has prompted industry leaders to warn of a “death spiral,” a scenario in which sinking profits from efficiency will force utilities to raise their rates, causing more consumers to migrate to rooftop solar. Many utilities are using that argument to propose steep rate increases that penalize the public for doing the right thing. “Where’s the incentive to insulate your attic or install a solar water heater if it’s not going to lead to lower energy bills?” says Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

    Raising the stakes even more is the fact that the Clean Power Plan, released in August by the Environmental Protection Agency, would require U.S. power plants to cut carbon dioxide emissions 32 percent below their 2005 levels by 2030. The industry claims that this could lead to yet more rate increases, but the EPA analysis says the investments in efficiency could actually lower consumers’ bills.

    Rising rates for energy

    Currently, utilities can’t just jack up the cost of electricity when it suits their bottom line. State laws require them to make a formal proposal through their public utility commission. Wisconsin’s Madison Gas and Electric, for example, proposed to increase fixed charges (the part of the bill customers pay no matter how much energy they use) from $10 in 2014 to $68 by 2017. Kansas City Power & Light requested a fixed-charge increase from $9 to $25. “This is clearly the industry’s playbook,” says Rick Gilliam, regulatory policy director for Vote Solar, a nonprofit. “We’ve never seen utilities in so many states making the same proposals based on all the same talking points.”

    Even when an increase in fixed charges is accompanied by a drop in the rate per kilowatt-­hour, it’s the energy hogs who end up paying less. For example, an analysis of Kansas City’s proposed fixed-charge increase found that only customers who used at least 1,500 kilowatt-­hours per month would see a decrease in their monthly bill. Those who used less than the national average of 909 kWh per month would see their bills go up anywhere from 5 to 35 percent.

    In Hawaii, where 12 percent of homes have solar, Hawaiian Electric delayed some homeowners from installing solar panels until system upgrades could be made to handle the flow of power back into the grid. The utility also proposed charging new solar customers an extra $16 per month. And it wants to end its “net metering” program, which credits solar customers for electricity that’s fed back into the grid when they’re generating more power than they need. Under its plan, new customers would get back roughly 50 percent less per kWh from the utility than current customers receive. That could significantly extend the payback period for new solar customers.

    Edison Electric Institute, the utility industry’s main trade group, points out that utilities have made and continue to make massive investments to build and maintain the nation’s power grid, and that all electricity customers should share in the costs. “Rooftop solar customers still rely on the grid and its services around the clock,” says executive vice president David Owens.

    But fixed-charge increases are “too blunt an instrument for covering those costs,” says Samantha Williams, staff attorney and policy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Instead of falling back on arcane rate designs or blaming solar, utilities should work with regulators and their local communities to come up with innovative solutions.”

    Thinking outside the grid

    Some utilities are doing just that, building customer loyalty by marketing their expertise alongside their product. Green Mountain Power in Vermont is re­invent­ing itself as a full-service energy provider—for example, by leasing high-efficiency heat pumps. Later this year it will also offer the Tesla Powerwall, a home battery that allows for the storage of power generated by a rooftop solar system. “Our philosophy is that you don’t resist where the customer wants to go,” says the company’s president and CEO, Mary Powell. “You figure out how to enter into new relationships with them.”

    Another approach is the adoption of time-of-use (TOU) rates, which help utilities manage demand by making energy more expensive during periods of peak use. Consumers stand to benefit through behavior modification, such as setting the dishwasher to run at night, when rates may be cheaper.

    Certain consumer groups, such as the AARP, argue that people who are home during the day, like many retirees, will be stuck with higher daytime rates. To help encourage adoption, more utilities have made their TOU plans opt-in. During a recent Sacramento Municipal Utility District pilot program, customers who opted in reduced their energy use between 9 and 12 percent during peak afternoon hours.

    Those measures show what’s possible when the power industry sees energy efficiency as an opportunity rather than a threat. “Utilities that resort to piling on costs in ways that deter clean energy investments will restrict their options and alienate their customers,” says the NRDC’s Williams. “And that will only hasten the death spiral they’re so afraid of.”

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

     

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    The dirty little secrets of toilet paper

     Think that a roll is a roll is a roll? The truth is that for years, toilet paper manufacturers have been selling less product and masking the shrinkage with hyperbole and hard-to-quantify claims. According to John T. Gourville, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, they get away with it because consumers have a better grasp of how much an item costs than they do of the size it should be.

    "They have in their minds that this toilet paper costs 79 cents and that one costs 89 cents,” he explains. “They’re not taking into account that one has fewer sheets.”

    Once one company downsizes its products, others follow to avoid appearing more expensive. The maker of Angel Soft brags that its double roll has 60 percent more sheets than Charmin Ultra’s double roll. Still, those brands have many sizes, and counting sheets isn’t the only way to determine value—sheet size and thickness are also factors.

    Consumer Reports contacted some customer-service representatives to find out what’s behind all the shrinkage and received a variety of explanations. Many suggested that their products had become so good that consumers actually need less of it.

    A customer rep for Kimberly-Clark, maker of Cottonelle and Scott, told us that the downsizing was a marketing decision in response to rising costs for manufacturing and distribution. A follow-up statement said that product innovations yielded “better, stronger tissue, so that you need fewer sheets to get the job done.”

    Procter & Gamble’s customer rep told us that reducing the number of sheets actually enabled the company to improve the quality of its flagship Charmin TP. The newer version is more flexible than previous ones, the rep said, and consumers should need much less.

    Costco’s decision to trim its Kirkland Signature multipacks from 36 to 30 rolls was also explained as a less-is-more approach. A customer rep said that the company took out the six rolls to provide a better product, and that the toilet paper was actually thicker than it was before.

    Manufacturers have also boosted their brand offerings to include not just single and double rolls but “mega,” “triple,” and “jumbo” variations, and other sizes. That makes comparing products even more confusing.  

    Some rolls are so bulky they may not even fit their bathroom enclosures, especially the ones in older homes. Not to worry, say the makers of Charmin. The brand’s mega rolls come with a money-back guarantee if they don’t fit. So be sure to hold on to your receipt and the package’s UPC code just in case you need to claim your refund.

    Our advice: Don’t flush money down the drain. Find a brand you like and stock up when it’s on sale. Check our toilet paper buying guide for more.

    Sheet counts then and now

    Since 2009, Consumer Reports has tested bathroom tissue multiple times. And during that span, many manufacturers have shrunk the size of their rolls. To gauge the difference, we looked at nine current products, comparing the number of sheets per roll and the size of the sheets with previous versions. We used a so-called double roll, the most popular size, as our benchmark in most cases. Be aware that some brands, such as Kirkland Signature, downsize by decreasing the number of rolls per package.

    Angel Soft roll call

    As companies shave sheetsthey’re expanding product lines. The king of line extensions is Angel Soft. According to its manufacturer, Georgia-Pacific, there are seven roll sizes, from 132 to 528 sheets. (Six are pictured here.) The reason for all that choice? According to a customer-service representative, they’re just different price points. But John T. Gourville, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, says it’s an effort to corner the market. “One issue is shelf space,” he points out. “By having a proliferation of sizes, you increase the likelihood that a consumer randomly buying toilet paper or shampoo will buy your brand. And being a good-selling brand, you can command more shelf space and take it away from a competitor.”

    Beware of wipes

    The packaging may say that wipes, those toilet-paper supplements, are flushable or safe for sewers and septic tanks. But after testing, we beg to differ. It took at least 10 minutes for the wipes we tested to break down into small pieces in our mixer filled with water, which provides more churning than waste pipes. When we left the wipes in water overnight, some disintegrated, some didn’t.

    The bottom line. Don’t use your toilet as a wastebasket. Toss used wipes into an actual garbage can. The same advice holds true for tissues and paper towels.

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

     

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    Is it time to finally buy a generator?

    Y ou’re settled in safe at home when suddenly the lights go out and the comforting hums of the refrigerator and furnace fade out. As you rummage around in a drawer for the flashlights and batteries, you’re probably kicking yourself for not investing in a generator after the last storm. Don’t let that happen during the next one. The best of the 45 generators in Consumer Reports' tests supply power for everything from the bare necessities to your whole house. Some generators deliver more juice than others. Some, including pricey inverter models, provide power that’s cleaner and won’t make appliances run hotter and sensitive electronics run less reliably. Others include smart features, such as automatic shutdown if engine oil gets low. Here’s how to choose one wisely, install it properly, use it safely, and keep it running as long as possible.

    Choose stationary or portable

    Stationary models are significantly more expensive, but they start automatically when the power goes out and often supply more power than portables. They also periodically run a self-diagnosis routine that can alert you, via the display panel or sometimes text or e-mail. Running on natural gas or propane, they save you the hassle and safety risks of storing gallons of gasoline.

    In addition to costing less, portables can be transported easily to another location. If you go for a portable, one handy new feature to look for is a removable console, connected via cable to the generator. You can plug directly into the console without running extension cords to the generator, which we don’t recommend.

    Know your power needs

    Unless you want the generator to keep the whole house running, compile a list of priorities for what you want your portable model to power. At the very least you’ll probably want to make sure essentials such as the refrigerator, sump pump, and heating system stay on. Additionally, you can map every outlet and switch in the house so that you’ll know which circuit on your service panel powers what. Two people on cell phones can do that easily. Leave one person manning the panel while the other goes from room to room, checking what works as circuits are switched on and off. A circuit finder, $25 to $30, can help identify which circuit on your service panel powers a given receptacle.

    Of course, for a fee a pro can also perform that diagnosis for you. The list of circuits will help you determine just what you want your generator to target.

    Consult a pro

    Whichever type of generator you choose, consult an electrician to ensure proper selection and installation. If you already know which items in your home you’ll want to power, you could save hundreds by not paying for the labor required to map the circuits. If you’re going for a stationary model, a pro should be able to help with your town or municipal requirements for proper location on your property, noise restrictions, and obtaining permits.

    Consider a transfer switch

    Extension cords are a hassle, and they can be hazardous. A transfer switch, about $500 to $900 with labor to install, links the generator to your circuit panel. That lets you power circuits, including those for hardwired appliances, directly. You’ll need at least a 5,000-rated-watt generator to use one.

    Keep up with maintenance

    For a stationary generator, make a habit of checking its display to see whether maintenance is required. For a portable, your owner’s manual will tell you how often to change the oil and which type to use. If your generator uses gasoline, add stabilizer to all of your stored fuel.

    Always operate safely

    Never run a generator indoors; it creates deadly levels of carbon monoxide. It should be run at least 15 feet from the house, away from doors and windows, and never in the basement, the garage, or any other enclosed space. Don’t run a portable in the rain; model-specific tents are available online.

    How much generator do you need?

    Here’s what different-sized generators can power. Pick a model that generates wattage at least equal to the total for what you’re powering. Manufacturers also suggest totaling the higher surge watts that some appliances—such as fridges and pumps—draw when they cycle on. One caveat: Small portables require you to connect appliances using extension cords, which is inconvenient and can even be potentially dangerous.

    Small portable: 3,000 to 4,000 watts

    What it powers: The basics, including:

    • Refrigerator (600 watts)
    • Sump pump (600 watts)
    • Several lights (400 watts)
    • TV (200 watts)

    Price range: $400 to $800 for most; more for inverter models that use an alternative technology that makes wattage output smoother so that there are no power surges.

    Midsized portable and small stationary: 5,000 to 8,500 watts

    What it powers: Same as small models, plus:

    • Portable heater (1,300 watts)
    • Computer (250 watts)
    • Heating system (500 watts)
    • Well pump (1,500 watts)
    • More lights (400 watts)

    Price range: $500 to $1,000 for portable; $1,800 to $3,200 for stationary.

    Large portable: 10,000 watts

    What it powers: Adds one of these:

    • Small electric water heater (3,000 watts)
    • Central air conditioner (5,000 watts)
    • Electric range (5,000 watts)

    Price range: $2,000 to $3,000.

    Large stationary: 10,000 to 15,000 watts

    What it powers: Same as large portable models, plus:

    • Clothes washer (1,200 watts)
    • Electric dryer (5,000 watts)

    Price range: $3,500 to $5,000 plus installation.

    How much fuel?

    A 7,000-watt portable generator will use 12 to 20 gallons of gasoline per day if run continuously for 24 hours. More powerful generators use more fuel. (Store gasoline only in ANSI-approved containers.) A small 8,000-watt stationary model can run for eight to 15 days on a 250-­gallon propane tank or indefinitely on a natural-gas line.

    What made Sandy a superstorm?

    ‘Superstorm’ is now part of our lexicon. But just what made October 2012’s Sandy so super? A hurricane followed by a nor’easter, it packed a potent one-two punch. Winds of 80-plus mph, epic waves, and the storm surge pummeled the East Coast—killing at least 147 and causing about $50 billion in damages. Read our special report, "Lessons Learned From Superstorm Sandy," to help you be prepared when a natural disaster strikes. 

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

     

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    Is Energy Star being tarnished?

     A  little blue label with a star in the middle has helped consumers find the most efficient models across more than 70 product categories since 1992. The Energy Star logo—given to models that exceed the federal minimum efficiency standard by at least 10 percent—is recognized by more than 85 percent of Americans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the voluntary Energy Star program. But the attention isn’t always for the right reasons.

    Star wars

    In recent months, Energy Star has entered the crosshairs of congressional leaders who want to roll back important features of the program. Exhibit A: the bill dubiously named the Energy Star Program Integrity Act, sponsored by Rep. Robert Latta, R-Ohio, and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. Referred to by some on Capitol Hill as the “Whirlpool Bill” because of that manufacturer’s strong backing of it, the bill would undercut Energy Star by taking away consumers’ right to sue when a product is mislabeled with the Energy Star logo, thereby misrepresenting the promised energy savings.

    The bill is unlikely to be voted into law on its own. But it could definitely be added as an amendment to the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015, a comprehensive energy bill that has been debated in the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources.

    In fact, a second anti-Energy Star measure has already been tucked into that legislation. Originally part of the Energy Efficiency Improvement Act of 2015, the measure was sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. It would repeal the independent third-party qualification requirement that Consumer Reports, along with other advocacy groups, called for after it emerged that many manufacturer-­certified models weren’t meeting the Energy Star specification. (As part of a 2010 federal investigation—during the time that manufacturers were self-­certifying—­undercover agents with the Government Accountability Office managed to get Energy Star qualification for a gas-powered alarm clock and a “room air cleaner” that was nothing more than a space heater with a feather duster and fly strips attached.)

    “Something had to be done to put more checks into the system,” says Anne Bailey, Energy Star’s labeling branch chief. “Instead of devoting more tax dollars and staffing up, we used the market to maintain the integrity of whole system.” Starting in 2011, the EPA forced manufacturers to get their products certified by independent labs. Since then, Consumer Reports hasn’t observed any products with questionable claims. The new legislation would spare manufacturers that responsibility (and potential added cost) but would also reopen the door to false energy claims.

    The fact that a program with clear consumer benefit faces constant opposition highlights the larger concern of energy efficiency in the U.S. “Energy Star is more reliable than ever,” says Shannon Baker-Branstetter, policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “We’d hate to see this hard-earned trust eroded by bills that could chip away at its enforcement and integrity, and set a bad precedent that moves the program in the wrong direction.”

    Constructive criticism

    Even as we call on Congress to end its legislative attacks, Consumer Reports continues to suggest ways for the EPA to strengthen the Energy Star program. For example, it’s not always clear to consumers that Energy Star models of the same product are allowed to use significantly different amounts of energy. That’s because the requirements can change depending on product type. There are more than two dozen separate refrigerator specifications, for example—one for top-freezers, one for bottom-freezers, one for side-by-sides, and so on. But you wouldn’t know that discrepancy unless you also checked the yellow EnergyGuide label, which lists actual energy consumption and operating cost (see the comparison below). We think basing Energy Star on volume, regardless of type, would provide a more apples-to-apples comparison for consumers. Indeed, that’s how we measure and rate energy consumption in our labs.

    We are also urging the EPA to end the 5 percent credit that’s currently given to smart grid-enabled appliances. For Energy Star qualified products, which are at least 10 percent more efficient than standard ones, the smart-grid credit essentially gets them halfway there. The problem is, only 2 percent of U.S. households have access to the technology and utility-company dynamic rate pricing that would enable them to benefit from a smart appliance. So consumers could end up with an Energy Star appliance that’s only half as efficient as the label implies.

    Same label, different costs

    Two Energy Star-bearing refrigerators—the Samsung RH22H9010SR and the Frigidaire Gallery FGHI2164QF—from our recent refrigerator tests have similar capacities, so you might expect them to cost about the same to operate. But the chart below tells a different story. Over the life of the refrigerators—10 to 15 years­—the total difference in operating cost could be around $250, assuming the 2014 national average electricity cost of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour.

    Give your house an energy checkup

    Putting your home through a comprehensive energy assessment is one of the best ways to lower bills. Also known as an energy audit, the process involves a trained professional using infrared cameras, blower doors, and other high-tech equipment to pinpoint every source of energy loss in your home. But nationwide, only about 4 percent of American households have undergone an audit, according to the Energy Information Administration.

    What gives? Jennifer Easler, an attorney with the Iowa Office of Consumer Advocate, blames the low participation rate on the fact that power companies, under order from state regulators, are often responsible for promoting the energy-audit programs. “You can’t expect a business to aggressively persuade consumers not to buy the very product it’s trying to sell,” she says. Easler says she would rather see energy audits administered by an independent third party.

    But even if homeowner participation shoots up, there will still be the matter of paying for the often costly improvements that are recommended by the auditor. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has devised an innovative financing program called “on-bill recovery.” It allows homeowners to take out a loan for their energy-­efficiency upgrades, which they pay back over time through an added charge on their utility bills. The loans are designed so that projected annual energy savings equal or exceed the total monthly charges per year. If your utility doesn’t yet offer this financing option, encourage it to do so.

    How you can fight back

    Send a letter to your legislator protesting the Energy Star-weakening bills. Get sample wording for your letter.

    Make your voice heard by signing our petition protesting fixed-charge increases.

    Tweet @NARUC using the hashtag #nixthefix.

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

     

     

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    Is your financial planner getting rich at your expense?

    A recent decision in a lengthy legal case involving two certified financial planners was hailed as a victory for consumers.

    A husband and wife, Jeffrey and Kimberly Camarda of Fleming Island, Fla., had been marketing themselves as “fee-only” financial planners, a term for those who charge clients a fixed rate for their services and don’t earn commissions or bonuses when recommending financial products. But that wasn’t true, according to the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, which filed a disciplinary action against the pair. It claimed that the Camardas were selling insurance products from which they earned commissions, misrepresenting their compensation method, a violation of CFP Board rules. Then the couple sued the board, saying they were unfairly disciplined. But in July, a judge dismissed their lawsuit.

    “Some advisers use ‘fee-only’ for marketing purposes instead of as a pledge to their clients,” says Eleanor Blayney, a consumer advocate on the board. There’s no way to tell just how many financial advisers misrepresent how they’re compensated, she adds. What’s clear is how much working with the wrong kind of adviser can cost you. A study from the White House by the Council of Economic Advisers, published in February, estimated that financial advisers who have conflicts of interest cause $17 billion in losses every year to Americans, many of them in working and middle-class families. And that’s just for those who are using IRAs to save for retirement.

    Read more about how to manage your financial planning in your 40s, your 50s and your 60s.

    Part of the problem is that there’s no governmental regulatory body that polices all financial planners. Investment advisers and brokers who sell bonds, stocks, and other financial products must be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission or in some cases with state regulators. There’s no such oversight for financial planners, who help clients with retirement planning, estate planning, saving for college, and other matters.

    The CFP Board, however, will investigate complaints it receives or violations the organization uncovers itself. It can suspend or revoke the use of the certified financial planner designation,but it can’t stop financial planners from giving advice.

    The best line of defense against unscrupulous planners is to educate yourself. That can be confusing at first, because there are more than 150 designations for financial service professionals. But many of the titles are dubious; they can be earned after just a few hours of study and an open-book test. Adding to the confusion is that many suspect designations sound similar to legitimate ones.

    We recommend using financial planners who have the CFP designation. That indicates that she has passed a comprehensive certification examination provided by the board, has at least three years of financial-planning experience, and is committed to continuing education in financial concerns.

    It’s also important to make sure you understand how the financial planner you select is compensated. Not all CFPs are fee-only; some are paid by commission or a combination of fees and commission. The CFP Board requires only that planners make it clear to clients how they’re compensated.

    We recommend fee-only advisers because they offer the most protection from inherent conflicts of interest. They charge a flat fee, an hourly rate, or a percentage of assets under management, usually about 1 percent.

    To start your search for a fee-only adviser, go to the following websites:

    • CFP Board. You’ll find a directory of financial advisers who hold the CFP designation along with information on how they’re compensated. You can also find out whether an adviser is in good standing and whether the CFP Board has ever brought a disciplinary action against him or her.
    • National Association of Personal Financial AdvisorsMembers of this professional group, many of whom are CFPs, adhere to a strict fee-only standard. They can’t accept compensation in any form from any source other than their clients. For those who advise on investments, NAPFA reviews a form they must file with the SEC ensuring that they haven’t started to accept commissions and are still fee-only advisers.
    • Garrett Planning NetworkThis national network of financial advisers includes only fee-only planners who charge for advice by the hour. They’re especially good at helping clients with smaller projects, such as determining how much life insurance they need or whether it makes sense to refinance a mortgage. Most of the organization’s members are CFPs.

    Of course, just because an adviser is listed with one of those networks is no guarantee of honesty. It’s your responsibility to have ongoing discussions with the one you choose about fees and how they’re calculated. If she charges you on an hourly basis, for example, ask her to put in writing how many hours it will take to finish a project and what the total cost will be. Also take note if your adviser starts to recommend financial products from which she could earn a commission. If she refers you to an attorney, accountant, insurance professional, or a mortgage adviser, also ask if she earns referral fees for doing so. In the end, most financial planners are ethical. But savvy consumers can reassure themselves by paying close attention.

    This article also appeared in the October 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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    Does your 401(k) plan need a makeover?

     Given how tough it can be for many people to save for retirement, it’s unfortunate that some companies make it even more difficult. But a large number of 401(k) plans do just that by imposing high costs and offering subpar investment choices.

    The problem is more widespread than you may realize. Robert Hiltonsmith, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a public-policy group that has examined 401(k) plans, says that Americans pay $50 billion more than they should each year.

    Consider the consequences of high costs. A study by the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington, D.C., found that if you invested in a retirement savings plan with costs of 1.3 percent annually (the average fee at companies with fewer than 100 employees), you’d end up paying almost $125,000 more than if you were in another plan with low-cost funds that had fees of just 0.25 percent.

    Until recently, employees were stuck with whatever retirement savings plan their company offered. In the last few years, however, they have been fighting back, suing their employers for failing to monitor high costs, favoring more expensive retail mutual funds over less costly options, and funneling employee savings into investment products managed by affiliate companies.

    And now, employees have the law on their side.

    Earlier this year, in a lawsuit against Edison International, a company that operates electric utilities in Southern California, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that because of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, companies have a legal responsibility to continuously monitor investments in retirement savings plans and, if necessary, remove imprudent investments.

    And last July, a similar lawsuit on behalf of employees and retirees at Lockheed Martin was settled out of court. There have been other cases against companies including Boeing, the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, and Walmart.

     
     

    So how can you tell whether your plan is a dud?

    • Look at the expenses of the fund. You can find them by logging in to your account online or looking at the prospectus for the funds you own. They may also be listed in your plans' statement. In addition, the administrator of your 401(k) plan is required to notify you annually about the costs you're incurring. If you see a number of funds with expense ratios (the annual cost of maintaining a mutual fund) of more than 0.76 percent, you probably have a high-fee plan, Hiltonsmith says.
    • Examine the funds provided by your plan. A large number of options isn't necessarily better. In fact, too many investment choices can be confusing and cause you to succumb to "analysis paralysis." A well-diversified 401(k) plan will include a selection of stock funds, including large-company and small-company funds; international funds; and perhaps a total bond fund. Instead of offering only actively managed funds, the plan should also include cheaper index funds. They hold stocks of companies in a specific index–say, the Standard & Poor's 500–and often have expense ratios of less than 0.2 percent, much less than comparable actively managed funds.
    • Check whether your plan offers target-date funds. Those mutual funds automatically reallocate the mix of stocks, bonds, and cash as you age. Their fees may be higher than index funds–0.78 percent, on average, according to Morningstar, the investment research company–but they're a good way to manage risk as retirement draws nearer. About 70 percent of retirement savings plans now include target-date funds.

    Get a better plan

    If your plan has expensive funds and falls short of good options, the solution may be to encourage your employer to improve it.  
    • Find the fiduciary. That person is your primary contact for all correspondence and is listed in the documents. Or you can ask your employee-benefits manager for the correct name and contact information. Or search for your company plan online at brightscope.com. The fiduciary’s name will be on your plan’s page under the tab for Form 5500 data. (That’s a federal disclosure form that must be filed for all retirement plans.)
    • Collect documents. Look up the fund expense ratios in the annual disclosure of your expenses. You’ll see in the report an explanation of each fund’s average annual returns over one, five, and 10 years; the comparable returns of a benchmark fund; and the average annual operating costs as a percentage of assets and as a dollar figure per $1,000 invested. You also should receive a quarterly fee statement showing additional expenses specific to you, including loan-administration fees.
    • Research new funds. Your plan may have a good variety of investment options but may not offer the least costly versions. Search for similar alternatives at such low-cost fund families as Vanguard or T. Rowe Price. Then compare the candidates with a comparable index fund at the website of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. You’ll need the comparison to see whether your choices are better investment options.
    • Present your argument. Write to the fiduciary with the details of your research. Emphasize how the costs affect not only you but every employee who invests in those plans. Ask co-workers to sign your letter. If a number of employees complain, the fiduciary is more likely to take the letter more seriously.
    • Consider alternatives. Even if the plan is crummy, if your company matches your contributions­—and most do, although the amounts vary widely—it may be worth staying to get the free money. Contribute the minimum amount—usually at least 3 percent of your salary—to take full advantage of the match. If the investment options are pricey and there’s no match, stash your savings in an individual retirement account, where you make your own investment choices. Just remember that you can contribute only $5,500 per year to an IRA—$6,500 if you’re 50 or older—compared with $18,000 in a 401(k).
    • Check your spouse’s plan. If it’s better than yours, consider maximizing contributions to it.
    Leave it or roll it?

    When you change from one job to another, should you move your 401(k) to your new employer’s plan or leave it where it is? That depends on how much you have invested in the plan and how it stacks up against the new one.

    Leave it with your former employer. If it’s an excellent plan and your employer allows you to stay, there may be no need to move those savings. The lower costs of a well-managed plan will more than compensate for what are usually modest maintenance fees that may be assessed on the accounts of former employees.

    Mingle the money with your new employer’s plan. Chances are that you’re changing jobs not just for better opportunities but also for better benefits. Some employers allow rollovers from a previous employer’s plan. Compare the plans to see which offers more choices and lower fees.

    Roll the assets into an IRA. If neither plan has a good choice of investments and the fees seem high, consider rolling over your 401(k) savings into an individual retirement account. Keep in mind, though, that you may incur a different set of costs. For example, buying and selling investments will usually result in commissions, and there may be other fees charged by the custodian of the fund.

    Don't cash out. The worst choice you can make is to withdraw from the 401(k) plan with your former employer and not roll the funds into a new plan or an IRA. After 60 days, the funds are taxable, and if you’re younger than 59½, possibly subject to tax penalties. In many states, taxes and penalties will claim almost half of the amount that’s withdrawn (known as an early distribution). By any measure, that’s a poor return on an investment.

    This article also appeared in the October 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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    6 Ways College Students Can Protect Against Identity Theft

    Identity theft is the most common type of fraud, and college students are especially vulnerable. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), people aged 20 to 29 are among the most frequent victims and accounted for 18 percent of complaints in 2014.

    Identity theft hits college students harder than many older age groups because younger people not be aware of how it can affect them far into the future—from being hounded by a debt collector for a debt that you did not incur; to being unable to access your own credit cards or bank account; to being arrested for crimes committed by people who have stolen your identity; to not receiving proper medical care because an identity thief stole access to your medical insurance. Identity theft can also ruin your credit rating, which can affect your ability to rent an apartment, get a loan, apply for a job, or buy insurance. 

    Where ID Theft Is Most Likely To Occur

    College students become fraud targets for two reasons: They live in close quarters and they do not take enough precautions. Here is where they’re most vulnerable—and how they can protect themselves. 

    Don’t trust the dorm room: Your dorm room is your home away from home, so it’s natural to feel relaxed and let your guard down. However, dorm rooms are notoriously open to many people, some of whom have no qualms about rifling your papers for personal information such as bank account numbers, credit card numbers or Social Security numbers.

    Leave your important documents, such as your Social Security card and birth certificate, with your parents. If you must bring them with you, store them in a secure, locked space. Carry only physical copies of ID that you actually need, such as your driver’s license or student ID.

    Secure your electronic devices: Students share their smartphones, laptops and tablets as readily as a sip of soy latte, making it easy for someone to swipe your secrets.

    Encrypt all data on your devices and don’t store personal information on your laptop or smartphone. Keep all of your electronic devices locked when not in use.

    Beware of over-sharing on social media: There’s no way to tell if your new Facebook friend is really a buddy or a baddie sending you a link that will download malware into your computer, smartphone or tablet.

    Don’t click a link, no matter how tempting it seems, unless you know who sent it to you. Adjust the privacy settings to make it more difficult for people you don’t know to view your information or post material on your pages.

    Limit use of public WiFi: College campuses are peppered with public hotspots, which data thieves use to steal personal information.

    Never shop, check your bank balance or log in to your credit accounts while on a public connection.

    Strengthen your passwords: Students can be careless with their passwords, using the same one for every device and account. Or they may use the name of a pet, which they’ve publicized on Facebook, or their mother’s maiden name, which might show up on other personal profiles.

    Scrub those data points from your social media profile. Customize your password for each account and make them a combination of small letters, capital letters and symbols and numbers.

    Ignore credit card offers: Students are regularly inundated with invitations to complete a pre-approved credit card application, either by mail or at campus events. Yet filling in your name, Social Security Number, date of birth and driver’s license number in public is just opening the door to ID theft.

    Don’t sign up at a table or booth on campus; instead, go to the company’s secure website from your private, password-protected Internet connection. Shred mailed solicitations, which someone could fill out in your name. Take yourself off marketing lists for pre-approved credit cards at www.optoutprescreen.com

    Students who want to avoid identity theft should brush up on their Shakespeare. As he wrote in Othello, “Who steals my purse steals trash…but he that filches from me my good name … makes me poor indeed.” 

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

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