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    Best Bargains for a Super Bowl TV

    Insignia NS-43D420NA16

    The 43-inch Insignia NS-43D420NA16 1080p TV is a bare-bones TV. However, this Best Buy house brand set delivers on the basics: very good high-definition picture quality, plus a wider-than-average viewing angle. It's not a smart TV with built-in access to online content, but then again this Super Bowl TV costs only $270 right now at Best Buy. If you want streaming, you can add a stick-style media device, such as a Chromecast or Roku Stick, for as little as $35.

    Vizio E48-C2

    Vizio earned its reputation (and market share) by offering TVs at lower prices than the other major brands, and the Vizio 48-inch E48-C2 1080p LED LCD TV follows that strategy. The set, which is in Vizio's entry-level E series, delivers excellent high-definition picture quality and a wider-than-average viewing angle. It has a lot of features for the money, including the company's smart TV service. But its sound was only fair, so if you want to bring the game's bone-crunching action into your living room, consider adding a sound bar speaker.

    Philips 55PFL6900

    The 55-inch Philips 55PFL6900 UHD LED LCD TV offers very good high-definition picture quality and excellent UHD performance, all at a low price for a 4K set. It also has a wider-than-average viewing angle for an LCD set. The only real downside to this set (the first UHD set we've tested from this brand) is that we did see some noticeable blurring on test patterns, though it might not be as obvious on real-world programs. Shop around, as we've seen this set's price range from $550 to $900. Yes, $550 for a 55-inch 4K TV!

    Vizio E60-C3

    The Vizio 60-inch E60-C3, a 1080p LED LCD TV, is another winner offered at a great price for a set this size. The TV boasts excellent high-definition picture quality and a lot of features, but its sound was once again only fair. (Vizio sound bars speakers have typically done well in our sound bar speaker Ratings.)  If you're looking for a slightly larger set for your Super Bowl TV, the Vizio E65-C3, which sells for about $930, also has excellent HD picture quality.

    Sony Bravia KDL-55W800C

    The 55-inch Sony KDL-W800C LED LCD TV is a 1080p set, but it's in the company's flagship full HD line, so it's loaded with features. More importantly, it delivers excellent high-definition picture quality. (Its 3D, though, isn't so hot if you care about that feature.) The TV's sound is only average, but you can connect to an optional wireless subwoofer if you're hankering for deeper bass. We've seen this set sell for as little as $580 recently.

    LG 60LF6100

    The 60-inch LG 60LF6100 1080p LED LCD TV has very good high-definition picture quality, though it lacks the usual wider-than-average viewing angle we see on most LG sets. (This TV is in the model series just below the LF6300-series sets.) Although it doesn't come with LG's cool gesture-based Magic Remote, you can buy the remote control as an option and use it with set.

    Vizio M55-C2

    Yes, another 4K set for less than $800. The Vizio M55-C2 55-inch LED LCD-based UHD TV delivers excellent high-definition picture quality, plus a full-array LED backlight with zones that can be locally dimmed, meaning that some areas of the screen can be darkened while others remain lit, helping improve contrast. It also does a good job of handling motion blur. Like most Vizio sets, this is a smart TV with a lot of features for the price, making it an ideal Super Bowl TV.

    Samsung UN60J6200

    The 60-inch Samsung UN60J6200 1080p LED LCD TV, a model in the series just below the J6300 sets, delivers very good high-definition picture quality, and it's among the better sets at reducing motion blur. It's a bit more basic than the JS6300-series sets, and it has only two HDMI inputs, fewer than most sets this size.

    Samsung UN60JU6500

    The 60-inch Samsung UN60JU6500 UHD LCD TV, in its mainstream UHD series for 2015, delivers excellent high-definition picture quality and UHD performance. It also does a very nice of reducing motion blur in fast-moving scenes. In many ways it's like the JU6700-series sets, except with a flat, rather than curved, screen.

    LG 60UF7700

    If you're willing to trade a few features—such as 3D, a Harman Kardon sound system, and the fancier super-slim bezel design—in exchange for a lower price, then the 60-inch LG 60UF700 UHD LCD TV might fit the bill. It has very good high-definition picture quality, very good UHD performance, and a wider-than-average viewing angle for an LCD TV.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Protect Yourself from Tax Identity Theft

    You might not be thinking about your 2015 tax return, but identity thieves are. Tax-related identity theft occurs when someone steals your Social Security number and files a tax return before you do to claim a fraudulent refund in your name. The rewards for these thieves are huge: According to a U.S. Government Accounting Office report, in 2013 (the most recent data available), the IRS paid $5.8 billion in refunds that were later determined to be fraudulent.

    Tax-related ID theft is a stealthy crime. You might not be aware that you’ve been victimized until you e-file your return and discover that a return has already been filed using your Social Security number. Or you might send in your return and receive a letter from the IRS saying that a return was already filed for you.

    To raise consumer awareness about the threat of tax identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission is holding Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week (January 25-29). The events listed below (all times are Eastern) are designed to help you understand the nature of the crime, minimize your risk of becoming a victim, and learn what to do if thieves have stolen your refund. The events include:

    • January 26, 2 p.m.: A Federal Trade Commission webinar explains how tax identity theft happens and what you can do if it happens to you. 
    • January 27, 11 a.m.: A Twitter chat shares information about tax identity theft for veterans. Join the conversation at #VeteranIDTheft.
    • January 28, 1 p.m.: The FTC and the IRS co-host a webinar with information to help victims of tax identity theft.
    • January 29, 2 p.m.: The FTC and the Identity Theft Resource Center co-host a Twitter chat about tax ID theft. Join the conversation at #IDTheftChat.

    In addition, the FTC offers educational materials on the topic, available free of charge. The materials are published in English and Spanish. 

    Avoiding Tax Scams

    Fraud involving IRS impersonators spikes during tax season. Remember:

    • The IRS never asks for personal or financial information via email, text, or social media, and it will never contact you by phone to demand payment. Report suspicious email.
    • The agency will never ask for credit-card numbers over the phone, require payment without allowing you to question it or appeal, or threaten you with arrest for nonpayment.
    • Report fraud to the IRS by filling out this IRS form or calling 800-366-4484.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Best Fitness Tracker: Which Activity Monitor Is Right for You?

    Elite athletes have always been data fiends, recording their speed, heart rate, and other workout information, often with the help of a personal trainer. Wearable fitness trackers, particularly the newest, most sophisticated models, are making that kind of record-keeping available to ordinary people.

    Many of the latest models we reviewed worked well, but our testing found that none of them are foolproof, especially when you go beyond straight-forward metrics such as heart rate. So if you want to track a hard-to-measure variable such as calories burned, it’s best to use the readout as an estimate rather than an excuse for a second piece of pie.

    The top-rated Fitbit Surge, $250, is a good choice if you want lots of workout data combined with some smartwatch capabilities. In addition to counting steps and telling time, it comes equipped with a GPS mode, a highly accurate heart-rate monitor, and a large, easy-to-read display. It can also notify you when you receive a call or text on your smartphone.

    For those willing to do without GPS data and phone notifications, the $100 Fitbit One is a bargain. The device, which clips to your clothing, capably counts steps and notes changes in elevation, useful if climbing stairs is part of your routine.

    The least expensive tracker we tested, the Jawbone UP Move, $50, got dinged in our Ratings in part because it doesn’t have a display; to review all of your data, you have to download a free app to your mobile device. But it works well as a no-frills step counter, providing accurate info and syncing easily with a smartphone.

    In addition to having their own apps, most trackers can coordinate with health apps such as MapMyRun. Some also work with companion products. The Withings Activité Pop, for example, has a bathroom-scale sibling, the Smart Body Analyzer; both feed data to a Withings health app to provide a fuller view of your fitness.

    Privacy Alert
    Like websites and mobile apps, fitness trackers might share personal data with manufacturers and software providers. To find out what information is collected and how it might be used, you should read the permissions section in the app’s description and the privacy policy on the manufacturer’s website.

    Beyond Step Counting

    All fitness trackers count steps, but many do more. Here are additional features you should look for.


    3 Tips to Get More Action

    1. Use the social functions. Much like a jogging partner or friends at the gym, the social features built into fitness-tracker apps can motivate you to get off the couch and out the door. You can use them to share workout results, receive notifications when one of your pals goes for a run, and set up group challenges, such as trying to reach a certain number of steps over the weekend.
    2. Find third-party apps. Most fitness trackers have companion apps that make it easy to review your workouts and monitor your progress. But there are other options for you to explore. MyFitnessPal, for instance, can use data from your fitness tracker to evaluate your exercise and food intake, which is particularly helpful if your goal is to lose weight.
    3. Preserve your battery. A tracker may work for a few days or even two weeks between charges. To extend battery life, you can remove alarms, turn off Bluetooth connectivity until it’s time to sync the device with your phone, and shut off the display when you’re inactive. (Note: Most trackers use a proprietary cable for charging, so try not to lose it—unless you view shopping as exercise.)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    10 Key Car Repairs on the Road to 200,000 miles

    Getting to—and passing—200,000 miles on the odometer is an impressive feat, but it’s by no means unachievable. Reliability in many new cars has improved, and even the maintenance schedule in owner’s manuals has been changed to help you get more miles out of your car.

    As you approach that milestone, many of your car’s components will start to wear out. We recommend that you closely follow the service interval schedule.

    Despite your best efforts, though, certain problems will crop up as you near the 200,000-mile mark.

    We calculated the cost to repair certain items in a typical 2008 Toyota Camry V6 using the free Consumer Reports Car Repair Estimator. Your repair costs might be different than those shown here.

    1. Exhaust Systems That Rust Out

    You can tell because your car will get increasingly loud and will probably fail emissions tests come inspection time. According to our estimator, the job could cost $1,880 to $3,230.

    2. Spark Plugs

    If maintained well, they can last 100,000 miles. But by the 200K mark, you could be overdue for a third set of plugs. Cost to replace: $100 to $300. 

    3. Shocks and Struts

    Does your car look like it’s sagging, or does it shudder like it’s in an earthquake every time you drive over a pothole? Then you probably need new shocks and struts. Cost to repair: $280 to $400 for one strut (you should replace them in pairs). But if you need a full set of shocks and struts all around, expect to pay closer to $900 to $1,300. 

    4. Oil

    Increased oil consumption is common in older cars, so don’t panic. You should routinely check and top off the oil between changes, especially before long trips. Cost to replace: A few bucks as needed. 

    5. Hoses, Etc.

    Oil lines, vacuum lines, and all kinds of seals and gaskets can start to wear. You should look over your engine routinely for signs of leaks. Cost to repair: It should only cost $200 to $370 for a new exhaust manifold gasket. But if your head gasket needs replacing, you could pay into four figures. 

    6. Moisture Buildup in the Cabin

    Almost 10 years of hopping in the car with muddy boots will take its toll, and a lot of the moisture will remain to fog up the windows and give you that old-car smell. Cost to repair: A soggy interior is forever, but you should be able to hold off the fog with a splash of Windex or another window cleaner. As for that musty smell? Blast the carpet with Febreze. 

    7. Electrical Components

    Years of water splash and spray can wreak havoc on your wiring and circuitry. Don’t be surprised if features like power windows, windshield wipers, and even the instrument panel go on the fritz. The gremlins can be frustratingly difficult to trace. Cost to repair: $370 to more than $1,300. 

    8. Brake Lines That Begin to Wear

    They should be checked often as you approach the 200K mark. If you live in the Snow Belt, make sure to also check the hard brake lines for rusting or weak spots. Cost to repair: $900 to almost $2,000. 

    9. Mechanical Components

    Many original parts seem like they’ll last forever, but even the strongest ones can wear out. Don’t go cheap on replacement parts in order to save a few bucks. If you did replace worn parts with substandard knockoffs, they might be on their way to failure much sooner than the original equipment. Also, if you buy certain premium parts, they might come with a lifetime warranty. 

    10. Rust

    If you see even a little bit of rust forming around the wheel wells, hood, trunk, or suspension mounting points, there could be a serious problem beneath the surface. That structural weakness will make your car less safe in a crash. Cost to repair: Not worth it. Time to get a new car. 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to Protect Yourself From Phishing

    Last fall, Facebook users began receiving an alarming email warning. "For security reasons, your account will be disabled permanently," said the email. To confirm your identity, the message—which was signed by the "Facebook Team"—instructed users to click on a link and log into what looked like a real Facebook page. 

    But this email had nothing to do with Facebook. It was a phishing (pronounced “fishing”) scam, a form of identity theft in which hackers use fraudulent websites and fake emails to attempt to steal your personal data, especially passwords and credit card information. Phishing scammers send emails that appear to come from trustworthy sources such as a social media website or a financial service provider, and tell you that they need you to follow certain links in order to rectify some problem. Then they steal your data as you enter it, lock you out, and begin using your account to send more scam messages in your name.

    Phishing attacks are happening everywhere. Online security firm Kaspersky Labs says it repelled nearly 800 billion attacks in 2015, almost 2 million of which were attempts to steal money from online bank accounts.

    According to Fraudwatch International, a global online fraud protection service, some of the recent phished sites included Bank of America, PayPal, Chase Bank and Apple Store. Typical fake email alerts: “Westpac Bank—Your Account Has Been Blocked,” or “Apple Store—About your last Transaction.”

    With tax season starting to ramp up, scammers have been targeting TurboTax users with fake subject lines such as “TurboTax Update: Resolve Account Issue Now” and “TurboTax—Important Notice” that urges users to open a fraudulent attachment.

    Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are also now among scammers’ favorite phishing targets, surpassing the banking and financial services sectors during the first three quarters of 2015, reports the non-profit Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG). Phishers like to break into ISP accounts so that they can send spam from those user accounts. ISP accounts can also contain other things that phishers want: personal identity information, credit card details, and access to domain name and hosting management.

    The Best Defense

    How can you protect yourself against phishing lures? Here's some advice:

    • If you aren’t 100 percent certain of the sender’s authenticity, don’t click on attachments or embedded links; both are likely to result in malware being installed. Instead, open a new browser window and type the URL directly into the address bar. Often a phishing website will look identical to the original, so check the address bar to confirm the address.

    • Similarly, never submit confidential information via forms embedded in or attached to email messages. Senders are often able to track all of the information you enter.

    • Be wary of emails asking for financial information. Emails reminding you to update your account, requesting you to send a wire transfer, or alerting you about a failed transaction are compelling. However, scammers count on the urgency of the message to blind you to the potential for fraud.

    • Don’t fall for scare tactics. Phishers often try to pressure you into providing sensitive information by threatening to disable an account or delay services until you update certain information. Contact the merchant directly to confirm the authenticity of the request.

    • Be suspicious of social media invitations from people you don’t know. According to Kaspersky Lab research, over one in five phishing scams target Facebook. Phishers rely on your natural curiosity to click on the person’s profile “just to find out who it is.” However, in a phishing email, every link can trigger malware, including links that appear to be images or even legal boilerplate; scammers use your hijacked account to send spam to your friends, because spam from real accounts is more believable than spam from a fake account.

    • Watch out for generic-looking requests for information. Many phishing emails begin with “Dear Sir/Madam.” Some come from a bank with which you don’t even have an account.

    • Ignore emails with typos and misspellings. Recent real examples targeting TurboTax include ”Your Change Request is Completeed” and “User Peofile Updates!!!

    • Update and maintain effective software to combat phishing. Reliable anti-virus software should also automatically detect and block fake websites, as well as authenticating the major legitimate banking and shopping sites. 

    Mobile device users should be especially vigilant. Scammers increasingly design mobile-friendly pages; what’s worse, many browsers hide the web address bars, so it can be even more difficult to spot scams on a mobile device.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 01/26/16--05:00: FAFSA Mistakes to Avoid
  • FAFSA Mistakes to Avoid

    If you’re headed to college this fall, one of the most important tests you’ll take happens before you even set foot on campus. It involves answering more than 100 questions on the federal college financial aid application to determine whether you are eligible to receive financial aid.  

    The stakes are high. More than 41 million people owe more than $1.2 trillion in student debt, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That's unlikely to be a group you want to join so getting as much aid as possible is critical. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) determines your eligibility for federal aid as well as money from states, colleges, and many scholarship programs.

    Before you fill out the form, you’ll need to gather your latest tax returns, bank statements, and investment records. You'll also need a FAFSA ID, which takes about three days to get after you apply.

    When filling out the application, you need to be careful not to make mistakes. Making FAFSA mistakes can delay the processing time and getting even one question wrong may cost you thousands of dollars in financial aid, says David Levy, editor at Edvisors, a website on planning for and paying for college.

    The FAFSA quizzes you on everything from the number of people in your household (which can be trickier to figure out than you may think) to your parents’ net worth (a wrong answer here could reduce the amount of aid you receive).

    You can reduce FAFSA mistakes and answer fewer questions by filling out the form online. That’s because the online version uses “skip logic” so you only see the questions that apply to you. You can also cut down on mistakes by using the IRS retrieval tool on the site, which automatically imports information from your tax returns. 

    Mistakes That Can Delay Processing

    Some simple FAFSA mistakes will hold up your application, says Levy. Among the most frequent:

    • Not filling in the blanks. Don’t leave a field empty. If the entry is zero, put in "0."

    • Not counting yourself. You must include yourself in your household size, even if you didn’t live with your parents in the prior year (for example, if you lived in the school dorm).

    • Failing to sign on the dotted line. You are not the only one who must sign the application. Your parents must too.

    • Confusing parent and student information. When the FAFSA asks for information about “you,” it means you the student, not the parent.

    Mistakes That Can Be Costly

    Other FAFSA mistakes can be more costly and can affect how much aid you receive, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy for Cappex.com, a website that helps students find financial aid for college. The most frequent:

    • Overstating income and assets. Qualified retirement accounts (401ks, 403b and IRAs) and the value of your home should not be included in any savings and investments you list. Reporting that information may reduce the amount of aid you receive. If your parents are divorced or separated, you only need to include the income, savings and investments from the parent you live with primarily. But if you have a stepparent, her financial information must be included too.

    • Incorrectly reporting your dependency status. Even if you pay your own bills or live separately from your parents and file your own taxes, you may still be considered a dependent and have to provide your parents’ financial information. But there are a number of exceptions, including if you’re married, are over the age of 24 or are considered active duty in the military.

    For many students, the biggest mistake is not applying for financial aid at all, says Kantrowitz. Each year, more than two million students who would have qualified for federal grants or state and institutional aid don’t apply, he says.

    Some students mistakenly believe that their family earns too much to qualify for financial aid, even though there is no income cut-off. Or they think they’ve missed the deadline. For the coming school year, you could have applied as early as January 1. The sooner you apply the better because some aid is given on a first-come, first served basis. You can file a FAFSA until the end of the school year in which you have enrolled. For the upcoming 2016-2017 school year, you can apply for financial aid through the end of June 2017.

    If you need help, contact the Department of Education's Federal Student Aid Information Center's hotline, 800-433-3243 or visit the Website of the Office of Federal Student Aid.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Good and Goofy Kitchen and Bath Design Ideas

    The 2016 Kitchen & Bath Show is about fulfilling dreams. With the right products, you can turn your kitchen into a hub for family gatherings and entertaining, or transform your bathroom into a soothing sanctuary. All are vying for your attention and dollars. Some of the thousands of design ideas and products on view can be transformative, others not so much. We walked the miles of aisles to give you a preview of things to consider this season—or not.

    The Hits

    American Standard Beale hands-free kitchen faucet
    Previous versions of hands-free faucets hid the activator toward the bottom or back of the faucet, making them hard to find when your hands are full or messy. Others required you to tap the faucet to get water flowing and then wash the spot you touched. American Standards’ Beale Selectronic puts the activator on the front of the faucet so it’s easy to find. It also offers the option of switching to manual operation by simply sliding a movable panel to cover the sensor. In addition to standard spray and stream modes, the pull-out faucet has power spray/scrub and mist modes. It will be available in May for $575 to $700 depending on the finish.
     
    LG Signature appliances
    LG is launching a new brand of ultra-premium refrigerators, dishwashers, and cooking appliances. We’ll reserve judgment on whether the appliances are a hit until we get them in our labs for testing. But what really got our attention was their customer service plan for the brand. Buy an appliance and you get a dedicated kitchen concierge to answer your questions and solve your problems for you as long as you own the appliance, which comes with a 3-year warranty compared to the 1-year warranty on many appliances.

    Kohler Exhale showerheads
    Shaped to resemble the petals of a dahlia flower, these attractive white showerheads have four spray settings that click into place. The head is made of silicone, so it’s easy to grip and turn with wet hands. It’s also easy to rub off mineral deposits in addition to being water efficient. The Exhale is available in 2 gallon per minute (gpm) and 1.5 gpm versions for showerheads and hand-held showers and costs $190 to $220.
     
    Halo smoke/CO alarm
    Safety made simple. Halo is the only smoke/CO alarm that combines sensing technologies for both fast-burning and smoldering fires with a carbon monoxide alarm. Most combination alarms only have one fire-sensing technology. We’ve long recommended you get both. But until now you had to buy two separate alarms to get all three technologies. When Halo senses fire or CO, it sends a voice alert, the ring of the alarm illuminates, and it sends an alert to your smartphone. It will be available in two versions this spring. We’ll test it and report back.

    The Misses

    Viking Incogneeto induction warmer
    The 15 inch-wide induction burner can be mounted underneath your stone or engineered stone countertop in a drawer and will turn the counter into an induction cooktop with the help of a “Magneeto 2” trivet that comes with the burner and an electrical connection. When induction compatible cookware or bakeware is placed on top of the trivet and you select a temperature, the Magneeto 2 acts as a temperature sensor and wireless communicator. Information is relayed to the unit below the counter to first attain and then maintain the desired temperature. Admittedly, that’s cool, and it would probably be fun to show off at parties. But after the initial wow factor, you’ll probably wonder why you spent $2,000.
     
    Electrolux She-Shed
    Men have man caves, so women should have a space of their own too for “a personal getaway.” That’s why one of the design ideas from Electrolux was to create a room filled with comfy couches, books, flowers, art, and a matching washer and dryer, trimmed in pink, of course. “What century is this,” remarked one woman. “Oh that pink trim will really help me get my husband and son to do laundry,” said another. It’s kind of like vacuums and Valentine's Day. Each is great on its own, but give a vacuum as a gift for Valentine’s Day and you may not get the reaction you desired.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Self-Driving Cars Are in the Talking Cars Spotlight

    Self-driving cars have been in the news a lot recently, with multiple announcements made at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Plus, the federal government is fast-tracking autonoumous car regulations, and the Obama administration proposed spending $4 billion over the next 10 years for research and infrastructure. Our “Talking Cars with Consumer Reports” podcast takes a look at these developments and the potential benefits that they hold for consumers.

    The promise for autonomous cars is that safety will be improved by reductions in crashes due to driver error. And, of course, the tedium of boring interstate drives can be relieved. As quick as this technology is coming down the road, as we note in the podcast, we're not quite there yet.

    Coming back to the present, two small German SUVs, the BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLC300, try to make driving less ordinary right here and now. Although rather similar in profile and size, the two compete in different market segments. Driving both crossovers reveals the importance of starting with a well-designed foundation and properly tuning all of the parts during development. While we enjoy driving the luxurious and refined Mercedes, the BMW leaves us flat, especially considering our test car's $44,000 sticker price.

    Next we answer viewer questions. First up, a buyer wants a large high-performance sports sedan for under $50,000; although the question seems ambitious, there happens to be a tailor-made answer. Next, a viewer wants to know if a new teen driver is better off with an old Volvo or a new compact car with modern safety gear. Finally, we wrap up with questions from our Detroit auto show coverage about an Acura concept car and the all-new Chrysler Pacifica minivan.

    As with the other "Taking Cars," this episode is also available free through the iTunes Store. Subscribe to the video or audio. You'll also find the video on YouTube.

    Share your comments on this show below, and let us know if you need any advice for choosing a car.

    2016 Detroit Auto Show, episode 85
    2015 Automotive Year in Review, episode 84
    Debating Two Thrilling Mercedes-Benz AMG Cars, episode 83
    Honda Civic, Lexus RX, & Owner Satisfaction, episode 82
    Pros and Cons of Tesla's Autopilot, episode 81
    Car Reliability Trends, episode 80

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    What to Do With Your Used Smartphone

    Your used smartphone can still provide a valuable service even after it’s dialed its last number. For instance, you can sell it for cash or trade it in to offset the cost of your new model.

    Phone tech hasn’t changed all that much in the last several years, and there are lots of people out there who’ll appreciate your old model, especially if it has the important basics: a sharp display (720p or higher) that’s at least 4 inches wide, support for 4G LTE networks, and a decent amount of storage (32 gigabytes).

    And carriers are so desperate for your business, each phone they accept as a trade-in from competing carrier is like a trophy. Just remember the deal you get largely depends on the make and model of your phone, the condition it’s in, and even the carrier it was on.

    Trade It In

    Providers often use credit or full phone replacements to lure customers away from one another. For example, AT&T currently offers up to $200 toward a new phone or the monthly bill when you trade in your used smartphone. And Sprint promises to pay off your contract or your old phone balance through an American Express Reward Card. But there are many conditions: For one thing, you'll need to submit the latest itemized bill from your current carrier to show that your account is in good standing. You also have to prove that the phone you trade in is the phone you were using at the time of the trade-in.

    Sell It

    Lots of retailers and websites will give you cash or in-store credit for your used smartphone. But don’t expect a big payday. A lot depends on the desirability of your model, its storage capacity, age, carrier, condition, and status (locked or unlocked). And prices vary from business to business. For instance, we were quoted $70 for a Verizon 32GB LG G3 smartphone with normal wear from Gazelle.com, while BestBuy.com’s Trade In program offered a $95 gift card.

    In the end, it costs nothing to price a phone, and it’s certainly educational. Other retailers with trade-in programs include Amazon, Apple, and Costco. Additionally, ecoATM accepts phones at kiosks in locations around the country that will scan the device and pay you on the spot what the company estimates it’s worth. Of course, you can also try your luck on eBay and Craigslist.

    Wipe It

    Whether you're selling your used smartphone or trading it in, it's important to first clear off all of your personal information. A factory data reset should remove photos, email, app accounts, and other data you don’t want to fall into other hands.

    On Android phones, the Reset option is usually under Backup in the Settings menu.

    On an iPhone, it's found at the bottom of the General page, under Settings. Most iPhones (those running iOS 7 or later) have an anti-theft feature called Activation Lock that prevents others from using them. To release your iPhone from Activation Lock so another person can use it, log in to your iCloud account, select All Devices, which opens a list of devices linked to your account, then choose the one to be removed. Follow the prompts to remove your device.

    Information isn’t actually erased when you wipe a phone. The data remains, but there’s no longer a file name pointing to it, and the space occupied by the data is now free to be used by the next email or text message to come along in search of a home.

    iPhones, by default, further protect your data by encrypting it so that it can't read even if it is found unless that person knows the password or pin for decrypting it.

    On Android phones, encryption protection is available but it’s far more complicated and activating it is less uniform from model to model. To find out how to protect your device, read “Why Android’s ‘Factory Reset’ Isn’t Really Secure.”  

    ...Or Just Keep It as a Spare

    Don't be discouraged by pitiful sales quotes or not-as-hot-as-you-thought trade-in offers. You can always hold onto to your used smartphone as a backup in case the new one is lost or stolen. And that's certainly a good way to save on phone insurance and extended warranties, which have high premiums (often $10 and up), high deductibles (more than $100), and unclear language about what to expect as a replacement.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Peeling Back the 'Natural' Food Label

    Do you ever buy one brand of cereal, chips, or juice over another because you see “natural” on the label and assume it’s better? Sure you do, and you have plenty of company. A recent nationally representative Consumer Reports survey (PDF) of 1,005 adults found that more than half of consumers usually seek out products with a "natural" food label, often in the false belief that they’re produced without genetically modified organisms, hormones, pesticides, or artificial ingredients.

    In fact, for processed foods, that term has no clear meaning and is not regulated by any agency. That’s why we petitioned (PDF) the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 to ban the use of “natural” on labeling so that shoppers aren’t misled. (We have also asked the Department of Agriculture to ban the use of “natural” on meat and poultry because it is currently not well-defined or meaningful.)

    The FDA has responded by asking the public to comment on how the word “natural” should—or should not—be used on food labels, citing Consumer Reports’ petition as one of the reasons it’s taking that important step. The more than 4,000 comments the agency had received when we went to press illustrate the confusion and frustration many people feel when faced with the natural labeling found on store shelves now. You can make your own comment on the FDA's website or sign a new Consumer Reports' petition to fix the natural label. We'll be submitting that petition to the FDA.

    “The use of the word ‘natural’ is a deceptive marketing ploy to reel in unaware consumers. People are led to believe it is the same as ‘organic,’ which it surely is not,” wrote one Florida resident.

    Consumer Reports’ food-safety experts agree; in fact, we have long argued that consumers should not be duped by “natural” labels that currently aren’t backed by meaningful standards. “Ideally, we’d like to see federal regulators ban the natural label, but if they don’t get rid of it, then they must give it real meaning,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., ­director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center.

    What do we believe that should look like? For foods regulated by the FDA, we believe the “natural” label should be reserved for foods that are organic and contain no artificial ingredients. We also believe verification should be required to ensure that foods labeled “natural” truly meet that definition, like the process currently used for the term “organic,” Rangan says.

    But some in the food industry oppose labeling changes. For instance, the Grocery Manufacturers Association filed a petition with the FDA arguing that the agency should continue to allow the natural label to be used on products containing GMOs.

    That’s why it’s so important for consumers to voice their opinions to government officials. You can sign our updated petition calling for a ban of the term “natural” or for giving it a meaningful definition. We will submit it to the FDA on May 10. And join our campaign by following #FixNatural on Twitter and Instagram, where you will see a different product every day in February, including the seven shown below.

    A Pandora’s Package: What’s Inside Might Surprise You

    These products contain some ingredients that you probably don’t think of as natural. We are not asserting that any of the products violate any laws, but we do believe that the government’s lack of meaningful standards allows for misleading uses of the natural label.

    We bought these products in December 2015 near our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y. We contacted each company via email and telephone with specific questions about the ingredients or how they were produced or processed. If we didn’t receive a response, we followed up with at least one additional phone call and two additional email messages. 

    1. Del Monte Fruit Naturals

    As you’d expect, these snacks are made with fruits such as peaches, pears, and cherries. But they also contain the artificial preservatives potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate, which are made from industrial chemicals.

    2. Alexia Sweet Potato Fries

    The label says “All Natural.” But these fries contain xanthan gum, an ingredient extracted from a “slime” (we’re not making that up!) produced from bacteria. Xanthan gum can be used as a thickening agent or to give foods a “fatty mouth feel.”

    3. Krakus Polish Sliced Ham

    The label says that this ham comes “with Natural Juices.” What does that really mean? It’s difficult to imagine because the ingredients listed on the packaging (in addition to ham, water, and salt) include five artificial chemicals used in part to cure and preserve the meat.

    4. Natural Brew Draft Root Beer

    Its dark-brown shade comes in part from caramel color. We know from our research that certain types of that artificial coloring contain a possibly carcinogenic chemical called 4-­methylimidazole (4-MeI). The company would not say what type of caramel color it used. We have petitioned the federal government to set limits for that chemical in food. We don’t believe any food additive should elevate people’s cancer risk.

    5. Tyson Grilled & Ready Frozen Southwestern Chicken Breast Strips

    “All natural except for corn syrup solids” appears on the front, but the ingredient list shows that the strips contain corn sweeteners dextrose and maltodextrin. When we asked whether they came from GMO corn, Tyson responded that the government’s “natural requirements do not address GMO.” The strips also contain citric acid, typically a lab-produced additive derived from bacteria.

    6. Kraft Natural Cheese

    This “natural” cheese contains cellulose powder—a substance typically created when pieces of wood, cotton, or bamboo are cooked in a caustic solution at high temperatures—which is supposed to keep shreds of cheese from sticking together. Kraft did not respond to inquiries about the source of its cellulose powder. And to inhibit mold growth it contains the antifungal natamycin, which is also used as a pesticide.

    7. Wesson Vegetable Oil

    The bottle displays a “Pure & 100% Natural” claim, but the oil is made from soybeans genetically engineered to withstand herbicides. Oils like this one that are not labeled as “expeller pressed” or “cold pressed” are often made using a solvent called hexane. That process can release n-hexane, which is classified as a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has identified vegetable-oil production as a major source. 

    Confused? Naturally!

    The need for change is underscored by our latest findings. In December 2015 the Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults to get their take on natural food labeling. This is a sampling of what they told us:

    • 62% of shoppers said they usually buy foods labeled ‘natural.’
    • But nearly two-thirds believe the natural food label means more than it does.
    • And nearly half incorrectly believe that natural claims on labels have been independently verified.
       

    What SHOULD Natural Mean?
    For processed foods, people told us:

    • 85% No chemicals were used during processing.
    • 84% No artificial ingredients or colors.
    • 84% No toxic pesticides.
    • 82% No GMOs.
    • 87% of shoppers who buy foods labeled ‘natural’ said they would pay more if the term met all of their expectations.


    Other Priorities
    The majority of shoppers consider these things important or very important. (Compared with last year, more shoppers considered these things very important.)

    • 91% Supporting local farmers.
    • 89% Reducing exposure to pesticides in foods.
    • 88% Protecting the environment from chemicals.
    • 84% Providing better living conditions for animals.
       

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to Protect Your Car From Rodents

    Rats! You can buy the most reliable car on Earth and still find convoluted electrical gremlins, fluid leaks, and even outright failure when rodents take up residence and begin chewing on wiring, hoses, plastic, and other critical car parts. But we’ve found a deterrent for these four-legged terrorists.

    Rodent-inflicted damage is an age-old problem that some observers say is increasing as automakers use more plant-based biodegradable materials to reduce waste. It turns out that rodents sharpening their teeth and feasting on cars is more prevalent than you might think. We uncovered various technical service bulletins from Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, and Subaru instructing their technicians how to remedy chewed wiring harnesses. So many people have been looking for solutions that the topic was trending on Reddit recently.

    Readers posted several solutions, from covering the wires with a metal mesh to painting them with hot sauce. Some Consumer Reports staffers also have stories of small furry creatures chewing through power steering lines, filling engine intakes with acorns, and plugging up air-conditioning ducts with their nests.

    What you can do

    We found a clever solution in a TSB from Honda: rodent-deterrent tape, essentially an electrical tape treated with super-spicy capsaicin, which Honda describes as “the stuff that puts the fire in a bowl of five-alarm chili.” The tape (part number 4019-2317) is available through dealers for about $36 for a 20-meter roll, about 22 yards. You'll also find it online.

    We bought a roll of rodent-deterrent tape to check out. Beyond the cute rodent graphics and gray color, it deceptively seems like regular electrical tape to us humans. There is no tear-inducing odor, but it does carry a label that warns against prolonged exposure to skin. Despite dares and double dares, we did not taste it and will trust that it is potent enough to deter even the most ravenous varmint.

    Other suggestions for dealing with rodents under your hood include installing a metal mesh around wiring harnesses and rubber hoses and across any openings where rodents could crawl into your ventilation or intake systems. Or you could put mouse poison mixed with peanut butter around your garage for a more severe solution.

    Even if these measures don’t work, you can take heart: “A mouse ate my wiring harness” excuse at least sounds more creative than “The dog ate my homework.”

    Since this report was originally published in 2014, some Honda owners joined in filing a federal class-action suit. Their claim is that the automaker used soy-based coatings in 2012-2015 models that attract rodents, and they seek restitution for repairs from Honda.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 Top Home Remodeling Trends for 2016

    More than 110,000 builders, designers, manufacturers, and media professionals descended on Las Vegas last week for the annual unveiling of innovative products, materials, services, and technologies for the home that is Design & Construction Week. There was a new aroma on the floor of the convention center—the smell of yeast from all the freshly baked pizza. And 2016 saw a record number of goggled show goers, whether in the Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard.    

    Consumer Reports sent its usual team of editors, market analysts, and product testers to unearth the most compelling remodeling trends from more than 2,500 exhibitors, spread across 1.2 million square feet of convention space. Whether you’re building a new home or remodeling the one you have, here are five key trends to consider this year.  

    Low Maintenance Meets High Design

    The millennial effect is a factor here. In a recent Consumer Reports survey of 18- to 35-year-olds, low maintenance made the list of most desirable home features. Beauty, however, will always rank supreme with homeowners. That’s driving even more interest to quartz countertops, which come in some stunning designs without all the upkeep of marble, granite, and other natural stones. Two favorites from the show: Caesarstone’s marble-inspired Nobel Grey, above, and Cambria’s Roxwell, with its undulating movement of gray dappled with white, black, and charcoal flecks.

    Stainless steel is also getting a low-maintenance makeover from several major brands. KitchenAid’s black stainless steel resists fingerprints better than traditional stainless and it’s a softer, warmer finish. GE’s new graphite finish for its Monogram Professional appliances, pictured at top, is made through physical vapor deposition, or PVD, a process that promises exceptional strength and scratch resistance along with a rich luster we haven’t seen before.

    Exterior products are getting less fussy, too. If you’re creating a new exterior living space, check out the Trex Pergola, an outdoor structure made from cellular PVC with structural aluminum cores and stainless steel hardware. The easy-to-assemble pergola is available with a motorized canopy, providing instant sun and rain coverage to any deck or patio space.

    Luxury Appliance Suites Get Richer

    It’s not every year that a major new appliance brand debuts at the show, but 2016 saw the launch of Signature Kitchen Suite, a line of “super-premium” home appliances that includes refrigerators ($5,000-$10,000), cooktops ($1,500), ranges ($5,000), dishwashers ($1,300), and more. Though the brand was developed by LG, it’s being marketed separately by the South Korean manufacturer, much the way Lexus stands apart from its parent company Toyota. 

    The Signature Kitchen Suite will compete with luxury brands like Viking, Jenn-Air, and Thermador. The appliances have many high-end accents, including sleek finishes and hefty controls. The big value proposition for consumers is that, in addition to the sleek design, the appliances are loaded with smart innovations, including Wi-Fi operation and a “Kitchen Concierge” service that notifies you if something goes awry with one of the units.

    Bertazzoni, the Italian manufacturer known for its gleaming pro-style ranges, also unveiled a new suite of appliances at the show. But whereas LG aimed higher with its Signature suite, Bertazzoni is targeting a more middle-market consumer with the suite. The cabinet-depth refrigerator, for example, sells for $3,000, while the dishwasher starts at $900. The suites are available in three styles—master, professional, and heritage—to coordinate with Bertazzoni's various ranges. The question is: will these freestanding appliances look the part next to an uber-luxe Bertazzoni range?

    Restaurant Features Find Their Way Home

    Backyard smokers are nothing new, but the Smoker Cabinet unveiled by Kalamazoo takes the experience to a new level, with a gravity-feed charcoal design that many pit bosses swear by. Thanks to its sealed system and heavily insulated box, Kalamazoo claims the dedicated smoker can maintain an ideal 225° F smoking temperature for more than 10 hours on a single load of charcoal. The undercounter unit, which will cost between $10,000 and $12,000, measures 36 inches wide by 30 inches deep, making it compatible with most outdoor cabinetry systems. And its three large shelves should hold enough smoked meat for even the biggest backyard barbecues.

    From smoked meats to fresh-baked pizza, GE unveiled its new Monogram Pizza Oven, $10,000, a first-of-its-kind indoor oven that fits into a standard 30-inch wall opening and requires no additional ventilation. GE claims the oven can reach ideal pizza baking temperature of 750° F in 30 minutes. Take a look at our video from the show to see the oven in action.  

    Virtual Reality Becomes Practical

    Let’s say you're planning a major kitchen remodel. If you’ve done your homework, or you’re working with an experienced designer, you know to come up with a floor plan that promotes good traffic flow. But until you’re actually standing in the space, it’s impossible to know for sure that it works—and by that time it could be too late. Enter the brave new world of virtual reality, which lets you experience your new kitchen (or any room in the house) before the real work gets underway. Lowe’s Holoroom is the most mainstream example, but many smaller companies are coming out of the woodwork, so to speak, and we expect virtual reality to be a major trend in 2016. Watch this Consumer Reports video for more details.

    Clever Ways to Save Water

    Drought conditions have eased up in some parts of the country, but the market for water-efficient products remains red hot. One of the most innovative show offerings was the AquaBoy Pro II from Aquarius Brands, an atmospheric water generator that produces up to five gallons of purified water, hot or cold, from the air. One caveat: the machine needs the ambient humidity to be at least 30 percent for optimal performance, so it might not be an option in some arid regions. The AquaBoy Pro II sells for $1,850, with leasing options.

    Smart water heaters are another possible source of savings, since they let consumers track their consumption in real time. The Trutankless TR Series smart water, starting at $1,600, incorporates connected capability in a tankless water heater—an inherently efficient piece of equipment, since it only delivers hot water when you need it (unlike traditional water heaters, which maintain a storage tank full of hot water whether you need it or not). The catch with the Trutankless is that it runs on electricity, which is more expensive than gas in most regions. In addition to tracking water usage, the Wi-Fi heater allows users to remotely set the temperature through their smartphone. Rheem and Rinnai, two other water heater manufacturers, also introduced Wi-Fi-enabled models, including both tank and tankless water heaters that run on gas.

    In the laundry category, Electrolux’s new Perfect Steam Washer with LuxCare Wash and SmartBoost, which took home the 2016 KBIS Best in Show award, uses an exclusive technology that premixes the water and detergent in a special chamber before the cycle begins, promising a deep clean in all cycles. The new washer also features a 15-minute Fast Wash Cycle, which saves consumers time. Overall, Electrolux says the new washer will save 40 gallons per week, on average, compared with a leading high-efficiency top load washer. We'll confirm those claims when we get the machine into our labs for testing. 

    As you're considering these new products and technologies for your remodel, be sure to check out the tried and true from our latest tests of appliances, building materials, power equipment, and more.   

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Zika: The Dangerous Mosquito Virus You Must Know About

    A mosquito-borne illness called the Zika virus is now spreading rapidly in South and Central America and the Caribbean, and it could arrive in the U.S. soon. It can make anyone sick for up to a week with symptoms like fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. But it's especially dangerous for women of childbearing age who are pregnant or considering pregnancy because it has been linked to microcephaly, a serious birth defect that causes an abnormally small head and incomplete brain development.

    The outbreak has prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a warning to take precautions for anyone traveling to 24 destinations in the Americas, but, most important, the CDC is recommending that all pregnant women should consider postponing their trip altogether. Here's what you should know to protect yourself and your family.

    Why Zika Is So Concerning

    The Zika virus normally does not cause illness that requires hospitalization or leads to death. Roughly one in five people infected with the virus develop symptoms, which are usually mild. The time from getting bitten to getting sick is likely to be a few days.

    The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reports more than 16,000 Zika illnesses since the first cases were confirmed in Brazil in October 2015. Local transmission of the virus has been confirmed through lab testing in 24 countries in the Americas.

    "The number of cases being reported is significantly lower than the actual number of cases." says Candice Burns Hoffmann, a CDC spokeswoman. "Many countries do not regularly test for Zika virus. Also, once the outbreak becomes common in an area, most people will not go to the doctor or get tested for the virus."  

    Brazil has reported more than 3,800 cases of microcephaly, a spokeswoman for PAHO told Consumer Reports, and Colombia has reported Zika infections in 1,090 pregnant women. In addition, Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis, has been reported in patients with a probable Zika infection in French Polynesia and Brazil. The CDC says it is examining the link between Zika and the disorder.

    Because there is neither a vaccine nor medication available to prevent a Zika virus infection, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women who are pregnant or considering pregnancy follow CDC guidelines and delay travel to those regions where Zika outbreaks are occurring.

    "There is much that we do not yet know about the Zika virus," Mark S. DeFrancesco, M.D., president of the ACOG, said in a statement. "However, because of the associated risk of microcephaly, avoiding exposure to the virus is best." Women who have traveled to the regions listed above should be evaluated for Zika virus infection.  

    How to Prevent Bites

    For those who are planning to travel in spite of the warnings, the CDC asks that pregnant women, women who are trying to become pregnant, and everyone else should strictly follow steps to protect themselves. Because the mosquitoes that spread Zika are aggressive daytime biters and live indoors and outdoors, it's especially important to follow the CDC's precautions during daylight hours.

    That includes using insect repellent containing deet, picaridin, lemon eucalyptus, or IR3535. All have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use during pregnancy. Also wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, the CDC says. At night, CDC recommends sleeping in a screened-in or air conditioned room or under a mosquito bed net.

    Consumer Reports' recent tests of insect repellents found that the most effective product, Sawyer Fishermen's Formula with 20 percent picaridin, was also one of the safest, helping to keep away Aedes mosquitoes—the same type that transmit Zika—for at least 8 hours. Off Deepwoods VIII with 25 percent deet also kept Aedes mosquitoes at bay for 8 hours. Our tests showed that repellents containing natural plant oils, such as citronella and lemongrass, did not work against mosquitoes.

    More Actions to Take

    All cases of Zika virus in the U.S. so far have been found in returning travelers to the regions mentioned above. No one has gotten sick from being bitten in the U.S. But that may be changing as the two mosquito types known to carry the disease, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, can be found here (see maps above). If a homegrown mosquito bites an infected returning traveler it could pick up the virus and then pass it along to other people in the U.S.  

    For this reason, it’s wise to use insect repellent, as noted above. You can also make it harder for mosquitoes to set up shop in your backyard. Female mosquitoes lay several hundred eggs on the walls of water-filled containers. The eggs stick like glue and remain attached until they are scrubbed off. If water covers the eggs, they hatch and become adults in about a week. To prevent them from hatching:
    • Empty and scrub, turn over, cover, or throw out items that hold water, such as tires, buckets, planters, toys, pools, birdbaths, flowerpots, or trash containers. Do this once a week.
    • Tightly cover water storage containers (buckets, cisterns, rain barrels) so that mosquitoes cannot get inside to lay eggs.
    • Use wire mesh with holes smaller than an adult mosquito if you don't have lids.

    If you have a septic tank, repair cracks or gaps, and cover open vents or plumbing pipes.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Why Consumer Groups Are Fighting the Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger

    When it comes to cable companies, bigger definitely isn't better for consumers.

    That was the message last week, when a group calling itself the Stop Mega Cable Coalition ratcheted up its opposition to a proposed merger of Charter and Time Warner Cable, which would also include the acquisition of smaller cable operator Bright House Networks. If the merger goes through, it will create the country's second-largest broadband provider and its third-largest pay TV company. 

    During a conference call with reporters, the advocacy group—which includes Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, Public Knowledge, Common Cause, Dish Networks, and US Telcom-The Broadband Association, and other organizations—called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Justice to intervene to either block the deal outright, or impose strong restrictions on how the combined company can do business. 

    The coalition argues that the new company could have the power to stifle innovation and reduce competition, especially when it comes to new Internet-based video services. It could also raise rates for consumers, and offer even poorer customer service than Charter and Time Warner already do, since there would be little incentive to invest in new technologies and staffing.

    These two have typically been among the lowest-ranked companies for customer service in Consumer Reports annual surveys. Of the 24 companies listed for TV service, Charter was ranked 20th, while Time Warner Cable was 23rd. The results were similar for their broadband services.

    The proposed Charter-Time Warner Cable merger is playing out against the landscape of a rapidly consolidating industry. While a planned merger between Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator, and Time Warner was called off last year, AT&T recently acquired satellite TV company DirecTV, making it the nation's second-largest pay TV provider. And French telcom company Altice is in the midst of a bid to acquire Cablevision after completing its purchase of Suddenlink Communications, a smaller company, in December. If Altice's Cablevision deal goes through, the combined company would become the fourth largest cable company in the U.S.

    Broadband Domination

    Chief among the coalition's concerns is that a merged Charter/Time Warner Cable would become the second largest broadband provider in the U.S., trailing only—you guessed it—Comcast. Together, the coalition said, the two companies would control access to about 90 percent of the high-speed broadband connections in the country, including some of the biggest markets, including Los Angeles and New York City. (The tech website Ars Technica, however, argues the group relied on out-of-date FCC data, and that the two companies' reach is actually closer to 70 percent.) Either way, alternatives to traditional pay TV—so-called "over-the-top" (OTT) online video services—rely on consumers having access high-speed broadband Internet connections, which are dominated by cable companies.

    Calling the two companies a "dangerous duopoly," the coalition worries that a bigger Charter and Comcast could work together and leverage their market power to curb or suppress emerging OTT alternatives, since they'd essentially control the pipes into people's homes. The companies could push customers to their own bundled TV/broadband packages by raising prices for standalone broadband service, the group says, or they could exert pressure on programmers to keep top shows from appearing on online video services trying to compete with them.

    Netflix Likes the Deal

    The merger, though, is getting thumbs up from some seemingly unlikely allies. Perhaps the most notable supporter is streaming video service Netflix, which was a vocal opponent of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has publicly pushed for the deal, calling the it "tremendously positive" for streaming services such as Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix, because Charter is publicly supporting net neutrality, which bans Internet service providers from blocking or slowing down traffic from content providers unable or unwilling to pay more for better or faster access.

    Netflix's support for the deal, though, is easier to understand within the context of the interconnection agreements the service has struck with cable and other companies to ensure that its video is delivered to subscribers' homes without buffering. Comcast and some other companies charge Netflix fees for those interconnections. Charter, most likely anticipating regulatory scrutiny of its policies during the review of its merger, has pledged to support free interconnections, at least until the end of 2018. So basically Netflix is getting free access to Charter's broadband customers for almost three years.

    In a statement issued in response to the Stop Mega Cable campaign Charter cited the "significant and broad support" it has received, not just from Netflix but also from independent programmers and multicultural organizations such as National Urban League, National Action Network, and the League of United Latin American Citizens, due to its "commitment to diversity and inclusion." Comcast made similar arguments, and rounded up similar allies, in an effort to bolster its proposed merger.

    Charter has also argued that unlike the canceled Comcast deal, its merger with Time Warner Cable would benefit consumers and businesses by creating new jobs and providing it with an incentive to increase Internet speeds. The company also said it doesn't impose data caps or modem fees for its customers.

    While all the members of the Stop Mega Cable Coalition agree that the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal is bad for consumers, they disagree about exactly what should be done. Some groups are calling for the deal to be blocked outright, while others are pushing for restrictions. Consumers Union's position is that the merger should be blocked unless federal regulators can impose a set of sufficiently strong conditions to prevent anti-competitive behavior.

    Based on recent comments by the FCC, it appears that the agency is weighing the impact that such mergers would have on the development of new streaming options. That factor evidently played a key role in the FCC's decision to block the Comcast-Time Warner merger last year.

    Although Charter expected the deal to be completed by the end of 2015, the FCC is still reviewing the proposal. A decision could come in the spring.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    FCC Wants More Choice, Competition for TV Set-Top Boxes

    The Federal Communications Commission wants to shake up the cable set-top box market with a move that would give consumers more choices and boost access to online video.

    Under the proposed rule change, cable and satellite companies would have to support set-top boxes from other companies instead of simply insisting that customers rent the boxes they provide. The FCC characterized the market as "locked up."

    Consumer Reports, and its advocacy arm, Consumers Union, support the FCC initiative.

    "With the ever-increasing price of cable and all of the advances in technology, why should consumers have to keep renting a set-top box?," asks Marta L. Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports. "This move by the FCC would help bring some competition and innovation to a market that’s in serious need of reform."

    Under the new proposal, she says, consumers could get better choices and save money.

    "We’re very pleased that the Commission is moving forward on a rulemaking," adds Tellado, "and we look forward to continuing to work with them to push for solutions that put consumers first.”

    There are few options beyond TiVo for consumers who typically pay a sizeable monthly fee to rent set-top boxes from a TV service provider. Noting that the average monthly charge for each box is $7.43—about $90 a year—the FCC said consumers will likely save money by buying a box from a competitor. In addition, they can shop for a model with the software of their choosing. Many homes have more than one box and last summer two senators estimated the average household spent over $230 a year on cable-box rental fees.

    FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler—who is championing the new rules—wants next-generation set-top boxes to include streaming video as well as the usual pay TV programming. The proposal, which must still be approved by three FCC commissioners, also calls for the boxes to provide channel listings and on-demand lineups, plus information about what the box is allowed to do with content (i.e. recording features).

    The FCC believes the new rules will also provide consumers with greater flexibility—you won't be forced to purchase a new box to continue receiving services, for example—and greater innovation, since pay TV and streaming services will be integrated into a single unit.

    This move by the commission comes after a ban on integrated set-top boxes—which used security measures to essentially make the boxes themselves proprietary—expired last month. The FCC's proposed guidelines don't require one specific type of security, but mandate that cable and satellite companies use a system that can be openly licensed "on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms."  

    The proposed new rules are now circulating with the FCC commissioners, who are expected to vote on the changes next month.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Beware Misleading Safety Claims from Hoverboard Brands

    By now, many consumers are aware of the safety hazards associated with hoverboards, particularly the 40 fires currently under investigation by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. But, according to the CPSC, a new threat looms: the unauthorized use by some hoverboard makers of UL certification marks designed to protect people from dangerous products.

    Underwriters Laboratories owns the UL marks, which vouch for the safety of everything from cordless drills to toaster ovens. Turn over the power strip under your desk, and you'll probably find the familiar logo: the letters UL in a circle. On January 15, the testing and certification company publicly rebuked a hoverboard maker called Swagway for using the marks without permission. And five days later, CPSC chairman Elliot Kaye warned shoppers not to view UL marks on hoverboards as a safety endorsement. “In fact,” Kaye stated, “any such mark is at best misleading and may even be a sign of a counterfeit product.”

    But when we checked this week, Consumer Reports found two more hoverboards—from HoverTech and Genius Technologies—described as UL certified on Amazon.com. According to John Drengenberg, UL’s consumer safety director, the organization has not yet certified any hoverboard for safety. The two companies haven’t responded to e-mails requesting comment, but shortly after Consumer Reports contacted ElevateWorldwide, seller of the Genius Technologies board, the product was pulled off Amazon.

    Consumer Reports reached out to Amazon to ask about the issue, but the company had no comment.

    What Does UL-Certification Mean?

    As evidence of Swagway’s infraction, UL offered photos of a Swagway box with a UL symbol on the side and a Swagway hoverboard with a UL sticker on its undercarriage. “That’s counterfeiting,” says Drengenberg. “That’s stealing from retailers, stealing from manufacturers, and endangering consumers.”

    In a statement of its own, Swagway conceded that its hoverboard has not been certified by UL, only the battery cells and adapters used inside the product. “Swagway is disappointed,” the company wrote on its website, “that despite Swagway’s continuing and good faith efforts to work with UL on this issue, UL chose to unilaterally issue its polarizing press release without discussing it with Swagway.”

    The dueling press statements highlight the fact that a product that is not UL-certified may actually be built with some UL-certified parts. In the case of a hoverboard, Drengerberg says, UL would evaluate not just components such as the lithium-ion battery and the charger, but also how those components interact in the finished product. What happens when the battery is fully charged, for example? Or fully drained? Any circuit with the potential to spark a flame would be assessed. The same goes for switches, motors, and even the plastics used in the shell. “We’re looking at the fire hazards, shock hazards, and mechanical hazards that board would introduce,” Drengenberg says.

    Most manufacturers approach UL long before their products come to market. In early talks, they’re advised to use UL-approved components—plugs, cords, switches, batteries, etc.—to simplify the certification process. The product’s creator then pays for the testing required to receive full certification. It also agrees to unannounced factory inspections to guarantee that the manufacturing process proceeds as promised. If a UL inspector spies an untested component at a factory anywhere in the world, he or she can demand an immediate halt to the use of the UL symbol.

    Drengenberg says UL moves quickly to safeguard the validity of its marks, to protect both consumers and the 75,000 manufacturers who pay the company to test and certify their products. “When we find a counterfeit product, we notify the public,” he says. “We are very aggressive. We do not want that mark counterfeited. Retailers don’t want it counterfeited.”

    To date, we have not learned of any fires or other mishaps related to a HoverTech or Genius Technologies hoverboard, but a New York man filed a lawsuit against Swagway in December claiming that a hoverboard purchased as a holiday gift burst into flames while charging and damaged his home. Incidents like that one have prompted the CPSC chairman to urge retailers to stop selling hoverboards until all safety questions have been addressed.

    If you purchased a hoverboard from Amazon's website over the holidays, you can apply for a full refund through Jan. 31. And UL has a search engine where you can determine whether any product is UL certified.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Lane-Departure Warning Is a Turn-Off Feature for Most Owners

    We hear about it all of the time from owners in Consumer Reports' safety surveys: lane-departure warnings are annoying. Turns out, as the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety discovered in a recent study, those warnings are so bothersome that about two thirds of owners turn off the feature.

    To spot-check how systems are used in the real world, the IIHS observed 184 Honda Accords, CR-Vs, and Odysseys brought into dealerships in Maryland and Virginia. Of the inspected vehicles equipped with the feature, only one third had lane-departure warning turned on. Unlike some other systems, once lane-departure is disabled in Honda vehicles, it stays off—making such a study feasible.

    None of this is to say that Honda drivers are particularly careless in their driving habits, or that Honda’s lane-departure warning system is specifically more annoying than those from any other automaker. In fact, in a recent Consumer Reports survey, there were complaints from respondents about every brand’s lane-departure warning systems.

    Lane-departure warning systems use cameras to detect lane markings and monitor turn signal usage to determine if a driver is intentionally changing lanes. Irregular lane markings, curvy roads, or even sunlight warming the car can all cause an alert to activate. Drivers who are less likely to use their turn signals tend to also find the alerts triggered, and their annoyance levels raised.  

    “We are not surprised by these results as we experience the same frustrations in the cars we test. But lane-departure warning is a valuable feature, even though some work needs to be done to reduce the annoyance factor. The solution may be to activate the warning system only at highway speeds or link the system to GPS to reduce how often they alert on secondary roads,” says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports.

    According to previous IIHS studies, lane-departure warnings have been consistently the most annoying of all crash avoidance technologies, so much that because it is frequently switched off, their studies cannot determine whether or not the feature is a safety benefit.

    “Lane-departure warning has the potential to prevent a lot of the most serious crashes,” says Ian Reagan, an IIHS senior research scientist and the study’s lead author. “However, if people consider it a turn-signal nanny, they may not accept the feature.”

    As one Consumer Reports reader mused, “Lane-departure warning made me realize that I weave too much, so I'm a better driver now. However, it's annoying in everyday driving, so I turn it on only when I'm driving while sleepy. Then I'm happy to have it.”

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 01/28/16--03:00: The Timeshare Comes of Age
  • The Timeshare Comes of Age

    Once upon a time, if you said you owned a timeshare, you might get a withering look of disdain from someone who felt you had caved in to a hard sell for a vacation option that most people were as eager to exit as they were quick to sign up. But times have changed for timeshares, and a quiet revolution in the industry now shows that they can be a savvy vacation strategy.

    The industry got off to a rocky reputational start in the U.S. in 1974, when developers capitalized on the concept to unload unsold condos during an era of overdevelopment, high interest rates, and soaring energy costs. Sneaky come-ons in the form of free show tickets, three-night getaways, and all-you-can-eat buffets lured attendees into multihour presentations complete with high-pressure sales tactics. And the offering was very inflexible: a fixed week, in a fixed unit, at a fixed location during the calendar year.


    More on Timeshares

    • Is a Timeshare Vacation a Good Value?
    • Consider a Secondhand Timeshare for Sale
    • Timeshare Resale Scams


    What Has Changed Over Time

    But the industry has become much more consumer-friendly and transparent, insiders insist, largely because major hospitality chains—such as Disney, Four Seasons, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Starwood, and Wyndham—are among the big players. The entry of these global giants has “solidified the product and brought credibility to the sales process,” says Michael Brown, chief operating officer of Hilton Grand Vacations, which operates 71 club-affiliated resorts in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Mexico.

    Today you needn’t even sit through a company’s sales pitch in person. You can contact representatives by phone or live chat. And you can go online to check out images and videos of the properties, and get detailed information about the complete cost of ownership. And as befits any new “rebranding,” the industry has come up with more warm and fuzzy—and less incendiary—terminology to describe its expanding array of products, such as “vacation ownership” and “interval travel.”

    What to Consider If You Might Buy

    Timeshares are ideally geared toward those committed to vacationing every year, Nusbaum says. “We’re asking, ‘What do you think you’ll be spending on vacations the next 10 years?’ ” If you have limited time off from work or a job that forces you to change plans on a dime, a timeshare might not be for you. Also consider that the appeal of the resort options must stand the test of time.

    A timeshare at Disney’s Magic Kingdom might be great for 15 years, but once the kids are grown, most of the magic might be gone. An unhappy timeshare owner is someone who bought in during the flush of joy on one vacation and later realized that the resort experience didn’t suit their long-range vacation tastes. Timeshare exchange companies can perhaps alleviate some buyer’s remorse. They allow owners to trade units within a resort system. Developers have a relationship with an exchange company, which administers the service for owners at the resort. Owners become members of the exchange system when they buy their timeshare. At most resorts, the developer pays for each new member’s first year in the exchange company, but members pay after that. When a member takes a week from the inventory, the exchange company charges a fee. One of the largest such exchanges is RCI, which offers members access to more than 4,500 affiliated resorts worldwide. 

    Not Your Typical Investment

    You also need to disabuse yourself of the idea that you are owning investment property. You may rent, sell, exchange, or bequeath your particular timeshare unit. But unlike an actual piece of real estate, a vacation ownership’s value is tied exclusively to its use as a vacation destination. “You’d be foolish to buy a timeshare for investment purposes,” says Randy Conrads, co-founder of RedWeek, a website that lists timeshares for sale or rent. “It’s a lifestyle investment, not a financial one. You’re buying a vacation property that you thought you’d use.”

    But like buying any property, don’t plunk down cash without careful consideration. Whether the sales pitch is hard or soft, it’s easy to get seduced by the romance of a getaway villa in Steamboat Springs while swooshing down a snowy mountain. That’s why salespeople are so persistent and want you to buy immediately, says Florida attorney Susan Budowski. “My advice to anyone attending a timeshare presentation is never buy on the first day. Always sleep on it. The ‘special deal’ will be there tomorrow in 99 percent of the cases, regardless of what the sales rep tells you.”

    Be sure to evaluate the resort, including its location; the quality and condition of the living areas, grounds, and facilities; and pay attention to whether it’s swarming with people or empty. Talk to other owners to get a feel for the resort and its pros and cons. Local realtors can be a good source of information, too. As always, check for complaints about the developer and management firm with the state’s attorney general.

    Also make sure the sales contract contains all of the promises made during the pitch. Study the paperwork and run it by a knowledgeable timeshare lawyer.

    Even after you’ve signed a contract, be aware that every state has a “right of rescission” period, usually from three to 10 days, to back out of the contract. Know how much time you have to cancel, especially if you buy while on vacation and weren’t planning to look at the documents until you returned home.

    If you decide to cancel, do so in writing. Send your letter by certified mail, and ask for a return receipt. Budowski suggests hiring a lawyer if you plan to exercise your right of rescission. Remember, too, that timeshares in foreign countries are not covered by U.S. law.


    Beyond Cushy Hotels: From Yurts to Yachts

    Here’s a short list of some of the more unusual vacation opportunities we unearthed. Some are for sale as timeshare purchases; others involve membership, not ownership; and still others can be booked as part of an exchange, where you trade in your week at your resort to vacation elsewhere.


    What If You Want Out?

    According to a study commissioned by ARDA, about eight in 10 timeshare owners said they would happily buy their timeshare again. But what about those who aren’t as satisfied?

    Financial hardship is one reason people want out. Another industry study, by EY (Ernst & Young), revealed that 56 percent of reclaimed timeshares—properties that revert to the developer—stem from foreclosure. Maintenance fees—which pay for property taxes, landscaping, management, and insurance to protect against catastrophes like storm damage—can be a concern because you must keep paying them even after your purchase payment is satisfied. A Disney sales rep we spoke with said fees, or “dues” in Disney speak, rise 2 to 3 percent per year. Industry­wide, they’ve increased 5 percent per year on average since 2010.

    As for resale value, a timeshare is more like a car than a house, in that it depreciates if you are looking to sell it. In fact, there’s no shortage of websites such as eBay, RedWeek, and Timeshare Resale Vacations that advertise timeshares for $1, put up for sale by owners who want to escape the burden of annual maintenance fees.

    Resale might be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Developers said that they sometimes buy back their timeshares. You might also be able to negotiate with the developer to take the property off your hands if you are willing, say, to pay one or two years’ worth of maintenance fees while the company tries to find a buyer. Disney maintains the right to repurchase unwanted vacation points before anyone else. If an owner wants out, he or she is free to sell the property on the open market, but Disney has the option to buy the points back at the price the private buyer is willing to pay. However, don’t count on that happening everywhere.
     

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Tax-Preparation Software Review: H&R Block Deluxe vs. TurboTax Deluxe

     Are you among the intrepid tax filers who prepare their own returns? Then you’re probably using H&R Block Deluxe or TurboTax Deluxe, two leading tax-prep products. They’re aimed at folks who itemize but don’t have complex investments or businesses.

    For this tax-preparation software review, we tested online versions of both shortly after their release in December 2015. (You can do the same; you pay only when you file.) Each costs $34.99 to prepare and file a federal return and $36.99 for a single state return, though prices could rise later in the season.

    TaxAct, another popular online tax-prep tool, had not been released at the time we did our tax-preparation software comparison.

    The Basics
    With either tool, you can import W-2s, 1099s, and other income documents from thousands of employers and financial institutions. You can opt to have the programs guide you or skip sections that don’t apply. Both offer a refund “ticker” that constantly updates what you’ll get or owe as you go through the program.

    Got a tax question? H&R Block and TurboTax let you input queries or search their databases for answers. Both also offer advice from tax pros by phone. H&R Block offers unlimited, free advice to all users. Users of TurboTax Deluxe online and its higher-priced cousins get free advice, but users of the TurboTax Deluxe CD-Rom pay $19.99 for unlimited calls.

    File by Phone
    If you’re so inclined, the mobile versions of both apps let you prepare the “long form” (IRS Form 1040) as well as the “short forms” (1040-A and 1040-EZ) on your smartphone. As advertised, both apps automatically transferred our inputs into their online programs. 

    CR's Take
    H&R Block offers a few more free services than TurboTax, which could make it more attractive to do-it-yourself newbies. But TurboTax'€™s more generous charitable deduction valuations, for example, make it a better choice for seasoned DIY-ers.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Is a Timeshare Vacation a Good Value?

    If a timeshare fits your lifestyle, does it make financial sense to buy into a resort or to simply book a hotel room on demand? We compared the costs of vacationing at a similar unit at a similar time at Disney World’s Polynesian Village Resort in Orlando, Fla.

    For ownership, we took into consideration the buy-in price of $25,200 (150 points at $168 per point); maintenance fee of $903; and closing costs, $575. We chose a 150-point plan because it would allow us to have a timeshare vacation for a week or more during the least expensive dates on the calendar (at 16 points per night). That would also give us residual points that could be used for an additional stay or to vacation at more in-demand times, such as over the holidays, which can cost up to 36 points per night.

    Next, we calculated the cost to book a similar room for four (Deluxe Studio, standard view) at the Polynesian for seven nights. The rate: $2,844 plus tax, for a total of $3,200. (See “How We Did the Math,” at bottom, for details.)


    More on Timeshares

    • The Timeshare Comes of Age
    • Consider a Secondhand Timeshare for Sale
    • Timeshare Resale Scams


    We found that it’s far cheaper to stay as a guest in the early years. For the first seven years, we estimate that you’ll pay as much as $2,500 more in a single year to own—when you take into account the loan and interest payments, closing costs, and other front-end expenses.

    The tide turns in year eight, when booking a room becomes more expensive than taking a timeshare vacation. But it will take four or so years longer before the cumulative costs of renting and owning even out. Over the first seven years, we estimate that ownership expenses would have topped $40,000 vs. only about $25,000 had you booked the room.

    By the end of year 13, there’s no more catching up to do. The balance tilts firmly in favor of ownership. Year 13 is when we project that owners would have recouped all of the extra money they paid out in previous years. By year’s end, owners would have spent around $47,000 since day one on timeshare vacations, renters almost $50,000.

    Assuming you continue to enjoy your timeshare vacation, the savings pile up with each passing vacation. If we look down the road—which involves some educated guesswork—after 30 years the cost of ownership would be less than half of renting a similar hotel room. Overall, we reckon Polynesian owners would have paid roughly $70,000 over those three decades, based on our assumptions. By contrast, those who opted for the hotel experience would have spent around $152,000.

    How We Did the Math

    Because most buyers finance their timeshare, we looked for typical terms and found a seven-year loan at around 8 percent interest. We allowed for a conservative 2 percent increase in the annual dues. (Disney said dues rise 2 to 3 percent per year, below the industry average.) We factored in a 3 percent annual increase in room rates, slightly lower than industry trends, based on data from PricewaterhouseCoopers. We did not include the cost of travel, transportation, meals, etc. Though we project that a timeshare vacation would pay for itself in year 13, breakeven could occur sooner, if you wanted out and were able to find a buyer on the resale market.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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