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July 2009

Take Back the Beep Campaign

This article was written by in Consumer. 4 comments.

If you were to start adding a comment to this blog post, but we first made you wait fifteen seconds after pressing the “comment” button to make you hear some extraneous instructions, you’d be terribly frustrated. Now imagine if every Web site had the same problem, and imagine further that you were being charged for every second of time you spend online.

That’s basically the problem (well, one of the problems) with America’s big mobile phone companies. Anytime you want to leave a message for, say, a Verizon customer, you hear this:

At the tone, please record your message. When you have finished recording, you may hang up, or press 1 for more options. To leave a callback number, press 5.

We’ve heard these messages so much that we could all do bang-on impressions of them. For the most part, I usually just roll my eyes and my sense of the phone company’s collective intelligence goes down one more notch.

But David Pogue, technology columnist for the New York Times, sees a more serious problem: mobile phone carriers are using this extra-fifteen-seconds-per-call in a disgusting attempt to get more money from each of us. These seconds count towards our airtime usage. If you’re paying as you go, you see the problem right away. And even if you have a monthly plan, just four messages a month means a minute that you shouldn’t be using up.

But Mr. Pogue has an idea for fixing this (not to mention shocking data on how big the problem is). He’s started the “Take Back the Beep” campaign, wherein you and I send e-mails to the four biggest mobile phone companies, politely demanding that they quit this at-least annoying and at-worst money-grabbing activity. From the article:

cell executives admitted to me, point-blank, that the voicemail instructions exist primarily to make you use up airtime, thereby maximizing ARPU (Average Revenue per User)

If Verizon’s 70 million customers leave or check messages twice a weekday, Verizon rakes in about $620 million a year.

I’m heartened by stories that start out as a single complaint on Twitter, and end up getting a huge corporation’s attention, who is then obligated to rectify the matter. This should be even bigger than that. I took the time to send my complaint to AT&T. Won’t you?

Maybe if this is successful, we can then get mobile phone operators to admit that what we’re doing is just making phone calls, like we always used to do, and therefore, if you are the recipient of the call, you shouldn’t pay for it.

Take Back the Beep Campaign, David Pogue, The New York Times, July 30, 2009

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Editor’s Note: This program is back on again and should be available through Labor Day, 2009

All good things must come to an end, and in some cases, prematurely. The “Cash for Clunkers” Program, or more formally, the Car Allowance Rebate System, has allocated almost all of its budget to rebates after only four days. The law called for the program to last until November 1 or until the funds are depleted, which ever condition occurs sooner, but I do not think there were many people who expected the funds to run out this quickly.

Consider yourself lucky if you were able to qualify for the program before it was suspended.

Car dealerships apparently saw active business this past weekend, and if all the funds were used up then the program was somewhat successful. While on the surface, Cash for Clunkers appeared to be a program designed to help consumers or to help the environment, but the real goal was to help dealers sell cars. It resulted in some short-term success despite setbacks due to the EPA’s recalculation of mpg, but we will have to wait for the car companies to report their finances to judge the success.

It’s also a possibility that Cash for Clunkers will come back. If the Congress decides the program is worth spending more money, we could see another Cash for Clunkers. And if we do, it might even improved to apply to more cars.

Update: While the Transportation Department called dealerships to tell them to stop accepting applications for Cash for Clunkers, the White House informed the public overnight that the program would continue. The House and Senate are now racing to re-authorize the program for another $2 billion.

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“Now is a great time to buy.” That has been the advertising mantra of the National Association of Realtors regardless of the state of the housing market. The NAR certainly has a purpose; its mission and vision is clearly displayed on the organization’s website: “The core purpose of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® is to help its members become more profitable and successful.”

The NAR looks out for its due-paying members. Notice that the mission of this non-profit organization is not to help consumers either find bargains when buying a house or to help sellers find the highest bidders. Real estate brokers, particularly those who qualify as Realtors (which according to the organization, should be represented in all uppercase letters, include the registered trademark symbol, and be pronounced in the unnatural American English combination of phonemes “REAL-TORE”) stand to be more “profitable and successful” by increasing the number of transactions they broker.

From what I understand about commissions, a 6% commission is often split between the buying agent and the selling agent, and if the agent is part of a realty company, the 3% is split with the company. A real estate agent holding out for a buyer’s asking price of $250,000 rather than $220,000, a difference of $30,000, stands to increase his income approximately $450. That seems hardly worthwhile if it takes several months before the asking price is met. The $450 is hardly an incentive for the broker; he could do better by closing the deal and moving on. On the other hand, the $28,200 (the $30,000 in price difference minus the 6% paid to the agents) is a significant difference for the seller. This just illustrates that real estate agents have little incentive to work hard for either the seller or the buyer except to create a good relationship in order to foster referrals.

That’s not the point. The point is that the National Association of Realtors’s only goal is to encourage more real estate transactions, and this is why they have been saying that, “Now is a great time to buy,” no matter what’s going on in the world around them. This is also why any data provided to the public by the NAR should be regarded as marketing rather than a true gauge of the economy.

For a well-accepted measure, media generally turn toward the Case-Shiller Price Index (CSPI), measured by Standard & Poors (a company with its own conflicts of interest as well). The CSPI shows that home prices increased for the first time in May. Other positive data include June numbers: new housing starts and existing home sales were both up 3.6% and sales of new homes were up 11%.

Is this a sign that the housing crisis is over? It must mean that there is increased confidence in the ability to find the right price as well as increased availability of loans.

There are some problems, though. Unemployment continues to rise, so consumers may find themselves in financial trouble. That could result in fewer purchases and more mortgage defaults. The increase in purchases may be due to speculators trying to snag deals rather than families moving from apartments to houses. Even if we are at a bottom, the numbers could mean that real estate is leveling without significant increase for some time.

What do you think? Are we headed for a recovery or are there still dark clouds ahead?

Looking for a Housing Recovery, Casey B. Mulligan, New York Times, July 29, 2009.

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The Cash for Clunkers Program went into effect recently, but so did changes to the official EPA-estimated mpg ratings of several cars. For example, the 1987 Mercury Grand Marquis, according to CNN Money, was rated a combined 18 mpg last week, but as the program began this week, the rating for this year, make and model jumped to 19 mpg on Monday.

While a change of 1 mpg seems relatively insignificant, the Grand Marquis rated at 19 mpg no longer qualifies as a trade-in worth up to $4,500 under the Cash for Clunkers Program. Since the new legislation was made retroactive to July 1, car dealers have been including the rebate in their deal calculations before the rebates were available. Furthermore, dealers offered the anticipated credit as an immediate benefit to the customer with the expectation of being able to file for the credit. But this change by the EPA resulted in some cars no longer qualifying for the credit already given to the customers and as a result, some dealers have been asking customers for the money back or threatening to take back the new car.

According to the EPA, 78 models became ineligible for the credit after the reassessment of mpg calculations while 86 other models have become eligible, so there may be credits available for some who may not be aware. The recalculations occurred for model years 1985-2007 to use the same calculation that began in 2008. This puts all cars released since 1985 on the same scale, and this was a change required by the new legislation.

My 2004 Honda Civic changed from an official EPA combined estimate of 34 mpg in the old calculation method to 30 mpg in the new calculation method. You can see how your car’s estimates changed at the car finder at FuelEconomy.gov.

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FICO Suing the Credit Bureaus Over VantageScore

by Luke Landes

Fair Isaac, the company that created and owns what is generally known as your credit score, is suing Experian and TransUnion, two of the three credit reporting bureaus, for creating a competing product that blurs the line between the “real” credit score and the others. The third credit reporting bureau, Equifax, agreed to settle with […]

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Stealing Entertainment, Revisited

by Smithee

A week ago I wrote a post called “Is it Ever Okay to Steal Entertainment?”, which produced great comments from our readers, many of whom were clearly incensed that I would ever try to rationalize stealing from content creators. I’ve been thinking about the criticism and understanding that was added to the original article. I […]

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Growth Career Fields for the Next Twenty Years

by Luke Landes

If you happen to be entering college and would like to decide the field you would like your career to be or feel the need to choose a major, you may want to consider a field that has growth prospects over the next twenty years or more. Even if you are already a few years […]

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Podcast 14: ING Direct’s “We, the Savers” and the AICPA’s Feed the Pig Campaign

by Luke Landes

Episode 14 of the Consumerism Commentary Podcast includes interviews with representatives from ING Direct and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Our discussion with Jim Kelly, the chief operating officer of ING Direct, focuses on the bank’s “We, the Savers” campaign and we also discuss ING Direct’s beginnings in the United States and […]

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Posts of the Week

by Luke Landes

Here are a few articles from around the web I recommend reading. A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Step. A few days ago, Tom, the producer of the Consumerism Commentary Podcast, and I spoke with Matt Jabs and recorded most of that conversation for an upcoming episode. Part of the discussion […]

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EverBank Money Market Account Review

by Luke Landes

A little while ago, I noted the interest rates offered by EverBank and decided to open the Yield Pledge Money Market Account to take advantage of the generous “bonus” interest offered in the first three months of holding an account. The account opening process, beginning on July 8th and two weeks later on July 23rd, […]

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