Skimming ring in 3 states busted

via Skimming ring in 3 states busted

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As you gas up your car during holiday trips, the FBI is warning consumers to watch out for credit card skimmers on gas pumps, which could be used to steal your money and identity.

The FBI and a U.S. attorney this week announced they had busted a multi-state ring that had installed skimmers on gas pumps across Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. Officers collared eight people in an operation that included more than 30 law enforcement agencies across the three states, after the thieves made off with more than 7,000 card numbers and about $3.5 million.

“This form of identity theft is causing untold losses to both financial institutions and individuals who are merely filling their tanks at the gasoline pump. As we begin the busiest travel season of the year, consumers need to pay special attention to where and how they pay for gasoline as criminals are using new and more sophisticated technologies,” noted U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman.

Skimmers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and thieves have gotten proficient at making them look close enough to the real thing to fool all but the savviest customers. Thieves install the devices over the card-swipe device on the pump, and in some cases, replace the pump’s original card reader. When unwitting customers swipe their cards to pay for gas, the device reads the card number and other information, which is then used to raid the customer’s bank account or steal their identity.

You may recall that police last year found a skimmer installed on gas pumps in the Clinton area, resulting in arrests and indications the activity was part of a larger ring operating across several states.

In the case announced this week, the FBI reported the thieves installed the devices inside the gas pumps, then later retrieved them. The stolen financial information was then re-encoded, transferred, or cloned on to the magnetic strip of other plastic cards that were sold or used to purchase merchandise.

Although skimming is not a new phenomenon, it is getting harder to detect. PC Magazine’s Max Eddy wrote about the technology last year, noting the devices are now smaller than a deck of cards, and can be placed on an ATM or point-of-sale terminal easily. Often, he notes, thieves will also place a camera nearby to record Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) of customers, but in some cases, they have installed fake keypads as well.

Spotting a skimmer is not always easy, but Eddy gives a few pointers:

  • Watch for mismatched colors or styles. If the overall color in the area where you insert your card is black, for example, but the card reader is yellow, that could be a sign that it’s fake. Also, watch for mismatches in lettering or the materials used.
  • Wiggle everything. Since readers have to be hastily installed so the thieves won’t get caught, they don’t usually have much time to make sure everything fits perfectly. Eddy advises pulling at the reader and keypad to ensure nothing moves.
  • Look around. Cover the keypad with your hand, to prevent anyone from seeing your fingers as they enter the PIN. Many devices now have a little shield over the top of the keypad to prevent someone seeing your fingers as they enter the numbers, or recording your movements from a distance. Still, covering the keypad as you enter can prevent thieves from getting the all-important PIN.
  • Use the EMV chip. Since most newer card readers accept EMV (Europay, Mastercard, Visa) chips that require your card to be inserted, this option gives you more security and requires thieves to install devices inside the reader.
  • Pay inside. It’s less convenient to pay inside the store, but generally more secure.

It’s also a good idea to keep up with your purchases. Most banks now have apps that allow you to keep up with transactions, so if you notice any activity you didn’t authorize, report it immediately.

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Stores don’t have to honor ad errors

via Stores don’t have to honor ad errors, clarionledger.com

I’ve heard from a few consumers in the past few weeks who mentioned they saw an unbelievably good advertised price for an item in an ad circular or newspaper, but when they went to the store or restaurant to take advantage of it, they were told it was an error and the merchant wouldn’t sell it at that price.

Let’s say you see an ad in the newspaper for a microwave oven for $25 at your local discount store. “At that price, I’ll get two,” you exclaim gleefully, and take the ad with you to the store. You’re a little skeptical, but it was in print, so you decide to take a chance. But when you get there and find the oven on the shelf, the price is $250.

By now, you’re getting upset, so you find the manager and present him with the printed ad. He consults with a couple of employees, who run over to the shelf. They return shortly, and the three have a little conference out of earshot. The manager comes back to you and tells you he won’t sell you the microwave for $25 because the price in the ad was missing a zero. He is willing to knock a few dollars off the price for your trouble, but won’t budge otherwise. A few minutes later, a sign appears on the store’s door acknowledging the error and offering an apology.

This scenario happens quite frequently, especially in businesses that advertise a lot. It’s easy to miss a few errors as ads are composed, and although most publications take great care to review everything, mistakes slip through. But although many people believe the store must honor any price in an ad, store sign or even a shelf tag, it’s a myth. A store is under no legal obligation to honor a mistaken price, so long as there is not a pattern of such behavior and there is no intent to deceive.

One example that got a lot of publicity was in 2013, when Macy’s put out a national ad for a necklace that ordinarily cost $1,500, but had discounted it to $47. The only problem: The actual discounted price was $479; whoever composed the advertisement had mistakenly left off the “9.” Macy’s quickly acted to put up signs in its stores, but it was too late; the necklace had already sold out in the company’s Dallas location. Since Macy’s was unable (or unwilling, given the potential social media backlash) to try to recover the thousands lost due to the mistake, they canceled unfilled online orders instead. A few people managed to make significant profit from the situation.

This is, of course, much different from “bait-and-switch,” in which a business advertises an item at an unusually low price but has no intention of honoring the price and is instead trying to get customers to come in so they can be “upsold” to higher-priced merchandise. Repeated complaints of this type of behavior can catch the attention of law enforcement and make a business end up in court.

In cases of errors, though, most sources I consulted would agree the seller is expected to correct the mistake quickly and preferably in the same medium that carried the mistake in the first place. If a merchant makes an honest mistake, it’s under no obligation to honor the mistaken price. Mississippi’s consumer protection law doesn’t prescribe specifically what to do in the case of such mistakes, although it does mandate that a merchant can’t advertise goods or services “with intent not to sell them as advertised.” It also prohibits advertising with “intent not to supply reasonably expectable public demand, unless the advertisement discloses a limitation of quantity.”

To avoid such problems, merchants should have clear, written policies spelling out what they will do in case of errors. Examine the copy carefully before publication and be sure to include limitations or expiration dates that may apply.

And if you’re the customer, try to reason with the business calmly. Many stores and restaurants empower their clerks and customer-service representatives to grant discounts (up to a point) to make the customer happier. You might not get exactly what you want, but most businesses will try to accommodate you as much as possible within reason. If you have evidence of “bait-and-switch” or other illegal practices, file a complaint with law enforcement.

In an age in which a simple typo can make your company a social-media pariah in minutes, owning up to the error and being generous can help keep a business’ reputation and customer goodwill (which are, in fact, any business’ most valuable assets anyway.)

The “Great Reddi-Wip Crisis” has sad origin

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via Tragedy curtails holiday tradition, clarionledger.com

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For many people, Christmas dinner is really just the prelude to mouth-watering, legendary desserts. Yes, we love a good turkey or ham, with stuffing or dressing, accompanied by casseroles and other sides. But really, if we’re honest about it, we really long for the desserts.

No Christmas dinner is complete without a scrumptious pie, created with love, an old family recipe, and no small amount of pecans, cherries, apples or one of a dozens of other orchard specialties. Growing up, our family’s Christmas meal often reached its denouement with a mouth-watering pecan pie, topped with a floret of whipped cream.

In the old days, that whipped cream was whipped with a mixer, but since the 1950s many cooks have quietly put a can or tub of whipped cream (such as Reddi-Wip, Cool-Whip and other brands) into their baskets, resulting in a new holiday tradition. But this Christmas, many consumers may find themselves having to get out the mixers again; there’s a shortage of canned whipped cream this year. It’s already been dubbed the “Great Reddi-Wip Crisis of 2016.”

And while it may not be the Griswoldian undoing of the perfect family Christmas tableau, it’s an interesting story and a reminder of how the interconnected nature of nearly everything we buy makes it vulnerable to unseen, unexpected — and sometimes tragic — forces.

It all started with an explosion back in the summer near Pensacola, Florida, where a tanker carrying nitrous oxide exploded while being refilled at a site operated by Airgas. Tragically, the explosion killed the man who was filling the tank and caused severe damage to the plant. (The cause of the incident is still under investigation.)

According to an article in The Atlantic, Airgas’ two other North American plants (one of which is in Yazoo City, the other in Canada) weren’t able to keep up with the demand for nitrous oxide, so the company halted production for most customers except for the medical industry. ConAgra, the maker of Reddi Wip, halted production of the product until at least January. Supplies have been limited, and many consumers have reported they can’t find it in the stores.

Nitrous oxide, you may remember, is the same gas that your dentist uses, the same stuff that race-car drivers use to supercharge their cars. And it’s why, when you push on the Reddi Wip nozzle, the result is the dairy-sweet goodness on your pecan pie.

We can trace the technology behind canned whipped cream to a man named Aaron S. “Bunny” Lapin, a St. Louis businessman who died in 1999. Lapin’s obituary in the New York Times notes it was his idea to put whipped cream into a can, and use a propellant such as nitrous oxide to push the product out of the can. Lapin made millions, became a celebrity (known as the “Whipped-Cream King”), and Reddi-Wip became a staple in Christmas desserts across America.

All these interconnections and backstories remind us that nearly everything we use in our daily lives is supported by a sometimes-fragile web of manufacturers and suppliers, relying on the assurance of a complicated supply-chain infrastructure, to get products to the stores and eventually to our table. We are really blessed to be able to rely on these things enough to take them for granted, and should be thankful that we live in a place where such luxuries as canned whipped cream are readily available most of the time.

So, this Christmas, although some of us may be put out by the unavailability of Reddi-Wip, it’s important to remember that the shortage is a minor inconvenience, and results from a tragic event, in which a family is experiencing its first Christmas without a loved one. And, perhaps, it’s time for us to count our own blessings, get out the mixer, and rediscover that sometimes, the best memories and gifts are those we make ourselves.

Online reviews too grrrreat?

 

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via Online reviews too grrrreat?, clarionledger.com

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Previously, we have written about how companies sometimes hire people to write favorable reviews about their products, with endorsements often appearing on social media and advertising. This sort of self-dealing is what has gotten a lot of companies in hot water with regulators and consumer groups, largely because it tends to muddy the waters when consumers rely heavily on what they see and read on the internet. Many people who rely on online reviews about a product before purchasing would be less likely to consider the review reputable if it were known the reviewer was paid to say positive things (especially if they didn’t clearly disclose that fact).

It’s all reminiscent of the Payola scandals of the 1960s, when the music industry was shaken by revelations that some disc jockeys were regularly being paid to play certain songs, boosting the records’ perceived popularity and in turn making them much more lucrative. The scandal helped destroy the careers of “Father of Rock” Alan Freed and others.

The most recent example of “pay for play” review practices is the venerable Kellogg Co., which has become known to generations of cereal-eating consumers as a brand associated with quality products. But last week, The Associated Press reported that its reporters had obtained a copy of a contract between the company and a group of “independent experts” called the “Breakfast Council.”

The group included nutritionists and other experts who allegedly received an average of $13,000 a year to review Kellogg’s products, post favorable reviews on social media and use “talking points” provided by the company in their reviews. According to the AP’s story, participants were prohibited from offering media services “competitive or negative to cereal” and required to conduct “nutrition influencer outreach” on social media or with colleagues.

“I’m still feeling great from my bowl of cereal & milk this morning! Mini-Wheats are my fave,” a council member posted during a Twitter chat with Kellogg about the benefits of cereal. Kellogg introduced the dietitian as a “Breakfast Council Member.”

For its part, Kellogg defended its practices in the AP’s story, but noted it understood such blurred lines could cause confusion. The Breakfast Council has since been abolished.

Still, the issue has also helped erode trust in all types of media at a time when the media’s reputation as reliable and unbiased is already a shambles. In September, the Gallup Organization reported that Americans’ trust in the mass media had reached a historic low, with an average of 32 percent of people saying they don’t trust the media. That’s the lowest number since 1976.

It should be noted that, if you think navigating the online-reputation world is easy, you’d be wrong. Companies spend millions to develop their reputations, and being on the wrong end of negative news can destroy everything practically overnight. And, while there’s nothing wrong with encouraging online reviews, optimizing your company’s search engine profile and making sure your company puts its best foot forward online, it can be tempting to go further.

In recent months, scandals have erupted after it was discovered that companies paid people to post fake reviews on sites like Amazon.com or Yelp; paid popular bloggers to write positive reviews or failed to (clearly and conspicuously) disclose that payments were made.

Since the internet has become the “watering hole” where people share news, information and reviews about products, consumers are looking for valuable and accurate information to help them make choices. Of course, everybody understands advertising and marketing are there to help sell a product, and they understand what they see, hear and read in advertisements is bought and paid for. But when it’s discovered the line between fact and claim isn’t clear, reputations can be irreparably harmed.

Many companies already belong to organizations that have a code of ethics; every company that sells products should adopt one (and adhere to it). If it’s not sufficient or broad enough, write your own, or adapt one such as this one, by blogger Morten Rand-Hendriksen: https://mor10.com/code-of-ethics-for-bloggers-social-media-and-content-creators/. Of course, just signing on the dotted line is easy, but having enforceable and robust company policies can help protect your company’s most valuable asset: its reputation.

Jet.com redefining grocery shopping

via Jet.com redefining grocery shopping

You’ve probably noticed the postcards popping up in your mailbox for a new service called Jet.com, promising that you can get groceries delivered to your home. I got mine last week (complete with a promise of $10 savings), and it prompted me to do a bit of research.

It turns out this company, which didn’t even exist a couple of years ago, has now become a major disruptive force in the grocery business. And it’s not just groceries; while the company focuses on groceries in its marketing, you can buy just about anything on the site.

 

After the site’s creation in 2015, its meteoric rise caught the attention of Wal-Mart, which wanted to position itself at the front of the online-retailing race. In September, the superstore behemoth acquired Jet.com for about $3 billion.

Of course, the grocery business is no stranger to innovation, but this could be one of the most profound. While it’s taken awhile for the sedate industry to embrace e-commerce, it appears that long-awaited day has arrived.

The roots of the grocery business reach back into antiquity; people have always needed a market to buy and sell food and other essentials. Innovations through the years have brought a lot of changes, with none (at least until recently) more important than the invention of the first true self-service grocery stores. An entrepreneur named Clarence Saunders is credited with helping bring about this revolution with the opening in 1916 of the first Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis. This store and others like it changed the way we think about shopping. (If you’re ever in Memphis, stop by the awesome Pink Palace Museum to see a mockup of Saunders’ revolutionary concept.)

In the century since Saunders opened his doors to customers, technological innovations have slowly changed the shopping experience. But the recent developments with Jet.com and other online retailers have promised that the shopping experience will soon be transformed. Now, you can peruse a website, place your order and have your groceries delivered — all without ever having to leave home.

When I got my Jet.com postcard (which promised $10 off my first purchase and free shipping if I bought more than $35 worth of groceries), I decided to give it a try. The site is pretty easy to navigate, and does appear secure, although you must provide your contact info and payment information. I put a few items in my “virtual” basket, and noticed that as I did so, the prices for some of the goods already in my basket were dropping. In other words, the more items you buy, the bigger the discounts. Jet.com says this is because they can group certain items in a box, therefore saving the cost of shipping.

Compiling my order on a Wednesday, I gave the packers a challenge; among my choices were a cumbersome 15-pound bag of dog food, a 150-ounce container of clothes detergent, three boxes of cereal and a few small items. The prices were competitive with what you’d pay in a local store, with no taxes or shipping charged, and my $10 coupon code applied. After completing the order, I clicked “submit” and then waited. Delivery was promised within two days. Sure enough, on Friday, a box was waiting by the front door, delivered by FedEx.

Inside, the items were arranged neatly and efficiently. My only issue was that one of the cereal boxes had gotten a little crushed, but the contents appeared none the worse for wear. All in all, it was a pretty nice shopping trip — no checkout lines, no germy cart handles, no wrestling of grocery bags to and from the car. And, of course, Jet.com will remember your list and preferences for next time (and will probably start bombarding you with ads and promotions.)

It’s also important to note you can save a few pennies on your order by giving up your right to “free returns” of certain items; you may want to consider carefully whether you’d want the ability to return items for refund or replacement.

While Jet.com’s services are an end-run around the built-in challenges faced by bricks-and-mortar stores, some retailers have recently been upping the ante on their own convenience services, such as online ordering and pick-up at local stores. For example, Kroger’s ClickList allows you to order online and pick up your groceries at curbside. ClickList costs $4.95 (more for an “expedited” order), while Wal-Mart’s is free. And both companies promise delivery services soon in local communities.

One thing is prominently missing from Jet.com and similar services, at least for now: the ability to buy fresh or perishable groceries. Jet.com says fresh products are available only in selected cities, but promises to bring fruits, vegetables, dairy and frozen foods to us in due time. In the meantime, you will have to get your milk and bananas through a local bricks-and-mortar store, but at least you’ll be able to pick them up without having to leave your car.

For now, no one knows whether — or how — these innovations will change the grocery store experience in our local communities. And long-term relationships built between local, knowledgeable grocers and their customers (which put sales tax dollars and payrolls to work in local communities) will be hard for online retailers to overcome. It won’t be apparent for a while whether we’re seeing the cutting edge of a complete transformation of how we shop for basic necessities, or just a test of what proves an unsustainable model. Still, it’s an interesting time to be a shopper.

Seasonal Halloween stores disappear Nov. 1

via Seasonal Halloween stores disappear Nov. 1

Within the next few days, many folks will be getting serious about their Halloween costumes. It wasn’t too long ago that most of us made our own costumes (or had our mom make them), found someone who was really creative and good with makeup, or bought cheap costumes at discount stores.

But the costume industry has exploded in recent years, making it possible for you to dress up as just about anyone (or anything) your imagination can concoct. And with marketing tie-ins from major motion picture franchises, gaming companies and pop-culture icons, supply of high-quality costumes — and other Halloween-related merchandise — has risen to meet the demand. The National Retail Federation reports that we’ll spend $8.4 billion on costumes, candy and various types of holiday décor this year.

In response to this Halloween hullabaloo, the “pop-up” Halloween costume store has stormed on the scene in the past few years. In an amazingly short time, workers can transform a previously empty storefront or abandoned “big-box” store into a costume hunter’s paradise. Shoppers cannot only find row after row of costumes from every dark corner of the imagination, they can also procure party favors, mischief-making supplies, candy and decorations. If they have a good location and aggressive marketing, these stores can lure huge crowds.

But, just like a ghostly apparition that rises from a murky swamp by moonlight, they’ll disappear as soon as the demand vanishes (only to rise, Brigadoon-like, the same time next year). To that point, a recent news release from the office of New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino caught my eye recently. Porrino wanted to warn people that, although these stores are just cashing in on good old supply-and-demand capitalism, some operators could be troublesome if you find yourself to be a dissatisfied customer.

“We want consumers to be aware that these “pop-up” stores come and go in a flash, so shoppers need to be extra careful when making purchases,” said Porrino. “Know what questions to ask to avoid getting shortchanged.”

It’s important to note that Porrino’s own inspection of pop-up Halloween stores throughout New Jersey found no obvious violations of that state’s law regarding refund and return policies, and it’s likely that the same would apply here in the Magnolia State. Still, it’s a good idea to know your rights as a consumer, and to be careful when shelling out Halloween bucks.

Here are a few things you might want to consider when shopping at a “pop-up” Halloween store (from Porrino’s office):

  • Ask store personnel how long they plan to occupy the building. If they can’t give you a clear answer, use caution.
  • Ask how you would be able to contact the store once it leaves, perhaps by website or an alternate address. (Many pop-up stores have year-round headquarters to handle store business; if there’s not a clear answer to this question, consider going somewhere else).
  • Ask for specific details on returns. What types of merchandise will the store take back? Are unworn costumes returnable after Oct. 31? Will you get a full refund or store credit? How is store credit redeemable after the shop has closed for the season?
  • Fully inspect and try on costumes before leaving the store. Halloween stores are busy places and mix-ups occur. Don’t assume the merchandise inside the box matches what’s on the label.
  • Save all your receipts and pay by credit card so you can dispute unsatisfactory purchases through the card’s issuer.
  • Shop at stores that have a proven track record of returning to your town year after year.

And, finally, consider shopping at one of the many permanent party stores in the metro area, which employ local residents all year long, and will be there if you have an issue or concern.

For more on the booming Halloween industry, visit the NRF’s Halloween Headquarters site at http://bit.ly/2cBSpXm.

Thieves manipulate retail supply chain

via Thieves manipulate retail supply chain

“Organized retail crime” is one of those things of which most of us remain blissfully unaware. While for most of us, the term “organized crime” conjures images of Tony Soprano and Vito Corleone, the true purveyors of organized retail crime activities likely wouldn’t stand out in a crowd of businessmen or your neighbors.

But organized retail crime has become a major menace on the American business landscape. According to a survey released this week by the National Retail Federation, more than eight in 10 businesses have reported an increase in losses from it, with those losses reverberating through the economy in the form of higher prices, more restrictive policies and increased security measures.

Loosely, the term “organized retail crime” refers to any criminal activity that involves more than a single individual and seeks to steal merchandise, information or resources from businesses. These crimes might involve someone hiring thieves to steal certain items for resale on the black market, manipulating store return policies to steal merchandise, or stealing cargo bound for your neighborhood retail store.

“Retailers continue to deal with the challenges that come with fighting organized retail crime,” said Bob Moraca, the NRF’s vice president of loss prevention. “Every day, criminals are getting more creative in the ways they manipulate the retail supply chain. Combating ORC is a full-time job, and it is a constant battle industry-wide for retailers large and small to stay one step ahead of these savvy criminals.”

In the NRF’s 12th annual Organized Retail Crime Survey, the organization asked 59 senior retail loss prevention executives whether they’d experienced losses from ORC in the past year. For the first time in the survey’s history, all of them reported losses from organized retail crime activities.

Among the 83 percent who reported their losses had grown, the average loss was $700,259 per $1 billion in sales, a significant increase from $453,940 last year.

Organized retail crime gangs often use storefronts, pawn shops, flea markets and kiosks to fence stolen goods, and 63 percent of those surveyed said they had recovered merchandise from a physical location. But many criminals turn to the Internet for the anonymity it offers — 58 percent of retailers said they had identified stolen merchandise from an e-fencing operation.

Criminals are also finding ways to manipulate store return policies. According to the survey, 68 percent of respondents said they had experienced thieves taking advantage of generous return policies and returning stolen merchandise for store credit, then selling the credits to secondary-market buyers.

Four new states have enacted ORC laws in the past year, bringing the total nationwide to 34. But the survey found that 56 percent of retailers in states with organized retail crime laws said they had seen no increase in support from law enforcement, the highest in the survey’s history. Retailers continue to support creation of a federal organized retail crime law, which is backed by 79.7 percent of those surveyed.

Cargo theft continues to take a rising toll on retailers. The most common place for cargo theft to occur is when merchandise is en route from the manufacturer to a retailer’s warehouse or from the warehouse to a store. Often, according to Loss Prevention Magazine, thieves will stake out a truck on its way to a retailer, then steal the truck when the driver leaves the truck to refuel, eat or go to the restroom. In an article on its website, LPM’s John Tabor noted that the average value of a shipment in transit in 2013 was $300,000 (sometimes much more), making it a lucrative crime. And since most retailers depend on trucks for at least part of their supply chain, it affects nearly all retail sectors.

Tabor noted the most effective responses to such crimes include increased security measures for trucks on the road, thorough vetting of personnel involved in the shipments and innovative programs working with law enforcement that use technology (such as embedded GPS devices). Most industry experts call for more stringent laws and regulations to address the growth of organized retail crime, which ultimately affects all of us.

“Organized retail crime continues to impact retailers at a larger scale now more than ever before,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and custom policy who heads the organization’s lobbying efforts on organized retail crime. “ORC also poses a threat to unwitting consumers who may purchase stolen merchandise that is not stored properly or may have expired. It is critical for our industry to continue pushing for strong federal legislation that would properly define ORC and make it a federal crime. Until there is a federal ORC law to counter this increasing criminal activity and the ability to transport stolen products across state lines, it will be nearly impossible to put a dent in this $30 billion-a-year problem that threatens retailers, the economy and consumers across the country.”

Debt forgiveness in store for Mississippians

via Debt forgiveness in store for Mississippians

More than 300 Mississippi consumers will soon be getting some relief in the form of forgiven debts and updated credit reports as part of a nationwide $95.6 million settlement involving debt and collection practices of retail giant USA Discounters.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and all 49 of his fellow attorneys general announced Monday they have reached a settlement agreement with Virginia-based USA Discounters after accusing the company of unfair tactics targeting military personnel and veterans. The settlement affects 320 Mississippians, to the tune of more than $887,000.

 

“Our men and women in uniform, as well as our veterans, deserve better than what they were subjected to at the hands of this company,” Hood said in a news release. “These unfair, abusive tactics meant higher prices and high interest rates for our military families, who in turn were routinely at a disadvantage because of the company’s improper debt collection practices.”

The company (which declared bankruptcy after closing all its stores in 2015) did business as USA Living and Fletcher’s Jewelers, often locating its stores near military bases. The company sold furniture, appliances, televisions, computers, smartphones, jewelry and other consumer goods, principally on credit, and — despite the name — often at inflated prices. USA Discounters typically marketed to members of the military and veterans, advertising that military, veterans and government employees would “never be denied credit for goods purchased from the retailer.”

Hood and his fellow AGs alleged the company had “engaged in unfair, abusive, false and deceptive acts and practices.” One example was that, when trying to collect on outstanding consumer debts, company employees “constantly contacted” people in service members’ chains-of-command, causing some service members to lose their security clearances and face demotions.

In addition, the states alleged USA Discounters sold overpriced household goods at high interest rates, often using the military allotment system to guarantee payment. In some cases, the company filed collection suits in Virginia courts, making it difficult for members in other areas to defend themselves in court if they were stationed at other locations.

As part of the agreement, USA Discounters has agreed to write off all accounts with balances for consumers whose last contract was before June 1, 2012, and correct the negative comment from the company on those consumers’ credit reports. In addition, the company will apply a $100 credit to all accounts for contracts dated after June 1, 2012, and correct the negative credit report comment. Those actions equal about $74 million in debt being written off or credited. The company will also write off all judgments not obtained in the correct state.

For more information on the settlement, consumers can contact the Consumer Protection Division of the attorney general’s office at 800-281-4418 or visit http://www.AGJimHood.com.

More consumers rating products by reviews

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tweakyourbiz.com

via Moak: More consumers rating products by reviews, clarionledger.com

PDF: More rely on online reviews

Remember the ’90s sitcom “Home Improvement”? Watching the antics of Tim “The Toolman” Taylor as he bumbled through his charmed life as a home-repair guru gave many Americans a much-needed comedic respite from the troubles of the day.

Tim was surrounded by smart people who gave him good advice — which he often ignored, at his peril. There was his competent sidekick Al, always the butt of Tim’s pranks; his wife Jill, whose level-headedness helped temper Tim’s frequent flights of fancy; and, of course, there was Wilson, Tim’s back-fence neighbor (we never saw his entire face) to whom Tim frequently went for sage, oracle-like advice.

It seems that we all need a “Wilson” in our lives; someone who we can trust to tell us the truth and give us sound advice. Americans have always looked for their own Wilson, and are still doing it. The difference is that today’s Wilson is likely an online review site.

Online reviews have never been more popular than they are today. According to a recent study by Trustpilot, a company that hosts online reviews for hundreds of companies, nearly nine in 10 shoppers research products online before buying them. That statistic signals a sea change from just a few years ago.

The findings from Trustpilot’s first-ever U.S. consumer-focused survey looked into the importance of reading, writing and trusting online reviews. One big finding: Consumers are demanding simplicity and information that’s easy to find, the company noted in a news release.

“Consumers are becoming increasingly reliant on online reviews to research companies and make purchase decisions,” said Fred Mather, general manager of the Americas at Trustpilot. “Because consumers are interacting with these online reviews throughout the entire shopping experience, it’s important for businesses to make sure customer feedback is easy to find and showcased throughout every step of the process.”

Consumers in the survey were asked which factors they’d consider most important for an online review. Half said they wanted all the information aggregated in one place for easy access, and about one in five said they wanted more recent reviews.

Many e-commerce shoppers are not necessarily planning ahead. Just under 20 percent of us are researching before we visit a shopping website, while nearly half of us wait until we’re already on the site.

And there appears to be big credibility gap for online reviews; only 18 percent of people surveyed said they trusted them. In recent years, there have been several news-getting scandals involving “pay-to-play” reviews, in which reviewers had been paid, but didn’t disclose their possible lack of objectivity in writing the review.

Finally, Trustpilot had some advice for businesses who want to make sure their reviews are credible and valuable:

  • Make sure your online reviews are easy to find, and showcase them to customers during every step of the shopping experience.
  • Give customers a forum for reviews and invite them to leave their opinion.
  • Negative feedback requires a quick — yet measured — response. For example, while your first instinct may want to respond forcefully, doing so is likely to be shared on social networks and could spell disaster. Instead, look for ways to engage the customer positively, and taking ownership of a problem can save your reputation.
  • Once you have rectified the situation, request that the customer update their review.
  • Keep an eye on customer sentiment, and strive to continually improve products and services.

For more information about Trustpilot, visit www.trustpilot.com/.More rely on online reviews

It’s back to stores for back to school

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Chris Todd, Clarion-Ledger

via It’s back to stores for back to school, clarionledger.com

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20160730_A002_0

For the past several weeks, retailers have been gearing up for the onslaught of parents trying to make sure their kids are well-equipped for the school year. Well-prepared moms and dads who planned ahead will be sitting comfortably at home in the next few days happily sipping their sweet tea, while the rest of us plunge into the nightmarish stampede of parents desperately trying to find the right 3-by-5 cards or the correct brand of No. 2 pencils specified on their kids’ supply lists.

According to some retail experts, this back-to-school season should provide a much-needed infusion of cash, as financial worries have eased for some. According to a recent study by the National Retail Federation, K-12 and college shopping trips are expected to yield nearly $76 billion, well above last year’s $68 billion.

“Families are still looking for bargains, but there are signs that they are less worried about the economy than in the past,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. “Heading into the second half of the year, we are optimistic that overall economic growth and consumer spending will continue to improve as they did in the first two quarters of the year. We fully expect retailers to be aggressive with offering great deals both in stores and online for back-to-school shoppers. And retailers will keep a close eye on inventory levels as families spread out their shopping throughout the summer.”

The organization enlisted Prosper Insights and Analytics for the annual survey, which found that families with children in grades K-12 plan to spend an average of $673.57 on apparel and accessories, electronics, shoes and school supplies, up from last year’s $630.36 for a total of $27.3 billion, according to the survey. That’s almost a 10 percent increase over last year’s tally.

There is also expected to be a surge in spending, which coincides with states’ sales-tax holidays, in which consumers can avoid paying sales tax on certain items. Mississippi’s sales tax holiday is this weekend and allows tax-free sales of clothing and footwear up to $100.

The NRF notes that it has observed over the years that each year’s back-to-school spending follows a pattern, in which families typically splurge on supplies one year, followed by a year in which they avoid making larger purchases on more-durable items such as backpacks and computers. The pattern then repeats itself; this year is expected to be a “stock-up” cycle.

According to the survey, K-12 consumers plan to spend $9.54 billion on clothing (purchased by 95 percent), $8.27 billion on electronics such as computers or calculators (57 percent), $5.12 billion on shoes (94 percent) and $4.37 billion on school supplies such as notebooks, folders, pencils, backpacks and lunchboxes (96 percent). Parents say they will spend an average $235.39 on clothing, $204.06 on electronics, $126.35 on shoes and $107.76 on school supplies.

Even with the expected good performance, parents are still bullish on spending money and will be looking for sales. “The budget-conscious consumer is not forgetting about price, quality or value, and we continue to see this when it comes to back-to-school shopping,” Prosper Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow said. “That is why many parents are taking advantage of shopping early, scouring ads and websites for the best deals, and taking advantage of free shipping with online purchases.”

Among other findings from the study:

More families are getting their shopping done early.  Nearly three-quarters of parents started their shopping several weeks ago, with the number of procrastinators down to about 22 percent.

More parents are shopping online. Nearly half of parents have shopped online for school supplies, or plan to. Still, most shoppers choose discount stores.

Older students = more expense. College students and families with children in college plan to spend an average of $888.71, according to the survey. “Whether it’s laptops for class or mini-fridges for the dorm, college simply costs more than the lower grades,” Shay said. “Some of these big-ticket items can last all four years, but when they need to be replaced it’s a bigger investment than pencils and lunchboxes. But retailers are ready to help students and parents alike stretch their dollars and make the investment in college pay off.”

For more on our back-to-school shopping plans, visit https://nrf.com/news/top-trends-2016-back-school-and-college-shopping.