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Getting Ahead
2nd Quarter 2013

In this issue:

Avoiding Post-Disaster Scam Artists

5 Travel Saving Secrets

Top 6 Deceptive Bill Charges

Avoiding Post-Disaster Scam Artists

DangerHave you ever turned on the light in a dark basement and shuddered as cockroaches scurried away? The Better Business Bureau has dubbed these human cockroaches "Storm Chasers" because they creep out of the woodwork after every major storm or disaster. In fact, because fraud was so widespread after Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Justice created the National Center for Disaster Fraud, a central information clearinghouse for more than 20 federal agencies where people can report suspected fraudulent activities tied to disasters of all types.

One common scam is where supposed repair workers blitz impacted neighborhoods, hoping to ensnare frazzled homeowners. Often, these Storm Chasers just take the money and run. Or, if they do show up and make repairs, their work or materials are shoddy. This could leave you on the hook financially since your homeowners insurance probably won't cover unauthorized or fraudulent repairs. Here are a few tips from the Better Business Bureau to avoid becoming a Storm Chaser victim:

  • Ask your insurance company about what's covered under your policy and specific filing requirements. Also ask them to survey the damage and see whether they have approved contractors.
  • Never hire a laborer or contractor on the spot. Get at least three estimates based on the same specifications and materials. Check their references, licensing and registration information with the National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies (; also read reviews posted by the Better Business Bureau.
  • Require written contracts that specify work to be done, materials to be used, start and end dates, responsibility for hauling away debris, and costs broken down by labor and materials. Make sure the contractor's name, address, phone number and license number are included, as well as any verbal promises and warranties.
  • Read the fine print. Some shady contracts include clauses allowing substantial cancellation fees if you choose not to use the contractor after your insurance company has approved the claim. Others require you to pay the full price if you cancel after the cancellation period has expired.
  • Ask your contractor to provide proof of current insurance that covers workers compensation benefits, property damage and personal liability.
  • You'll probably be asked to pay an upfront deposit to cover initial materials - one-quarter to one-third is reasonable upon delivery of materials to your home and once work begins.
  • Never pay in full in advance, and don't pay cash. Have the contract specify a schedule for releasing payments, and before making the final payment, ask the contractor to provide proof that all subcontractors have been paid - if not, you could be liable for their fees.
And finally, remember the adage, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." If someone uses high-pressure sales tactics, requires full payment up front, asks you to get necessary permits or offers to shave costs by using leftover materials from another job - run. They're potentially disastrous to your bottom line - and you've been through one disaster already.

Article courtesy of Practical Money Matters

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5 Travel Saving Secrets

It's time to start thinking about a vacation. But, of course, that trip may need to be on a budget, so here are five tips to turn your next getaway into an affordable adventure.


1. Time It Right
You can afford visiting a swanky long as you arrive at the right time. Travelers can score big savings either before or after high season times by taking advantage of "shoulder season" rates. Last year in Colorado and Wyoming (the ski season) extended through July, so you don't necessarily have to go in January, February and March. Go in April, May and June for better lift ticket deals and all-inclusive packages. The same rule of thumb applies for cruises. If you go before June 15 or after September 4 for an Alaskan cruise, for example, you could save almost 50 percent.

2. Rent a Home
If you plan to travel with a large family or group of friends, skip the hotel and rent a home instead. Websites like, and allow you to negotiate with property owners directly. All three sites insure a rental guarantee of up to $10,000. If you're traveling during the shoulder season you'll find apartments and villas are priced for the local market, not for the tourist market. You can get a home for 50 - 60 percent less than what even a cheap hotel would cost you.

3. Pack Efficiently
Airlines raked in more than $3 billion in baggage fees alone last year. To get around those pesky fees, plan ahead and pack a compact carry-on bag, rolling garments tightly and wearing your bulkiest clothes on board. Check your airline's site for updates related to measurement requirements. Airport security might allow your carry-on, but your airline may have different restrictions and charge you a fee just as you're about to board.

4. Call Hotels Directly
To save on hotel reservations you could go through various travel websites, but to find even better, perhaps exclusive, deals call the hotel directly. Ask to speak to the manager on duty or director of sales. They know what their inventory is. And they know an unsold hotel room is a revenue they'll never recoup once the sun rises, especially if a wedding canceled last night and they have rooms to dump. You'll never see that on their website or hear about it on their 800 number.

5. Contact Airline Agents
The same goes for booking airfare. Not all flight options are listed on the Internet. It's best to call the airline agent to see if they have, for example, any positioning flights going to your destination. If you go online and try to get a flight-the airline is only going to give you what they want to give you. If you have a conversation with a human being, there are a lot of other questions you can ask about alternate airports, alternate routings and maybe even something called a positioning flight, when they actually just need to get the aircraft from Point A to Point B and don't care what's on the plane.

Online, a flight going from New York to Los Angeles cost $809 for regular one-way tickets, but when the airline was called directly and asked about a positioning flight, they had a flight an hour and half earlier, same kind of plane, non-stop for $109.

How far in advance do you have to book to get the best airfare? According to new research by based on the travel site's review of 560 million airfares, the optimal time to book a domestic flight is 49 days in advance. If you're flying overseas, you should book almost three months - 81 days, to be precise - before you travel.

While the average domestic flight was the cheapest 49 days out, it didn't start to rise dramatically in price until about two weeks before the departure date. But if you wait until the day or two before you want to travel, get ready for some serious pocketbook pain. Domestic flights that would normally cost less than $400 jump to about $625.

Notably, it's also bad for your pocketbook to book too far in advance, according to CheapAir. People who booked 210 days before the flight ended up paying an average of $475 for a domestic ticket. There are exceptions and caveats, however. If you're booking for a high-traffic time, like Thanksgiving, it can make sense to book well in advance.

If you're taking an international flight, by contrast, you might score a real bargain by being spontaneous. For example, the best price CheapAir found for a Los Angeles-to-Tokyo flight was when the traveler booked one day before the flight. Other factoids of note: Booking a flight on a Tuesday or Wednesday is not likely to save any money. But flying on a Tuesday or Wednesday will.

And, of course, while this study focuses on average ticket prices, there are a lot of one-time deals that can make booking at any given time either a bargain or a bust. CheapAir tries to deal with the frustrations of variable airline pricing by offering a customer payback program. If you book a flight through the site and find that your specific itinerary has dropped in price, it offers you up to a $100 credit for another flight. And what if another airline offers a better deal in the meantime? Unless you're traveling on one of the rare airlines, such as Southwest, that will allow you to change your ticket without penalty, you're out of luck.

Article courtesy of Yahoo Finance and CBS News.

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Top 6 Deceptive Bill Charges

Paying billsFeel like you're always investigating the case of the missing money at the end of each month? You may be among the one in four Americans who fell victim to deceptive or unwanted charges in the past year. The fact is, only one in 10 of us examine every transaction on our statements, so it's easy to overlook the evidence.

The financial sleuths at BillGuard, a secure, online tool that monitors your statements for suspicious transactions, have identified the top six types of so-called "grey charges." While some of these fees are actually fraudulent, many are legal, unwanted charges often hidden in the fine print.

It's likely you've encountered the first - and worst - offender while shopping online: those free trials that turn into paid subscriptions.

Here's what happens: You pay $5 for a 15-day "free" trial of vitamins, thinking you're getting a great deal. But you may not realize the clock starts ticking the minute you place your order, not when the item arrives. Right away, delivery time could cut your trial period in half. If you fail to cancel in time, you could be hit with jaw-dropping and ongoing fees for a product that was supposed to be a bargain.

Unknown Subscriptions
Next, watch out for unwanted subscriptions that companies may sneak into your online order. As you go through the checkout process, be aware of any extra services or products that try to squeeze into your total. For instance, when ordering a piece of sports equipment, there may be a box to check to subscribe to a related magazine. But in some sneaky cases, the box is already checked, and you have to uncheck it to opt out. And it's usually not until months later that customers realize they've been paying regular fees for something they didn't want in the first place.

Negative Option Marketing
This is a deceptive trick retailers use to send you an item in addition to your order that you never wanted or just assumed was free.

For example, you buy a facial cream online, and it when it arrives, it seems the company has also sent you a sample of lip-gloss. But the fine print explains the lip-gloss will actually become an auto-renewed shipment that you have to pay for every month. To the company, it's just part of the transaction. For you, it's something you have to be proactive to catch and cancel.

Unwanted Auto Renewals
When you signed up for your gym membership, your magazine subscription or your child's soccer league, you may have inadvertently agreed to be billed yearly, quarterly or even monthly. Most legitimate merchants will make this clear when you sign up, and they should even notify you before you're charged for the next service period - but some are not as righteous.

Zombie Subscriptions
These are monthly charges that just keep coming back from the dead, even after you've canceled them. Most people stop checking their statements a month or two after canceling a service. But zombie charges have been known to reappear on statements up to six months later. It's best to keep an eye on your statements and, if you notice anything fishy, contact the merchant immediately.

Cost Creep
Finally, be on the lookout for fees that just keep creeping higher and higher without notice. Watch out for monthly service charges that slowly grow. The increase may be as little as a dollar but unchecked, these small costs will add up quickly.

Article courtesy of Yahoo Finance.

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