As we begin the New Year, you should commit to being a better consumer. Too often our hard-earned dollars are frittered away on bad deals, over-priced contracts and sometimes just out-and-out fraud.But a consumer who does research, keeps up with both the latest deals and the latest dirty tricks and makes slow, determined decisions usually ends up a winner. This takes work and time — and the bigger the dollars involved, the more effort should be made.Fortunately, there are many tools available to help you along the way. Here are 14 of the best places to check before you make a consumer decision, as well as places to go when things go awry. Keep this handy for 2014. 1. Fort Worth Better Business Bureau. The BBB has a long tradition of both informing consumers on the records of local business and taking action on individual complaints. Contact them at www.fortworth.bbb.org or by calling 817-332-7585. The records of thousands of local and national companies can be searched, including a grade by the BBB of A+ to F, customer reviews and complaints and whether the company has committed to the ethical requirements of being a BBB member. 2. Legal Line. This is a free call-in service available from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursday of each month sponsored by the Tarrant County Bar Association. The number is 817-335-1239. The bar association also has a lawyer referral service where you can receive 30 minutes of consultation for $20. The referral service can be reached at 817-336-4101, Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.to 4:30 p.m., or you can email email@example.com. The association also holds an informative and free one-day seminar covering a number of legal topics called the Peoples Law School on April 5. Classes for this year’s session will be posted soon at www.TarrantBar.org. 3. Texas Consumer Complaint Center. The TCCC is run by the University of Houston Law Center and offers free information on legal rights under state and federal laws. Call 877-839-8422 and leave a message or visit www.TexasCCC.com. Topics include questions regarding automobiles, contracts, credit/debt collection, employment, family/divorce, real estate/landlord/tenant, small claims court and wills. 4. Public Utility Commission. Since deregulation of electricity in 2000, many of us have had run-ins with our electric provider. The state’s PUC has investigators on hand who can answer questions, take complaints and work to sort out the problem with you and your provider. To contact them, call 888-782-8477 or go online to www.puctexas.gov and click on the consumer tab. To compare electric prices and plans, go to the PUC’s newly redesigned website, www.powertochoose.com. 5. Free credit report. Your credit score, based on your credit report, can determine how much you pay in interest for everything from mortgages to credit cards. It also can affect insurance rates and other financial costs. To make sure that your score is correct, get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. To get your report in the mail, call 877-322-8228. 6. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: Visit www.consumerfinance.gov/Complaint or call the toll-free phone number at 855-411-2372. The federal agency takes complaints on mortgages, credit cards, bank accounts and credit reports. 7. Dial 211. This is the number for United Way’s Information and Referral Program. Specialists are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Community service information includes caregiver support, child care, financial assistance, food assistance, health services, in-home services, legal assistance, disaster resources, tax preparation, transportation and other health and human services. For an online search of the United Way Information and Referral database, go to www.TarrantCounty211.org for a listing of local nonprofit and government programs. 8. ConsumerWorld.org. This website posts the latest consumer news from media outlets across the country. This week it discussed how to get your money back for undelivered packages from UPS and FedEx, advice on dealing with Target’s credit card security breach and how to shop in a discounted world. 9. Grocery shopping help. A number of websites provide comparison tools for grocery shopping, including www.mygrocery.com. Other sites, like www.CouponMom.com, will list what’s on sale that week at major grocery chains and combine it with coupons available in your local newspaper or online. Look around and find a site that will help you better shop for groceries. 10. Track expenses. Now is a good time of the year to start tracking your dollars coming in and going out. One of the top-rated free online tools is Mint.com. Once you set your accounts to download into the site, you can easily track your income and expenses every week to better analyze your financial life. 11. Benefits: The Area Agency on Aging of Tarrant County has benefits counselors at 817-258-8125. They offer counseling on Medicare, Medicaid, HMOs, Medicare supplemental policies, long-term care insurance, disputes over hospital bills, food stamps and other programs. This is available to those who are 60 or older, disabled and both group’s caregivers. No cost. 12. BenefitsCheckup.org. This website of the National Council on Aging offers an online service to screen for benefits programs for seniors with limited income and resources. Included are more than 2,000 public and private benefits programs that offer help with prescription drugs, nutrition, housing, in-home services, Social Security and more. Those without Internet access can call the Texas Health Information and Counseling Advocacy Program at 800-252-9240. 13. Veteran benefits. The Texas Veterans Commission acts as an advocate to help connect Texas veterans with their benefits. Locally, the commission has a field office at the VA Outpatient Clinic, 2201 SE Loop 820 in Fort Worth (817-730-0077). Appointments are on a first-come, first-served basis. To find out more, go to the commission’s website at www.tvc.state.tx.us/. There is also a Veterans Administration regional office in Houston; call 800-827-1000 or www.ebenefits.va.gov. 14. “Know Your Rights! Answers to Texans’ Everyday Legal Questions,” is an easy-to-read legal book on Texas consumer law by Richard M. Alderman at the University of Houston Law Center. Cost is $15.17 plus shipping on Amazon.com. Alderman also has a website with common legal questions and answers at www.PeoplesLawyer.netIf none of these groups help and you have a consumer question or problem to unravel, feel free to contact me.
Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net