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, overpriced 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 deliberate decisions usually ends up a winner. This takes work and time — and the more dollars involved, the more effort should be made.
Fortunately, many tools are 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 visit when things go awry. Keep this handy for 2014.
1. Fort Worth Better Business Bureau. The BBB has a long tradition of informing consumers on the records of local businesses and acting on individual complaints. Contact the bureau at www.fortworth.bbb.org or 817-332-7585. The records of thousands of local and national companies can be searched, including a grade of A+ to F, customer reviews and complaints, and whether the company has committed to the ethical requirements of BBB membership.
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2. Legal Line. This free call-in service is available from 6 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 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 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. The association will also hold the People’s Law School, a free one-day seminar on legal topics, on April 5. Classes will be posted soon at www.tarrantbar.org.
3. Texas Consumer Complaint Center. The center, run by the University of Houston Law Center, offers free information on state and federal legal rights. Call 877-839-8422 and leave a message, or visit www.TexasCCC.com. Topics include questions on 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 PUC has investigators on hand who can answer questions, take complaints and work to sort out the problem. Call 888-782-8477 or visit 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 interest you pay on everything from mortgages to credit cards. It can also affect insurance rates and other costs. To make sure that your score is correct, get a free copy of your report from each of the three credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. To get it by mail, call 877-322-8228.
6. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: Visit www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint or call 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 the United Way’s Information and Referral Program. Specialists are available 24-7. 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. Go to www.TarrantCounty211.org for a listing of local nonprofit and government programs.
8. ConsumerWorld.org. This site posts consumer news from media outlets nationwide. This week, it discussed how to get your money back for undelivered packages from UPS and FedEx, how to deal 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, list what’s on sale that week at grocery chains and combine it with coupons available in your local newspaper or online. Look around and find a site that will help you shop better.
10. Track expenses. Now is a good time of 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. It’s available free to those who are 60 or older and disabled and to both groups’ caregivers.
12. BenefitsCheckup.org. This website of the National Council on Aging offers an online service to screen for benefit programs for seniors with limited income and resources. Included are more than 2,000 public and private benefit 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. Veterans benefits. The Texas Veterans Commission helps 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 first come, first served. To find out more, go to www.tvc.state.tx.us. There is also a Veterans Affairs regional office in Houston. Call 800-827-1000 or visit 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 Alderman at the University of Houston Law Center. It’s $15.17 plus shipping on Amazon.com. Alderman also has a website with common legal questions and answers at www.PeoplesLawyer.net.
If these groups can’t help and you have a consumer question or problem, feel free to contact me.