Snow shoveling 101: Best shovels, best techniques

OK, New England – go find that shovel in the back of the garage and get ready for a little Snow Shoveling 101. Did you think we’d get away with little to no snow this season? Some of the region’s biggest storms on record happen in February and March. shows that of the top 10 Boston snow accumulations, 7 occurred in these two months.

So buckle down, folks – Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow last week, so we may have a way to go until Spring. Today into tomorrow, most of central New England will get at least some snow accumulation, ranging from a dusting in the north to as much as a foot in Southern New England. And just in case you got a little rusty since last year, we have some tips, tools and techniques to get you back in shoveling shape. Even if you are a Jedi master, some of these expert tips should kick things up a notch.

First, the tools of the trade: Check out this brief clip on the 5 Best Snow Shovels from Consumer Reports.

For more thoughts on selecting the right tool, see Popular Mechanics: Which Snow Shovel Is the Best?

For technique, we point you to:

And last but not least, we love this guide from on Clearing Snow Safely and Efficiently – it’s got some great tips and this handy infographic summary – click for larger view.


Welcome to prime tax scam season!

illustration of online crookWhen it comes to ID theft, you really can’t afford to relax – the criminals who are out to get you certainly aren’t slacking off: In 2014, there was a new identity fraud victim every two seconds. In the same year, $16 billion was stolen from 12.7 million U.S. consumers. (See III on the Scope of Identity Theft).

Between January and April, IRS impersonators and tax scammers are out in full force. Scams often happen via aggressive phone calls, email phishing and spam, phony online websites, or even via social media. Some of the common scam pitches to watch out for:

  • Get a bigger return and get it faster … just click or sign here
  • You need to update your online file .. give us your Social Security number
  • This is the IRS. You owe big bucks in back taxes – pay now or we’ll arrest you
  • You owe a small amount in taxes or fees, here’s a quick way to pay that online so you don’t hold up your refund
  • Please make a tax-free donation to <> charity or <> political fund.

Two particularly common types of fraud are IRS Impersonators – usually threats by phone – and tax preparer scams. You can read about the most common types of tax fraud from last year’s IRS Dirty Dozen.

Consumer Reports shares some good ideas to foil the scammers. We like this one:

Thieves usually claim tax refunds by filing taxes before their victims do. So another way to protect yourself is to file long before the tax deadline, which is Monday, April 18, this year (April 19 in Maine and Massachusetts).

Here are some other tips to avoid becoming an ID-theft victim:

  • Don’t trust the number that shows up on your caller ID or email identification. These can be spoofed. Don’t click on any links or give out any info. Instead, go directly to the website or call the organization yourself to make payments or donations.
  • Don’t give out credit cards, dates of birth, social security numbers or any other sensitive information to callers you do not know. Never send that information by email, which is insecure.
  • Create secure passwords. Use different passwords for any accounts involving sensitive information or payments. That might seem like a hassle, but this small inconvenience pales in comparison to the troubles you will have if someone steals your ID.
  • Review your credit card and bank statements regularly. Check free credit reports annually with this authorized site.
  • Avoid making financial transactions over insecure public wifi networks.
  • Ensure that your browser is up to date and security patches applied.
  • Keep an eye out for elderly relatives or friends – the elderly are often specifically targeted for fraud.

Does your new car have a spare tire? Don’t count on it!

flat tire
People don’t usually think about spare tires until they need them – and if you have a flat tire, that’s a pretty bad time to learn that the spare tire you thought was in your trunk isn’t there. Drivers have been conditioned to think of spare tires as a standard feature with all new cars – but that is changing and consumers need to re-calibrate their expectations. According to AAA, more than a third of all new car models are being sold without a spare tire.

Part of the reason that auto makers give is saving weight to achieve fuel efficiency standards. It’s also space saving, particularly for hybrids and sports cars. More and more new cars are eliminating the spare tire and including inflator kits instead. Some cars are equipped with “run-flat” tires, but these tend to be available only in luxury models.

So how much can you rely on the inflator kits? According to AAA, they have limited use:

“AAA tested the most common tire inflator kits in today’s vehicles and found that the units worked well in some scenarios, but they are not a substitute for a spare tire. For an inflator kit to work effectively, a tire must be punctured in the tread surface and the object must remain in the tire. Used correctly, the kit then coats the inner wall of the tire with a sealant and a compressor re-inflates the tire. If the puncture-causing object is no longer in the tire, a sidewall is damaged or a blowout occurs, a tire inflator kit cannot remedy the situation and the vehicle will require a tow.”

Plus, AAA says that inflator kits can be a costly alternative: “With some kits costing up to $300 per use, a tire inflator kit can cost consumers up to 10 times more than a simple tire repair and has a shelf life of only four to eight years.”

Buyer beware: If you are in the market for a new vehicle, check to see if a spare tire is included. If not, a tire may be available as a purchase option.

This video demonstrates how to use a tire inflator kit on a Chevy Malibu.

Meet the 2015 Insurance Fraud Hall of Shame

2015 Insurance Fraud Hall of Shame. Image from

2015 Insurance Fraud Hall of Shame. Image from

Every year, the Insurance Fraud Bureau issues its picks for the Insurance Fraud Hall of Shame. If your image of an insurance fraudster is someone who inflates a claim by a few dollars, think again. Meet the 2015 insurance fraudsters, a frightening bunch of cold killers and brazen criminals who commit brutal crimes to try to cash in on insurance policies.

  • Consider nightmare neighbor Mark Leonard and his girlfriend Monseratte Shirley who rigged their home for a gas explosion so they could collect $300,000. Instead, two of their next door neighbors suffered horrifying, fiery deaths. In addition, 30 neighboring homes had to be demolished and 50 more were damaged. A dozen neighbors were injured, and $5 million worth of damage was caused.
  • Consider the nightmare neurosurgeon who performed needless spine surgery on patients to get the insurance money. The profile doesn’t say how many hapless victims came under his knife but it must have been quite a few: His bogus claims to health insurers totaled $32 million.
  • Consider the nightmare Dad who brutally killed his 10-year old son in a botched attempt to collect on life insurance.
  • Consider the nightmare pet boutique owner who tried to torch her store nearly burning a few dozen puppies alive, in the process. Fortunately, she was particularly inept.
  • There are more … a crooked lawyer, a furniture store owner, a cop, a Russian-American crime ring – 9 in all.

These are particularly egregious examples of fraud, but the less dramatic “every day” fraud takes an enormous toll on society too – about $32 billion a year in insurance fraud losses, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Businesses build the cost of losses into product pricing, so honest people end up paying about $32 billion a year to cover insurance fraud.

Overall, public tolerance for insurance fraud has been falling in recent years – fewer and fewer people now think of it as a victim-less crime or an OK practice. But beyond public and tolerance, has insurance fraud itself dropped? Not so much, experts say.

Reporting insurance fraud

If know about insurance fraud, here are ways to report it:


Security cameras turn the tables on taco thieves

If you skipped stories about robberies in California over the holidays, you probably missed a hilarious video showing how a Los Angeles area Taco shop is biting back at crime. It all started with a late-night break in at Frijoles & Frescas restaurant on December 16. Thieves threw a rock through the window to break in, ransack the place and make off with the registers. This was all depicted on security camera videos.

Clever owners Alberto and Francisco used this footage to create the following clip which has racked up more than 4 million views. See for yourself why it went viral.

It’s satisfying that they mocked the burglars while doing a fun self-promo, and it’s also a clever way to get the thieves’ images out in public. The perpetrators haven’t been found yet, but here’s hoping. Meanwhile, reports say that Frijoles & Frescas is seeing increased demand for their tacos!

Small food service shops and retailers like Frijoles & Frescas are generally covered for theft and robberies under BOP insurance or Business Owners Policies. But security cameras are a good idea, too – they help to deter crime and in the event that a crime does occur, can provide valuable information to help track down the criminals.

Here are a few resources to learn more about business security cams.

How to Deploy IP Cameras in Your Small Business

Setting Up a Security System For Your Small Business

New Year’s celebrations: Drinking safety

New Year’s Eve can be a fun celebration, but if you plan to make alcohol a part of your festivities, be sure that you plan in advance to ensure you don’t endanger yourself or others. Here are some tips for alcohol safety – we’ve posted some of them previously.

A good rule of thumb is that your body can only process about one drink per hour. While that may vary a bit based on weight and gender, it’s a fairly good rule to keep in mind. But be careful about how you define “one drink” – this equates to 12-ounces of beer, a 4-ounce glass of wine, or one shot (one ounce) of 80 proof alcohol. A martini or other mixed cocktail generally contains more than one shot.

The Blood Alcohol Calculator will help you estimate your impairment level per drink and tell you if you are “legal” in a given state. The calculator works by giving an estimate of your “blood alcohol count” (BAC) or the ratio of alcohol to blood in your system. Enter the type of drink, how many drinks you consumed/plan to consume, your weight, and the amount of time you have been/will be drinking. This will produce an estimated BAC, and will tell you if you are impaired and at risk of arrest should you be stopped by police.

This page includes some handy alcohol impairment reference charts for men and for women, and charts that describe the type of impairment that people experience at various BAC levels. There are also a list of common myths and suggestions for how to get car keys away from an intoxicated person.

There are also some smart phone apps for tracking BAC, but we haven’t used any of these so we can’t vouch for them.

If you are out on New Year’s Eve, have an advance strategy to ensure your safety:

  • Plan for a designated driver.
  • Plan to sleep over.
  • Look for a Tipsy Taxi service in your area. Many communities sponsor a free taxi service that can be called to get a ride home. You can call a local police department to see if there are any operating in your community. Or call an Uber or a Lyft.
  • Drink non alcoholic beverages.
  • Have one or two drinks early in the evening and switch to non-alcoholic beverages for a few hours before you drive home.

If you are hosting a party, take your responsibilities seriously. You would never forgive yourself if a guest were injured or killed – or killed another driver – after leaving your house. Plus, you might have either criminal or civil liability for any accident ensuing from intoxication that occurred at your home. Here is a good Responsible Party Host Tip Sheet (PDF) to help you plan a safe party.

And one final note of caution:
People can and do die from alcohol poisoning when they consume more alcohol than their body can safely process in a short period of time. Tragically, many young people succumb to alcohol poisoning every year due to ignorance about the facts of excess alcohol intake. Call 9-1-1 if you see someone exhibiting behavior that might indicate alcohol poisoning, evidenced by any of the following symptoms:

  • Cold, clammy, pale or bluish skin
  • Unconscious or unable to be roused
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Puking repeatedly or uncontrollably

Cats & Dogs Christmas: Holiday videos just for fun

Many people say Christmas is for kids, but the real truth is that it’s gone to the dogs… and the cats. Come the holidays, YouTube is inundated with cute, funny pet videos. Here’s our take on the picks of the litter for 2015 – with a few classics thrown in.

The first is an ad, but it’s cute and well done.

Then we have the Animals of YouTube singing carols

In a slightly different vein, we see how wildlife celebrate the holidays

However you celebrate the holidays, have fun but stay safe!

Scam-apalooza! Don’t let fraud ruin your holiday

ruined-holidayThe CT commissioner of insurance warns policyholders of a recent insurance phone scam. People are getting calls that their insurance is cancelled and they need to make a credit card payment to reinstate their policy. The commissioner says: Never give out your credit card information to an unsolicited caller.

Good advice – particularly over the holiday. Scams are plentiful in the holiday season so keep your radar set on high. We’ve heard about fake shipping notifications, pyramid schemes, gift card scams, fake charities and plain old package theft. Don’t let scammers ruin your holiday – learn about the most common holiday fraud schemes.

General Alerts

Gift Card Scams

Package Theft

Delivery Scams

Charity Scams

Santa Scams

Holiday Pyramid Schemes

Holiday job Scams

General shopping & holiday safety

What to do if you have a car breakdown while on the road

car-breakdownIf you’re driving along and suddenly have a flat tire or some other car malfunction, it can be pretty unnerving, even downright scary if you’re on a highway or a remote location. The main thing to do in a car breakdown is to keep calm and get your vehicle safely off the road.  You can reduce the stress and uncertainty by planning for an emergency in advance so you’ll know just what to do.

Here are some tips we’ve amassed from experts.

Be prepared before you hit the road:

  • Be sure to have your phone fully charged when taking road trips
  • Have flares or reflective triangles in your trunk so you can have a way to indicate your car is in distress
  • Consider buying a cheap reflective vest to keep tucked under a seat so you would be visible if you do need to leave the car
  • Keep an emergency kit with seasonal supplies in your trunk
  • Have a plan in advance of what you’d do and who you’d call if you were to break down. Do you have an emergency road service plan or an auto-installed service? Does your insurer offer service? Or do you have an app to access emergency service? Plan in advance and keep phone numbers and any procedures or coverage rules in your glove compartment.
  • Learn about any state emergency road services. For example, Mass DOT has a Highway Assistance Patrol sponsored by MAPFRE Insurance. Here’s a list of state-by-state cellphone highway emergency assistance numbers.

If your car breaks down:

  • Put on your emergency/hazard lights at the first sign of trouble
  • Stay calm, slow down and get your car off the road. If possible, pull off at an exit, a street, or pull over to a breakdown lane
  • Pull as far off the road as is safe – keep emergency/hazard lights on. If it’s night time, turn on your interior light or flashlights
  • If you can safely do so, pop the hood or deploy flares or triangles to alert other drivers. Exit the door that is away from traffic – most likely on the passenger side
  • Do not stand in the road by your car; do not flag down other vehicles
  • In most circumstances, waiting in the vehicle with locked doors is safer than standing in the road, but you may need to use your best judgement depending on the specific location and situation, If you must wait outside, remove yourself from traffic and wait on the other side of the guardrail.
  • Call for help. If you aren’t sure of the exact location, your smart phone GPS may help. If you don’t have a roadside assistance plan, call state police.
  • If someone stops, crack your window enough to ask them to call the police for you
  • Wait for help. Avoid walking for help unless there is no other choice, and do so with extreme caution.

AAA has an in-depth guide covering trip planing, emergency supplies you should have on hand, and in-depth advice about what to do if you break down. Of course, their advice also focuses on how to reach them and what to expect – but even if you don’t have AAA, the guide has great information: What to do when your vehicle breaks down (PDF)

A summary of the main steps are:

  • Note your vehicle’s location
  • Assess your vehicle’s operating problem
  • Pull off the road
  • -What to do if you can’t pull off the road
  • Alert other motorists
  • Communicate your situation
  • Remain with your vehicle

The remaining tips have to do with AAA’s road service – what to expect, etc.

Consumer Reports has a recent article on Roadside Assistance: Who You Gonna Call? It covers apps, roadside services and insurers and where to get help when you break down. Another handy recent article is Hidden helpers in your phone, which covers some road travel apps.

Most Dangerous Toys, 2015 holiday edition

kids-at-christmasIf kids are on your holiday shopping list, toy safety should be rule number one. When Santa shops, he consults the W.A.T.C.H. list of the “10 Worst Toys” for the 2015 Holiday Season. This 43rd Annual Report is issued by World Against Toys Causing Harm, Inc. (W.A.T.C.H.). This year, they have a special parental alert to be particularly careful of the dangers associated with online purchases of potentially harmful toys. The link above is a slideshow of you can get a PDF version of the dangerous toys with photos and information as to why they are classified as dangerous.

“Whether shopping in a retailer’s store or on their website, awareness of classic hidden toy hazards can prevent injuries. Shockingly, classic toy dangers, such as small parts, strings, projectiles, toxic substances, rigid materials, and inaccurate warnings and labels, resurface each year in newly designed toys. In the last twelve months, there have been at least sixteen (16) toy recalls representing over three million (3,000,000) units of toys with recognized safety defects in the United States and Canada proving the inadequacy of existing standards. In 2013, there were over 250,000 toy-related injuries and 50 children died in toy-related incidents between 2010 and 2013. Although even one injury to one child is too many, particularly when the injury is preventable, recent statistics emphasize that dangerous toys continue to pose a year-round threat. The ten (10) toy recalls due to choking and/or ingestion risks, issued by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in the preceding twelve months, highlight the continued problem of small and ingestible parts reaching children.”

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group also issues a report on dangers to children in their 2015 Trouble in Toyland report, which lists both specific toys as well as general problem areas and dangers that parents should be alert for. See the press release for a summary.

More toy & child safety resources