Handy Tool: Consumer Action Handbook


cover of Consumer Action Handbook

If you’ve ever wondered what services to expect from a bank, how to choose a new doctor, scams to avoid when buying a new car, or how to deal with an unanswered complaint on a faulty product, USAGov has a handy free tool that just may help. They’ve just issued a 157-page Consumer Action Handbook (alert: 3 mb PDF) with many valuable tips, how-tos, scam avoidance advice and directories.

Here’s how they describe the resource:

“The Consumer Action Handbook brings together consumer information from across government. It includes practical questions to ask and factors to consider when you buy products and services. The Handbook features topics that affect everyone, such as credit reports and identity theft. It also addresses specific issues, like managing someone else’s finances and gas pump skimming. You’ll also find tips for detecting and reporting scams, throughout the book. Use our consumer assistance directory and sample complaint letter to file a consumer complaint.”

The guide is broken into four sections:

Part I — Be a savvy consumer – advice before you make a purchase. Covers general tips, banking, cars, credit, education, employment, food & nutrition, health care, housing, insurance, investing, privacy & identity theft, telecommunications, telemarketing & unwanted mail, travel, utilities, wills & funerals

Part II — key information resources – a list of public resources for seniors, persons
with disabilities, military families, and also for emergency preparations.

Part III — File a complaint – Suggestions on resolving consumer problems, including a sample complaint letter (page 60)

Part IV — Consumer Assistance Directory – Find contact information for corporate offices, consumer organizations, trade groups, government agencies, state authorities and more in a 70+ page directory.

You can also search for topics in the Index beginning on page 138.

You can download a copy or order a free print copy of the Consumer Action Handbook here.

How do you know if your drinking water is safe?


If you visit Rome, you’ll see people lined up at old public water fountains to drink the water and fill their water bottles. Visitors are at first a little leery, but soon learn that they can thank the ancient Romans for a legacy of clean, delicious ice-cold free water. More than 2,500 fountains, both free-standing columns and decorative spigots on the sides of buildings, pump out gallons to residents and visitors alike.

Here in the U.S., most of us would be reluctant to drink from a standing fountain in a city square. We’re often a little worried about the quality of our tap water, particularly after watching the horror show in Flint, Michigan, where residents have logged more than 1200 days with undrinkable lead-contaminated tap water. Some Flint water is so polluted it is visible to the naked eye, but it was not always so obvious – many people became ill before the danger of the water was recognized.

So how how do you know if your water is more like Rome’s or Flint’s?

The first step in learning more about your water quality is learning the source. The Centers for Disease Control answers that in an FAQ on drinking water.

The drinking water that is supplied to our homes comes from either surface water or ground water. Surface water collects in streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Ground water is water located below the ground where it collects in pores and spaces within rocks and in underground aquifers. We obtain ground water by drilling wells and pumping it to the surface.

Public water systems provide water from surface and ground water for public use. Water treatment systems are either government or privately-held facilities. Surface water systems withdraw water from the source, treat it, and deliver it to our homes. Ground water systems also withdraw and deliver water, but they do not always treat it.

The FAQ explains that some contaminants like lead, radon and arsenic are naturally occurring and need to be monitored, while others come from local land use processes, such as manufacturing or livestock waste, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. Contaminants can also occur from unplanned events, such as when a sewer overflows or a water treatment center malfunctions. After floods, the water supply can sometimes be compromised for a period of time.

The Environmental Protection Agency is the federal authority that safeguards our water supply. In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act became law to regulate contaminants found in drinking water. Public water systems are required to produce an annual report called a CCR or Consumer Confidence Report. The easiest way to obtain a report is your water supplier.

The EPA offers several resources about water supply quality. You can call or submit email questions to their Safe Drinking Water Hotline for any questions you may have (but be aware that the EPA may be facing substantial cuts and it’s unclear if such services will be continued).

The EPA’s Water FAQs post some very useful information to learn more about water topics such as how to find out more about local water quality, how to decontaminate water by boiling and general information about bottled water and if/how it is regulated.

They also regulate bottled water. If you think switching from tap to bottled is healthier, read what they have to say about It:

Bottled water is not necessarily safer than your tap water. EPA sets standards for the drinking water provided by public water systems; the Food and Drug Administration sets bottled water standards based on EPA?s tap water standards. Bottled water and tap water are both safe to drink if they meet these standards, although people with severely compromised immune systems and children may have special needs. Some bottled water is treated more than tap water, while some is treated less or not treated at all. Bottled water costs much more than tap water on a per gallon basis. Bottled water is valuable in emergency situations (such as floods and earthquakes), and high quality bottled water may be a desirable option for people with weakened immune systems. Consumers who choose to purchase bottled water should carefully read its label to understand what they are buying, whether it is a better taste, or a certain method of treatment.

Your local tap water should be fine and under ordinary circumstances. It is cheaper and more environmentally friendly to get your water from a public supply, but if you want to learn more detail about the quality of water you drink, check out this podcast from  Everyday Einstein, who explains what contaminates our water, how it gets there, and what we can do to test it.

Check your water supplier first. If you have no luck, try your state authority. In some states, this drinking water quality information can be found under the Board of Health, in others under Environmental divisions. Here are links for the five New England states.

CT Department of Public Health

MA Department of Energy & Environmental Affairs

ME Division of Environmental Health

NH Department of Environmental Services

RI Department of Health Drinking Water Quality

VT Department of Environmental Conservation

Tick season is here and expected to be an active one!


Now that the New England drought is under control, tick numbers are on the rise, with experts projecting that 2017 will be especially bad for Lyme-disease ticks. Great. And as if regular old ticks aren’t bad enough, the Lone Star tick can trigger a red meat allergy in humans. These ticks were primarily found in the southwest – named after the Lone Star state of Texas – but in recent years, they have been moving north. They are an aggressive species that targets humans and pets and a single bite can trigger a lifelong allergy to meat.

According to Popular Science, “Rising temperatures have turned previously inhospitable northern states like New Hampshire and Minnesota into tick-friendly zones. And now, folks in those regions have started reporting cases of alpha-gal syndrome.” They offer more information about the dread Lone Star tick, the allergy, and other nasty diseases that it  can carry.

The University of Rhode Island is your go-to source for all things tick related (they produced the video we used in this post). Check out the site called the TickEncounter Resource Center, with lots of great information on tick identification and removal, as well as tips for your protection, for treating your yard, and protecting your pets. It has a lot of information about the various types of ticks and diseases that they carry.

They suggest a springtime tick control to-do list:

  • Spray all outdoor shoes with Permethrin
  • Make sure pets are protected
  • Have yard treated with effective tick killers
  • Be especially vigilant about doing daily tick checks
  • Send off kids’ camp clothes to be treated

They also list higher risk TickEncounter activities as:

  • Golfing
  • Walking dog
  • Camping
  • Gardening
  • Hiking
  • Mountain biking
  • Playing outdoors near wooded edges
  • Nature walks

 

Two ways your garage door makes you vulnerable to burglaries


Garage Door Opener

Burglar garage door tactic #1: Thieves are often breaking into cars not to steal the car, but to steal the garage door opener. If thieves spot a garage door opener in your parked vehicle, they steal it, harvest your home address from the car registration or other identifying material in your glove compartment, and break into your garage while you are still out and about. And unless your garage is a free-standing unit, getting into the garage will offer easy access to your entire house.

The solution is simple – keep garage door opener on your key chain so you can take it with you in your purse or pocket when you exit the car.

Burglar garage door tactic #2: Most people feel pretty safe if they have their garage door closed, but in just a matter of seconds, experienced thieves can break in to your garage with a simple wire hanger by hooking the release valve. This short video shows how – it;s pretty scary — and the clip also offers a solution to deter this by using a cable tie.

You should test breaking the cable tie from the inside to be sure that the door could still be used as an emergency exit. Here are two alternate products that can help to secure your garage from Garage Shield.

Your garage is an entry point to your entire home – and as the article above notes, if burglars get in your garage and close the door, they have good cover for wreaking havoc. All too often, the door between the garage and the home is unlocked or insufficiently secure. Here are some ideas to increase your defenses: Top 10 Garage Door Security Tips to Prevent Break-Ins.

It’s time for that flu shot!


flu shotsInfluenza, the flu, a bug, the creeping crud – whatever you choose to call it, ’tis the season. Flu season generally starts picking up in October and peaks from December through March. Medical experts say that ideally, everyone 6 months and older should get a flu shot by early November. Flu vaccines are updated annually to match the diseases that are currently circulating. This year, only injectable flu shots are recommended.

While it is important for everyone to get a flu shot, there are certain populations at high risk for developing potentially serious complications. These include:

  • Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old
  • Adults 65 years of age and older
  • Pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum)
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives
  • People who have medical conditions

Interestingly, the more people who get flu shots, the better off we all are through a principle called herd immunity – when a critical mass of people are innoculated, a measure of protection is strengthened. The wikipedia entry explains how this works for the flu:

“Influenza (flu) is more severe in the elderly than in younger age age groups, but influenza vaccines lack effectiveness in this demographic due to a waning of the immune system with age. The prioritization of school-age children for seasonal flu immunization, which is more effective than vaccinating the elderly, however, has shown to create a certain degree of herd immunity for the elderly.”

It’s easier than ever to get a shot these days – they are widely available – here’s a flu vaccine finder – just enter your zip code to find locations near you.