The Watchdog: Company blames office janitor for Do Not Call lawsuit

Do you know what a Perry Mason moment is? In court proceedings, it’s when one side in a legal drama produces a piece of evidence or a confession that changes everything.

In modern talk, it’s a slam-dunk straight to the hoop, in your face, that leaves an audience gasping.

The Watchdog doesn’t witness many Perry Mason moments. Companies rarely litigate their customer lawsuits in a newspaper column. When a lawsuit is involved, a company spokesman usually says, “Because this is a pending legal matter, we cannot comment.”

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Yet Universal AdCom, an Arlington printing company, is so eager to fight back in public against what it considers phony customer complaints that it violated the do-not-comment practice.

Universal AdCom is accused in a new federal lawsuit filed by an Arkansas business owner of violating the Do Not Call list.

Company officials deny any violation. They say the complainant was a former customer and they had a right to call him.

“If he doesn’t want us to call him again, we’re certainly not going to,” James Gildenblatt, Universal AdCom president, told me. “We thought he was a happy camper.”

I’m no prosecutor, jury member or judge, but I do know how to ask questions. Both sides agreed to talk to The Watchdog and argue their case. That’s what led to the Perry Mason moment.

Do Not Call violators are hard to catch. They hide behind false phone numbers shown on Caller ID machines and often route their calls through foreign countries where U.S. rules don’t apply. When nabbed, which is rare, violators get fined thousands of dollars.

Universal AdCom isn’t known as a Do Not Call violator. The company’s problems in years past stemmed from aggressive sales practices and allegations of false billing — which the company denied. Hundreds of complaints forced an F grade from the Better Business Bureau. Three states took legal action against the company.

Universal AdCom sells ad space to businesses and prints the ads on maps, magnets, tote bags, T-shirts, cups and other items. The company was the subject of complaints and government actions because its sales staffers were accused of claiming direct affiliation with governments, chambers of commerce and schools when they had no connection.

Former staffers told me two years ago that they claimed a closeness to the activities they were selling to. They dropped names of insiders and alluded to nonexistent partnerships.

Scores of chambers, governments and schools warned their community members about Universal AdCom and the other names it did business under (Premier Map, Premier Impressions, Totes 2 Go, Hometown Productions, Fanfare Sports, Scoreboard Marketing).

One sales staffer told me the company philosophy was “you have to do what you have to do” to make a sale. Another former employee told me, “We’re instructed to tell them we have an agreement with someone in the athletic department.”

The company’s reputation on the Internet was terrible. Comments from disgruntled customers and others who received aggressive sales pitches stacked up in message boards.

Two years ago, president Jim Gildenblatt ordered a turn-around. He fired a top saleswoman, which showed he was serious about cleansing the company’s reputation.

He purchased a recording system that captured customers’ verbal consents to make purchases. If a customer complained later that they were billed for something they hadn’t ordered, the company could play back a tape proving they had made the order.

The company defended itself. “It really has changed the culture,” Gildenblatt says. The BBB rating improved. “We got it up to a C,” he says.

The lawsuit from Arkansas is a new hurdle for the company’s march back to respectability. Tim Bunting, owner of Bug Pro, an Arkansas pest control business, bought map ads from Universal AdCom two years ago. Then he decided to stop doing business with them.

Sales staffers pursued Bunting, sending him bills and calling him at least a hundred times, according to his lawsuit, filed by attorney Matthew Vandiver of Little Rock.

In my interview, Gildenblatt said that Bug Pro’s owner never told his company to stop calling him.

“I don’t have a record of anything coming in,” the AdCom president said. “It’s news to me. … I do not have a record of him asking us to take him off the call list.”

Cue the Perry Mason moment.

The lawyer for the exterminator produced a letter written last year asking Universal AdCom to leave his client alone. No more sales. No more calls. No more bills.

Lawyer Vandiver also produced a green postal return-receipt card that shows someone at Universal AdCom accepted delivery of that letter. Slam-dunk. Gasp.

When Exhibit A is presented to the company president, he looks at the green slip and explains it was signed by Larry, the company “maintenance guy.”

“He got the mail for us,” the president says. “It’s not the first one I didn’t get from him. Obviously, it never got to me. It never got into our system. … If I had gotten it, I would have handled it immediately.”

But he didn’t, and the company making a comeback to respectability blames a janitor for not delivering a crucial piece of mail.

There’s an expression: Don’t make a federal lawsuit out of it. But someone did.

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The Watchdog: Are discounted cash prices for gas a violation of Texas law?

State regulators told Dallas Morning News Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber that gas stations offering discounted prices for cash purchases aren’t violating a Texas law that prohibits surcharges for debit- and credit-card purchase.

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Tom Thumb changed its gas pricing policy recently, and some Texans say they question whether the new system violates a strengthened state law that prohibits surcharges for purchases made with debit or credit cards.

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File 2011/The Associated Press

Robert Gellman of Mansfield alerted me that “Tom Thumb has recently started to charge 10 cents more per gallon for gas that is paid with a credit card.”

He wonders if that’s a credit card surcharge — and a violation. But what Gellman and I learned is that Tom Thumb says it charges 10 cents less for customers who pay with cash or a debit card, so it’s a cash discount downward, rather than a credit card surcharge upward. So it’s not a violation, according to state regulators.

Confusing, right?

Typically, Tom Thumb gas stations advertise the lower cash/debit price on its big monument signs, but once you pull up to the pumps, the listed price is the higher credit card price. Many stores have added smaller signs that show both cash and credit prices. When a debit card is inserted or cash is paid, the price on the pump drops.

Tom Thumb appears to be complying with the state laws about cash, debit and credit card pricing, much to the dismay of some customers who don’t like the pricing system. After several consumer complaints, state regulators gave official approval to Tom Thumb’s pricing plan. Theirs is the only opinion that counts.

Ever since The Watchdog reported that state law was beefed up to place real penalties on merchants who add surcharges for credit or debit card spending, I’ve received complaints about apparent violators. Folks complained about a country club, a dentist’s office and an apartment complex, to cite a few.

There is one huge exception to the law: Governments are exempt. They can add surcharges for using a plastic card to pay tax bills, fees, fines and other charges.

Some businesses try to get away with added fees for credit card use by insisting that the surcharge is a convenience fee for extra services. An apartment complex charges tenants $49.95 a month to pay rent with a credit card and explains that covers the cost of the payment software. At another business, a customer was told that the convenience fee covers the protection of the customer’s personal credit card information.

The state regulator is the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner. The office has ruled that cash discounts are acceptable but convenience fees are not.

An OCCC official wrote in a letter to a consumer, “A convenience fee may be considered the same as a surcharge when using the credit card. If the club is accepting this ‘convenience fee’ it appears to be the same as a surcharge.”

A law passed last year gave the consumer credit office enforcement powers. In the first four months, no one has been fined. Regulators see themselves as instructional in the beginning, director Rudy Aguilar says. Violators get warning letters now rather than fines. Stay tuned for further action. “Some people have been a little resistant,” Aguilar says.

Tom Thumb’s changes irked some loyal customers. Peggy Taylor of Arlington says, “By charging 10 cents more per gallon for credit cards, you are basically canceling out benefits of earning points.”

Customers lose some protection against fraud when they pay with a debit card rather than a credit card.

Tom Thumb officials told state regulators in a letter I viewed that there are signs posted at the pumps explaining its pricing. Tom Thumb staffers also explained to consumers in letters I saw that the company changed its pricing to ensure that customers who pay with cash or debit cards get the lowest price. The price displayed in front of its stations is the lower cash/debit price. The price on the pump is the credit card price, which is 10 cents higher.

The company allows customers to get the lower cash price by paying with a corporate charge card or Tom Thumb gift card.

Because the higher price shown at the pump is the credit card price and the price then drops, it counts as a cash discount, Tom Thumb officials have written in letters to regulators and customers. Under federal Truth in Lending regulations, cash discounts are allowed. A state can’t change that.

Some Exxon stations display similar pricing but they advertise two prices on the monument signs — a “Regular Cash” price and underneath a higher “Regular Credit” price.

Bottom line: If a business, other than a government, charges more money for using a debit or credit card, that could be a violation. If a business lowers a credit card price when there’s a cash purchase, that’s OK.

Confused? Me too.
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The Watchdog: 20 ways you can save money on your homeowners insurance

The Watchdog is rolling his eyes with the news that Allstate, Farmers and State Farm are raising the rates for homeowners insurance in Texas. This is an annual ritual in Texas. A charade of public relations.

The companies explain, as they did to Dallas Morning News Austin reporter Terrence Stutz recently, that weather catastrophes and cost of repairs are driving up prices. Meanwhile, the stats show that companies are making tons of money, but they want more.

Farmers wants to jump 15 percent. State Farm seeks a raise close to 10 percent. Allstate comes in at 6.5 percent. New state insurance commissioner Julia Rathgeber gets to make a ruling. It’s her first big test.

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Why wait for her? Be your own watchdog. Let’s look at ways you can possibly save on your homeowners insurance now.

The Watchdog sought quick-hit ideas that a homeowner can investigate immediately. No matter who your insurance carrier is, these ideas might show ways to shave dollars. Here goes:

High-tech shopping: Texas state government offers a perk to consumers: an online comparison shopping website that pulls quotes from competitors — helpinsure.com.

Check around: Experts say that periodically shopping for a new policy usually brings savings. Plans change, so don’t settle for the same ole same ole.

Multi-policy discount: Often when one company handles both homeowners and auto policies, there’s a discount. A company such as USAA gives bigger discounts if customers open checking and savings accounts, too.

Upgrades: Did you get a new heating/air conditioning system or a hot water heater? Upgrade plumbing or home wiring? If so, tell your insurance agent.

Replacement cost: Understand that the best coverage comes when a consumer insures at 100 percent replacement cost. Better rates often accompany stronger types of coverage. So don’t assume that under-insuring will save enough to make it worth it.

Security system: Some companies give discounts for monitored security, fire protection and dead-bolt locks.

New roof: A roof less than 10 years old should be noted on a policy because it will save money. A hail-resistant Class IV roof can mean big savings.

Deductibles: Check them upon renewal. Usually 1 percent of dwelling’s insured value for wind and hail and for perils. But a 2 percent deductible can bring significant savings. If possible, match a deductible amount to the dollar amount guaranteed in a roof warranty contract, too.

Claims history: Check with your insurance agent to make sure you’re getting discounts if you go three to five years without a claim. Some companies offer that incentive.

Personal liability umbrella: Some carriers offer discounts when a customer carries this policy in addition to homeowners.

Job: Some carriers offer a built-in discount for customers with a master’s degree or doctorate, same for engineers, scientists, firefighters, nurses and many others. List your occupation on applications.

Gated community: Some carriers offer discounts.

Fire service: For country residents who live away from city services without hydrants, some carriers offer tank-and-pond discounts to avoid higher unprotected rates.

Mortgage free: Some carriers give a discount for homes that are paid off.

Premiums: Review each annual contract from an insurance company because some companies change amounts from year to year without obvious notification to customers. So check.

Independent broker: Do you buy your insurance from an agent for a company or from a broker who sells for many companies? The more the merrier, especially when it comes to diversity of price and coverage. Find a broker at iiaba.net.

Claim filing: If you fear hail damage, ask a roofer’s opinion before contacting an insurance company. That way, if you don’t file a claim because of the lack of damage, nothing goes on your record. Remember that claims that aren’t completed still end up in insurance databases.

Background check: A company’s record, its license status and level of complaints are available at tdi.texas.gov/licensing/company.

Credit score: Companies may take your credit score into consideration when offering price quotes, so maintain credit worthiness when possible. Don’t max out credit lines or make late payments.

Beware: Be careful shopping on the Internet. When you fill out personal information on a commercial insurance website, you lose control about where it goes. Companies will do credit checks, and too many checks lower your credit score. Also, don’t pay cash to an insurance agent. Pay with a check or money order made out to the company. Get a receipt.

The Watchdog thanks Janet Spracklen, Lynn R. Allen, Anthony Spangler, the Texas Department of Insurance and Consumer Reports for these quick-hit ideas.
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The Watchdog: Home remodeler flouts Texas laws but gets caught in Louisiana

Only one tough guy ever came hunting for me in a newsroom. Three years ago, dude showed up at the front door grousing about a story I planned about him. I wasn’t around.

I was originally attracted to his transgressions as a deceptive home contractor as much as I was to his unforgettable name — Malachi Crump.

Malachi Crump turned out to be someone with a 19th-century-sounding Dickensian name who engaged in 21st-century broken promises. He was a convicted thief, burglar and drug user who was released early enough from a Texas prison that he remains on parole until 2018.

 

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He spent 10 years inside the joint, but when he got out in 2002 he advertised that he had been a home contractor with “31 years of service.” Unless he worked on the warden’s house, that couldn’t be true.

In North Texas, Crump plied his trade as a home remodeler, but actually he only plied half a trade. His style was to take money, start a job, demand more money, get it and then walk away. He suddenly became unavailable.

I knew of two such cases in Tarrant County. One woman was first the victim of a fire, then a victim of Malachi Crump. He removed all the walls in her home, even though it wasn’t necessary, and put only some back. Another woman asked him to remodel her home, but he pulled a Malachi Crump on her, too.

Both women took him to small claims court and won judgments against him. But he never paid.

When I asked a Tarrant County prosecutor why the state declined to make a criminal case, I was told that two small claims court losses do not constitute a pattern. When someone starts a job, it’s harder to prove they have criminal intent. The reasons behind unfinished work can be seen as a contract dispute, rather than a crime. Crump got away with it.

I lost track of Crump until recently when a Louisiana bounty hunter called and ask if I knew where he was hiding.

Turns out Crump had gone to New Orleans, where he continued to ply his half a trade, his start-and-stop home remodeling. Only New Orleans authorities enforce such crimes with greater vigor.

New Orleans prosecutors charged him with stealing $100,000 from three families who hired him to restore their homes after Hurricane Katrina. In each case, he pulled the same maneuvers. Start and stop.

A New Orleans jury convicted him on three counts of theft. Last week, a judge sentenced him to 10 years on each count for a total 30-year sentence. Court records show the sentence is “hard labor.” Malachi Crump is 65 years old.

“We were very aggressive about it,” a spokesman for the Orleans Parish district attorney tells me.

What Crump did in Texas wasn’t enough to get his parole revoked. In Louisiana, Crump is set to spend the rest of his life in prison.

He tried to wiggle out of it. Before his trial, he brought a $40,000 check to court and offered to pay restitution to his victims. Prosecutors turned down the offer so they could take him to trial.

Their sympathy for him was low, especially after he fled Louisiana and returned to Texas before his trial. That’s when the bounty hunter came along. He found him.

“The DA wanted to make an example out of Mr. Crump,” Crump’s lawyer, Eusi Phillips, tells me. “I think they were interested in a headline about a contractor guilty of fraud. I don’t think there was justice in this matter. Unfortunately, Mr. Crump is probably going to spend the rest of his life in prison, and the victims will never see their homes get whole and get their money back.”

North Texas victims won’t be compensated either, but they are not complaining.

“I want to thank Louisiana for getting him because Texas would not do anything,” Sherita Musgrove says.

After Crump took her money following a house fire, she lost her house in a foreclosure. “Ever since he did that to me, everything went downhill. It was hard to find somewhere to stay. I’m living in an apartment now.”

Irashonette Tatum, another victim, said she had to pay double to complete the job because she hired a second contractor to do the work.

“I feel good about his conviction,” she says. “I think they pursued it more in Louisiana.”

Louisiana requires residential contractors to get a license. (Crump didn’t have one.) Not so in Texas, where general contractors are unlicensed.

Doesn’t matter for Malachi Crump. He’s officially retired from the home remodeling business. But in Louisiana, his hard labor is about to begin.

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The Watchdog: With your phone, you carry a spy in your pocket

Have you heard about mobile device tracking? That’s where your phone unwittingly gives away your location, even your personal information, without your permission. You don’t even know it’s happening.

Some say it’s an invasion of privacy. Of course it is. Why should you care?

Mobile device tracking is powerful enough that it can get you killed. Think terrorists who are tracked by their cell phones. Soon enough, bombs come flying through the air. Darn those pesky phones.

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But what about you? You’re not a terrorist. Why would companies or the government track you? Answer: Because it can. Laws that protect our privacy for this don’t yet exist.

Turns out that when you walk through a mall, for example, you leave a digital footprint. Some retail stores are tracking your location through your cell phone’s unique identifying numbers — even if you don’t enter the store.

Ostensibly, the retailer wants to know which paths you take through its store, how long you stand at various displays and your wait time at a cash register.

One company that sells store sensors is Euclid, a self-described retail analytics company in San Francisco.

“Our plug-and-play sensor installs in two minutes,” the company explains in its marketing materials. “Just connect power and Internet. Each sensor is the size of a deck of cards and covers up to 24,000 square feet.”

The company says it does not receive information about your name, address, email or phone numbers — only anonymous identifiers that go to the retailer for analysis.

Still, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., wrote Euclid and asked this question: If police ask Euclid what stores someone has walked past, would the company be able to provide the answer?

Euclid answered yes, if the police supplied the phone’s information and all necessary legal processes were followed.

Franken said last year, “It’s one thing to track someone’s shopping habits through a loyalty card or credit card purchase. Folks understand that their information may be collected. It’s another thing entirely to track consumers’ movements without their permission as they shop, especially when someone doesn’t buy anything or even enter a store.”

There’s a second type of dangerous mobile device tracking. McAfee announced this month that a new survey shows that mobile phone apps that invade a user’s privacy “are dominating the landscape.”

McAfee collected data from thousands of apps and found that 82 percent track a user and collect location information. Some of the apps contain malware that gains access to personal information.

Why are they doing it? To target ads.

Which apps cause the most trouble? Games.

How does the malware come in? Usually under “Tools” or “System Tools.”

The phrase that pops up on the phone is harmless enough: “Would you like to use your current location?” Choices are Don’t Allow or OK. Guess which one protects you?

At a privacy seminar this week at the Federal Trade Commission’s headquarters, tracking expert Ashkan Soltani reported that popular iPhone music app Pandora sends information to eight trackers, including unique location data to seven, a unique phone ID to three and demographic data to two.

What do trackers collect? Access to user names and passwords, contacts, age and gender, location, phone ID and phone number.

And you thought the music was free? (Pandora also sells ad-free subscriptions for $36 a year or $3.99 a month.)

Before downloading an app, consider doing Internet research on the app’s privacy policy. Be careful when giving permissions to the app to access other parts of your phone such as photos or contacts. Remember that your contacts include the personal information of your friends who probably don’t want their secrets shared with unknown companies.

Another new technology project that’s coming along quickly is iBeacon. It’s an Apple product that can be placed in public and picks up signals from all Apple and Android phones in its vicinity. iBeacon can send messages or videos to a phone, too. Hey, shopper, welcome. Here’s a video about our sale!

Customers could use the system to pay for items, too. So far, the system has been tested at baseball stadiums and malls. You’ll start to see more use of iBeacons.

As I mentioned, this new technology is largely unregulated. Sen. Franken and others seek a national privacy law: “People have a fundamental right to privacy,” he said last year. “And I think neglecting to ask consumers for their permission to track them violates that right.”

The industry’s proposal is to create a special sign with a recognizable icon so that when you walk into a store and see it, you know you’re being tracked.

Privacy experts want people to opt in to tracking rather than opt out. Creating a blacklist of Americans who don’t want to be tracked — a Do Not Call for tracking — is considered a logistics nightmare.

Another problem, for most people, is that it’s difficult to turn off tracking on a phone.

The only good news: Americans now switch out their cell phones with upgrades faster than ever. When you get a new phone, you start with a clean slate.

Nobody knows who you are. Until you turn it on.

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The Watchdog: Future Dallas judge Staci Williams accused of failing client so she could campaign

An unusual sight occurred in a Dallas courtroom. A woman stood before a judge and fired her lawyer. Right there, on the spot.

She accused the lawyer of abandoning her case, leaving her high and dry without a defense. She said the lawyer had ignored her requests for information, failed to show up at a hearing and didn’t file legal papers when she should have.

That alone was unusual, but what makes it more so is that the lawyer she fired is not going to be a lawyer much longer. She has a new and better job.

The lawyer, Staci Williams, is set to become the next state district judge for the 101st Judicial District in Dallas County. Supported by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, she defeated incumbent Judge Marty Lowy in the March 4, 2014 Democratic primary. No Republican is slated to run against her in November 2014.

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Williams’ client, now former client, is Barbara Carr, a longtime DART bus driver. Carr told the court that she wanted to relieve Williams of her duties because Williams was so busy campaigning she didn’t have time to represent her. Williams, hearing that, announced that she wanted to withdraw from the case.

In the courthouse corridor afterward, I asked Williams what happened.

“You know, I’m trying to figure it out right now,” Williams answered. “I have no comment at the time until I figure it out.”

I asked, “Did you abandon your client?”

“No, no,” Williams replied. “I don’t have a copy of her letter, so in order for me to be fair to you to give you an adequate response, I don’t know what the accusations are.”

She was referring to a letter that Carr wrote The Watchdog seeking help.

Later in the week, I called the future judge for more comment, but she didn’t return The Watchdog’s call.

Williams will learn her former client’s gripes soon enough. Carr filed a complaint last week against Williams with the State Bar of Texas. Williams has no previous public disciplinary record with the state bar.

The State Bar says the No. 1 complaint against lawyers is not returning phone calls, and also high on the list are lawyers who don’t pay attention to their cases.

In her complaint to the bar, Carr writes that Williams failed to keep her informed of her case, missed a hearing, didn’t file paperwork on time, accepted nearly $5,000 in fees but never provided a receipt and didn’t bring case files to the final hearing where Carr fired her.

She also writes that “Williams threatened me with $20,000 in legal fees if I exposed her misconduct of my case.” (That conversation supposedly took place after Williams shooed me away so she could talk to Carr privately in the courthouse hallway.)

Williams served as a judge once before, and her tenure was so rocky that she lost her job and filed a federal lawsuit. In 2006, the Dallas City Council appointed her to a municipal judge position. During the next four years she got into a series of scrapes with other judges and the court administrator, whom she accused of sexual harassment. The charge was never sustained.

She was also reprimanded for snooping around the desks of other judges on the court, according to court records obtained several years ago by Steve Thompson of The Dallas Morning News. At one point, she was reprimanded for entering a judge’s office and then a week later, she was accused of doing it again.

The City Council failed to reappoint her in 2010, and she sued the city, saying she was the victim of harassment and discrimination and her loss of the reappointment amounted to a retaliatory action. The federal lawsuit ended in 2013 when both parties agreed to a dismissal.

Carr hired Williams a year ago to represent her as a $250-an-hour lawyer. Williams represented Carr in a hearing last year in Carr’s lawsuit, which is against her employer, DART, and involves her need to get a medical certificate from a doctor.

At first, Williams stayed close to her client, according to records Carr provided me. Carr was pleased. In August, Carr wrote Williams in an email: “If it had not been for you, I’d be jobless. … Staci, you are a genuine person without a doubt, and I know you have my best interest.”

But around December, Carr said, she lost touch with her when Williams stopped answering her emails.

Yet while Carr couldn’t get hold of her lawyer, her lawyer still managed to contact her. Williams sent Carr several emails promoting her campaign. In one, she asked her to volunteer. In another, she asked her to attend a candidate forum to cheer her on.

In February, Carr, worried because she heard nothing about her case, called the court on her own and asked about her next hearing. Told the date, Carr showed up. Her lawyer didn’t.

Then before last week’s hearing, Carr filed her own legal papers asking for a postponement. She didn’t get it, which meant the hearing would go on with or without a lawyer. And because Williams had shown up and was familiar with the facts, a second lawyer whom Carr has asked to attend the hearing convinced Carr that Williams should handle her case at the hearing.

Carr reluctantly agreed to let Williams argue why her case should not be dismissed.

Williams complained in court that she was having difficulty communicating with Carr because Carr was rolling her eyes and refused to discuss the case with her. Williams went ahead and argued on Carr’s behalf.

Williams lost the argument. Carr’s case was dismissed.

Out in the hallway, Carr told me, “She wasn’t prepared.”

All of this could have been avoided, Carr said, if Williams, while busy as a candidate, had simply told her she was hard at work campaigning and didn’t have time for her anymore.

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Nationstar Mortgage loan company admits it failed customer

Crazy. Absolutely crazy. Robin Reid can’t believe it. She signed up to refinance her home and here it is, six months later, and she’s still waiting. Excuse after excuse.

This isn’t some fly-by-night operator she’s dealing with, either. Nationstar Mortgage LLC in Lewisville, Texas is one of the biggest loan companies in America.

“Not pretty,” she says.

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Reid is succinct. A journalist who worked for The Baltimore Sun and National Geographic, she doesn’t waste a word. When she complains, she tries to keep her comments tight, factual and positive. She’s gotten a lot of practice complaining, too.

“A morass of foolishness,” she says of her long march through the loan approval process.

A Nationstar senior vice president doesn’t disagree. “This is one that got away from us,” John Hoffmann admits.

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As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, Nationstar bought the mortgage on her Baltimore home last year and, as a get-acquainted gesture, offered her a lower rate. Good timing. Her adjustable rate loan is expiring this summer.

In January, a month after she applied, she wrote Nationstar: “Do you foresee any snags? I hope it’s all going OK. My fingers are crossed!!!”

Her loan officer’s reply: “Everything is in order on my end and I do not foresee any problems in completing the loan.”

Fingers crossed doesn’t always work.

She was promised everything would be completed by March, correspondence shows. After months went by, a supervisor told her there was a high volume of loans and the company had fallen behind.

Her bank wrote Reid to complain that Nationstar refused to provide necessary information “despite multiple requests for that information.”

She was outraged in April when Nationstar asked her for documents she sent the previous November.

The process stretched so long that her first appraisal expired, and she had to get another one. (Nationstar paid for it.)

Two days before The Watchdog waded into this mess, a Nationstar “escalations team leader” wrote Reid, “We are at a standstill with your file at this point.”

Now, for the first time, Nationstar has jumped on the fast track. A company employee told Reid in an email last week that Nationstar is waiting for one last document from her bank. To speed up the process, Nationstar wrote, it sent the bank an overnight envelope. That’s all Reid wanted from the start.

She’s lost $1,200, she says, because if she could have refinanced months ago as promised, she would have saved that much with a lower interest rate.

Company spokesman Hoffmann says: “There’s no way around this one. We didn’t do it. We didn’t handle it well at all.”

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More Watchdog Nation News:

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What specifically went wrong?

“No good reason,” he replied, adding that Reid’s loan “should be wrapped up in a couple of days.” (That didn’t happen.)

Nationstar may have been distracted. In January, Nationstar acquired $215 billion in residential mortgage servicing rights from Bank of America. That means the company is adding another 1.3 million loans to its own portfolio of 1.2 million loans

The Texas attorney general’s office reports that Nationstar had 250 complaints lodged against it in the past two years. At the state office of its regulator, Nationstar has 275 complaints for the past eight years, according to the Texas Department of Savings and Mortgage Lending. That’s not considered a lot by associate general counsel Chris Schneider.

“Nationstar is huge, one of the largest mortgage originators and servicers in the country. In any operation that large with the volume they do, there are going to be complaints. We have received complaints against Nationstar, as we do for virtually every company in the business.”

What should people do in this situation? The Watchdog recommends flooding the zone. Reid did that. First, go to the company, to managers and executives. Like Reid, be tight, factual and positive. If that doesn’t work, do as Reid did and file complaints with the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and her congressman’s office.

There’s also the Better Business Bureau, the attorney general of the home state of a company, the state mortgage regulator, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which enforces fair lending laws, and, for good measure, the Federal Trade Commission.

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The Watchdog: Don’t be fooled by Acxiom’s data release

An Arkansas company that collects information about us and then resells it to banks, retailers, insurance companies and others for a billion dollars a year in sales almost pulled a fast one on The Watchdog.

I was excited about the release of personal data by Acxiom on its free new website. I couldn’t wait to show you how to access your data so you can see what secrets a big-time data broker knows about you.

Great story: Your personal information released for the first time in history. What Big Brother keeps in his file.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, then I studied why Acxiom did this. On the surface, the idea is that a watchdog columnist like me would brag on this new website. Wow. Cool. No corporate data broker ever did this before. How can you not respect Acxiom for being so transparent and revolutionary in the way it is suddenly treating us Americans?

You know, it almost worked.

A few things killed the positive vibe.

Turns out, Acxiom doesn’t have the purest of motives. Scott Howe, chief executive officer and president, has said in interviews that he wants his company to sit at the bargaining table when the federal government does what it so far has refused to do — set up regulations that show data brokers what they can do with information about us.

Hey, we’re open, the company’s message goes. We want you to see what we’re all about. “We are not going to get anywhere by hiding,” Howe told one reporter.

Oh really, sir? I went to the company’s new website — AboutTheData.com — and looked up my information. What I saw was a joke. This whole thing is a bogus public relations stunt. I’m not buying into it.

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The company’s information about me is mostly accurate. Acxiom knows the value of my house, the age of my youngest son and even my approximate income. But it also says I’m “interested” in the following areas: gourmet cooking, crafts, decorating and gardening. My wife is LOL when she reads that. (Who wants a watchdog doing that anyway? If I’m gourmet-cooking, making crafts, decorating and gardening, when would I investigate your problems?)

The problem for me is not that they got most things right and a few things comically wrong. My concern is what’s not in my report. My watchdog associate, Marina Trahan Martinez, showed me her personal report. It included her preferred political party, her recent online purchases and her family vehicles. My report didn’t include any of that information.

But that’s not all that’s missing. From my reading, I learned that Acxiom most likely possesses other information that it’s hiding from me.

axe

The company uses shorthand slogans to categorize households — such as “Frugal Families” and “McMansions and Minivans,” The New York Times reported. My family’s nickname is left out.

The paper reported that Acxiom also sells descriptive phrases to customers about us with words such as “gambling,” “senior needs,” “smoker” and “adult with wealthy parents.”

Forbes reported that the company knows “some health topics of interest to you” such as diabetes or arthritis.

Other companies in the data broker business are said to collect information about sexual orientation, criminal and civil court records, credit history, health records and bank information.

Acxiom’s public disclosure only amounts to a sanitized version of a Big Brother file. This exercise is a feat of hocus-pocus, turning a glass of strong bourbon into a cup of milk. There’s no bite, no real privacy invasion, no truth to this data dump when compared with the type of information the company actually keeps.

I’d love to run all these thoughts by company leaders. I’ve been trying for two months to talk to them.

In July, the corporate communications manager answered that he would get in touch with me later. Last week, a company spokeswoman told me everyone is too busy. (Must be! Acxiom laid off 20 employees last month from its marketing division at Little Rock headquarters.)

I showed the AboutTheData.com website to Suku Nair, chairman of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Southern Methodist University. He’s not impressed.

“The site is not very secure,” he said. He’s right. To get your information, you type in only your name, address, date of birth and last four digits of your Social Security number. Think about that. Information you give all the time to others to confirm your identity is all that’s needed to enter this website.

Much of his personal information wasn’t correct, Nair said. The site allows you to edit your information and even opt out of Acxiom sharing your information with others. After this stunt, I’d recommend going to the site only if you want to opt out. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Nair instructs that by visiting AboutTheData.com and giving your personal details to enter, you confirm the latest information about yourself. You’re doing their work for them.

AT A GLANCE: Protect yourself

Learn some of what Acxiom knows about you at AboutTheData.com. Opt out of information sharing. Edit your data.

Remember, you can get a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus once a year at annualcreditreport.com.

Read privacy notices from companies and opt out of sharing.

Don’t answer surveys or fill out cards for drawings with personal information.

To get your name off mailing lists, visit dmachoice.org. Click on “Email Opt Out Service” and “Register for EDDM” to stop receiving certain kinds of commercial mail.

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The Watchdog: Dallas man’s speakers shot, and it’s got nothing to do with cranking up a stereo

Sometimes we hear what we want to hear and not what’s actually said. That happened to John Saxon of Dallas, who says he paid for insurance when he shipped a pair of vintage stereo speakers through United Parcel Service to a buyer in Pennsylvania.

When asked what the declared value was, Saxon answered with a figure of $260. He thought he was buying insurance, but he wasn’t. He was simply declaring his shipment’s value. The “i” word is never mentioned by UPS.

Saxon learned this lesson the hard way after his speakers were delivered to the buyer in busted-up condition. UPS, so far, has refused to pay for the damage.

speakersbefore-1

John Saxon Photography
Dallas resident John Saxon shipped these Cerwin Vega speakers to a man in Pennsylvania.

 

What makes this worth telling is that the buyer, John Hoogvliet, says he witnessed a UPS delivery man roughly handle the two boxes as he pulled them off his truck.

Hoogvliet, who lives in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, told me he was eating his lunch when a brown UPS truck pulled up to his business. “Here come my beautiful speakers,” he remembered thinking excitedly.

The Cerwin Vega speakers are classics from the early 1990s known for their rich sound and detailed interior parts. But those interior parts were exterior by the time the delivery man finished with them.

Hoogvliet remembered the sound he first heard: ka-bang, ka-bang, ka-bang. The UPS man was flipping the first speaker box end over end along the length of his truck. Fragile sticker placed on the box be darned.

When Hoogvliet saw the second speaker pushed roughly across the truck floor, he yelled, “Hey, stop! You’ll mess them up internally.” (Only he used a word stronger than “mess” that The Watchdog declines to repeat.)

Hoogvliet said he helped pull the speakers off the back of the truck and helped the driver carry them inside. The driver returned to his truck and drove away.

When Hoogvliet opened the first box, he saw that the screws had popped out and the edges on all sides were fractured. The Watchdog looked at the video Hoogvliet made after delivery. I can attest to the first speaker’s sorry condition.

“It’s like murder,” said Hoogvliet, a devout music lover. “It’s like killing a classic Corvette.”

speakersruinedpair

John Saxon Photography
The speakers arrived in this deplorable condition. The recipient says he saw a UPS delivery man roughly handle the two boxes as he pulled them off his truck.

He opened the second box and noticed that it, too, had a broken front. He called UPS and reported the damage.

UPS picked up both boxes and sent them to the company’s third-party inspector that surveys damage claims. Saxon immediately refunded Hoogvliet’s complete payment of more than $500 for the speakers and shipping costs. He also filed a damage claim, which UPS denied. Now Saxon can’t get his money back.

A UPS employee told him he didn’t pack them properly. That’s the most common reason UPS won’t pay a claim. Yet Saxon said he spent more than $50 on cardboard boxes.

Saxon sent me photographs of the speakers when they arrived back in Dallas after the third-party inspection. The pictures shocked me. The speakers looked like they were blown up. Parts spilled out in many pieces, as if a music lover rocked out too hard for too long.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

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UPS public relations manager Natalie Black told The Watchdog she couldn’t comment on Saxon’s particular case.

Yet when I described how the UPS driver flipped the boxes out of the truck, she said, “That kind of handling is unacceptable. … We train our drivers. They are taught to handle their packages with care. It sounds like this needs to be addressed and taken care of. It will be addressed. I don’t like hearing stories like this. I can understand his frustration.”

She promised to follow up with Saxon, which is more than what happened in the month he pleaded with UPS to address his problem.

Here’s what you need to know: Declared value is not the same as insurance. Packing is crucial. When shipping items of high value, use protective packing materials. Take photos of the packing to prove the packing is sufficient.

UPS and other major shippers usually cover up to $100 in damage, and that’s what Saxon was offered. He didn’t accept. Another possibility to consider is a third-party insurer.

None of this would have happened, Hoogvliet said, “if the speakers were handled correctly.” More important, the insurance that Saxon thought he bought wasn’t insurance at all. It never is.

Packing tips

UPS recommends the following:

Use a box strong enough to support the contents.

Securely seal the contents.

Use at least 2 inches of cushioning material around each side.

Reinforce package edges.

Securely seal package closures and seams with reinforced tape.

Include complete address information and telephone numbers on the label.

Don’t place a label on a seam.

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The Watchdog: Texas electricity companies profit from fees that some call ‘money for nothing’

Most Texas electricity companies charge extra fees on customer bills that have little to do with electricity. These companies slide through giant loopholes in state law that often shock customers when a monthly bill arrives.

For instance, an electric company serving North Texas customers pays Oncor Electric Delivery only $2.30 to disconnect a household from service and $2.70 to reconnect.

Yet one company stated that it charges $15 to disconnect and $50 to reconnect — or $100 if a customer wants an immediate reconnection called “expedited.” Another company charges $45 to disconnect and $15 to reconnect. Still another charges $5 when it sends out a disconnection notice and $65 to reconnect.

U.S. Coins and Paper Money

Those are hefty profits for what essentially, in the age of smart meters, amounts to pushing a few buttons by Oncor. No longer must a service tech travel to a residence to turn electricity service on or off.

“These fees are money for nothing,” says Carol Biedrzycki, head of Texas ROSE (Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy). She’s the leading state critic of such costs, complaining that companies “have done absolutely nothing to earn” these fees.

Here’s another: The Watchdog constantly receives complaints from Texans who can’t understand why they are urged to conserve electricity, yet when they do, they get penalized.

According to a 2013 survey by Texas ROSE shared with The Watchdog, 29 of 44 retailers charge $7 to $20 a month in penalties — called “minimum usage fees” — if a customer uses less than 1,000 (or in some cases 800) kilowatt-hours per month.

Some companies that have no minimum usage requirements, according to the survey, are Entrust Energy, Apollo Power & Light, First Choice, Green Mountain, New Leaf and Summer Energy.

Biedrzycki tells me that a few years ago only a few companies charged this penalty. When I asked one company why these charges are dumped on Texans who try to conserve, Will Huffman, director of customer experience for Ambit Energy, explained: “There’s a lot of risk that we have to undertake as retail providers to procure the power. If we buy too much or don’t buy enough, there’s always a risk associated. So you’re helping offset some of that risk.”

Public Utility Commission of Texas spokesman Terry Hadley calls the slew of extra fees “just another pebble in the pile.” He explains that “to whatever extent a provider has fees, they have to spell it out in contracts and their notifications” to customers.

These fees are allowed “in general,” he says. “It just emphasizes the importance of people understanding this. In the long term, do you want a provider that piles on these types of fees? That’s something a customer has to decide.”

Biedrzycki says, “These fees are a profit center. At a minimum they should be reporting how much they made on these fees. Airlines are deregulated, but we know how much they make on baggage fees.”

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America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

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More than a decade after Texas deregulated electricity service, there are more fees than ever.

Green Mountain, for example, bills itself as “the only power company in Texas dedicated to clean energy.” But there’s a cost for that. A customer is forced to pay $5 for copies of billing records, $15 if a customer makes more than five payments in a single month, and $5.95 if a bill is paid with the help of a live agent.

That last is one of the more irritating fees. According to the Texas ROSE survey, some companies charge about $5 if payment is made with a live agent. One company doing this is called Compassion Energy. No kidding.

Here’s another unusual fee structure: Texpo Energy offered a rate of 13.2 cents per kwh for an average monthly use of 500 kwh (in 2013), 10.6 cents for average monthly use of 1,000 kwh and 10.3 cents for average use of 2,000 kwh. But get this: If a customer doesn’t use the company’s AutoPay E-Plan — automatic payments from a bank account — the company tacks on an extra 5 cents per kwh. That means 10.3 cents per kwh jumps to more than 15 cents.

Note that The Watchdog isn’t pointing to various early termination fees enforced by most companies because a signed contract makes those fees clear. Neither am I noting the many fees charged for late payments, bounced checks and other collection fees, because when someone misses a bill, a penalty is expected.

Nor am I pointing out fees that are state-approved such as an Advanced Metering Charge and an Energy Efficiency Cost Recovery Factor. All companies are allowed to charge these fees. Some list them separately on bills; others don’t.

What’s important here is there’s no standardization for fees in either their presentation to customers or actual charges. It’s quite willy-nilly. Let the buyer beware.

The only way to figure out what the real costs are is to study each company’s Terms of Service and Electricity Facts Label, available on a company’s website and also on the state-run powertochoose.org website. It’s a shopper’s nightmare because customers often must wade through dense legal language to figure it out. In a few cases, fees are not even reported.

Customers must be thorough when asking questions before signing contracts. It’s easy to forget to ask the right question. Sometimes, customer service reps give wrong answers.

The only way to fix this problem is to beef up state law and rules so a standard set of fees applies across the board. That would make it easier for Texans to shop and understand what they’re actually paying for.

State law and PUC rules in the deregulated marketplace don’t go far enough, says Biedrzycki, who has been fighting this battle, mostly alone, for several years. There’s no reason for consumers to get zapped in so many jolting ways.

Follow Dave Lieber on Twitter at @Dave Lieber.

CONSUMER TIPS: Educate yourself

Know when your electricity contract expires.

Be prepared to sign up with a new company about a week before a contract’s expiration date.

Use the powertochoose.org website to shop. Then check a company’s own website to verify the accuracy of the terms offered.

Another website to check is texaselectricityratings.com.

Study both the Electricity Facts Label and the Terms of Service before signing a contract.

Ask questions of customer service reps on the phone before signing.

Make sure you understand the extra fees before committing.

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