Clark Howard: Today’s Hottest Consumer Questions


Today’s Hottest Consumer Questions

Can NACA help me restructure my mortgage for free?
Get Clark’s latest take on the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America when you listen to our Aug. 18 “Call of the Week” segment. (Please note the audio is preceded by a short ad.)

I received a Western Union cashier’s check to start as a mystery shopper. Is this legit?
In a word, no. This version of the mystery shopping scam has been popping up more than ever because of the recession. But if you cash that check, it will bounce and you’ll be responsible for the amount written on the check. Don’t do it!

Check out for a list of legitimate opportunities.

Will the new laws concerning lead in children’s toys and clothing affect my yard sale?
Team Clark has been receiving a lot of questions about the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which goes into effect Feb. 10, 2009. The CPSIA will require testing of children’s toys and clothing for dangerous amounts of lead and phthalates.

The law, which will be enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), also applies retroactively to children’s toys and clothing made before Feb. 10.

That has prompted fears that yard sales and second-hand stores may be driven out of business overnight when the CPSIA goes into effect. But the CPSC has a very shoddy track record of doing its job and enforcing laws, as Clark recently told one caller on the show. So don’t expect to see your local garage sales or Goodwill stores shut down anytime soon.

Do I need a PIN to use my credit card overseas?
Yes, in order to use a credit card in Europe, you have to use a PIN. It’s all part of the modern system much of Europe and some Asian countries have been increasingly adopting. These countries have switched to a “smart” chip system for an added layer of security in their cards. A PIN allows you to be compatible with the upgrade. So be sure to get the 4-digit code from your card issuer before you travel!

Should I take the offer of free credit monitoring from Countrywide?
Countrywide recently suffered a major security breach when an ex-employee sold the private financial info of 2 million customers. The good news is that there hasn’t been a single reported incidence of ID theft as a result of the breach; the info was simply sold as sales leads to Countrywide’s competitors.


But now the company is offering 2 years of free credit monitoring to anyone affected. Clark is advising people to sign up for the monitoring. Yet doing a credit freeze would be an even better option. See Clark’s credit freeze guide for details on how to get yours.

Are the ads on the site somehow referrals or endorsements from Clark?
No, they are not. Clark has no control over the ad content on the site. Ad content is handled strictly by the sales department at AM 750 and NOW 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB.

In the case of our new Google search, your search results will be returned with several Google-served ads at the top and bottom of the screen. These ads are clearly marked “Ads by Google” and surrounded by a border to delineate this ad content from the site’s own content.

The ads on the site should not be mistaken as referrals for products or service. People are always asking for a referral from Clark. But Clark doesn’t do referrals. Whatever appears on the site is “For Your Information Only.” If you’re looking for referrals, please ask your friends, family, church friends or check out companies with

Are gas additives and other gadgets for real?
During the energy crises of the ’70s, people were selling pills and additives for your gas tank that would supposedly boost fuel economy. So it’s little surprise that it’s happening again now that Americans are feeling pain at the pump.

The EPA has come out and said that you shouldn’t fall for these ploys. Out of 100 gas-saving devices tested, only 6 gave a tiny improvement in fuel economy — and even those were nothing to write home about.

The reality is that you have to do the simple things to get better fuel economy. So unload your trunk, keep your tires properly inflated and slow down out on the road.

Is buying gold a smart move? Where can I unload my gold jewelry?
When the economy slows, people tend to get fixated on hot commodities like gold. We’ve gotten a slew of questions from people who either want to buy or sell the stuff — or both!

Let’s deal with buying. Clark is not opposed to having a small percent of your portfolio in gold. But to take everything you’ve got and dump it into gold is to be a speculator — and that’s something Clark never encourages. Besides, aren’t you supposed to buy low and sell high? That’s not the scenario you’re likely to encounter right now.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking to sell your gold, you might want to start your search for a reputable dealer at the American Numismatic Society or the Professional Numismatics Guild. The Roanoke Times has a list of helpful questions to ask a potential gold dealer.


What’s up with Ignite/Stream Georgia?
Ignite is the marketing arm of a Texas-based company called Stream Energy. This company has entered Georgia as a new natural gas marketer.

We’ve been getting a lot of calls asking if Ignite offers a legitimate business opportunity in recruiting future customers and also if their natural gas prices will be competitive.

If you’re interested in business opportunities with Ignite, here’s the deal: You’ll have to pay $329 to get in. Then you can begin recruiting customers and earn credits for each person you sign up, which eventually translate to bonuses and commissions.

In essence, it’s multi-level marketing. Clark doesn’t like MLMs because you pay money up front and then the goal is to get a lot of people to work under you and make a commission off those you sign up.

What if you’re interested in getting your natural gas from Ignite? Well, you can enroll as a customer beginning April 21, but service won’t begin until July 2008. We’re still waiting on the PSC to do an apples-to-apples price comparison with the other marketers. However, Ignite’s monthly customer service fee of $5.95 is expected to push it to about the middle of the pack.

Is it better to do a short sale or a foreclosure?
Clark’s been getting this question quite often as the tight housing market continues to squeeze people. The truth is that a foreclosure will hurt your credit much more than a short sale. But please note that your lender must agree to allow you to do a short sale. So keep asking them every couple of weeks! An answer of “no” last week may turn into “yes” next month. Most banks, if they’re smart, would prefer a short sale. Think about it: Every foreclosure they do costs them about $70,000, plus they then have the burden of being in the property management business instead of just the banking business.

Collection agencies are bothering me. What can I do?
We’ve been receiving a lot of questions about collection agency calls. We recommend you go to and read the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act so you’ll know about your rights. One word of advice: Don’t ignore the letters you receive. Answer them all, even if it’s with Clark’s “drop dead” form letter.

Should I refinance now?
To answer this one, you’ll need to start by going to to check your credit report to see if there are any errors on it. Put in a dispute if there are. Then go to to find out your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Get your credit scores from and check to see what interest rate you’ll get with the score you have. This site also has information about improving your credit score. Finally, you’ll want to get 5 good faith estimates from mortgage companies so you can compare fees. You can find mortgage companies and calculators at

Is it possible to get free HDTV?
Yes! You simply have to use your existing outdoor antenna and to correctly pick up the signal. can help you figure out how to do that. You don’t need to pay for cable service to pick up the HD signals. But please note, this is will not allow you to get free cable.

On June 12, 2009, there will be a switch from analog to digital broadcasts in the TV world. The government is offering two $40 vouchers to help subsidize the purchase of the boxes. Please note the vouchers are only good for 90 days.


You may find that these devices are on back order because so many rushed out to get them. If that’s the case, try DTVPal. They will take your voucher and give you $40 off the cost of a digital-to-analog converter. Though you’ll pay $8.95 in shipping and handling charges, the DTVPal is effectively free.

How can I request a credit freeze?
For links to the exact requirements each of the three major credit bureaus have put in place, please check out Clark’s new credit freeze guide.

Should I consider a variable annuity as an investment?
First off, let’s clarify the definition of a variable annuity. It’s a mutual fund wrapped in an insurance policy that requires you to put in money. But you pay a variety of insurance charges, a mortality charge and other fees. By the time it’s all done, you pay 25 times the expense of the no-load funds Clark recommends. Even worse, if you try to get out of an annuity, you pay massive fines. Variable annuities are often pushed by salespeople on elderly folks during free meal seminars. The commission they receive on a sale is huge.

Clark is emphatic about disliking variable annuities. But if you are considering it as an investment, you might want to check out a recent article in Money magazine that has an E-Z annuity fee disclosure checklist. Your advisor can fill this in to show the real cost of this investment. The Motley Fool also has additional information about the down sides of variable annuities.

How can I find the $10 DSL deal from AT&T?
Note: This deal expires 12/29/08. The $10.00 per month Basic DSL deal is now offered to NEW Residential AT&T Yahoo! High-Speed Internet customers only. In order to hunt this deal down, you’ll need to first check availability by entering your phone number. See more details about the deal. If you feel you’re getting the runaround, contact the Federal Communications Commission at 1-800-225-5322 or online at Meanwhile, complete details of the deal are available on the AT&T website.

How can I get a copy of my free credit report?

What can I do about Stolen Identity/Consumer Fraud?

  • Contact the fraud units of the three credit reporting agencies:
  • Equifax – Report Fraud: 800.525.6285
  • Experian – Report Fraud: 888.397.3742
  • Trans Union – Report Fraud: 800.680.7289
  • Usually you can contact one credit bureau and they will contact the others for you.
  • Call the police and get the fraud on record. Be sure to get a copy of the police report. The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 entitles you to the right to file a police report:
  • Notify the Federal Trade Commission who keeps a database of identity theft: or 877.438.4338
  • Report the fraud to your credit card companies and notify your bank.
  • Don’t pay any bill or part of a bill resulting from id theft.
  • Contact Social Security Administration – fraud hotline 800.269.0271
  • Get copies of your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies six months after the id theft.
  • Check out Identity Theft Resource Center- and

How do I find the Travel Deals Clark mentions?
Clark has an entire page of information that will show you how to find the very best deals. See his Travel Help and Booking FAQs page.

Do I have 72 hours to return my used/new car to the dealer?
Every week we get many calls from people who buy a car and think that if you decide you don’t want it, then you can return it within 3 days. Wrong!! According to the Federal Trade Commission, unless the contract stipulates it, there is no cancellation period that allows you to break a contract once you’ve signed it. Remember, always read the contract before you sign. What is in the contract counts and your signature means you agree to the terms. For contract information on the sale of new/used cars, go to

I’m having trouble getting my security deposit back from my landlord. What should I do?
Usually at the beginning of each month, we hear from people that have moved from an apartment and are unable to get their security deposit returned. To protect yourself at the end of a tenancy, take pictures of your apartment and do a walk through inspection with management. All or part of the security deposit may be kept by the landlord to compensate for physical damage caused to the premises by the tenant. However, a landlord can’t keep a security deposit to cover normal wear and tear. Check out the websites below for more information about landlord and tenant rights:

  • – legal information on apartments for each state, as well as legal advice on other topics
  • – offers info on lease agreements, landlord liability, state statutes and more

What can I do if I’m facing foreclosure?
No one wants to think about losing their home. But if you are in a situation where this might be a possibility, you need to have a plan of action. Clark always advises people to contact their mortgage lender and see if you can work out a payment plan that will allow you to keep your home. Keep the lines of communication with your lender open at all times. It’s also important to prioritize your bills: pay your mortgage first, your car or other transportation costs second and your credit card last. You may also want to contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and find out about getting a forbearance.

What’s up with Zenni Optical?
We’ve been getting a lot of complaints about the Zenni Optical site not working and also a lack of customer service at the company. We have had intermittent problems trying to access Zenni’s site and have heard that it’s very difficult to do so through AOL. If you’re not able to log on, try calling Zenni’s toll-free phone number: 1-800-211-2105. Meanwhile, people are really split on the issue of the company’s customer service. Clark used them for his glasses and had no problems, but other people haven’t been so pleased. It really comes down to a personal choice.

I supposedly won money in an international lottery. Is this legitimate?
There have been a lot of calls about this one. People are receiving bogus cashier checks in the mail after being told they’ve won an international lottery. The so-called “winners” are told to deposit the check in their bank account and then wire additional transfer fees through Western Union. This is a scam, so don’t fall for it. There’s more info about these types of lottery scams available at, and even through a basic Google search.

Why has Macy’s sent me an unsolicited MasterCard?
Macy’s has been selling its credit card holdings to Citibank over the past couple of years. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the retailer now is converting 3.5 million charge accounts to MasterCards as part of the deal. If you haven’t used your Macy’s card in two years, you may one of the people getting the new unsolicited MasterCard. The cards should come in the mail with a letter that contains information about opting out. Read this carefully and follow it closely if you don’t want this new MasterCard. Some consumers have told us that they were grilled with personal info demands — including being asked for the last four digits of their Social Security numbers — when they tried to cancel. However, we haven’t yet heard or seen anything to support the fear that this whole thing may be a scam that involves a fee for cancelling or a fee for not cancelling, or even that the cards may be taken out of the mailbox and used fraudulently.

I’ve received a letter offering a refund of fees charged to a credit card I used when traveling outside of the United States. What should I do?
We’ve been getting a lot of calls about this topic. This class-action lawsuit involves foreign transactions over a 10-year period from Feb. 1, 1996-Nov. 8, 2006. Clark suggests you go for refund option 1 (“Easy Refund”) and claim your $25. The easiest way to claim your refund is by visiting Call 1-800-945-9890 if you have additional questions.