SCOTT SEMANS


In My Opinion . . . .



      We've all got opinions, and venting them not only makes us feel good, but may aid someone else. Following are mainly products and services which I either recommend, or recommend avoiding. There's no order, and the perspective is that of a consumer and small business owner. My hope in creating this page is that someone researching one of these firms or products will persevere through the sixtillionth page of Google and find my comments useful in shaping their purchase decision. I have another page dealing with businesses in Issaquah, WA.

The Downside Of Paypal - I use it, but don't recommend it . . . .
Paypal is an easy way to transfer funds and pay for online purchases, especially for those without bank accounts in a major currency, or without credit cards. But there are downsides which most users are unaware of. I've found the telephone customer support quick, and reasonably helpful, but the followup online survey makes it clear they are worried about the word-of-mouth. I plan to keep my Paypal account open "until it happens to me" but felt I should pass on the 3000 characters that wouldn't fit in the "Why I don't recommend Paypal" survey box. This advice is derived from my own experience as a web-based coin dealer, that of other coin dealers, and a couple of ebayer friends in other fields.
1) YOUR MONEY AT RISK: As Paypal will tell you, they are NOT a bank. If they go bankrupt, or there is a panic, you lose your money. Funds are not FDIC insured.
2) HIGHER COSTS TO SELLER: Visa and Mastercard charge merchants around 2% while Paypal charges are 3%, 4% for foreign accounts. Sellers who encourage paypal are trying to get their fees lowered through volume, or have been rejected by VISA/MC processors.
3) HIGHER COSTS TO INTERNATIONAL BUYERS: Shipped goods paid by credit card or Paypal must go by more expensive, trackable classes of mail or carrier, and show a 100% valuation in order to get insurance. Sellers have more room to work with buyers in saving shipping and customs duties, and choosing safer shipping methods when other payment types are used. Credit cards and Paypal convert currencies at an unfavorable rate, while some sellers will accept Dollars, Pounds, or Euros at a true interbank rate.
4) BOGUS HANDLING CHARGES: Merchants are forbidden ($5000 fine & loss of account) to pass on credit card charges to customers, but Paypal does this to sellers, and adds their own percentage as well. To recover this, sellers create bogus "handling" or inflated "shipping and handling" charges which cover the money fees, and usually an additional profit. Buyers who use no-fee payment methods may see such charges disappear, or can ask for a reduction. Labor and materials are part of any business's overhead, but shipping costs may vary greatly by customer location. Sellers paying by no-fee methods have the high ground in asking for true shipping charges without bogus add-ons.
5) CUSTOMER DISCRIMINATION: Merchants take Paypal with a smile because they want the business. But when a seller has online credit card processing facilities, using credit card-funded Paypal implies the buyer does not trust that seller. In fact, Paypal provides less protection than Visa or Mastercard. Because of the higher fees and other limitations, "Paypal money" is usually less valued by sellers than credit card money or no-fee methods such as checks. Paypal makes it much easier then card-issuing banks for buyers to file chargebacks, including fraudulent or unwarranted ones, and sellers know this. Most sellers track the payment habits of repeat buyers, and may be less likely to give discounts, will favor cash buyers when offering limited-availability merchandise, or discriminate in other ways.
6) NO RECOURSE: Laws and regulatory agencies which protect consumers from banking abuses do not apply to Paypal. Sellers are more at risk than buyers, but internet complaint sites are full of horror stories from all types of Paypal account holders: funds frozen for months, confiscated money, even funds tapped out of bank checking or savings accounts, all without any effective means of appeal. When scammers use an innocent account to defraud others, it is cheaper for Paypal to blame the account holder than investigate or take the loss themselves. Banks and even credit card processors do not behave this way because they are better insulated from internet fraud, and are regulated. With Paypal, there is little effective legal recourse. In 2005 Paypal settled a federal class action suit rather than face a court order to reform their practices.
7) GOVERNMENT SPYWARE: As of late April, 2013, Paypal has rolled over and is using idiot spyware in the service of the Amerikan Empire. Foreign payers to US accounts who mention the name of a "hostile" government or even a city therein will find their payments returned and the US account reported to the Foreign Asset Control Agency. For example, the seller of a 19th Century Iranian coin on Ebay was denied payment from a buyer in Europe who mentioned "Shiraz" Mint in the payment note. One can find thousands of such Iranian coins, including those of the current regime, for sale on Ebay, yet this seller's account has been frozen because he refuses to sign a "confessional" affidavit. Presumably the result would have been the same had the buyer said "Thanks for the nice scarf, a birthday gift for my daughter Shiraz," as there is no human involvement in the process. There has been no publicity, but search: Treasury Foreign Assets Control, Paypal for other stories by baffled victims.

Advanta Business Card - classic predatory lender
Advanta Bank Corp of Draper (Salt Lake City), UT, product: Advanta Business Card. Advanta is the classic predatory lender: great offers, then a huge APR hike if you slip once, or maybe even if you don't. Rather than detail my own negative experiences, I offer some hard won advice for those considering opening an account, or currently fighting with this bank.
1) Upon opening an account do not wait for the first statement in the mail! Immediately set up an automatic withdrawal (EFT) from your bank account for the minimum monthly amount. Try this site or look for another. They want you to miss a payment, so they do not make this easy. Continue making mailed or by-phone payments until you see two months' worth of eft payments taken from your bank account. Better make two payments in a month than have them claim none at all.
2) Monitor your account religiously. Do not wait for printed statements. You can get details of due date and last payment received online, or at the 800# voice prompt. If a mailed payment is not acknowledged 48 hours prior to due date, call them and eft a payment from your bank account. Better make two payments in a month than have them claim none at all.
3) Avoid the Bangalore Brigade. To get a telephone Account Manager who is actually able, and possibly willing, to help you (there are some!) call 1-800-705-7255 as early in the day as possible and DO NOT hit any keys or say anything, just wait out the prompts. If the person is unhelpful, just try again. I do not believe there are any "supervisors" or anyone they can transfer you to.
4) Mailed opt-out notices. This has been a favorite trick of theirs for years. They claim they mailed you a change of terms raising your APR from a low rate to 20+% and you could have kept the original rate had you responded by rejecting the change, or closing the account. Did they mail this to you, really? Was it one little sheet among many in the monthly bill, or part of what looks like another come-on? The Federal regulatory agencies will call it a dispute-of-fact and decline to intervene.
5) Advanta is hard as nails when it comes to their APR rates. They WILL raise them by hook or by crook and they WILL NOT reduce them again regardless of what you say. Other banks want your good will. Advanta does not. As a lender of last resort, they are poison. Once they jump your APR, pay off or balance transfer from another account QUICKLY. Their rate hike may trigger hikes from other credit card companies.
6) Forget about "why." The Account Managers are not told why by the higher ups, and the higher ups know what they are doing and feel no need to admit it to you. You will be read a "script" should you complain or ask why.
7) Advanta does not like to close accounts. You can try to initiate an account closure by telephone but it probably will not happen. The cardholder agreement asks you to cut the card and send it along with any unused convenience checks to their address (possibly: Advanta Bank Corp., Security Division, P.O. Box 30715, Salt Lake City, UT 84130) but even if you certify the letter they may claim the card was not enclosed. Include a letter with your account number, a request to close, and advise that the enclosing of the card has been witnessed. Have your attorney or a notary notarize your signature and do the actual certified mailing.
8) Because it is a "business" card, the FDIC does not regulate this Advanta product. Even so, filling out a complaint form at the FDIC site is easy, may bring a response from Advanta management, and helps bring this and other predators to the attention of our bought-off legislators and the trial lawyers.

Hewlett-Packard Tech Support - more argument than advice
Cumulatively, I have spent many hours of frustration dealing with the lower echelons of HP's technical support staff, and since it is now outsourced to India during certain hours, the situation is only getting worse. I have logged nearly 100 calls for technical support on a series of models since 1992, and the best advice I can give anyone planning to use an HP ink jet is, get an extended service warranty including "express exchange". These warranties are surprisingly cheap, and provide for next-day replacement if a problem can not be handled on the phone. As a Mac user with a preference for older operating systems, I have been "stuck" with HP products except for one blessed year when I had a Lexmark that rarely gave me trouble, and featured prompt, helpful tech support. Contrast this to HP where you will work through an idiot voice recognition system, gatekeepers who want to ask you endless and irrelevant questions, then deny that you have a warranty. If you do get past, the technician will claim not to support your system, argue about the warranty, and be suspiciously eager to sell you a $30 14-day support episode (when 2 year contracts are under $40). Long waits in phone queues, transfers to the wrong department, hang-ups, or "going away" leaving a dead line are standard practice. By contrast, the supervisors in the US (not in India) are usually reasonable and helpful, so be sure to ask for the supervisor rather than argue with a technician. In fact, one supervisor upgraded me at no charge from a glitchy "consumer" model to a Deskjet 6122 which does seem to be built to last. Other than some startup problems, it went nearly 3 years with one glitch, and that was fixed by simply reinstalling the software, though it took 75 minutes of phone time arguing with six people before I got the advice to do so. And of course, when I called to check on the extended warranty I bought at the time of the switch, they had no record of it. Eventually the 6122 resolutely refused to print, offering up an error message about "worn out cartridge" even when I installed a fresh, overpriced HP brand cartridge. After arguing with fewer than six people this time at the HP tech support 800 number, I learned that this is a hardware, not a software issue. I checked eBay, found used models easily available for under $40 delivered, bought two which both work, and voila, back in business with a backup for under $80! It's hardly an ecological solution, but trashing the machine when it acts up is simpler than soliciting HP tech support's advice on fixing it. One final note: you will never own an HP machine that consistently pulls in just one sheet of paper at a time!

On Chainsaws, Brushers, and Lawnmowers: Husqvarna vs. Stihl
I volunteer for a hiking club which buys both Husqvarna and Stihl power-brushers, and Stihl Chainsaws. They are all service-hogs, so down-time is a big consideration when comparing brands. Stihl doesn't make or service lawnmowers, so turnaround on a repair is days or weeks. But at Husqvarna, your job sits weeks or months in line behind the mowers. One Husqvarna dealer stopped carrying the brushers because of their service needs, low reimbursement for warranty work, and general poor support from the manufacturer. Also, Husqvarna penalizes authorized servicers for too-small parts orders, so some may not finish a repair until they need parts for jobs farther down the line, adding further to downtime. This jibes with my own phone experience with Husqvarna - blame shifting, no call-backs, etc. For both Stihl and Husqvarna brushers, one lesson learned is that the multi-tools are not designed for heavy work with the line-trimmer attachment. The attachment joint and engine will wear out frequently if you use a second-party head that allows heavier .18 line, or more than 2 whips. Using two .13 whips in a second-party head seems to work, but requires replacing the whips more often, and still decreases efficiency a bit. The dedicated trimmers, which all (including Echo) come with bicycle handles, promote rote side-to-side brushing and plant destruction rather than the more artful work possible with a liftable machine. A particular problem relates to the Husqvarna 326LDX. A screw (part 537 12 53-01) at the join of the boom arm and the blade can vibrate loose after about a half hour of use. It should be fixed in with "locktite" either at the factory, or as part of dealer prep, so have your seller check this before you take one home.

Fully Informed Jurors - educate yourself before serving on a jury
The goal of FIJA, or the Fully Informed Jury movement, is to re-educate the American public on the true role of the jury in the administration of justice. In a democracy, the public participates in the legal system with votes at two levels: in the election of legislators who craft laws, and in the application of those laws to individuals. Just as politicians seek to restrict, expand, or contain voters through various means fair and foul (universal suffrage, redistricting, vote fraud, etc.), so does the legal profession seek to manage juries to its own ends, sometimes promoting, and sometimes thwarting, real justice. Through court decisions, court rules and practices, and self-serving doctrines taught in law schools, the legal profession tries to hide the fact that jurors have not only the right and power, but the historic duty, to render verdicts based upon the merits of the law and the prosecution, as well as upon the facts of the case. Judges, prosecutors, and even defense lawyers seek to improperly restrict jurors to mere "triers of fact" when one of the most significant checks and balances envisioned by the authors of the Constitution was the ability of jurors to counteract bad law and corrupt prosecutions. The unlegislated practice of "voir dire," or jury-stacking, almost unknown in democratic legal systems outside of America, has come into use partially to eliminate jurors who exhibit knowledge of their full role as jurors, and jurors can be removed during the deliberation process if they block a guilty verdict without voicing some fact-based argument. To learn more about the important role of juries in American jurisprudence and to prepare yourself to be a fully informed and conscientious juror, please visit the FIJA website.

Biased News Coverage - why would you want any other kind?
Prior to the internet, mainstream media served as gatekeepers to what most Americans received as news. Independent print and broadcast media had very limited reach. A prime ethical directive of MM professionals is objectivity - lack of viewpoint or a "balance" between (usually two) competing views. No more telling example - nor more poignant absurdity - can be cited than TV's Fox News channel's adoption of Fair And Balanced as an official slogan. The Big Lie lives on! And yet, it's Fox News that has broken the mould and created the niche for a liberal counterpart which MSNBC has filled. Is the cloth beginning to fall from our eyes, at last? If we are going to gain our understanding of the world from TV sound bytes, why shouldn't those bytes be palatable and entertaining? And what's less palatable than somebody else's bias, and less entertaining than a pretense at objectivity? Let's have more biased news coverage, from even more perspectives. The greater danger than thinking news is objective is thinking liberal (or socialist) and conservative (or neo-) are the only two perspectives. Maybe so if your news still comes in the Big Box, but you will soon learn better when you explore the punditry available on the net. So, here's the pitch. My Bookmark called News takes me to Rational Review News Digest and that's because I'm essentially a libertarian. But if you're not, then go fish - really - somewhere out there you're going to find a news amalgamator that honors your viewpoint in the issues it covers, the sources it selects, and the blogs it links to. You don't have to put up with what somebody else decides is news and - heaven forfend - an "objective" take on it.

Shipping and Handling Charges - hidden profits for the seller
When you order something to be shipped to you, "Shipping and Handling" charges are almost inevitable, and when you are buying from a website, it is often hard to find out what this will amount to without giving the seller a great deal of information. Since price is often the sole determiner of who gets a sale, internet sellers have learned to quote low on product, then build the profit back into a handling charge which the buyer does not see in a clear and timely way. Charging for shipping is a legitimate practice and the fairest way to do this is to pass along the carrier's charges exactly. Carriers such as UPS, however, have different rate structures for different shippers and do not show the amount paid on the face of the package, which encourages shippers to overcharge, or create high, blanket charge schedules based on sale amount or units ordered. This results in an overcharge for most customers, and particularly disfavors buyers of light products. To deflect objections over blatantly high shipping charges, many sellers call it "Shipping & Handling" which somehow sounds better, but in fact makes no sense at all. Any retailer is in business to "handle" his product, and a mail-order seller's handling includes packing it up for shipment. When you buy groceries at the market, you do not expect a surcharge at the cash register to cover the "handling" the stock boy did in unpacking the product and putting it on the shelves. So why would you expect a mail-order dealer to charge you extra for taking something off a shelf and putting it in a box? When you price shop on the internet, take the time to compare these much-abused charges. Look for a "calculate shipping" button before you input personal information to the order form. You may find that the #2 or #3 seller ranked by price charges less at checkout than someone who builds his profit back in via overblown shipping and unwarranted "handling" charges. One big reason for this bogus charge is to pass on credit card / Paypal fees, which can not be done without risking fines and a loss of account. When you pay by no-fee methods such as check or money order, many smaller merchants will be glad to waive bogus charges, or charge true shipping rates.

Elements Massage: Enviable
Elements is a franchise massage business comparable to, but better than, Massage Envy. Their workers are more experienced (unlike Envy) and you can drop your contract any time (unlike Envy). I've found quite a variety of styles an skills at Elements, and they do therapeutic and deep tissue as well as feel-good or stress relief massage. At my location, walk-ins are theoretically possible, but the popular workers tend to be well booked up. Rates are comparable to Envy.

Epson Perfection Scanner: Great for thick stuff
Unwilling to tackle the complexities of a real camera for coin photography, I have used a flatbed scanner since 2000. At that time people were discovering that the Epson Perfection 1640SU did much better on thick objects than other scanners. The successor is the V500Photo and I am very pleased with it. Using the "Preview" feature that came with my Macintosh, I can operate the scanner and modify, combine, and annotate scans, then save, rather quickly. I can designate a spot on the plate if I am doing one coin at a time, avoiding the time-consuming preview scan each time. Thankfully I have not needed their customer support much, as it is not toll-free and you are routed to the Philippines and have to beg your way to a connection back to the US for the people who know something, then they have to call you back for an audible connection. Another downside: scanning metal scratches the plate, so after a while your coins look scratched. Although the coated optical glass plate can be removed, Epson sells replacements only of the plate plus housing at around $65 delivered. Consider that a repeating expense of using this scanner.

Comcast Cable Internet: Too many outages
Comcast is a major provider of cable internet service, in competition with the phone companies' broadband services. When it was attbi it was horrible, when it was AT&T it improved, and Comcast is better still. Even so, in my area I can count on a slowdown or outage about every two months, lasting from a matter of hours to several days. Even though I have spent literally days talking with Comcast employees at all levels, and developing contacts that most residential users do not have, I usually do not get explanations for these outages, nor estimates of when they will be fixed. Sometimes an outage will create secondary problems within my own computer, so I am not able to tell whether service has been restored in my area without contacting neighbors. Once Comcast has taken some action on a problem, they will assume it is corrected; they will not contact you to check. Typically bad weather will create area-wide outages in cable service, but not in telephone service. It is important to know neighbors who have the service, compare notes, and urge them to call in a report, as Comcast repair is completely driven by the squeaky-wheel principle: the more complaints in an area, the faster they respond to that area. Three times in a three year period I have experienced loss of connectivity due to a localized, intermittent, line problem. This is very difficult to track down because it will affect different users on the same node differently, and must be serviced when it is occurring, not "between noon and 5:00PM" the next day, or whenever they have a free tech to look at it. The only way to deal with an intermittent line problem is to get the phone number of your local technical operations manager, who can actually get a line technician to your house when the problem is visible. Your local cable TV regulator is a first step, but you have to get past the Customer Care supervisors, who can not affect the scheduling of repair calls. Even then, you will need complaints from your neighbors to overcome Comcast Repairs "Rules of 3" (3 ordinary tech appointments before they will believe it's a more general problem, and 3 complainers on the same problem before the line techs will schedule it.) This is a big corporation and its internal communications are not good. Until you reach the person in charge of the line technicians, you will be wasting time waiting for ordinary repair techs or dealing with telephone gatekeepers who can't help you. This all applies to residential subscribers. Comcast has a business-grade service which gets a higher level of tech support and faster repairs; it is available to residential customers willing to pay more to not get the short end of the stick.

Comcast Email and Webspace: "We don't support that."
I regularly have problems with webspace and email, and often as not, the tech support is not able to help. Comcast has at least three levels of technical support, but residential customers have access only to the lowest level, the higher levels being reserved for business customers. The level-one techs are trained to solve simple problems, and will deny that higher support levels exist. They will tell you that their only job is to make sure that you have internet access, and while they can often be persuaded to help with other issues, are seldom competent to do so. To get competent support, find out who your local Executive Customer Care Specialist is (or try Agatha Hill, the ECCS in my area: 800-666-3458ext.65510) and ask them to have Denver call you back. This will likely take two working days, and the guy I got acted like he was doing me a big favor, but I have gotten problems fixed this way. And if you're a Mac user, you are doubly screwed, because almost nobody at Comcast knows Macs. In 2005 I began hearing, by letter and via my aol account, from European corespondents who were getting "undeliverable" messages when sending to my @comcast.net address. This remains a problem which Comcast will not take seriously.

@Comcast Doesn't Deliver
Comcast prides itself on being tough on spam, but how tough is too tough? Subscribers don't realize that Comcast's unmonitored filtering program may be rejecting legitimate emails. This can happen in two ways: 1) There is a real spammer sharing a server with hundreds of unoffending users, or 2) A small percentage of Comcast subscribers receiving a bulk email "mark as spam" either deliberately, or attempting to transfer the message to a spam box, or the trash. In either case, the innocent mailer gets a bounce notice from his own web host or isp listing all @comcast.net addresses as undeliverable, without further explanation. This means that the sender will either delete your email address as bad, or contact Comcast security and learn, in effect, that @comcast addresses are dangerous to mail to, and discriminate accordingly. This is why I suggest that comcast subscribers get a yahoo, hotmail, or similar account with weak anti-spam measures and do the opposite of what others do, in giving that address only to trusted mailers, reserving the @comcast for more public purposes. And if you no longer want to be on a mailing list you subscribed to, follow the sender's REMOVE instructions, don't treat it as spam. If you are a mailer whose contact with @comcast addresses has been denied, you can plead your case at 888-565-4329. My defense as a mailer is to send @comcast addresses opt-in notices, and when making a sales offer for limited merchandise, to mail to the @comcasts secondarily, if the main mailing does not sell the item out.

Radio Shack: Deceptive Returns Policy
Let's say you go in January 1st and buy something - like a radio. If you ask, they'll tell you you've got 30 days to return it for cash, thereafter store credit. You don't like the radio (I didn't like mine) so you go in January 15th to return it, and see a radio controlled truck that would make a great birthday gift for your kid for just $10 more than the radio. So, you return the radio and have the sales person charge the extra $10 to your card. Turns out your wife already got Junior a fire engine, so that's got to go back, and one thing and another it's February 2 (17 days later) before you get back to the store. Now your only option is store credit, no cash refund. Why? Because instead of RETURNING the radio and making the sales person go to the trouble of processing both a credit to your card for the radio AND a new purchase for the truck, you made an EXCHANGE. That means your 30 days for cash refund dates back to the original purchase, the radio, not to two weeks ago when you bought the truck. Tricky, huh? Apparently this deceptive practice is followed by other large electronics retailers as well. Moral: While 30 days return is standard on electronics products, you may want to favor hardware or general merchandise stores who do not try to cheat their customers with dubious hidden technicalities. If you make a return at Radio Shack, get a refund in hand, walk out the door, and THEN decide if you want to buy something else there. By the way, I never did find a small radio there that would pull in distant stations, nor a sales person who could rate or compare different models for this quality. Costco and Target, among others, have much more liberal return policies for electronics.

Costco: A good deal all around
By a good margin I spend more at Costco than at any other store, not only for food, clothing, and household items, but work-related goods as well. Generally the quality is adequate to excellent, the prices equal to or better than any other retailers' "specials," the shopping experience is pleasant, and I know I can return anything I don't like without time limit. The food items are not all "jumbo" size; even as a household of one I can buy fresh fish, meat, and prepared meals. I might wish for more variety in features and brands, shorter checkout lines, and better heating in the outdoor food court, but these are minor offsets. As an Executive Member I save more than the modest $100 annual dues on car insurance alone, and get a better rate on credit card merchant service than anyone else offers. This membership level also offers savings on real estate, financial services, long distance telephone, etc., and my local Costco also sells gas a few cents below any competitor. I particularly like the no time limit return policy on all goods, important for computer and electronics items where reasons to dislike a product may crop up only after a period of use. Costco's buyers have been helpful in resolving aftermarket problems with producers and service providers.

The negatives: My main gripe is about the clothing sizes they stock, and this may be peculiar to my local store, which is also the corporate headquarters store: everything is for "tall and fat". Small is just not stocked, and you have to get to a new item very fast to find a medium; usually you will find only L, XL, and XXL. I hadn't noticed that everyone in Issaquah is over 6 Ft tall and 250+ Lbs, but the buyers must have inside information. Electronics, computer, and telephone-related products sold at Costco resemble similar items in other locations, but frequently have features stripped out to reduce their cost. As their return period for these is limited, you are likely to not notice a problem until too late. This has happened to me often enough that I no longer buy such items at Costco. More disturbing are some of Costco's known or rumored corporate policies: drug testing of employees, no bare feet allowed even in "beach" cities, no insurance coverage for customers injured on premises, and inducements to local governments to condemn and resell to Costco properties of unwilling owners. However, such policies are not unique to Costco, and I have not sought out arguments on both sides of these claims. As a consumer, I am a Costco booster.     The best phone contact number (including Costco.com) is corporate HQ here in Issaquah: 425-313-8100, not the toll-free numbers. To resolve a problem, do not accept transfer to the "Customer Service Desk" but insist that the operator find a Buyer in the appropriate department who is at his/her desk, and not transfer you to someone's mailbox. Suggestions left in the "box" have never drawn a reply or action. NB: Costco has few options and little control over the negative practices of their merchant credit card processor, Elavon; it's a rotten industry.

I.C. System - Collection Agency promises more than it delivers
This is a large collection agency which apparently operates in a variety of fields. My experience was with a unit in St. Paul, MN which uses salesmen to sign up retail merchants. ICS pre-sells the merchant a number of "tickets" each good for one collection effort, which consists of a series of increasingly more threatening letters ending in a negative credit reporting if the debtor fails to respond. The debtor is instructed to pay the merchant directly, and when the merchant reports receipt of funds, ICS bills him for a percentage. I signed up many years ago and used the service infrequently over the years on accounts I had already dunned myself, so I was not surprised that ICS's efforts seldom resulted in a collection. After all, they only thing they could threaten that I hadn't already was a negative credit reporting. I had asked the salesman what happens if the debtor denies the debt or denies receipt of goods, and he advised me to keep an invoice and some proof of receipt. Finally one debtor, wise in the ways of collection agencies, protested ICS's collection letters to his state Attorney General, and ICS dropped the collection immediately, even after I provided the documentation their salesman said would result in a negative credit reporting. Didn't matter. The explanation was that for "business reasons" ICS would not pursue the debt. Then another customer claimed that a Tibetan medal I'd sent him had been "unsolicited" even though I provided a copy of a letter in which the customer asked numerous questions about this unsolicited item in his possession. ICS dropped their collection efforts on that one as well. Just to make sure I'd heard that first salesman right, I made an appointment with a second salesman, who sang the same song, then became very aggrieved when I revealed that I was already an ICS customer, and an unhappy one at that. In retaliation for having wasted their salesman's time, ICS withdrew the negative credit reports they had generated on all my accounts, some of them more than 10 years ago, and has refused to honor the balance of my pre-sold collection tickets. Of course, my State A.G. (Christine Gregoire at the time, now Governor) has no interest in investigating a collection agency that goes easy on debtors; they only go after the ones that make an honest effort on behalf of their merchant clients.

Credit Cards - The black-hole term in your agreement
Who reads the entire "cardholder agreement" when receiving a new credit card? It goes into great detail about how your APR on an outstanding balance is calculated. But farther on there's another term that says basically "We can change any term we want at any time." What kind of sense does that make? Isn't it a basic tenet of contract law that when two parties sign a contract - even if one of them is as politically connected and legally immunized as a bank - the terms could not be changed unless BOTH parties signed off on it? So when you make that balance transfer to a lovely 4% teaser rate (oh, plus 3-5% transaction service fee off the top) remember that even if you make your payments on time, the lender can raise your interest rate to 29% for no reason other than "because we can." Advanta can, and does - is your bank next? Followup Nov. 2010: So now a bill has been passed to "reform" this travesty, but the black-hole term was never discussed as an issue, only the doing away with specific bad practices. The debate now is over who will head the regulating agency, a true believer, or a sellout even incorporated-in-Delaware Joe Biden could love.

Outsourced Customer Support - not the best way to visit India
I'm not against outsourcing. If somebody in Mexico, India, or Whereverstan can do a job better or cheaper than an American, then it's only common sense to take it offshore. But when a company outsources without regard to the quality of the product or service they are offering their customers, it's a different story. I've come to the conclusion that some companies like Indian employees better not just because they are cheaper, but because they are more tractable and more likely to enforce company policies at the expense of the customer, without sacrificing politeness. Due to my computer setup and AOL's glitchy software and inability to track down technical problems, I need to correct a billing error about every 3 months or so. Every time I call in and get a Yank, they understand my explanation and it's no problem, but when I get Bombay I know I'm in trouble: can't do it, switch to supervisor who never picks up, disconnected, write to this address . . . . rightly or wrongly they either think that granting customer credit is going to reflect badly on them personally, or they've simply been told not to do it. Same thing with tech support. Hopefully the competence level will improve as the Indian trainees gain more experience. But part of it is language difficulties, and part of it, I suspect, is that the American tech people are more secure in their jobs or have more alternatives, while the Indians are more inclined to please management by spending less time with you, blaming somebody else's hardware or software rather than taking a broader view of the problem.

Telephone headsets
I've always been way behind the curve when it comes to owning the latest telephone technology. The idea of carrying a phone during errands or a hike is completely unappealing. But what I can't understand is why so many people who spend so much time on the phone use a device that immobilizes a hand and requires holding an elbow in the air or doing the neck-strain shoulder clamp. Forget about speaker phones if you care about sound quality. I've used a Plantronics headset for more than 15 years, and would give their products a qualified recommendation, but the brand isn't the point. Get one with a long headset cord for office use and you will be able to type, surf the internet, unshelve and browse a book, or any of the hang-on-a-minute things the person on the other end needs you to do. You'll never go back.

Banana Pages - and other fake Yellow Pages
I think most people have figured it out by now, but some of the Yellow Pages out there are true telephone books, and others are just compilations of businesses that have paid to be listed - in other words, they are hardly more useful than the advertising supplements in your Sunday paper that you throw away while looking for the funny pages.

Forgerynetwork.com - a good idea, but poorly done
The goal of this website, hosted by Mark Naber of Australia, is to allow registered users to post illustrations and comments on fake or suspect world coins, plus follow-up feedback from other users. Counterfeits are and have always been a serious problem in this hobby, but this unmoderated approach to exposure is fraught with pitfalls. While some counterfeits are obvious, the ones a buyer most needs to be aware of are those which can only be debunked by a true expert working with an actual coin. This site allows anyone to post, without assessing their credentials, and without even providing their name. It encourages the formation of opinions based on the viewing of a scan or photograph. The site identifies the owner or seller of a piece yet provides no notification to that party. Already the site has been used in an apparent attempt to embarrass a dealer by a known non-expert with a grudge. The posting was discussed in the relevant Yahoo group with a general consensus that the coin was good, yet none of the real experts bothered to register with Forgerynetwork and leave comments. Unless some effort is made to encourage expert participation and moderate the submissions, this site, despite its good intentions, will be a decidedly mixed blessing.


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sucks, avoid, not recommend, bad negative experience, poor service, lack of quality, deceptive unethical practices, consumer complaints, rip off, ripoff rip-off, suspicious, fraud, fraudulent