Archive for February, 2009

Conscientious Shopper Banned from Grocery Store
February 25, 2009

Tonight’s “Ask Amy” segment was a follow-up to our November investigation into pricing errors at local grocery stores

While writing the follow-up, I found a great article from the Boston Globe about a woman who got really good about calling out errors.  Read the story below.

Her mission: Find price errors, get free stuff

Supermarket chains ban shopper who tests stores’ accuracy policies

CANTON — Alana Lipkin walked out of the Shaw’s Supermarket here last week with 12 items — everything from a Kodak disposable camera to Neutrogena hand cream — all for free.

She wasn’t shoplifting. She was taking advantage of the chain’s price accuracy guarantee, which gives shoppers a product for free if it scans at the register for a price higher than advertised. Lipkin is so good at finding mispriced items that she says she typically snags more than $200 worth of free merchandise per store visit.

But her days as the queen of supermarket pricing errors may be nearing an end. The region’s two largest supermarket chains have banned Lipkin from their stores, calling her a disruptive influence. Lipkin, a 45-year-old single mother of two from Framingham, says the stores are blaming her for their failure to accurately price their products.

Lipkin has been pursuing pricing errors and the free merchandise they yield at a variety of retailers for close to nine years, usually three to four times a week. She calls what she does a hobby, but others who know her describe her as a professional shopper.

At a Shaw’s in Ashland recently, Lipkin said she snared products worth more than $1,200. Her car is filled to the roof with shopping bags full of cups, sponges, toys, candles, and hand creams — all obtained for free.

Lipkin uses some of the products she gets, gives some away, barters some with friends, and stockpiles the rest. She said she has been training friends to do what she does.

“This is a way, in an ideal world, that I would get the stores to comply with the law,” she said. “If more people did it, there would be fewer problems at stores.”

Stop & Shop Supermarkets three years ago notified Lipkin she would be arrested for trespassing if she entered any of its stores. Shaw’s sent Lipkin a similar letter Aug. 10, which she received shortly after the Globe accompanied her on one of her shopping trips.

“We do that with any customer who becomes disruptive in our stores,” said Judy Chong , a spokeswoman for Shaw’s.

Faith Weiner , a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, said she believes Lipkin is the only customer the store has ever banned. “We felt that she took unfair advantage of our price accuracy policy and tried to manipulate it to her advantage,” Weiner said.

Howard Friedman , a Boston civil rights lawyer, said retailers are entitled to bar customers from their stores, particularly if the customer is being disruptive, but he said there might be a public policy issue if a store used the trespass laws to exclude someone who was merely exercising his or her rights.

Lipkin insists she hasn’t been disruptive. The no-trespass letter she received from Shaw’s specifically mentions an incident at a store in Stow, but the evening manager of that store, Stephen Kavanagh , signed and dated a statement for Lipkin in which he said he was asking her to leave because “she was only looking for scan guarantee items and not shopping.”

Lipkin said the written statement is proof she is being banned for finding pricing errors and landing thousands of dollars of free merchandise — not for being disruptive.

“A saner person would have stopped doing this after being banned by Stop & Shop,” she said. “Maybe that’s why it’s pathological. But I’m the kind of person who knows when they’re right.”

State and local officials who regularly inspect stores for pricing errors said they were very familiar with Lipkin. They call her a professional shopper who has been a thorn in the side of supermarkets, but the officials say Lipkin knows her stuff.

“She’s one of a kind,” said Jack Walsh , the town of Framingham’s director of weights and measures. “They accuse her of switching labels, but I don’t think she does that. She spends a lot of time on her hands and knees searching for pricing errors.”

Colman Herman , a Dorchester consumer activist who has initiated a series of item-pricing lawsuits, said Lipkin is proving a claim he has repeatedly made. “People are walking out of these stores and are being overcharged all the time and don’t even know it,” he said.

Charles Carroll , assistant deputy director of the state’s Division of Standards, said pricing surveys by his department indicate most food stores in Massachusetts achieve 99 percent pricing accuracy.

In Massachusetts, which had food store sales of nearly $11 billion last year, according to industry figures, consumers were overcharged on $108 million of sales. The amount of the overcharges varies from item to item and estimates of total overcharges were unavailable.

Asked how Lipkin seems to find more pricing errors than state inspectors, Carroll said: “She’s a hunt and searcher. We don’t do it that way. We select products at random. She’s a professional shopper.”

Officials at both Stop & Shop and Shaw’s say they do internal audits to ensure their prices are accurate, but they declined to release any data.

Christopher Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents food stores, said many pricing errors help the consumer and hurt the retailer. “We don’t make money on pricing errors,” he said.

Lipkin invited me to join her last Monday on one of her shopping trips. We met at the Shaw’s in Canton, a store she couldn’t remember visiting before.

She explained that she looks for discrepancies between the price on the item, the shelf, and any advertising. The key to getting an item for free is being charged more than the lowest of any of those prices.

At the entrance to the store, Lipkin saw a sign offering discounts on several types of fish but no notation that a store card was required to get the sale price. It’s a common mistake, Lipkin said. A consumer could buy the items without using a store card, be charged a higher price, and then could allege a violation of the price accuracy guarantee because the posted price was not offered.

In the housewares and cosmetics aisles, we looked for price stickers and shelf labels that didn’t match. A store manager approached us and asked if there was a problem. Later, another store official asked the same thing.

Lipkin quickly sensed that she would net far fewer free products at this Shaw’s because most items were priced correctly. “This store is more on the ball than the others,” she said.

At the checkout aisle, she ran through 10 items that she believed were clearly mispriced. She asked the cashier to check the price of another 15 items that she thought might be mispriced. Only two were. Lipkin bought the items she would get for free and left the others at the register. The total value of her haul was about $65.

After checking out and getting a refund at the service desk, Lipkin called over assistant store manager Lee Bissonnette and complimented him and his staff on the accurate pricing.

“We do our best,” said Bissonnette, who said that his store has to deal with about 7,000 price changes each week.

Lipkin asked Bissonnette if they had met before. He told her she was in his store about three to four weeks ago and walked out with more than $200 of free products.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in Sunday’s Business & Money section about a shopper banned by two supermarket chains incorrectly estimated the amount of total consumer overcharges at food stores in Massachusetts at $108 million last year. State officials say consumers were overcharged roughly 1 percent of the time, which would mean overcharges occurred on sales of $108 million, but the amount of the overcharges varies from item to item and cannot be estimated accurately.)

It’s Your Score… but it’s not Available to You
February 23, 2009

What are your digits? I don’t mean your phone number. I mean the numbers any lender will want to see before they finance a car or a home… or plastic surgery… whatever you may need money for.

The 3 credit bureaus, TransUnion, Equifax and Experian have always sold your FICO score to consumers so you’ll know what potential lenders are seeing.  But now Experian won’t share the score with consumers.

Check out the article that appeared in “The New York Times” below to find out why.  

 By TARA SIEGEL BERNARD

 Published: February 4, 2009

Most consumers are about to lose access to one version of their all-important credit score.

Fair Isaac, the company that conceived the score known as FICO, says Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus, will no longer allow it to sell scores based on Experian’s data.

But Experian itself will continue to sell FICO scores based on its data to lenders, so some banks may make credit decisions, at least in part, on a score that consumers can no longer see.

Consumers have three FICO scores, based on the data provided by each of the three national bureaus, including TransUnion and Equifax.

Currently, individuals can visit a Fair Isaac site, myFICO.com, and purchase one or all of their FICO scores. As of Feb. 14, however, consumers will be able to see only the scores based on data provided by TransUnion and Equifax.

The decision comes as lenders are raising their credit standards, making it more difficult to qualify for all types of credit, from credit cards and auto loans to mortgages. And as the economy has deteriorated, the definition of a good score has inched higher. Getting the best rate on a loan — or any loan, for that matter — can be a matter of a few points. The median FICO score is 720, while the scale ranges from 300 to 850.

“We are surprised that Experian made such a decision, particularly given what’s going on in the national economy and with consumers being concerned about their credit standing,” said Tom Quinn, vice president for scoring at Fair Isaac. “Their decision means that consumers will no longer be able to see or manage their scores based on the Experian data.”

Experian cannot distribute its FICO scores to consumers itself or through other outlets, Mr. Quinn said. Experian does produce another proprietary three-digit credit score and make it available to consumers, but it is not the one that lenders base their decisions on.

Experian did not return several calls seeking comment, and it was not immediately clear what spurred Experian to cut ties with myFICO.com. But John Ulzheimer, president for consumer education for Credit.com, pointed out that Fair Isaac was ultimately one of Experian’s competitors.

Moreover, Fair Isaac has a pending lawsuit against Experian: in 2006, Fair Isaac sued all three credit bureaus, along with VantageScore Solutions, a joint venture of the three agencies with its own credit-scoring model, alleging that they had engaged in unfair competitive practices that harmed the FICO brand. Fair Isaac agreed to drop Equifax as a defendant in June, but the lawsuit is still pending against the others.

“The move isn’t unexpected, given the contentious nature of the lawsuit and the millions of dollars of credit score revenue that Fair Isaac recognizes each quarter from their partnership with Experian,” Mr. Ulzheimer said. Moreover, “Experian has made a significant monetary investment in the market for consumer credit reports and scores. Fair Isaac is a competitor of theirs, so this eliminates one component of the competition.”

Mr. Ulzheimer noted that it was consumers who would suffer the most. “This isn’t hurting Experian at all, it hurts Fair Isaac a little bit, and it hurts consumers a ton,” he added.

The majority of lenders use FICO scores to determine how risky a borrower will be, although many banks have added their own methods of verifying borrowers’ worthiness as the economy has weakened.

FICO scores have become more widely available in recent years. Last month, members of the Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union with online checking accounts gained access to their FICO scores, based on Experian’s data. That arrangement does not appear to be affected by the cutoff of Experian data to Fair Isaac itself.

Holders of cards issued by Washington Mutual, which was recently acquired by JPMorgan Chase, have access to their scores, too. But Chase is considering taking this feature away and instead charging for a credit-building tool that includes the score.

Without ready access to FICO scores based on Experian’s data, consumers can at least check their Experian credit reports periodically to be sure there are no errors. All consumers are entitled to a free copy of their credit report, once a year, from each of the three bureaus, but the reports must be requested through the Web site annualcreditreport.com.

Consumers in the market for a loan might want to purchase the Experian-based FICO score before it goes away for good.

It’s a tough job… but someone has to do it!
February 19, 2009

I spent tonight eating desserts (that’s right, desserts with an “s”) concocted with Girl Scout cookies at  “Just Desserts” hosted by the San Jacinto Girl Scouts Council.

The Council paired judges (like myself) with Girl Scouts to pick the most delicious and most creative entries.

Grace Mathisen of Troop # 61495 in Dickinson was my partner. Her favorite dessert was the Lemon-Strawberry Truffle (made with “Lemonades) by HEB Central Market.  I loved the Caramel Cheesecake squares topped with Granny Smith Apple Cotton Candy (made with Shortbread cookies) by the Hyatt Hill Country Resort.

I just couldn’t turn down the assignment!

Only Girl Scouts who sold more than 1,000 boxes of cookies were  invited to the event. Grace sold 1,016 boxes last year. Congratulations!

The entire San Jacinto Council has sold 292,344 boxes of cookies so far this year. That’s down 4% from last year at this same time even there are more scouts selling cookies.

But don’t worry, you still have time to get your cookie fix. You’ll start seeing the cookie booths set up outside  of stores this weekend. Get  them while they last!

The Harris County District Attorney wants to check you out
February 18, 2009

Remember last week’s story about the restaurant owner who was asking applicants to send a picture of themselves before he called them for interviews? 

The Texas Workforce Commission said hiring decisions cannot be based in any way upon race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability.

 

“Requiring a photo would likely be considered a clear example of discriminatory hiring practices, according to our attorneys,” a TWC representative wrote.

A lot of you called and emailed after that story. Ryan wrote this:

There are millions of government jobs that require a picture in order to apply including the Harris County District Attorneys Office. Why is a restaurant owner being singled out?

We checked… and sure enough… look at the employment application posted right on the Harris County District Attorney’s website.

The application asks applicants to “attach a current, clear front view, full face photo.”

I called the DA’s office to ask what gives. They sent us this statement:

“The law does not prohibit an agency from requiring a photograph to be submitted along with an employment application as long as that photograph is not utilized for discriminatory practices.    There are good reasons why the office asks for a photograph:  they aid in criminal history and background checks that are necessary for employment with this office; and they are very useful in remembering applicants when a large number of people are being considered for a position.”

 

John Barnhill

General Counsel

 

So I checked back with the TWC. Here is their response to the DA’s employment application and reasoning:

 

“Our attorneys provided info that would be useful to a jobseeker to determine if there should be a concern about an potential employer asking for a photo.  The info could be useful to an employer determining whether it is a good policy to ask for a photo.  The info we provided below was that The hiring process should be free of any indication that the hiring decision will be based in any way upon race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, or disability. 

 Asking for a photo isn’t prohibited by law. Our Civil Rights Division can determine if there is enough evidence to file a discrimination case in court.  888-452-4778

In the statement, as an employer, the Harris County DA s office seems confident that it could defend its position in court that criminal history and background checks that are necessary for employment with this office and they are very useful in remembering applicants when a large number of people are being considered for a position. “

 Hmmm… is there a double standard here? Let me know what you think.

Protect yourself from tickets you don’t deserve
February 16, 2009

In tonight’s Ask Amy segment, we featured yet another Red Light Camera mix-up.

Christine Tyler got a red light ticket in the mail when someone ran a red light driving a car she hasn’t owned in 5 years. An insurance company gave Tyler a payment to replace the car when she was involved in a car accident. She hasn’t seen the car since. 

If you sell or trade in your car, the new owner is responsible for transferring the title; but it is in your best interest to fill out a Texas Motor Vehicle Transfer Notification.  Filling out the form and mailing it to the Texas Department of Transportation will help protect you from liability should the new owner commit a criminal act in your old car.

For example, if the new owner blasts through a toll booth without paying, when the Toll Road Authority runs the license plate and it’s still registered to you, you will get the ticket.  If you’ve already filled out a Vehicle Transfer Notification, the Toll Road Authority will see the transfer on the vehicle’s record.  You will have an easier time convincing them it wasn’t you behind the wheel.   

If you get a red light camera citation for a vehicle that you no longer own, you should follow the instructions on the citation.  You will need to fill out a “Declaration of Non-Liability.” The folks in Arizona at the 1-800 # on your ticket will tell you where to send that form. 

And I hate to have to say this… but Good Luck!