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Monday, June 27, 2011

Another Bank Scam

I work for the Federal Government, and get paid every two weeks.  I use direct deposit, and usually, it comes on a Thursday, but lately it's been tending toward Friday.  Apparently, the payment got to my bank -- credit union, actually -- Navy Federal Credit Union to be exact -- on Friday after 630 pm EDT.  I looked for the money on Saturday and Sunday but it never showed up.  I looked again Monday morning and there was an indication that the direct deposit had occurred, but my balance was still at zero, and the indication said the amount would be credited the next day.  So Navy Federal had several thousand of my dollars from Friday to Monday, during which time they were charging me 15% on the money that I had recently overdrawn (that's the deal for overdraft protection -- no fees, but high interest), counting on the paycheck to come in.  I called Navy Federal and they explained that essentially the above had occurred.  The deposit had come in on Friday, and if it had come in before 630 pm, it would have been mine to use starting then (I think that's what they said).  She then checked the "notice" which came with the money, which -- for reasons that make absolutely no sense -- supposedly said that Navy Federal shouldn't give me my money until Tuesday.

She claimed that the "notice" was from my employer, i.e. the Federal Government.  In other words, the Government "gave" the money to NFCU on Friday, but wants NFCU, not me, to have it until Tuesday.  I must be missing something.  Before I join another bank I will definitely check what their policy is on releasing funds, esp. direct deposit funds.  How hard would it have been for the bank to give me my money on the weekend?  If there's a law that permits them to do this, wouldn't repealing that law give a nice boost to the economy?  A bunch of citizens would get their paychecks before, not after, the weekend.  And banks wouldn't essentially be stealing interest from their customers.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Greek Problems Caused By Goldman Sachs

Just saw a Daily Show Video (note to self: join Digg and embed the link) explaining that Greece has about half a billion dollars in debt for a little over 11 million people, which works out to 44,000 per person.  The US has over 13 billion in debt for about 320 million people, which works out to 45,000 per person.  But the Greeks get something out of it -- they retire at 53, with 80% pay.  You have to wonder where all our money goes . . .

But even more disturbing is that the Greeks got into this situation because they hired Goldman Sachs to help them hide their true financial state and thereby enable them to get credit from the rest of Europe, and (2) the credit was insured by credit default swaps, held by nobody knows whom (because credit default swaps are unregulated), but probably American banks.  Or something like that.

Now I understand the benefits of a market-based financial system, since it helps ensure that people who have innovated and have good business ideas have access to capital to implement those ideas and thereby create jobs, promote competition, and get better products to the public.  Adam Smith's whole point was that capitalists acting in their own self-interest would deliver the goods for the rest of us.

But when our "system" can cause whole economies to fail (and the only reason ours hasn't yet failed seems to be that it's still in the interest of the rest of the world to prop up our currency), maybe we need to start rethinking it. 

Isn't there an analogy to government?  If our government were run by selfless and well-intentioned people, then it would make sense to concentrate all the power in one branch, or even in one person, so those selfless and well-intentioned things could get done.  But our founders didn't do that, because they knew for a fact that the people who would rise to the top in our political process would typically be selfish and self-interested.  So they created a system of checks and balances that kept the power distributed.  As a result, not much gets done, but that's the price we pay for two centuries of democracy.

Recent events have shown that the financial services industry is has accumulated enough power to destroy entire economies, which in effect means it can destroy countries, including our own.  It's more powerful than most governments, and it may well own our own.  Does it still make sense to permit it to be run by unregulated human beings, who in the end will be governed by their own selfish, short term interests?




Thursday, June 16, 2011

Kroger and CVS vs. Wal-Mart and Target

Bottom line is that when you are going to a regular supermarket or a drugstore, you are paying a premium for the convenience.  I recently observed that 625 Q-Tips (Q tip brand) cost more than a dollar more at CVS than at Target (regular price; $4.79 vs. $3-something), and that a two-pack of energy saver lightbulbs costs about $3 more at CVS.  The 30% off sale price of some make-up brought it to roughly the same price as Target's regular price.  A Kroger, a Pillsbury cake that cost $2.99 at Wal-Mart was $4.29.  It adds up.

The one "exception" to this rule (that I've seen, in my very limited experience) is the one noted a few posts ago:  for some reason, I can buy low-quality Tofu for $1 per 16 oz package at Shoppers Food Warehouse, whereas it costs $2.38 at Wal-Mart.  Again, that suggests that you need to watch Wal-Mart closely as well, which is a shame.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

iambic pentameter

I've known for some time what iambic pentameter is, but for a while my grip on the concept was shaky (and I'll admit I still don't always recognize it).  But I just heard the perfect example:  "O night!  O night! Alack, alack, alack!” from Midsummer Night's Dream.  That line should be taught any time iambic pentameter is taught.  It would save a lot of time and trouble.

Gas Prices IV

One more observation of possible interest.  I was impressed today by Annandale's gas prices -- several stations had $3.78 for regular (all the prices I quote are for regular, 87 octane, unless otherwise indicated).  We stopped at one of those, with the idea of getting some premium gas.  But the station had "plus" (89) at 4.06 and "super" at 4.16.  And the super was only 91 octane, not 93.  In Falls Church, the regular was 3.81, "plus" (89) was $3.95, and super -- 93 octane -- was $4.09. 

So if you need to buy premium gas, don't be guided by the "regular" price.  Even though Annandale was 4 cents cheaper for regular, it was 11 cents higher for "plus" and the super was 7 cents higher, and wasn't even 93 octane.

Bank of America Fee Ripoff

I signed up for a Bank of America checking account because they gave me $100 for doing so.  To avoid a monthly "maintenance fee" I had to keep $700 in the account.  It was convenient to keep the account, since they had all those ATMs, and deposits were easy.  But at one point in November 2010 I was going over some old statements, and I noticed that there was some fine print (maybe on the October statement) warning me that they were increasing the minimum balance to $1500.  I think the maintenance fee also increased -- it was now $14.  Anyway, I was just under $1500 so I transferred some money, but of course, this was probably too late to avoid the fee, since the fee kicks in any time you dip below (and, as above, I only realized that there was a fee after it was too late).

Anyway, I was hit with the $14 fee, was annoyed, and finally in May decided to do something about it.  I called customer service and told them I had noticed the fee, and asked what it was for.  They explained that it was a maintenance fee that had kicked in in November.  But then they checked and it looked to them like my balance was over $1500 the whole time, so they said they'd refund the fee. As above, I thought that my account had probably dipped below $1500, but I wasn't going to argue, and in any event I treated this as a "courtesy" by them.

I assumed they would have refunded the fee even if my account had dipped below $1500, given how recently they had imposed the fee, and how I had not actually received notice of it (i.e. I hadn't read the fine print on my statement).

But then a few days later I got a fat business size envelope from BOA saying that in fact, my balance had dipped below $1500, so they didn't owe me a refund, and I wasn't going to get one, even as a courtesy.  Nyeah nyeah ni nyeah nyeah, the letter said (not really).  The fatness was because they enclosed a BOA fee schedule. 

That was the beginning of the end of my relationship with BOA.  I called them to try to close the account by phone.  They were willing to do so, but it would take them 10 business days to put a check in the mail with my money.  I needed to get out of this relationship faster than that, so I went into the bank the next time it was open, and closed the account.  The guy would have given me a refund of the $14 if I'd stayed (although perhaps he would have wanted me to put my direct deposit to BOA), but I wouldn't have stayed for $140.

Astonishing that they think they can do this to customers.  The economics really make no sense for a bank to treat its customers this shoddily.   Admittedly, I was not a particularly "valued" customer, since I didn't do direct deposit, but I typically had over $1000 in the account, and after they raised the limit, I typically had over $2000 in it.  Given that the bank reserve rate is 10% the fact that I had $2000 in my account gave them the ability to lend $20,000.  Even if they were only lending at 5%, that means they would be making $1000 per year pure profit off of someone like me.

I assume they figured that by upping the maintenance fee requirements, they would (1) get more fees, (2) get higher balances out of their customers, (3) drive customers who didn't send direct deposits to BOA to start doing so.  It's quite likely that they've gotten more out of (1)-(3) than they've lost as a result of people like me closing their accounts, so in that sense it was in their interest to up the maintenance fee.

But we can change that.  Send a message to BOA by closing your account.  Find a credit union or an on-line bank.  There is plenty of free checking around; why should Bank of America be making thousands of dollars a year off of you, AND charging you fees?  If you have direct deposit with BOA, so much the better; other banks (e.g. USAA right now) will be willing to pay you $100 for shifting your direct deposit to them.

 






Friday, June 10, 2011

Gas Prices Cont'd

Well, prices are holding steady here in Northern VA -- 3.78 to 3.97 on the commute home.  But I went into DC today and saw $4.15, which I think is typical.  So just to be clear, Northern VA is a bargain compared to DC and Maryland, but it's probably still overpriced.

Ok, I'm starting to google my own topics.  I knew there were sites like this, so here they are:

http://www.washingtondcgasprices.com/

(which today reports DC gas prices ranging from 3.75 to 5.09)

http://www.virginiagasprices.com/

(reporting low prices around 3.30 in Roanoke and Harrisonburg,and high prices in Northern VA from 4.04-4.39).  Not sure how to get the "intermediate" prices like the ones I see on my commute, obviously anything over $4 is rank profiteering at this point).

 

I'm googlable!

Hey -- I just typed "I went to CVS to get some generic prozac (i.e. fluoxetine) for my depressed dog" into Google and found this blog!  apparently, I'm the only person who has ever published that particular sentence on the Internet.

Ok.  After another 2 minutes of research, I see the celebration was premature.  I took off the quotation marks and tried again, and this blog doesn't show up in the first 20 SCREENS of results.  I.e. it's not in the top 200 results.  There are Russian sites, Chinese sites, and sex sites that show up ahead of me (and I have no idea where I actually show up; I've stopped looking).  So maybe I need to learn a bit about web traffic optimization.

On the other hand, I really don't care.

"Shut up, he explained."

CVS Generic Ripoff Part II

If you haven't yet figured it out, I do not trouble myself to do a whole lot of research before posting.  But I never post anything that isn't true.  So although I think a complete boycott of CVS is appropriate until they disgorge all of their absolutely inappropriate generic drug profits (and donate them to some worthy health-care related cause), it does appear that sometime after my experience last year, CVS bowed to competition and that they now sell generic drugs at reasonable rates.  BUT YOU HAVE TO JOIN THEIR HEALTHPASS PLAN AND PAY THEM $15/YEAR for the privilege of buying drugs at the prices that Target and WalMart (and doubtless many others, although probably not RiteAid and Walgreens) sell them for.

I was in Egypt recently, and it didn't bother me that the street vendors and stall-owners' initially tried to get me to buy their wares at 10 times what they'd actually be willing to sell them for (and what I eventually bought them for).  They have every right to try to get whatever they can out of rich American tourists.  But CVS has no business treating its loyal customers that way.

Page Views

Ok, as of today, I've stopped tracking my own page views.  I believe I have zero non-me views so far, and that's the way I like it. But I need to be sure.

HistoryTeachers

Some of the best things in life are still free.  http://www.youtube.com/user/historyteachers

I guess if I were smarter, I could have done it like this:  History Teachers.  I'm new at blogging.

Anyway, I could spend hours watching that stuff.  They go from the Zombies to Lady Gaga, with a focus on some really good 80's songs.  And she's got talent too.


If you are one of my kids, you need to watch ALL of these.




Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Corporations -- Love Them or Hate Them?

Neither and both.  Like it or not, they are one of the essential building blocks of a modern capitalist state, and they provide jobs and consumer goods to the rest of us constitutional "persons."

In fact, they are better than many people, given that their fault lies merely in amorality, not immorality.  The persons who send us viruses over the internet that cripple our computers, and the salespeople who lie to our face about their products in order to get a sale (or get an exorbitant price) do so out of a moral failing.  Big corporations, by contrast, merely seek to maximize their net profits; they might shade the truth or seem heartless for that reason, but we can only expect them to act "morally" if we impose penalties on them for "immoral" behavior, in such a way that acting "morally" becomes the best way to maximize net profits.

Thus, there is a line to be drawn.  We must regulate them to prevent the adverse consequences of their amoral conduct.  But we must not regulate them out of existence, since then we lose our jobs and our goods.  And we must carefully pick and choose the areas where we regulate them -- some are more important to our societal values than others.

One area is obvious:  we must not let them drive us poor, mortal humans into wars, in which the youth of both sides is killed or maimed, and untold numbers of "enemy" civilians perish, while corporations profit.  I don't know enough to make the case that it was the unprecedented corporate influence over the White House and Congress that led us into the Iraq entanglement, but I've heard others make that argument, and I haven't heard it refuted.  When corporations start dictating our military policy, we will have become a corporatist state.

Interestingly, this issue came up at the tail end of today's Daily Show interview of Fareed Zakaria by Jon Stewart (which I saw after the rest of this post had been written).  The show ended with Zakaria pointing out that World War II had the benefit of knocking out our competition, and Stewart saying that our new policy could be "we will flatten you, and then we will sell you what you need to rebuild."  That's essentially what we did in Iraq, but what we did there was even worse -- we didn't just "sell" them the materials to do the rebuilding, we sent in U.S. contractors to do the rebuilding itself.

But even if we have already become a corporatist state, all is not lost.  We as consumers continue to hold significant power over corporations (ok, not including military contractors and most of the financial services industry) -- if we share information about corporate trickery, we can regulate the corporations by withholding our custom.






Monday, June 6, 2011

Banks will rip you off on your mortgage

By this, I mean chances are you'll do much better if you go with a mortgage broker.  When I was shopping for a mortgage (back in November 2010), I checked with several banks, including Wells Fargo, to see what their rates were.  They all quoted between 5 and 5.5 percent, and they typically had points associated with that.  I ended up going with a mortgage broker, and got a no point 30-year loan at 4.5% (yes, rates went lower after that, but that's what I got).  Anyway, a few days after I closed on the loan, it was sold to Wells Fargo. 

In other words, Wells Fargo uses its "good name" to get its loyal (and stupid) customers to buy a mortgage at about 1% above a "perfectly competitive" rate, but would also be more than happy to take over a mortgage at a much lower rate.  It's all free money to the banks, after all.  I"m only singling out Wells Fargo because they're the ones who actually bought my mortgage.  I'd be willing to guess the other big banks take the same approach (and I know for a fact that the rates that they charge their "customers" are much higher than those you'd get through a mortgage broker).


A great site for finding a mortgage broker near you is:  http://www.loanfax.com/

Gouging Vegetarians

Vegetarians are certainly one of the most vulnerable segments of the consumer population.  Especially at Wal-Mart.  I was a bit embarrassed to even ask for tofu at the Roanoke Wal-Mart, but it turned out they have it.  For $2.38 for a one pound package.  And it's a fair low quality variety that has for the past few months been selling at a Shoppers Food Warehouse in the DC Area for $1.  So given that Wal-Mart is doubtless able to get a price on tofu at least as good as the one SFW gets, this means that WalMart is marking up the tofu by well over 100%.  So I guess they don't pass all the savings on to us . . . .

But it certainly is strange that it seems to cost more to be a vegetarian than a carnivore.  You'd think all the efficiencies would point to cheap and plentiful vegetarian food.  But no, vegetarians are a bit of a captive market, and at this point, I don't think there is anything approaching "perfect competition" in that market.

Gas Mileage Observation: Fill up at 1-4 gallons for best mileage

On the same trip (6/5, from Roanoke to DC Area), I noted a phenomenon that I've been noticing for some time now.  Any time I fill up and need four gallons or less, I get nearly phenomenol gas mileage.  E.g. I've managed 120 miles on less than 3 gallons in the past, for a gas mileage of 40 mpg.  But if I let the car use all the gas, I end up with an average closer to 30 mpg.  It's probably not worth the hassle to fill up every 100 miles, even though (at least for my car) that would save money and gas.

But let's do a quick calculation to check.  Let's say my numbers above are right.  If I travel 300 miles, filling up every 100 miles, and get 40 mpg by doing so, I would have used 7.5 gallons of gas.  If I filled up only once, at the end of the trip, I'd get 30 miles per gallon, and use 10 gallons.  So if my numbers are actually correct, that's a savings of 2.5 gallons of gas, which at today's prices would approach $10.

Hard data:  My figures for the latest commute are not quite that good.  At the exit 291 stop, I had gone 160 miles on a tank, and needed 4.4 gallons, for a mileage of about 37 mpg.  But I had been stuck in a half hour delay on the way, so I might have done better had the roads been clear.  The 48 miles I traveled from exit 291 on I-81 to exit 40 on I-66 cost me just over 1.2 gallons, which means I got just under 40 mpg for that leg.

But the more intriguing question is what is causing the disparity, and can cars be designed in such a way as to "simulate" a fuller tank for mileage purposes?  E.g. how is the pressure regulated in a gas tank?  Obviously, assuming the hole in the tank is in the bottom (it must be, right?), then there will be a greater pressure head on the downstream gas when the tank if full than when it is empty.  Does that suggest that there should be some way of artificially maintaining the pressure for the duration of the tank?  If it really saves 2.5 gallons out of every 10, that would be something worth investigating.

Note that if I am right, the gas mileage on the second half of the tank is truly pathetic.  If I am really getting 40 miles per gallon on the first half, then that would mean I'm only getting 20 mpg on the second half, to give me that average of 30.  I haven't checked the long-run average for a while, so that would probably be worth doing before going much farther down this line of thought.  Still, I know for a fact that I've never broken 35 mpg (and I don't recall ever hitting 35 mpg) when I've been filling an empty tank, and yet I routinely approach 40 mpg when I fill up early.

DC Area Gas Price Gouging II

A bit more first-hand data.  I drove back into the DC area last night (6/5), from Roanoke.  At Roanoke, I got gas for $3.40 per gallon.  On I-81 up to I-66, gas was commonly available at 3.49 per gallon.  I got it at exit 291 at that price (note that that's a 16 cent drop since the week earlier, when it was 3.65 per gallon at that exit).  Out of curiousity (and for the reason explained in the next post), I stopped again at the Sheetz at exit 40, and got 1.2 gallons of gas for 3.65 per gallon.  On the commute home today, I scoped out prices between Alexandria and Falls Church.  I spotted one at 3.97 (In Alexandria, I think), several in the 3.80's and one (the lowest) at 3.78.  So that's a disparity of 39-57 cents per gallon, compared to Roanoke. 

Bottom line is that you can see that there must be something approaching true competition (perhaps not "perfect competition"), down I-81, but something approaching oligopolistic behavior in the DC area.

Must be nice to sell gas in the DC area!

PS:  if any of my readers has a non-gouging explanation for this pricing behavior, let me know, and I'll publish it prominently.


Friday, June 3, 2011

DC Area Gas Price Gouging?

I live in Northern Virginia, and regularly travel to southwestern Virginia down Interstate 81.  When gas prices have been stable for a while, the price differential is about 15 cents per gallon, i.e. DC area gas prices are about 15 cents higher than those at I-81, exit 291.  Roanoke typically has the cheapest gas, often about 20 cents cheaper than DC area.  I don't know the reason for that differential, but I've gotten used to it and accept it. 

But here's where I see a problem.  Every time we find ourselves in a period of wildly fluctuating gas prices, the differential increases, especially when oil prices are falling.  Recent example:  after a significant run-up in oil prices in Spring 2011, there was a dramatic drop.  During the run-up, gas prices everywhere exceeded 4 dollars a gallon, and I observed the 15-20 cent differential described above.  But when oil prices went down again, prices in the DC area stayed relatively high, compared to elsewhere in VA.  On the Friday before Memorial Day, DC area gas prices were still $3.97 a gallon or more.  But on I-81, it was $3.65 per gallon.  And in Roanoke, it was $3.45 a gallon. And this seems to have been the case for several weeks.

I'd be very interested to hear the reasons.

CVS Generic Ripoff

Admittedly, this information is over a year old, but it was true then, and for all I know it still is.  If I'd had a blog then, I would have blogged about it.

I went to CVS to get some generic prozac (i.e. fluoxetine) for my depressed dog.  I had previously bought it at Wal-Mart for $12 for a 3-month supply.  That's what generic drugs are supposed to cost.  But CVS was charging $58 for a 2 month supply.  Unless Walmart is losing a lot of money on its generic prescriptions, that means that CVS is marking things up by over 700%.  And of course, they refused to price match.  It would be very interesting to know who gets to keep the extra $50 dollars they get on every bottle sold.

So the lesson is that CVS will not hesitate to rip you off on prescription drugs.  Take your business to Wal-Mart or Target, both of which have long lists of generic drugs that they sell at true generic prices.  Or, if CVS has changed its policy, and is now selling fluoxetine at a reasonable price) let me know.

* * *

Ok, the original idea of this blog was just to document my personal experiences.  But I suppose I should probably do a little research to see if my experiences have been shared/observed by others.  And it turns out the CVS generic ripoff is well-plowed ground -- it's been a problem for consumers (and a cash cow for CVS) for many years.  Here's something from snopes.com that documents the practice back to 2003.  http://www.snopes.com/medical/drugs/generic.asp

The snopes article says that Costco gives fair prices for generic drugs, unlike CVS and Walgreens.  As mentioned above, so do Target and WalMart.  I'm fairly sure Sam's Club and KMart are fair too.  Snopes credits Detroit Channel 7 news investigative reporter Steve Wilson for bringing the problem to light.  So why hasn't it stopped?

More related links:  http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl_prescription_drugs.htm
 gives a list (as of 2004) of what the various active ingredients of key drugs cost.

http://seniorjournal.com/NEWS/MedicareDrugCards/6-09-23-GenericDrugPriceWar.htm gives some very disingenuous quotes from CVS in reaction to WalMart's plan to offer cheaper generic drugs.  CVS says these drugs are only a fraction of their sales, and also suggests that WalMart plan won't save seniors much money,. since their copayments are generally pretty low.  But that raises the question of whether insurance companies -- and Medicare -- are truly so stupid as to pay CVS's inflated prices.  If so, why?




First Post

The point of this blog is to "fix" prices of consumer goods and services.  Not "price fixing" in the antitrust sense (although there's an intentional pun in there somewhere) but to (1) fix prices in the sense of trying to figure out what a price for a given item should be and (2) fix prices that are "broken", i.e. that are nowhere near where they should be.

I'm going to start just by noting some things from my own experience.  Obviously, comments in the same vein are welcome, as are comments based on inside knowledge of how particular products are priced.