Stop Getting Scammed and Ripped Off!

This is a guest post by Bob Sullivan, an award-winning investigative journalist, author of the Red Tape Chronicles, two NYT bestsellers and founding member of MSNBC.com. You can visit him at his website, take a look at his new book Getting Unstuck and follow him on Twitter.

I have spent 20 years interviewing thousands of people who’ve fallen for scams and ripoffs. I’ve interviewed hundreds of criminals, too, not to mention pseudo-criminals who work at corporations that survive almost entirely on their ability to fool people. I’m frequently asked: what makes people fall for scams? What makes someone a good “mark”? 

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While I worked at NBC, I was always reluctant to give clear opinions on such things. Now that I’m an independent journalist, I feel more free to speak out. I have plenty of strong opinions on this one. 

But before I tell you what’s wrong with the tired old saw, “If it seems too good to be true, it is,” let me get this out of the way: I hate people who blame the victim. 

Yes, consumers can be dumb, foolish, and even greedy. None of these things should ever be construed as permission to steal from them. These are the kinds of excuses you hear from criminals and corporations all the time, and I hate them. It’s always clear who the bad guy is: The guy who walks away with the money. The test is easy: Any time you take someone’s money and that person is confused about why, you are wrong. Give the money back.

10 Last-Minute Gift Ideas for the Grad

I call it gift anxiety. It’s the uneasy feeling you get when you want to give a really nice graduation gift to special young person but no matter how hard you try, you come up blank. You don’t want to look like a dork, but writing a check doesn’t exactly ring your bell, either.

Graduates

Here we are in the throes of graduation season and I’m going to assume you still can’t decide what gift to give. Guess what? I’m in the same boat. How can I possibly figure out what’s hot with the 18-to-20-something crowd? My kids are older than that now and I guess I just might be a little bit out of touch. That’s why I sat down with my favorite 20-something person—a young man

Novel Ideas to Make Cooking Fun and Rewarding

There’s just something satisfying about knowing how to make perfectly uniform meatballs, chocolate mousse, or baked potatoes in half the time. Today I have a plethora of fun and easy kitchen tips that are sure to raise your Kitchen IQ, and make you smile at the same time.

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PERFECT MEATBALLS. When making a large batch of meatballs, the fast and simple way is to shape the meat mixture into a log and cut off slices. The slices roll easily into balls. Another option is to pat the meat into a large square and cut it into cubes which again easily roll into meatballs of uniform size.

YOGURT SUBSTITUTE. Have a craving for yogurt? Cottage cheese blended until smooth makes an excellent cup-for-cup substitute for plain yogurt. 

WINE COOK-ALIKES. To substitute for white cooking wine use 1/3 cup white grape juice plus 1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar. For red cooking wine: 1 cup grape juice, 1 tablespoon strong tea and 1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar.

GRATE THE BUTTER. When a recipe says to “dot with butter,” instead of cutting a stick of butter into small pieces, grab the cheese grater and “grate” the cold butter over the large holes right into the casserole, fruit pie or other baked dessert. This will make your butter last longer. 

My Four-Ounce Travel Buddy

Travel is not what it used to be. Having flown 1.5 million miles in the past 20 years, I’ve seen things go from enjoyable to downright challenging. I’ve had to learn a few lessons the hard way, but learn them I have. Because of the things I’ve witnessed on airplanes, in airports, taxis, subways and hotels, I’ve gone from being a passive passenger to a purpose-driven traveler. 

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My purpose is to arrive at my destination safe, healthy and happy. That’s why I always travel with an assistant–a travel buddy. My Buddy Nok-Out weighs just 4 ounces and travels in my handbag*. Buddy is with me wherever I go.

I have come to assume that my space on any airplane is a germ pit, due to what I have observed over the years. I have seen people change dirty diapers on the pull-down tray table. I’ve seen sick children sneeze and smear all manner of bodily debris on the seat, armrests and table.

I’ve seen people clip their toenails, gather up the bits and deposit them into the seat pocket. I’ve observed a seat mate using that throw-up bag for the purpose it was created, then stuffing it back into the seat pocket. Do I have your attention yet? Gross, disgusting! I’ve learned to never assume that a plane is cleaned and sanitized between flights. Never.  

Tax Refund: Not a Good Thing

A friend of mine is the comptroller of a small corporation. As such, she is required to handle all aspects of that company’s finances including payroll. She takes the opportunity to figure and tweak the withholding from her own paycheck to reach her goal of neither owing taxes nor being due a refund on April 15. 

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She’s really smart and fortunate to be able to track this so closely. Her goal is to always come within $100 of her total tax liability after itemizing her tax return. And she does.

I always wince with pain when a person tells me he or she is getting thousands of dollars in a tax refund. And it’s even worse when they do so with such gusto and pride–like it’s some kind of savings account. A righteous accomplishment. And invariably these are people who carry credit-card debt, convinced that they need it “just in case of emergencies,” followed by, “Hey, emergencies happen!”

3 Steps to Slash Your Internet and Pay-TV Rates

This is a guest post by Richard Syrop. He is founder of the bill reduction website EffortlessSavings.com. You can take a look at his new book and follow him on Twitter.

If you are one of the millions of consumers paying for TV and Internet service from a major telecom provider, you may be able to reduce your rates by up to 30 percent. Below are three simple steps that should help you save money without making any changes to your existing service. These suggestions are most effective if you are not in a service contract, or when you use them shortly before your contract expires.

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Step 1: Compare Rates from Other Companies

Regardless of where you live, there should be at least three companies in your local area that offer Internet and Pay-TV service. These companies may include Comcast, Time Warner, Dish and or DirecTV. 

Take a few minutes to review each of their promotional offers and write down the best you find that is comparable to your current service package.

Divorce Decrees Mean Nothing to the IRS

Dear Mary: I am recently married and my husband owes the IRS $23,000 in back taxes for tax year 2010. He agreed to an installment plan of $320 per month with the IRS.

His divorce decree states that he and his ex-wife are each responsible for paying half of any taxes owed, but she says she cannot pay anything. He has been paying $400 per month, trying to pay his half off faster, but it’s hard on our finances and the interest continues to accrue each month. 

Is it possible for an accountant or tax attorney to deal with the IRS to get the total amount owed reduced?  Rhonda

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Dear Rhonda: Here’s what you need to know about divorce decrees: Creditors and the IRS are not bound by them. In fact, they could not care less about what the divorce judge decreed. 

The IRS is going to hold your husband responsible for 100 percent of the taxes owed for  2010. And the IRS will hold the ex-wife 100 percent responsible as well. They don’t care which of them actually pays as long as the taxes get paid. And if it goes to collection and they start filing liens, the last thing the IRS will be concerned about is a divorce decree! 

Carpet the Garden and Other Clever Reader Tips

NO MORE WEEDS. Some years ago we decided to set out 18 tomato plants and–wouldn’t you know it?–the area we chose for the garden was covered with millions of tiny weeds. Preparation of the soil appeared to be overwhelming. In a moment of amazing creativity, we decided to cover the area with an old piece of carpeting, weeds and all. We made 18 3-inch cross cuts, one for each plant. We lifted each cut, dug a hole beneath and set the plants. We had a very colorful tomato patch (the carpet was yellow), vigorous plant growth and gorgeous easy-to-harvest tomatoes. Even during dry months, our tomatoes grew and produced remarkable yields with hardly a weed. Since then we’ve used old carpeting for our strawberries, too. Dolores B., Illinois

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PAINTING TRICK. When tackling a painting job you may not be able to complete in one day, don’t waste all of the paint in the rollers and brushes by cleaning them. Simply wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and store in the freezer. The next day simply remove the wrap and you’ll be ready to pick up right where you left off. Catherine F., Washington