What Are the Pitfalls of Gift Cards?

One of the most popular gifts to give or receive is a gift card. If you have hard to shop for people in your life give them a gift card and let them pick out their own gift. But, are there pitfalls to gift cards? According to KHON2 these convenient cards can be easy targets for thieves.

Greg Dunn, CEO of Better Business Bureau Hawaii, says “one of the things to do when you get a gift card is look at the back of it and make sure that the (number) hasn’t been scratched off.”

Most gift cards have a three or four digit PIN under a silver scratch-off that’s used to verify a card’s balance.

But thieves have found a way to steal the card’s value, even before it ends up in someone’s hands.

“Criminals could scratch off the PIN number and have recorded the gift card numbers as well as the PIN,” Dunn said. “That’s the only information they would need to steal, whatever balance that may have been placed on that gift card. They could check it over and over and over until that gift card is sold.”

When you buy a gift card, make sure that the silver scratch-off has not been scratched off.

Use It or Lose It

You get a gift card for Christmas and use it to purchase something. But there is a remaining balance and you put the card in a drawer thinking that you will eventually use the remaining value on the card. ABC News says that you need to use it or lose it.

Like many consumers, Mei Mei Giang of California has a whole collection of unused gift cards sitting in a drawer. But when she recently tried using one of them – a gift card she’d received a couple of Christmases ago – Mei Mei got a shock. The $100 card wouldn’t work, even though it had not expired.

In this lady’s case it had to do with antifraud efforts on the part of the retailer. It is less work when old cards are deactivated and the store does not need to track the presence or absence of activity. When this happens and it is only a year or so since you got the card you can often appeal to the retailer and get the card activated again. If it is a lot older good luck!

Are You a Terrorist?

According to The New York Times, a transit office in Washington, D.C. has been arrested by the FBI and accused of aiding ISIS with gift cards for Google Play and then giving them to an undercover agent. Apparently terrorists use online games as a form of communication to avoid detection by the authorities. This may not be so much a pitfall of gift cards as a pitfall of whom you give them too. Nevertheless, beware whom you give gift cards to if they can be used to purchase something suspicious. On the other hand who would have thought that Google Play was a tool used by terrorists?

Is Increased Consumer Confidence Warranted?

People are spending their money in the belief that good economic times are just ahead. The consumer confidence rating from the University of Michigan came in at 98.5 on the scale used and is higher than predicted and higher than last month. According to Business Insider consumer confidence is at its highest in a dozen years!

Consumer confidence has surged in the wake of the US election, as improved outlooks for growth and jobs have bolstered the index.

“Consumers expressed a higher level of confidence January than any other time in the last dozen years,” said Richard Curtin, the survey’s chief economist. “The post-election surge in confidence was driven by a more optimistic outlook for the economy and job growth during the year ahead as well as more favorable economic prospects over the next five years.”

Curtin did caution that the current boost in confidence comes from expectations and not actual improved circumstances.

“Overall, the post-election surge in consumer confidence was based on political promises, and not, as yet, on economic outcomes,” said the press release.

Is increased consumer confidence warranted and if so, what should you do about it?

Preparing for Good Economic Times

When you just lost your job and the country is heading into recession is not the time to buy a new home. But when there may be more jobs and higher income you may just want to go shopping for the home of your dreams. The same applies to taking a vacation, taking the family to a nice restaurant or buying a new car. Those with long memories will recall the steady increase in interest rates that went with the inflation of the 1970’s. It turns out that consumers are taking out loans at the highest level in 20 years in expectation of a booming economy and higher interest rates. Is this increased consumer confidence warranted?

Are You Republican or Democrat?

According to the folks who did the consumer confidence survey your political affiliation has a lot to do with whether you think things are better or not! This is most split people have been in half a century over whether things are getting better or not with Democrats on the negative side and Republicans holding a positive view. What do the folks say to study the economy? The business publication, Forbes, predicts higher growth.

I am devoting my first article of the year to a forecast of the U.S. economy’s prospects given the world economic scene. So far they have been decently accurate, but none predicted major changes. This time is different. The promise of an important decrease in regulatory and tax burdens on U.S. businesses suggests that the U.S. economy will grow faster than most analysts expected. In addition, (and mostly due to internal rather than external factors), the U.S. economy will be a key driving force of other Western economies.

A cautionary note comes from the Lombardi Letter. There is the chance that a so-called trigger event could rock the U.S. economy.

A tremendous amount of systematic risk entered the financial system, potentially throwing a wrench into the cogs of U.S. economic order. This has predominantly manifested on two key fronts: legislation and free trade.

These folks are saying that Trump and the Republicans don’t know what they are doing and run the risk of really messing up with would drag down the economy and consumer confidence.

Who Has Access to Your Medical Records?

It used to be that the doctor patient relationship was sacred and that only your doctor knew private information regarding your health. Is that true today as medical records are computerized and stored on a hackable central server? Who has access to your medical records besides your doctor? Health IT discusses health IT consumer skepticism regarding health-related data privacy.

A majority of consumers are skeptical of health IT, partly due to an increasing doubt in data privacy, according to a national Black Book survey.

The patient survey, conducted from September through December 2016, included 12,090 adult consumers. Survey participants were asked to evaluate the technology they were exposed to, knew of or interacted with as an active patient in the last 12 months, according to a news release on the survey.

More than half of patients surveyed are skeptical about computerized medical records and the tools available to use that data. The researchers believe that in large part this is because people believe that hackers can access their information.

Withholding Information

What happens when patients do not tell their doctor everything necessary for an accurate diagnosis? This is a concern because increasingly patients are unwilling to reveal all of their medical information to their health care provider. In 2013 66% or responders admitted to holding back on what they told their doctor and now that number is 87%! People believe that the government, their employers or retailers are privy to information about pharmacy prescriptions (90%), mental health history (99%) and chronic conditions (81%).

Does Your Doctor Know How to Use the Tools?

Many patients surveyed (69%) think that their primary care physician does not have enough knowledge and skill in the use of computerized medical records to trust them with all of their personal information. The trust issue has more to do with patient perception of the skill of the provider in using IT tools (84%) than distrust of the IT technology (5%). Patients going to smaller hospitals (fewer than 200 beds) have more of an issue with health related IT than those receiving care at larger hospitals (more than 400 beds).

Too Much Information Can Defeat the Purpose

The point of going to the doctor is to get better or to avoid getting sick in the first place. An accomplished and skillful physician can often listen to a few words of a patient’s history, do a brief exam and order perhaps one confirmatory lab test in order to get the answer needed. He or she can then prescribe treatment and a follow up. All of this can be very fast and efficient and cost effective. Now how does that work out when the physician is required to fill in the check boxes on a cumbersome computer program and cannot exit a given screen until the computer is satisfied? It should be no surprise that 94% of physicians “find the surplus of health related data overwhelming, redundant and unlikely to make a clinical difference.” In other words medical IT systems often waste the care giver’s time, are burdensome and do not help in making people better or helping them avoid getting sick, which should be why these systems are there in the first place. Now add the fact that people withhold vital information from their caregiver and we have a problem that has made health care worse instead of better.

Will It Kill You to Know Your Genetic Predisposition?

Is too much information dangerous? Science News reports that some critics are concerned that getting health information from genetic testing can be harmful. The publication goes on to report a study done at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. It turns out that folks who receive genetic health data are not especially upset.

As consumers have been able to learn more about their genetic makeup in recent years through personal genomic testing, one big criticism has been that without someone to interpret it, the health information could be harmful to the receivers.

Not so, according to a University of Michigan study that shows that less than 2 percent of customers regret receiving such information, and only about 1 percent say they are harmed by the results.

“These data suggest that many of the concerns and criticisms about putting this information into the hands of consumers may presume an exaggerated likelihood of harm,” said J. Scott Roberts, associate professor of health behavior and health education at the U-M School of Public Health.

People who get genetic testing are interested in health risks, physical traits and their ancestry. The vast majority, 94%, said they would do it again. What do you learn from genetic testing?

Genetic Testing

What is genetic testing? The National Institute of Health explains.

Genetic testing is a type of medical test that identifies changes in chromosomes, genes, or proteins. The results of a genetic test can confirm or rule out a suspected genetic condition or help determine a person’s chance of developing or passing on a genetic disorder. More than 1,000 genetic tests are currently in use, and more are being developed.

Here are three methods of genetic testing.

Molecular gene tests single genes or short lengths of DNA to identify variations or mutations that lead to a genetic disorder.

Chromosomal genetic tests analyze whole chromosomes or long lengths of DNA to see if there are large genetic changes, such as an extra copy of a chromosome, that cause a genetic condition.

Biochemical genetic tests study the amount or activity level of proteins; abnormalities in either can indicate changes to the DNA that result in a genetic disorder.

Very commonly the recipient of genetic testing information will want to speak with a genetic counselor to help sort out just what the information means. A specific result may confirm a diagnosis. It could tell you that you are the carrier of a genetic trait which does not bother you but could be passed on to your children. Or a test may tell you that you are at greater risk of getting a certain disease but that whether that happens is not certain. To the extent that you can change your diet or lifestyle in order to avoid a certain disease, genetic testing can be very valuable. To the extent that you know that your children are likely to have birth defects you may choose not to have kids or to adopt. And there are times when you will learn nothing useful from genetic testing.

Don’t Get Cheated Out of a Merry Christmas

The Christmas carol Twelve Days of Christmas details all the gifts your true love will send you from a partridge in a pear tree on the first day to 12 drummers drumming on the twelfth day. We would like to remind all consumers that there are at least a dozen ways to get cheated out of a Merry Christmas as well. Courtesy of CBS Detroit and the Better Business Bureau of Michigan here are some thoughts about how to avoid being cheated over the holidays. The high points are theirs and the details are ours.

Beware of E Cards

Many people like to send their Christmas Cards via the internet. It certainly saves on postage and having to fill out addresses and repeatedly write the same set of greetings time and again. But beware of malware in E cards as malicious individuals may use an attractive E card to download nasty viruses into your computer.

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire Phone Calls

The holiday season is a favorite time for fraudulent organizations and individuals to call soliciting money or claiming to be a government agency that right now needs your personal info. Being the victim of identity theft is not the way the enjoy Christmas. And before you give to an organization, check them out to make sure that your money is really going to help someone out and not padding the bank account of a scammer.

Fake Rolex Watches and More

The Romans knew about this. They said, let the buyer beware. If you are looking for a gift for that special someone and find a luxury item at an unbelievably low price you are going to be scammed. There are lots and lots of counterfeit products out there and your special someone will not be impressed when they find out that you sent them a cheap knockoff of a Rolex!

How You Pay Is Important

Gift cards are a great way to let your friends and family get what they want and are especially good for that hard to shop for person in the family. But be careful when someone, especially on the internet or on the phone demands that you use a gift card, wire transfer money or other unexpected means of payment. These may be a set up for fraud. Stick with your own credit cards, checks or debit cards.

Fake Websites

In the internet age people don’t just make fake Rolexes. They create fake website to sell them from. Beware of websites that offer high end items that are way too cheap.

Fake Charities, Fake Travel Arrangement and Fake Deliveries

These are all ways to cheat you out of a Merry Christmas. Check out charities before giving. Go through a reputable travel service or air carrier. Don’t pay for delivery of things that you did not order and your Christmas will be merry.

Playing on Your Sympathies

An old scam that never goes away is for an older person to receive a phone call saying that their grandchild has been hurt in a distant city and that one of their friends is calling on their behalf. The people who do this can spend all day making calls and only need to hit pay dirt a couple of times. All you need to do is use common sense. A similar scam is trying to get you to buy a pet online from a nice picture. You need to see the animal first and best buy from a reputable pet store or risk getting a disease and soon to perish pet.

The Internet Is Not All Safe

Everyone has hand held devices these days that require WIFI locations. Beware sending personal info when out and about because scammers can hack you from these sites and deny you a Merry Christmas and more.

How to Find the Best Doctor for the Least Cost

When you are sick it is important to find a good doctor who makes you well and does not break your piggy bank in the process. Likewise it is important to find someone who emphasizes preventative care to keep you from getting sick. But how do you find the best doctor for the least cost? It turns out that many health insurance companies provide useful search tools on their web sites. Consumer Reports writes about getting high-quality, low-cost healthcare.

What if your health insurer gave you tools to find out which doctors take your insurance, the cost of tests and procedures, or information about the quality of care from a specific physician or hospital?

This is critical information for consumers to have, especially those in high-deductible plans, who shoulder more of the cost of their care. Many insurers provide such tools on their websites, though few consumers are aware they exist.

CR’s Health Ratings Center recruited dozens of consumers to test out tools offered by national insurance companies. Most found that even the lower-scoring ones were useful.

The insurance company search tools are from Cigna, United Health Care, Aetna, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Humana and Kaiser. The stand-alone sites, which don’t have the incentive to sell to you, are these: Amino, Compare Maine, HN Health Cost, CO Medical Price Compare, Guroo, MD Save, Healthcare Bluebook and FAIR Health.

These sites offer a lot of information. But never use just one. And especially never use just one health insurance company site. Along the way, think about what you want from your health care provider. Do you want quick access? Should they have a clinic close to your home? Is skill in dealing with a complicated disease process more important? Many people who pick the cheapest health care insurance and care option are disappointed when they find that they need to wait a long time for referrals to specialists or that simple office visits are not available the same week or even month. The problem is that for a health care provider to keep their costs low they often need to engage in a form of triage in which only the sickest get seen right now and everyone else needs to wait in line.

What Are Your Alternatives?

First dollar coverage is a very attractive option for health care plans until you pay the bill. An alternative is to carry a high deductible. This means that you will play most of your medical bills out of your own pocket but that you will have coverage for expensive items like unexpected surgeries. Over the long haul having a high deductible is less expensive than paying the higher premiums that go with first dollar coverage.

But What If You Want to Keep Your Doctor?

For many people who never get sick and only get a physical every year a doctor is a doctor is a doctor. But what if you have a chronic illness, a complicated disease or simply have a trusting relationship with someone what has taken care of you for years? Your best option is probably to pick a plan that allows you to pick your own doctor, pay for a high deductible and absorb the ongoing cost. But even if that is the case check out the various sites we listed because your own doctor may now be part of one of these plans!

USB Device Measures HIV Virus Level

Imagine a world just around the corner in which you put a drop of blood into a device the size of a USB stick. This device will test for any imaginable infection, cancer or poison in your system. Now come back to today when a USB device measures HIV virus levels. The Washington Post reports what could a consumer revolution in disease monitoring.

What if you could measure the amount of HIV in your blood as easily as you check your weight on the scale in your bathroom or take your blood pressure using a home cuff?

That’s the vision of a team of scientists from the Imperial College London and DNA Electronics, who announced Thursday that they had developed a potentially revolutionary gadget to detect an HIV patient’s viral load.

The disposable device, which looks very similar to the USB memory stick that you use to move files from computer to computer, is based on a mobile phone chip. It takes a drop of blood and determines the amount of virus in it. It then creates an electrical signal that can be read by your laptop or other device.

If this technology is perfected for the HIV virus it could conceivably be developed for virtually all other infectious agents in your blood stream or even cancers or poisons. In fact researchers are working to see if the device might also detect antibiotic resistance which would be a huge help in treating infections.

Home Testing

For many years diabetic patients have been able to test their urine and then their blood at home. Then home testing for pregnancy became available and more recently home testing for AIDS became available. As technology advances we now have home testing for sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomonas, HIV and hepatitis C. There is even home DNA testing for various inherited diseases. According to Genome everyone is happy about this new technology except the Food and Drug Administration who wants to regulate a company’s home DNA kit from 23andMe.

By comparing some of the couple’s DNA to a database of genetic indicators, the company said it could tell them whether they were at increased risk for a range of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, breast or prostate cancer, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heroin addiction, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

One organization that wasn’t applauding: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In November 2013, the FDA told the company it had to shut down the service. As of press time in April, you could still take 23andMe’s spit test for $99, but when you receive the results, you’ll only be told about the likely migration patterns of your ancestors. There will be no interpretation about what your genes may mean for your predisposition for celiac disease or Alzheimer’s or cancer or ALS or whether your yet-to-be-conceived child may have blue eyes.

The difference between this service and the USB device that measures HIV virus level or diabetic testing is that one test provides a number while the other provides an interpretation. The FDA believes that interpretation should belong to licensed professionals and providing numbers should be in the hands of licensed laboratories. This needs to be ironed out before the USB device that measures HIV virus level can move on testing more diseases.

Do You Need Help with Grant Funding?

Do you need help with grant funding? Are you a new student looking for a government sponsored scholarship or are you a graduate student looking for funding for a research project? Where to you look? How do you proceed? There is the long route to getting grant funding and the short route. The short route is to deal with folks who do this for a living. Check out the Financial Approval Network and jump start your search for grant funding. The rest of this article is about the long route.

Researching Government Grant Funding

There is perhaps more information than you will ever need about government grant funding at www.Grants.gov. Depending on what kind of grant you need you can search by categories, sponsoring agencies or listings of who is eligible. Here is a quick breakdown of what you will find in the various search categories on the grants dot gov site.
The number in parenthesis represents the number of available grants in the category.

  • Agriculture (44)
  • Arts (see “Cultural Affairs” in CFDA) (3)
  • Business and Commerce (14)
  • Community Development (32)
  • Consumer Protection (9)
  • Disaster Prevention and Relief (14)
  • Education (476)
  • Employment, Labor and Training (35)
  • Energy (47)
  • Environment (177)
  • Food and Nutrition (130)
  • Health (1075)
  • Housing (7)
  • Humanities (see “Cultural Affairs” in CFDA) (24)
  • Income Security and Social Services (213)
  • Information and Statistics (9)
  • Law, Justice and Legal Services (68)
  • Natural Resources (130)
  • Other (see text field entitled “Explanation of Other Category of Funding Activity” for clarification) (111)
  • Recovery Act (5)
  • Regional Development (19)
  • Science and Technology and other Research and Development (454)
  • Transportation (14)

If you do not find what you want in the categories section look under agencies:

  • Agency for International Development (77)
  • Corporation for National and Community Service (2)
  • Department of Agriculture (46)
  • Department of Commerce (27)
  • Department of Defense (73)
  • Department of Education (27)
  • Department of Energy (41)
  • Department of Energy – Office of Science (7)
  • Department of Health and Human Services (1039)
  • Department of Homeland Security (19)
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development (3)
  • Department of Justice (72)
  • Department of Labor (12)
  • Department of State (49)
  • Department of the Interior (180)
  • Department of Transportation (12)
  • Department of Veterans Affairs (3)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (18)
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (36)
  • National Archives and Records Administration (7)
  • National Council on Disability (1)
  • National Endowment for the Arts (1)
  • National Endowment for the Humanities (11)
  • National Science Foundation (237)
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission (2)


Once you find what you want how to you get a grant? This is the matter of who is eligible for a grant. At this point take a look at the eligibility tab.

  • City or township governments (884)
  • County governments (890)
  • For profit organizations other than small businesses (833)
  • Independent school districts (796)
  • Individuals (40)
  • Native American tribal governments (Federally recognized) (911)
  • Native American tribal organizations (other than Federally recognized tribal governments) (851)
  • Nonprofits having a 501(c)(3) status with the IRS, other than institutions of higher education (990)
  • Nonprofits that do not have a 501(c)(3) status with the IRS, other than institutions of higher education (908)
  • Others (see text field entitled “Additional Information on Eligibility” for clarification) (1347)
  • Private institutions of higher education (997)
  • Public and State controlled institutions of higher education (1015)
  • Public housing authorities/Indian housing authorities (796)
  • Small businesses (879)
  • Special district governments (833)
  • State governments (977)
  • Unrestricted (i.e., open to any type of entity above), subject to any clarification in text field entitled “Additional Information on Eligibility” (380)

It’s all here for government grants but you may need to do a lot of research to get where you want. And then there are private foundation grants which can be very helpful but you will need to know where to look, how to apply and what your chances are. Like we said in the beginning there is also a short route to grant funding. Check out Financial Approval Network today.

New Protections for Prepaid Debit Cards

Prepaid debit cards are a way to pay for things with a card and not carry cash. Up until now these cards have not afforded you the same protections as credit cards in case of loss, theft or fraud. That is about the change. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is about to issue new prepaid card rules.

Prepaid accounts are one of the newer ways to store and spend your money. These include prepaid cards that you buy in stores or digital wallet accounts that you get online. With most prepaid accounts, you can spend the money you’ve loaded in advance for daily expenses or withdraw cash from an ATM. You can also have your income directly deposited into most types of prepaid accounts.

If you do not have a bank account this can be an effective way to guard the money from your paycheck until you need to spend it. There are various types of prepaid cards and sometimes the differences are not clear.

Not all prepaid accounts are the same. Each account has its own set of features, functions, and fees. To decide which prepaid account is right for you, it’s important to learn about your choices and compare the fees that will apply depending on how you use the account. Right now, it can be hard to compare accounts because each card displays fee information differently.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is about the come to the rescue.

With our new rule you will get clear, upfront information about these fees so you can know before you owe and shop for the best deal. These comprehensive consumer protections included in the new rule take effect on Oct. 1, 2017.

The intent of the new regulations is to make prepaid accounts safer. Under the new rules prepaid card holders will typically be protected if their card is lost or stolen or if they were incorrectly charged. Also online monitoring of fees will commonly be available.

Choosing the Right Prepaid Card

Not all prepaid cards are the same. Picking the right one for you depends on if you will have benefits like Social Security or your paycheck deposited into the account, if you will use the card for point of sale purchases or also at an ATM or for paying bills. And will you use routinely use the card or will it be used daily? Here are the types of cards to consider.

Open Loop Prepaid Card: These are network cards like VISA and can be used wherever that card is accepted.

Closed Loop Prepaid Card: These are restricted use cards such as for public transit or specific retailors.

Reloadable Prepaid Card: These are also called general purpose reloadable cards and you can “recharge” by adding money.

Payroll Card: This is a card that you would get from your employer for payment for work and covered expenses.

Government Benefit Card: These cards are issued by government agencies for benefits such as unemployment insurance.

College ID Card: These closed loop cards are offered by some colleges and universities and can be used at authorized locations.

With all of these prepaid cards the new regulations will make them safer and easier to track costs.

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