Guest writers

Consumer Business by Denisha Maxey

Although April Fool’s Day has passed, the scammers are still out looking to make a fool out of new victims every day! Thousands of new scams are created daily and it is hard for consumers to keep track of them all! That’s where the Houston Better Business Bureau and our BBB Scam Tracker can help. Here is a list of the top five ways consumers are being scammed. Read the list and check it twice, to avoid being scammed!
Never send money to an online business that does not have contact information, other than an email or phone number available. There are several reputable online businesses but for every reputable online business, there are hundreds of online scam businesses. NEVER send money for your purchase by using gift cards, wire transfers, or a prepaid debit card. This will leave you without  recourse to dispute the transaction through you financial institution if you never receive your product.
Do Not Click on links and attachments in unsolicited emails. This is a dangerous no-no! Links and attachments can have malware downloaded onto your computer or other electronic devices. The malware can steal all of your personal information. Your personal information can be used to steal your identity. There is a growing number consumer’s smartphones being infected with malware. Always be cautious when accessing links or opening attachments in emails, even if the email looks familiar.
Never allow yourself to be pressured into a sale. Scammers can make consumers feel as if they do not immediately act on a deal, they will lose it! Scammers are banking on the idea of consumers agreeing to make a purchase before they have thoroughly reviewed the contract or the business’s refund, return, and exchange policies. Be an informed consumer, educate yourself about your purchase and recourse if problems arise. Remember, you do not have to make an important purchasing decision quickly.
Be careful what you share on social media. We all love to share personal information about our lives, as well as information about our family and friends via social media. Not only are we sharing with the people we love, we also share with people who love to scam others! Your identity can be stolen by using information from your social media account. Your name, city you live in, email address, and your date of birth are all readily accessible through social media. This information can be used to open fraudulent accounts in your name. Protect yourself, only connect with people you know.
Stick with local businesses. There is information you can find about local businesses by visiting BBBhou.org. This can be helpful when you need a contractor, plumbing, and air conditioning servicing. Reviewing complaint details, customer reviews, and ratings information allows you to use other consumer’s experiences to aid in your decision of who you should spend your money with.
Help out your fellow consumers, and always report known scams to BBB Scam Tracker on BBBHou.org

Denisha Maxey is director of dispute resolution at Houston Better
Business Bureau

Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

Whether it’s a matter of comfort, appearance or safety, there are many medical procedures that you may want or need, but your health insurance won’t cover.
LASIK eye surgery may fall into the want category for most people and it can be a hefty investment with each eye costing several thousand dollars. For those wanting to start a family, infertility treatments, which can cost over $10,000, may be closer to a need. Yet most states don’t require health insurance to cover treatments.
Considering the lasting impact that these and other procedures can have on your life, you may not want to seek out the least expensive option. However, that doesn’t mean you should forgo attempts to save altogether. From tax-advantaged accounts to comparison shopping doctors, there are many approaches to safely cutting costs.
See if you could get a tax break. Although tax breaks don’t lower a medical procedure’s price, tax deductions can decrease your taxable income and by using a tax-advantaged account you may be able to pay for some medical procedures with income-tax-free money.
Take a medical expense tax deduction. If you itemize your tax deductions, you can get a deduction for your qualified medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income. LASIK and some fertility enhancement treatments may qualify. However, cosmetic surgery doesn’t unless it’s related to a congenital abnormality, disfiguring disease or an injury resulting from trauma or an accident.
Use an employer-sponsored flexible spending account (FSA). Some employers offer FSAs as an employee benefit. You can make tax-deductible contributions to the account each year and withdraw the money tax-free to pay for qualified medical expenses, including health insurance deductibles and copayments. However, this approach could require planning as you may forfeit remaining FSA money at the end of each year.

Enroll in health insurance with a health savings account (HSA). An HSA account is similar to an FSA in that you can contribute pre-tax money and withdraw funds to pay for eligible medical expenses tax-free. HSAs don’t have the use-it-or-lose-it requirement, but to qualify for an HSA account, you need to enroll in a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) and can’t be eligible for Medicare.

Ask your health insurance company about discounts. Even when a health insurance provider doesn’t cover a procedure, members may still be able to save money by going through their insurance. For example, health insurance generally won’t cover the cost of LASIK surgery, but your provider may offer a 5 to 15 percent discount if you get the surgery at partner eye care centers.

Health insurance requirements can also vary from one state to another, and you should double-check your benefits before assuming something isn’t covered. Infertility treatment is one of these gray areas, as some states require health insurance plans to provide coverage while others do not.

Compare costs from different providers. Varying medical costs sometimes make headlines when patients find out that a $3,000 medical procedure at a hospital could cost several hundred at a nearby clinic. If it’s not an emergency, there are websites that you can use to comparison shop nearby medical centers and get estimated prices.
Some people also look for savings in other countries. Medical tourism is a growing industry, and millions of people travel outside their home countries seeking lower costs, higher-quality services, treatments that aren’t available at home, a relaxing environment to recover in or a combination of several of these factors. While the U.S. is a destination for some medical tourists, Canada, Southeast Asia, Latin America and parts of Europe are also popular.

Bottom line: Although you may not be able to convince your health insurance company to cover what it considers an elective procedure; you can turn to other methods to save money. As with other large expenses, you can take a dual big- and little-picture approach by looking for tax breaks that lower your effective cost and savings opportunities that can reduce a procedure’s price.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PracticalMoney. His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

Crime Watch with Walt Candelari

Candy is bordering on hysterical. She found out that their brand new super smart TV, the one with all of the bells and whistles, the one that can be voice activated/ operated not only responds to voice commands, but reportedly it records more than simply the voice commands …. It will record their conversations while in the active mode. And to top it off, it is shared with a third party. Originally Bill just shrugged his shoulders but has taken a totally different posture when Candy reminded him of several of their conversations sitting there in front of “Big Brother” as they have named it.
Add to this situation the fact that some televisions also have the ability to send pictures. And to think, they almost had it installed in their bedroom! There have been reports of “Nanny Cams” – the ones used by parents to monitor what is happening at home while they are at work – being hacked and ‘unknown parties’ watching and making comments. A big fear is that the camera has been hacked and, unless the hacker says or does something to alert you, you may never know.
When Bill read the disclosure on the paperwork that came with the TV, listing all the ‘attributes’ of Big Brother, he found that all of it was there including the recording and use by third parties. It clearly states that the voice recognition protocols can capture voice commands and associates texts so that they can provide you with Voice recognition features and evaluate and improve features. The added warning cautions people to be aware that if their spoken words include personal or other sensitive information that it will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party. All perfectly legal.
You CAN turn the voice features off …. But isn’t that part of the reason you purchase that TV?
This is not a reason to panic but, as with all other devices connected to the internet, read the fine print and understand what the device is capable of and who can legally have access to it.
The next issue is should you purchase ‘anti-virus’ software? That issue is discussed in a posting on the http:forums.cnet.com and there does not seem to be a clear consensus. Issues range from – is there even an anti-virus program out there, the level of sophistication needed to hack the system, to – is there any real value in hacking an ordinary citizens TV? If a device is connected to the internet you need to ask questions. Consider all of your other ‘smart’ devices and ask the same questions. To this point, I have not found anyone that has had this happen and most stores argue that because of the differences in the operating systems, it is highly unlikely that this would ever happen.
I don’t have a clear answer or recommendation. I can tell you to read all of the fine print on any ‘smart’ device; ask questions of someone who knows and check with the items manufacturer. Remember: Think, plan and execute crime-prevention design. Don’t be a crime victim.

Uncommon Sense with Glenn Mollette

The only way to get out of the darkness is to follow the light. Sometimes it’s just a very faint light. Often you have to be in the darkness long enough to refocus your eyes so that you can look for a glimmer of light to follow out of the darkness.
Darkness is never enjoyable. Often it’s a long valley that seems hopeless and inescapable. There are different forms of darkness such as poverty, failing health, family difficulties, work dissatisfaction, discord in your relationships, failures of all kinds and the list goes on. You may have been there or you may be there now. You may not see any way out and may have given up to just try to survive the darkness of your life and existence.
The worst feeling of all is the feeling of hopelessness. Hopelessness is when we see no way out or no chance of things getting better. We go to the doctor with hopes of medical treatment. We go to work in hopes of financially caring for our selves and the people we love. Sometimes we seek other kinds of help in hopes that an addiction or other life altering habit might be solved so that we might be freed to be at peace with life.
I read this a long time ago and claim it every day in different ways. Walk in the light while you have the light before darkness overtakes you. Throughout life I’ve learned if I walked in the light that I had then I usually would receive more light.
When I was a kid we had a light bulb in the ceiling of most every room. There would be a long string attached to the little silver chain that would pull the switch and turn on the light. Throughout my childhood I often would go into a dark bedroom at night and search for that dangling string. Finding that string was a relief because it turned on the light. A room with light was much easier to navigate than a dark room.
Often we look for the dangling string for a long time to turn on the light. Sometimes we eventually find it and sometimes people never do. Some people live in desperation of trying to find the dangling string while others simply gave up a long time ago.
I tried for years to break through in publishing a book. I was about ready to give up when one morning I was reading the daily newspaper and read one sentence in that newspaper that turned on the light. I now have twelve books and have helped numerous others. Following that one sentence of light gave way to more light that enabled me to see the way to numerous other endeavors and projects. Following that light showed me the way that I needed at that time.
There is something to this old saying that is true, “Let us not grow weary in doing good. We will reap a harvest if we don’t quit.” Another truth that I have heard is, “Believe in the light while you have the light so that you may become children of light.”
I don’t know what you are dealing with today but don’t quit. It’s easier said than done, I know. However, maybe, if you hang in there and keep your head up and your hand stretching out in front of you, then just maybe, you will feel the sting dangling in the darkness.
Glenn Mollette is an American author whose syndicated column is read in all 50 states.

               Bennett Sandlin

By guest writer Bennett Sandlin

Destroying city neighborhoods one step at a time requires too much effort. So Texas governor Greg Abbott wants one sweeping state law to ban city residents from having a say in protecting health, safety and property values in their communities.
While the state legislature is debating dozens of bills to overturn local ordinances and voter-approved referendums, Abbott said last week: “I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to preempt local regulations, is a superior approach”.
The governor said this scorched-earth approach is “more elegant”. Maybe he meant more regal or more tyrannical.
Nearly 28 million people live in Texas now. Eighty-five per cent, more than 23.6 million of us, live in urban areas that cover about four per cent of the state’s land area. That’s a lot of people living very close together.
As cities have grown larger and more crowded, people have insisted upon community rules that protect their safety, health and property values.
Local zoning rules protect your home value by preventing your neighbor from putting a toxic-waste dump next door or putting a strip club next to your child’s daycare center. Local health regulations and inspections give customers confidence that food is safe, enabling restaurants to flourish.
There is nothing new about cities adopting rules that reflect the will of their voters, nor about special interests running to the state legislature when they can’t get a city to conform to their desires.
When Abbott and special interests complain about “a patchwork quilt of local regulations”, what they are saying is that the convenience of big businesses – usually out-of-state corporations – is more important than Texans’ desire for a voice in shaping the character of their community.
In an Austin election last year, voters spoke clearly that they wanted tough criminal-background checks on ride-sharing drivers. They wanted assurance of safety when they hail a ride.
Several ride-sharing companies now flourish under those rules but two others, Uber and Lyft, are spending millions of dollars on Austin lobbyists to persuade the state legislature to run over the voters in that and other Texas cities.
In Fort Stockton, ranchers were alarmed about plastic grocery bags, blown by the west Texas wind, threatening their livestock feeders and covering their fences. They asked their city leaders to ban the plastic bags and the community is happy with the result. Citizens in other cities from Kermit to Laredo have done the same.
In neighborhoods across the state, people are waking up – in the middle of the night – to discover the home next door has been converted into a party destination right out of the movie Animal House. Responding to the concerns of their citizens, city councils are adopting local rules about short-term rentals to protect property values and the character of residential neighborhoods.
Have these cities suddenly gone out of control? Have Texans suddenly decided to trample on liberty and freedom? That’s ridiculous. They simply want some common-sense rules to protect their families, their homes and their neighborhoods.
Year after year, Texas cities lead the nation in the number of companies and people moving in. Clearly, the way that our cities are operating is friendly and welcoming to businesses. And countless businesses ranging from Dairy Queen to Walmart have proliferated across the state, adapting to the different local rules and regulations of many different towns and cities.
But a handful of companies say all Texans must conform to the way they want to run their businesses and they are intent upon using their money and their lobby power in Austin to legislate us into submission.
Texans don’t want to be told they have to conform to one way of thinking or living – whether it comes from Washington or from the governor’s office in Austin. We are proud that our state is unlike any of the others.
In the only state that was once an independent nation, Texans have always celebrated the unique character of our people, culture and heritage, as reflected in our more than 1,200 cities, every one of which is proudly unique.
Texans love being different and debating our differences. Whether it’s burnt orange or maroon, sweetened or unsweetened, red salsa or green, there’s not just one way of being Texan. If we feel warm and comfortable under a patchwork quilt, companies who seek
to do business here – and our governor – should recognize and respect that.
Bennett Sandlin is executive director of Texas Municipal League, an association of 1,153 cities throughout the state.