Find Missing Money, Get Marketers Off Your Back

Big business doesn't give a hoot about you. Oh, sure, they'll tell you how valuable you are as customers--about a dozen times while you're waiting on hold--but I don't believe a word of it. This week I've got a bunch of ways to fight back.

But first, a public service announcement...

The Internet Tax Is Upon Us (No Hoax)

Are you sitting down? If you don't take action, you could soon see a new tax on your cable or DSL bill. I'm not making this up.

For almost ten years, we've all used the Internet without paying a tax. (Think about how much you pay in taxes each month for your landline and cell phone.)

That could change: The federal ban on Internet access taxes expires on November 1.

Lots of companies are against the tax, including Google, Time Warner, and AT&T. (Funny, it's the first time I've been in alignment with AT&T.) There's bipartisan Congressional support for an extension of the tax ban; the White House also supports the extension. Read the Los Angeles Times editorial opposing the tax for more info.

There may be some relief. Read PC World reporter Tom Spring's "Net Tax Ban Clears First Hurdle" and "House Panel Votes to Extend Net Tax Ban" to get caught up.

You can learn more on the Don't Tax Our Web site. If you're in favor of the extension, use this handy form to send an e-mail to your elected officials. (It's automated and won't take any time at all.)

Dig This: Robots are all the rage, cleaning your floors (see "Roomba: The Almost Miraculous Robotic Vacuum") and gutters (see "IRobot Automates Household Chores"). But the pair that I want to play with--the Boston Dynamics Big Dog Robot, aka the Army mule, and the Little Dog Robot--aren't available for sale. Yet.

State Secrets: Recover Your Missing Money

You may have a couple of bucks--or a few hundred thousand--sitting in an unclaimed account.

No really, it's a distinct possibility. I looked up my mother-in-law's name (she passed away a decade ago) and we found two accounts. While I wasn't able to buy that sailboat, it felt terrific taking the money back from the state.

There are a few sites for you to use to check for unclaimed money owed to you. Some are absolute freebies; others may charge a fee.

The one I tried is Missing Money. It's easy to use and absolutely free. Stick in your first and last names (middle initial, too, if you have one) and keep your fingers crossed.

If you discover you have some money being held hostage, Missing Money helpfully provides a search page that lets you go directly to the state's site in order to learn the specific steps you need to take to recoup your treasure.

If you're curious about unclaimed property, how it works, and how to prevent your property from falling into the hands of the government, learn more on the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators site.

[Thanks to Dave S. of Tulsa, Oklahoma for all the info.]

Dig This: A car that runs on water? If it's not a hoax, the petroleum industry will put out a contract on the guy. [Thanks, Andy.]

BTW, I sent the video to an engineering friend. Here's what he said:

"It takes more energy to generate the electricity required for the hydrolysis of water than you get from burning the hydrogen produced.... If the electricity was free or very inexpensive, the process would already have been implemented. There's nothing new here. The guy is a b.s. artist." [Thanks, Jack.]

Had Enough of Marketing Hell? Opt Out

Ever since my credit card company, MBNA, was gobbled up by the corporate chimpanzees at Bank of America, I've been inundated with junk mail and telemarketing calls. It took some digging, but I finally found BofA's master opt-out page.

While I was digging, I discovered a treasure trove of links that give me a way to put a wedge between me and telemarketers. For instance, there are specific sites to remove your name from credit card and magazine pitches, stop schools from releasing info about you, and put the kibosh on dopey commercial data brokers selling details about your life.

You shouldn't be surprised that some of the sites make you jump through hoops. An example: In order to use the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to stop your school from giving out details ideal for ID thefts (like your home address and phone number, all without your knowledge or consent) you'll need to get the FERPA form supplied by the school.

Another hurdle: The Direct Marketing Association, the folks who send catalogs and other junk through the mail, might discourage you from registering on their opt-out list by charging you a $1 processing fee.

The World Privacy Forum put together a massive list of spots to opt out and it's chock full of details and tips. [And thanks to Tom L. for these leads.]

Steve Bass writes PC World's monthly "Hassle-Free PC" column and is the author of PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer, available from O'Reilly. He also writes PC World's daily Tips & Tweaks blog. Sign up to have Steve's newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.
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