Not All Free Credit Reports Are Created Equal

Even though most of the TV I watch is recorded, and I try to fast-forward through the ads, I still wind up watching some commercials now and then. And one of the campaigns I've noticed most this year--possibly a sign of the times--has been for FreeCreditReport.com. Maybe you've seen the ads, too; they all feature a band with members in various oddball costumes and a cute lead singer crooning catchy jingles urging you to look after your credit rating by obtaining reports from the site. Here's one of the FreeCreditReport ads.

The trouble is, FreeCreditReport.com isn't the place to go for the free credit reports that federal law entitles you to receive once a year from each of the three major consumer credit-reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). That program is handled at AnnualCreditReport.com. FreeCreditReport.com will send you the reports, but only after you sign up for a "free trial membership" in its Triple Advantage Credit Monitoring service, which costs $15 a month.

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Selling Netbooks With Phone-Style Plans

I've always liked my laptops small and light, so I didn't take long to jump on the netbook bandwagon: I bought an HP Mini 1000 shortly after it appeared late last year. But a recent ad campaign on PCWorld.com made me wonder if I hadn't jumped too soon.

Radio Shack ads touted an Acer Aspire One netbook with built-in mobile broadband for a mere $100--provided that you committed to a two-year, $60-per-month data plan with the provider of said mobile broadband, AT&T. (Dell had a similar offer for its Inspiron Mini 9 netbook back in January; that one has expired, but the company still gives smaller rebates on the purchase of a Mini with an AT&T data plan.)

The Aspire One had been selling for $350, so the Radio Shack price just for the netbook itself represented a significant discount. And since presumably anyone who buys a netbook with a built-in mobile broadband adapter intends to get mobile broadband service too, the deal doesn't sound half bad.

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Did Belkin Really Need Fake User Reviews?

The story broke on an obscure blog in mid-January and quickly spread all over the Web: A Belkin employee had been caught posting ads offering payment to people who would write positive user reviews of the company's products, or mark negative reviews by others as "unhelpful."

In what appeared to be a tacit confirmation of the story, Belkin president Mark Reynoso posted a public apology that repudiated the employee's action, described them as an "isolated incident," and said the company was working to identify and eliminate any bogus reviews that may have resulted.

PC World has written about fake user reviews before. But my question is, did Belkin really need to pay for positive reviews? Are its products so unworthy that without fake endorsements, few people would buy them? As someone who has written and edited PC World articles and reviews about a wide variety of Belkin products over the years, I knew the answer right away: No.

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Cell-Phone Insurance: A Bet on Bad Luck?

When my three-month-old iPhone 3G nearly died, I suddenly became very interested in phone insurance plans that had previously left me cold. Major carriers typically offer insurance along with umpteen other "up-sells" when you buy a new handset, and I reflexively turn all of them down.

But faced, even temporarily, with the prospect of having to replace my iPhone at its full, unsubsidized price ($500 for the 16GB model), I began to wonder if insurance might not be worthwhile. It turns out that one company--Asurion--manages insurance programs for all the major U.S. carriers. However...

No iPhone Insurance

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Six Common HDTV Showroom Pitfalls

With the long-awaited transition to digital broadcasting just around the corner (February 17), many shoppers will take the HDTV plunge during the holidays and beyond--and stores eagerly await them. Even if you plan to buy online, it's smart to eyeball sets in a local big-box store, but don't take everything you see or hear at face value. Here are some issues to be aware of.

Check the Content

In a recent visit to a Best Buy store, I noticed that the inexpensive sets were playing a recorded HDTV loop (sales reps couldn't say whether it was 720p or 1080i, the two broadcast HD formats), but the pricey units in the store's upscale Magnolia area were playing different content--some of broadcast quality, but some from media. Not surprisingly, the set playing a Blu-ray movie looked best, since Blu-ray is the only source of native 1080p content.

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Scout for Deals Long Before Black Friday

I'm writing this column on the eve of Labor Day, and chances are you've not yet celebrated Halloween as you read it. But if you think it's too early to begin your holiday shopping, think again.

The most important thing I learned last year was that shopping on a timetable (the holidays, in this case) isn't always productive. I bought my HDTV (a 42-inch Panasonic 1080p plasma) during a Veteran's Day sale at Sears.com, and the price went up the next day, never to sink to the same level until well into the new year. So my top holiday shopping tip is, if you see a great deal, pounce on it.

Of course, I wouldn't have known the price was good if I hadn't done some research earlier in the year. So my second holiday shopping tip is to start checking prices now so you'll be able to recognize a bargain when you see one.

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Still Nervous About Online Shopping? Really?

Last fall, I wrote about Assurz, a service that-for a small up-front surcharge-would let you return anything you bought at a participating retailer, on very generous terms: no questions asked, a 90-day window, and no shipping charges or restocking fees. Sadly, Assurz is no more. PC World's Steve Bass has written about the Assurz debacle, but the gist of the story is that Assurz filed for bankruptcy protection in late June after informing its retail partners that it was ending service because of excessively high return rates. What a shock: Whoever came up with the company's business model apparently didn't anticipate that the type of person who'd sign up for the service would be far likelier than the average customer to use it.

Another Type of Guarantee

Other third-party services still seek to assuage the fears of nervous online buyers. I recently looked at BuySafe.com, which rates e-commerce sites for security and privacy features, and offers merchants that it deems to be up to snuff the option of offering BuySafe's bonding service. Basically, the service is a guarantee-good for up to $25,000 and backed by the likes of Liberty Mutual and Travelers Insurance-that the e-tailer will meet all of its obligations on a sale.

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