Saturday, March 20, 2010
Debit cards have different protections and uses. Sometimes they're not the best choice.
Sometimes reaching for your wallet is like a multiple choice test: How do you really want to pay?
While credit cards and debit cards may look almost identical, not all plastic is the same.
"It's important that consumers understand the difference between a debit card and a credit card," says John Breyault, director of the Fraud Center for the National Consumers League, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "There's a difference in how the transactions are processed and the protections offered to consumers when they use them."
While debit cards and credit cards each have advantages, each is also better suited to certain situations. And since a debit card is a direct line to your bank account, there are places where it can be wise to avoid handing it over -- if for no other reason than complete peace of mind.
Here are 10 places and situations where it can pay to leave that debit card in your wallet:
"You don't use a debit card online," says Susan Tiffany, director of consumer periodicals for the Credit Union National Association. Since the debit card links directly to a checking account, "you have potential vulnerability there," she says.
Her reasoning: If you have problems with a purchase or the card number gets hijacked, a debit card is "vulnerable because it happens to be linked to an account," says Linda Foley, founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center. She also includes phone orders in this category.
The Federal Reserve's Regulation E (commonly dubbed Reg E), covers debit card transfers. It sets a consumer's liability for fraudulent purchases at $50, provided they notify the bank within two days of discovering that their card or card number has been stolen.
Most banks have additional voluntary policies that set their own customers' liability with debit cards at $0, says Nessa Feddis, vice president and senior counsel for the American Bankers Association.
But the protections don't relieve consumers of hassle: The prospect of trying to get money put back into their bank account, and the problems that a lower-than-expected balance can cause in terms of fees and refused checks or payments, make some online shoppers reach first for credit cards.
2. Big-Ticket Items
With a big ticket item, a credit card is safer, says Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. A credit card offers dispute rights if something goes wrong with the merchandise or the purchase, she says.
"With a debit card, you have fewer protections," she says.
In addition, some cards will also offer extended warrantees. And in some situations, such as buying electronics or renting a car, some credit cards also offer additional property insurance to cover the item.
Two caveats, says Wu. Don't carry a balance. Otherwise, you also risk paying some high-ticket interest. And "avoid store cards with deferred interest," Wu advises.
3. Deposit Required
When Peter Garuccio recently rented some home improvement equipment at a big-box store, it required a sizable deposit. "This is where you want to use a credit card instead of a debit," says Garuccio, spokesman for the national trade group American Bankers Association.
That way, the store has its security deposit, and you still have access to all of the money in your bank account. With any luck, you'll never actually have to part with a dollar.
"To me, it's dangerous," says Gary Foreman, editor of the frugality minded Web site The Dollar Stretcher. "You have so many people around."
Foreman bases his conclusions on what he hears from readers. "Anecdotally, the cases that I'm hearing of credit or debit information being stolen, as often as not, it's in a restaurant," he says.
The danger: Restaurants are one of the few places where you have to let cards leave your sight when you use them. But others think that avoiding such situations is not workable.
The "conventional advice of 'don't let the card out of your sight' -- that's just not practical," says Tiffany.
The other problem with using a debit card at restaurants: Some establishments will approve the card for more than your purchase amount because, presumably, you intend to leave a tip. So the amount of money frozen for the transaction could be quite a bit more than the amount of your tab. And it could be a few days before you get the cash back in your account.
5. You're a New Customer
Online or in the real world, if you're a first-time customer in a store, skip the debit card the first couple of times you buy, says Breyault.
That way, you get a feel for how the business is run, how you're treated and the quality of the merchandise before you hand over a card that links to your checking account.
6. Buy Now, Take Delivery Later
Buying now but taking delivery days or weeks from now? A credit card offers dispute rights that a debit card typically does not.
"It may be an outfit you're familiar with and trust, but something might go wrong," says Breyault, "and you need protection."
But be aware that some cards will limit the protection to a specific time period, says Feddis. So settle any problems as soon as possible.
7. Recurring Payments
We've all heard the urban legend about the gym that won't stop billing an ex-member's credit card. Now imagine the charges aren't going onto your card, but instead coming right out of your bank account.
Another reason not to use the debit card for recurring charges: your own memory and math skills. Forget to deduct that automatic bill payment from your checkbook one month, and you could either face fees or embarrassment (depending on whether you've opted to allow overdrafting or not). So if you don't keep a cash buffer in your account, "to protect yourself from over-limit fees, you may want to think about using a credit card" for recurring payments, says Breyault.
8. Future Travel
Book your travel with a check card, and "they debit it immediately," says Foley. So if you're buying travel that you won't use for six months or making a reservation for a few weeks from now, you'll be out the money immediately.
Another factor that bothers Foley: Hotels aren't immune to hackers and data breaches, and several name-brand establishments have suffered the problem recently. Do you want your debit card information "to sit in a system for four months, waiting for you to arrive?" she asks. "I would not."
9. Gas Stations and Hotels
This one depends on the individual business. Some gas stations and hotels will place holds to cover customers who may leave without settling the entire bill. That means that even though you only bought $10 in gas, you could have a temporary bank hold for $50 to $100, says Tiffany.
Ditto hotels, where there are sometimes holds or deposits in the hundreds to make sure you don't run up a long distance bill, empty the mini bar or trash the room. The practice is almost unnoticeable if you're using credit, but can be problematic if you're using a debit card and have just enough in the account to cover what you need.
At hotels, ask about deposits and holds before you present your card, says Feddis. At the pump, select the pin-number option, she says, which should debit only the amount you've actually spent.
10. Checkouts or ATMs That Look 'Off'
Criminals are getting better with skimmers and planting them in places you'd never suspect -- like ATM machines on bank property, says Foley.
So take a good look at the machine or card reader the next time you use an ATM or self-check lane, she advises. Does the machine fit together well or does something look off, different or like it doesn't quite belong? Says Foley, "Make sure it doesn't look like it's been tampered with."
Thursday, March 18, 2010
The ZigBee Alliance said Wednesday that its Smart Energy 2.0 protocol for Smart Grid-enabled homes will run on Wi-Fi, in addition to its own low-power network.
Originally, the first-generation Smart Energy technology was designed to run just on the low-power ZigBee protocol. But the Alliance later added HomePlug and then Wi-Fi as transport mechanisms, to allow customers and solutions providers greater flexibility.
"ZigBee has always interworked with Wi-Fi using ZigBee and Wi-Fi gateways. Now there is an opportunity for the organizations to collaborate more closely for the smart home of the future, leveraging the intelligence of ZigBee Smart Energy," said Bob Heile, ZigBee Alliance chairman, in a statement. "Wi-Fi is a major global success and an important wireless networking technology for the home environment. Our collaboration will help spur further innovation in solutions for the Smart Grid."
ZigBee was formed as a low-power protocol for so-called Home Area Networks, a network of low-power sensors inside so-called "smart homes" that can settle into a prolonged sleep modes to preserve power. The specification was ratified in 2004.
A little more than a week ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google and DISH Network had begun testing a set-top box that uses Google as a search algorithm. In a story published late Wednesday, The New York Times went a step further, claiming that a "Google TV" platform is in the works, from Intel, Google, Sony and Logitech.
The Times reported that the Google service will run on Atom-powered set-top boxes, and that Logitech is developing complementary remote controls. The Google TV platform will be opened to third-party developers to write their own plug-ins, as they have for the Android platform, the paper reported.
Given the two complementary reports from two of the major daily papers, it seems logical to assume that Google is likely leaking the news ahead of a launch. Furthermore, the open platform concept seems to be in keeping with Google's strategy.
Sony apparently will manufacture the set-top boxes, although I have yet to see a mass-market Sony set-top besides the PlayStation 3.
EDIT: I wrote earlier that, since the announcement of a plug-in TV widget technology with Intel in 2008, a Yahoo-Intel partnership for developing widgets on set-top boxes has been extremely quiet. Yahoo representatives have pointed out that the company has announced partnerships with Vizio, LG, Sony, and Samsung.
Friday, March 12, 2010
It is a fact of the universe that every review of a God of War game is going to have the word "epic" in its opening sentences, and this review is no different. God of War III ($59.99, list, PS3 only) is colossal, bigger-than-life, and redefines the limits of video game scale—it's epic in both plotline and technical prowess. The opening moments of the game have more action and high drama than some other games' climaxes, as the player—controlling the very bald, very pale, and very angry Kratos—rides to conquer Mount Olympus on the back of a nearly-mountain-sized-herself Titan. Massive set pieces like this are the hallmark of the series, and the series' move to next-gen on the PS3 ($399.99 direct, ) allows them to be truly stunning in scope.
The storyline picks up directly where God of War II left off in its cliffhanger climax, following Kratos's quest to kill his father, the god Zeus. Those who haven't played the games leading up to this one will be able to pick up the basic thread of the plot quickly: Kratos is angry at Zeus (possibly the angriest anyone has ever been, judging from the way his voice actor growls and screams), and he will kill anything and everything in his path to get his revenge on Zeus. What's he getting revenge for? He has good reasons, but in the end, they don't really matter; while God of War III's plotline is full of betrayal and famous faces from Greek myth, no one is actually coming to this game for the story—they're playing for the action, and the game does not disappoint in that respect.
Combat is primarily a two-button deal, alternating between light and heavy attacks and performing combinations of the two. On an easier difficulty setting, one can get through the game by gleefully and aimlessly button mashing, but at higher levels, some tactics, like blocking, dodging, and timing your hits, come into play. No matter the difficulty level, combat is brutal and satisfying; Kratos is a one-man army against hordes of enemies, taking them out with the twin blades that swing out from his wrists on chains, with brutal punches from giant stone gloves, and with other weapons and special attacks.
When it comes to larger enemies—the gorgons and centaurs and cyclopses that rise above the more easily-dispatched undead horde—Kratos has the option of dispatching them in violent and gory ways unique to each enemy class, with timed button-presses following prompts that appear onscreen. These minigames get a little repetitive, especially once you've seen the same animation of a minotaur getting a sword rammed into its throat six times, but it's hard to resist going for the gore.
God of War III absolutely earns its Mature rating. It elevates violence almost to an art form; on the way to take down Zeus, Kratos murders his way through other Olympians and stars of myth, each more bloody and shocking than the last. The game is not for the squeamish or those who don't enjoy some simulated violence; when you beat Hercules's head into a nigh-unrecognizable pulp, you have to pound a button for each skull-crushing blow. When blood is not enough, the game offers some nudity, as well. Bare breasts abound (though most of them in the form of less-than-sexy gorgons, harpies, and sirens), and there is a sexual mini-game featuring the goddess Aphrodite. Simply put, God of War III is for adults only in every way.
There isn't much to find flaw with in God of War III. The largest complaint that can be made is that gameplay just hasn't changed much from its previous iterations; some new elements have been added, but the game stays the same at its core. However, when it comes to God of War III, it's a definite case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The game simply works, a basic formula refined over several games. Quicktime events can become a little tiresome or are sometimes out of place (one puzzle involves a Guitar Hero—esque rhythm mini-game), but for the most part they're well-integrated into the flow of action.
In the end, God of War III brings the series to a stunning climax, finally giving PS3 owners a game-based justification for buying their console.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Oscars 2010 Results | Oscar Winners 2010 list – The Hurt Locker won big and garnered a total of 6 Academy Awards, including best picture, in the 82 Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.
The Best Picture went to The Hurt Locker which bested movies such as Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, A Serious Man, Up and Up in the Air.
The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow beat her ex-husband, James Cameron, to the Best Director prize. Mark Boalwon Best Original Screenplay for “The Hurt Locker”.
Jeff Bridges, Sanda Bullock, Christoph Waltz and Mo’Nique won their first Academy award. Bridges won the Best Actor in a Leading Role for his role in Crazy Heart as Otis “Bad” Blake. Bullock won Best Actress in a Leading Role for her role in The Blind Side as Leigh Anne Tuohy. Christoph Waltz won the Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his role in Inglourious Basterds as Col. Hans Landa. Mo’Nique won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her role in Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire as Mary Lee Johnston.
Here are the other Academy Awards given that night:
The American drama film Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire won Best Adapted Screenplay. Up won Best Animated Feature and El Secreto de Sus Ojos (Argentina) won Best Foreign Language Film.
Art Direction – Avatar (Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg- Art Direction; Kim Sinclair- Set Decoration)
Cinematography – Avatar (Mauro Fiore)
Costume Design – The Young Victoria (Sandy Powell)
Documentary Feature – The Cove (Louie Psihoyos and Fisher Stevens)
Documentary Short – Music by Prudence (Roger Ross Williams and Elinor Burkett)
Film Editing – The Hurt Locker (Bob Murawski and Chris Innis)
Makeup – Star Trek (Barney Burman, Mindy Hall and Joel Harlow)
Music (Original Score) – Up (Michael Giacchino)
Music (Original Song) – Crazy Heart (“The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)”; Music and Lyric by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett
Short Film (Animated) – Logorama (Nicolas Schmerkin)
Short Film (Live Action) – The New Tenants (Joachim Back and Tivi Magnusson)
Sound Editing – The Hurt Locker (Paul N.J. Ottosson)
Sound Mixing – The Hurt Locker (Paul N.J. Ottosson and Ray Beckett)
Visual Effects – Avatar (Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones)
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Microsoft kicked off its "Technology Guarantee" program for Office 2010 on Friday, meaning that anyone who buys and activates Office 2007 between now and Sept. 30 will get to upgrade to Office 2010 for free when it's available.
Microsoft also confirmed Friday that Office 2010, SharePoint 2010, Visio 2010, and Project 2010 are "on schedule and will release to manufacturing (RTM) next month."
he business launch for the 2010 set of products is May 12. Consumers will see it hit shelves in June. For now, the beta is available at www.office.com/beta.
To be eligible for the Office 2010 Tech Guarantee program, users must purchase a standalone version of Office 2007 or a new PC with the software between March 5 and Sept. 30. They must also have or create a Windows Live ID and redeem the Tech Guarantee before Oct. 31 by visiting www.office.com/techg.
The upgrade will be distributed through an online download.