'Consumer Bible' Findings On Scams, Scandals, Schemes Can Save Shoppers Big Bucks

IF your car engine makes funny noises after you fill 'er up, consumer advocate Mark Green says you may be getting had at the pump.

Mr. Green found that 1 in 6 gas pumps in New York was dispensing low octane fuel but charging for high octane when he served as the city's consumer-affairs commissioner from 1990 to '93.

Octane fraud is just one of the "scams, scandals, and schemes" Green reveals in his new 64-topic book "The Consumer Bible: 1001 Ways to Shop Smart."

"I love quantifying fraud," the enthusiastic author explains in an interview.

Green says because consumers have more products to choose from in the '90s, they have to "get smart" by shopping around in order to save money. "The biggest consumer sin is sloth," he says.

Combining the results of extensive research he did in the '80s, Green found that "a really brilliant shopper could save up to 20 percent of their spending if they shopped smarter [and] avoided scams."

In "The Consumer Bible," Green discusses gimmicks and fraud he's discovered over the years involving a wide range of products and services including airline tickets, lawn care, mutual funds, and dry cleaning.

He encourages buyers to "be aware" by remembering three golden rules: "compare prices; speak to a friend or family member who's already made a major purchase to learn from them; and, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

Saving money on a daily basis can be as easy as picking generic products over more expensive brand names, he says. "Americans could cut about 15 percent off their grocery bills" by choosing such brands, he writes in his book. Those who tend to shy away from these products, he says, should "experiment once."

For travelers, "The Consumer Bible," written with the help of Glenn von Nostitz, Nancy Youman, and Olivier Sultan, offers a wealth of information, including these tips:

* If you get bumped from an overbooked flight, and you were there 15 minutes ahead of departure time, by law you can get up to $200 from the airline if you arrive at your final destination more than one hour late.

r For a little more elbowroom on a plane, ask for an aisle seat in the center rows. These are the last seats to fill up.

* Senior citizens should take advantage of discounts and special coupons, which most airlines offer.

Green, who has written 14 other books including 1984's "Who Runs Congress?," spent 10 years after law school working for consumer advocate Ralph Nader, another three years as New York's consumer-affairs commissioner, and is currently the city's public advocate, the second-highest elected position in the city next to the mayor.

"Home-improvement contractors are the biggest complaint category I used to get year after year," Green says. He notes that this is a national problem, as well. To avoid being taken by contractors, he says, insist on a contract and don't pay more than one-tenth to one-third of the amount due upfront.

Consumer-law enforcement is on the decline because of "budget and ideological threats," so consumers have to watch out for often subtle scams, Green says.

For instance, he has found supermarket scanners charging the regular and not the advertised sale price of an item. He also cites manufacturers who, over time, "shrink boxes" - put fewer paper towels on a roll or fewer ounces in a bottle - but charge the same price.

The key to combating such deceptive measures is to protest - something too few consumers do. "While surveys have shown that 1 in 4 consumers of a product or service, on average, have a problem with that product or service, only 1 in 25 consumers actually articulate their objection and complain," Green says.

"If you talk back, you can get your money back more often than not," he says.

Green advises that returning to an offending store with a "calm, self-confident, but implicitly threatening request" is a consumer's first course of action. If this proves unsuccessful, Green recommends going to your state's department of consumer affairs or attorney general's office - their clout will often bring results.

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