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My bank did what?! Take control of your money

In his book "1,001 Things They Won't Tell You," SmartMoney's Jonathan Dahl outlines exactly what you don't know, but need to, in order to become a savvier and smarter consumer.
/ Source: TODAY books

Has your bank told you that when you access your account information online, it may not be accurate? Has your pharmacist told you that your private records aren't all that private? In his book "1,001 Things They Won't Tell You," SmartMoney's Jonathan Dahl outlines exactly what you don't know, but need to, in order to become a savvier and smarter consumer. An excerpt.

Your bank

  • "We change our interest rates all the time" Regardless of what your credit card agreement says, you can never be sure how much interest banks will charge you. For example, nearly all cards have a default rate — as high as 30% — which banks apply when you've done something wrong, usually after two late payments in 12 months. But some banks have cut that to one, says Curtis Arnold, founder of

    Banks can also change the terms of your agreement, raising rates when they like (though you can opt out and pay off the balance at the old rate as long as you never use the card again). Bank of America did that recently, upping many cardholders' rates from 10-12% or 27% or more, even though they'd done nothing wrong.

  • "Your online account info isn't necessarily accurate"Online banking has changed the way people handle their finances. They can pay bills online , transfer funds, track payments, and get a more detailed view of their bank account than ever before. Unfortunately, it may not always show the proper balance. With electronic transactions, ATMs, check cards, and direct deposits, banking has gotten more complicated.

    ATMs and online bank statements will show deposits available before the money is actually in your account. Using your debit card at a gas station or to reserve a hotel room, for example, can put a hold on funds. Merchants may be slow to send in charges. And banks can sit on deposits- an out-of-state check may take up to five days to clear.

    Add to that the constant reordering of debits and your account balance can quickly become a moving target-hard to track accurately day to day.

Credit card companies

  • "We close early on payment due dates"Card statements are crystal clear about what day your payment is due, but they're not so forthcoming about what time on the due date. Some banks have triggered consumer complaints by setting a 9 a.m. deadline on the posted payment date  — essentially before the mail arrives.

Real estate broker

  • "My fees are negotiable"Brokers like to make it sound as if their fees are engraved in stone, but that's rarely the case. During the housing bubble, for example, as the number of brokers sharply increased, so did the competition for listings - one broker says he lowered his fee by a full percentage point just to give himself an edge. But even in the wake of the recent crash, you have a good chance of negotiating a better deal — that same surplus of brokers is still out there competing for even fewer listings, giving you something of a leg up.

    The broker we spoke with, who asked not to be named, says that sellers should always shop around for better terms and has some suggestions for the best conditions to induce brokers to lower their fees. "If somebody's willing to commit to me for selling on place and buying another," or "if you're in a particularly desirable neighborhood with a house that will bring a lot of traffic" for an open house. And with a lot of smaller brokers, he says, "all you need to do is ask and they'll lower their commission.

Your home insurer

Moving companies

  • "Someone will deliver your stuff — it just might not be us"Now is an especially important time to be careful about this notoriously bad industry, because it handles 55 percent of its business during the summer months. Moving companies like to contract out work, so one couple watched as one firm packed their stuff and a totally new one showed up at the other end.

    Half their belongings were missing — after all, how would the second company know what was packed? Always get three written estimates, avoid large down payments and don't pay more than 10 percent above the estimate.

    Beware: In the hectic summer months, a move might get so busy that it asks another company to help out with a job. That's fine but the consumer should be notified in advance of the deal. A spokesperson for the American Moving and Storage Association says, to show up at your house with no prior arrangements, that is totally unacceptable.


  • "Everything is negotiable, including your bill"When it comes to getting paid, hospitals have their work cut out for them. Medical bills are a major cause of bankruptcy in the U.S., and when collectors are put on the case, they take up to 25% of what is reclaimed, according to Mark Friedman, founder of billing consultant Premium Healthcare Services. That leaves room for some bargaining.


  • "Your private records aren't all that private"While the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), first enacted by congress in 1996, has helped to better protect patients' privacy over the years by ushering in a host of confidentiality laws, there are still some ways that information about your health and medication history can get get disseminated without your knowledge. For example, drug companies are still paying pharmacists to access customers' personal information to consumer marketing so that they can send out refill reminders or information about a new drug brand to patients.

    But as the medical profession goes digital — with doctors' sending prescriptions electronically to pharmacists and the use of information exchange networks, which allow doctors, pharmacists, and even nursing homes to access patients' electronic medical records — industry experts are worried that HIPPA may have some troubling loopholes. "The HIPPA privacy rule was written at a time when we weren't aggressively moving towards a networked health care system, so we have to review that law and strengthen that law to protect consumer privacy," says Leslie Harris, president of the Washington DC based Center for Democracy and Technology.