Consumer Confidential With David Lazarus
Tipping: Time to do away with an archaic custom

Dave writes in with a relatively common query about tipping:

"I always tip at a restaurant or bar on the amount before tax," he says. "Someone said it should be on the after-tax amount. What's the norm?"

The norm has been, and remains, to tip on the pretax amount. But this is a tricky business.

ASK LAZ: Smart answers to consumer questions

Many restaurant owners will tell you that customers now routinely tip on the post-tax amount to help servers get by.

Then there's the question of how much to tip. The standard these days runs between 15% and 25%, with 30% tips offered for exceptional service.

Is this the best way to do things? The economic rationale for tipping is that service will be better if a worker has a financial incentive to perform well.

The reality, of course, if that because tipping has been largely institutionalized by the dining and hospitality industries, it no longer reflects service received and is instead a customary gesture on the part of customers.

2008 study by researchers...

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An odd-looking traffic citation, but it shouldn't be ignored

It was good news for California drivers when the state Supreme Court moved last week to end a requirement that people pay traffic tickets before being allowed to contest them.

But what if a ticket goes out of its way to seem as if it can be safely ignored?

What if it includes fine print saying the citation wasn't issued "for any violation of any provision of the California Vehicle Code"?

And what if the ticket specifies that failure to pay the $100 fine won't be included on your driving record and won't be reported to your insurer?

"The first thing I thought was 'What the heck is this?'" said Northridge resident Dan Duehren, who received just such a ticket in February from something called the Mountains and Recreation Conservation Authority, an entity he'd never heard of.

"It looked like a scam," he said. "There's no way I was going to send them money."

It's easy to see why Duehren, 67, and numerous others who have posted similar experiences online would conclude they're being duped. Think...

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What are the odds of winning the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes?

Mimi says she's been receiving mail from Publishers Clearing House for years "and never found a logical reason" to take the bait.

Now she's wondering what's the harm in giving it a go.

OK, Mimi, fair question. After all, when the letter says "you may already be a winner," or words to that effect, it's hard not to think there's a pile of money out there with your name on it.

ASK LAZ: Smart answers to consumer questions

First of all, be careful. That letter or check purportedly from Publishers Clearing House may really be from a scammer.

As the company says: "If someone contacts you claiming to be from PCH, and tells you that you’ve won a prize award -- then asks you to send a payment or money card in order to claim the prize -- stop! You have not heard from the real PCH."

Are the prizes real? Apparently. Publishers Clearing House says it's awarded more than $223 million in prizes since the promotional sweepstakes began in 1967.

The company also says you don't have to buy any of the magazine...

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How the rich sometimes end up poor

Celebrities — they're just like us. Or so the gossip magazines say.

I'll attest to this much: The rich and famous can have as hard a time protecting their money as everyone else. Just ask Kevin Bacon, erstwhile client of Ponzi-scheme con artist Bernie Madoff.

"Most people, unfortunately, are predisposed to spend more than they have," said Peter Mainstain, a Westwood business manager whose clients include actors and athletes.

"When you're young and you're new to money, there are a lot of hands out," he said. "It's easy to get caught up in it."

Take the case of former Los Angeles Clippers forward Craig Smith, who says he was bilked out of more than $2 million. Smith, 31, told me he knew very little about managing money when he first came into serious coin.

"Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn't know what a million dollars looked like," he said. "You hear about all this stuff, but in real life it's different."

The 6-foot-7 Smith was raised in Inglewood and was a standout at Fairfax High School....

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Debt collection: How long before you can't be sued?

Betty says an old bank loan was turned over to debt collectors in 2010 and that they're still coming after her.

"Can they sue me if I refuse to pay them anymore?" she asks.

The answer is no.

ASK LAZ: Smart answers to consumer questions

Each state has a statute of limitations for the period in which you can be sued for outstanding debt.

After that time has passed, a debt collector can still try to squeeze money out of you, but he or she can't take you to court.

In California, the limit is four years for most debt. So if your debt dates back to 2010, Betty, you're now out of the red zone. For oral contracts, the statute of limitations is two years.

Politely inform the collector that you're aware the statute of limitations has expired. In most cases, the collector will close the book on your case.

This is important for all consumers to keep in mind. Debt collectors often count on people not knowing their rights, and they will keep insisting on some payment, even for a fraction of the total...

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Is organic food worth the higher price? Many experts say no

Kristin DiMarco was heading into a Trader Joe's in West Los Angeles the other day and knew for sure what she wouldn't be buying: anything organic.

"I just feel like I've already built up an immunity to anything that might be in my food," the 26-year-old told me.

Besides, she said, why would she want to pay a markup that can run double or triple the cost of conventional food?

"I don't think there's a big-enough difference in quality to justify those prices," DiMarco said.

She's not alone. The market research firm Mintel released a study last week showing that younger consumers — the fickle Gen X and millennial crowds — are decidedly cynical about the high prices charged for organic goods.

Only about 40% of Gen Xers believe that organic is organic, Mintel found. And about half of all consumers think labeling something organic is just an excuse to charge more.

"Consumers are increasingly hard-pressed to justify the added expense," said Billy Roberts, Mintel's senior food and drink analyst....

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