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Consumer Confidential With David Lazarus
Putting the kibosh on robocalls is easier said than done

Want to know who's to blame for all those annoying robocalls during dinner? Nathan Kingsbury, that's who.

He was the AT&T vice president who signed his name to a 1913 letter pledging that the company would open its network to other phone services. The so-called Kingsbury Commitment settled an antitrust case brought by the federal government and paved the way for the modern phone system.

"Because of Kingsbury, we were able to have more than one phone company," said Eric Burger, a computer science professor and director of Georgetown University's Center for Secure Communications.

"That's a good thing," he said. "But also because of him, AT&T and Verizon are required by law to deliver any call that reaches their networks."

That's one reason robocalls keep getting through. Another is that, thanks to technology that can trick caller ID systems, telemarketers and scammers keep finding sneaky ways to get past your defenses.

The head of the Federal Communications Commission last week proposed ...

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Better broadband at better prices? Welcome to Charter CEO's fantasy

To hear the chief executive of Charter Communications tell it, his company's acquisition of Time Warner Cable will mean a better broadband experience for all.

"We'll offer consumers a broadband product that makes watching online video, gaming and engaging in other data-hungry applications a great experience, including at peak times," Tom Rutledge said after the planned merger was announced Tuesday.

In short, he said, consumers can look forward to "better products at better prices."

As best as I can tell, he wasn't trying to be funny.

"When it comes to cable consolidation, history teaches us to be very concerned about the benefits for consumers," said Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union. "Prices for cable and broadband continue to go up, and customer service is dismal."

Oxnard resident Barclay Totten has similar concerns that highlight some consumers' questions about the broadband market.

He received an offer from Time Warner Cable recently to more than double his broadband...

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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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