Consumer Confidential With David Lazarus
It's Better Sleep Month. Good luck with that

May is Better Sleep Month, as if you didn't know.

Better Sleep Month is promoted by the Better Sleep Council, which is an arm of the International Sleep Products Assn., which is a mouthpiece for the mattress industry.

But don't let all those corporate connections put you off. Getting a decent night's sleep is very important -- and increasingly difficult to accomplish in today's distraction-laden world (squirrel!).

Sleep deprivation has become so prevalent that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it a public health epidemic.

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More than a quarter of the U.S. population isn't getting enough sleep, while nearly 10% experience chronic insomnia, the CDC says. "Getting sufficient sleep is not a luxury -- it is a necessity," the agency says.

What can you do?

Researchers know the answers to that. But it means showing a little discipline and putting the darn electronic devices away.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the first thing people...

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Verizon-ESPN dispute may pave way for a la carte pay-TV programming

There's a reason ESPN sicced its lawyers on Verizon this week, shattering any pretense of being part of a big, happy pay-TV family.

Verizon's new Custom TV bundles of channels — which break off ESPN and other sports channels into a separate package — could signal the end of a business model that cable networks love and consumers detest.

The stakes couldn't be higher.

If Disney-owned ESPN prevails in court, it will ensure that the expensive sports channel will continue to be forced on subscribers who don't want it. ESPN accounts for an estimated $7 of monthly bills, more than any other channel that isn't purchased separately.

If Verizon wins, it will open the door for other pay-TV companies to break up conventional programming bundles and give consumers more freedom to choose channels.

"This is a potentially watershed event," said Rich Greenfield, a media analyst with BTIG in New York.

No one disputes that the pay-TV industry is undergoing radical change.

Like publishing, music and other...

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AT&T stumbles in helping customer with $24,000 phone bill

It wasn't what Ron Dorff said. It was how he said it.

The 83-year-old Woodland Hills resident wanted to let me know he was having problems with his phone company, AT&T.

I get calls like this every day. But Dorff's desperation was clear. I could hear it in his voice.

"It's the bill," he explained. "The company says I have to pay it. I can't pay this bill."

I asked how much it was for.

"Twenty-four thousand dollars," Dorff replied.

Clearly something screwy was going on.

Such screwiness isn't confined to phone companies. Many large businesses and utilities see billing as a one-way street, with customers responsible for whatever is printed on the statement.

The reality is that businesses also are accountable. They have a responsibility to ensure that customers are protected from egregious or unwarranted charges.

I don't care if Dorff was making daily calls to the International Space Station. The simple fact is that AT&T allowed a customer's bill to become so over the top as to be laughable.

...

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Bank's offer of 'free' insurance is dubious way to appreciate customers

Sally Hwang recently spotted a payment of $8.10 on her checking account statement for accidental death and dismemberment insurance. Problem was, she had no recollection of signing up for such coverage.

Worse, it appeared the Glendale resident had been making the payment every quarter for possibly years.

"At first, I thought it was identity theft," Hwang, 47, told me. "But it didn't seem like I'd been compromised. So then I assumed it was a scam."

Those are both good guesses, and I encourage everyone to keep a close watch on their checking and credit card statements for just these reasons.

A little digging revealed that what happened to Hwang was more complicated.

First, let's look at the unholy alliance that the banking and the insurance industries have created to sell accidental death and dismemberment coverage to millions of people.

"The Internet highway is littered with consumer complaints about unauthorized deductions for AD&D policies people didn't remember requesting and didn't know...

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Fresh Produce: Will a bankrupt business honor gift cards?

A reader asks about gift cards for the clothing retailer Fresh Produce, which has filed for bankruptcy protection.

If the company goes down the Chapter 11 rabbit hole, are the gift cards still good?

I get asked this question a lot -- pretty much any time a well-known company goes bankrupt. What happens to gift cards that customers still hold?

Short answer: It depends.

Under a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, as Fresh Produce is pursuing, a business reorganizes its financial obligations. The intent is to stay open and to continue serving customers.

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Most of the time, such companies continue honoring gift cards. And even if they choose not to, a bankruptcy court might still rule that gift cards remain good.

A Chapter 7 bankruptcy is different. In that case, a company is going out of business and is liquidating its remaining assets to pay off creditors.

Outstanding gift cards almost always become worthless under a Chapter 7 filing. At best, cardholders...

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Federal data-breach bill would replace dozens of stronger state laws

It's called the Data Security and Breach Notification Act of 2015, and, if passed into law, it would be the first federal rule requiring businesses to let consumers know that their personal information may be in the hands of hackers.

Sounds good, right?

It's not.

Dozens of states, including California, already have similar laws on the books that are stronger and more comprehensive than the proposed federal law. But the federal law would preempt all state laws.

The bill would eliminate existing data-breach protections for pay-TV and Internet customers. Right now, for example, people must be notified if there's any unauthorized access to information on shows or channels watched.

The bill also would require notifications only in instances of financial harm, rather than the broader requirements of many states, such as violations of personal privacy in the form of hacked emails or corporate databases.

"California has some of the strongest laws in the country protecting consumers from identity...

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