MONEY Smart Shopping

3 Tricks to Help You Snag the Best Deals Online

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Claire Benoist

New 'dynamic pricing' models make it tougher to find bargains online, unless you know how to beat the system. Use these strategies to beat back price bots.

There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of shopping for a product online and discovering that one site sells the item for 20% less. But perhaps you’ve noticed that snagging that kind of deal isn’t as easy as it once was?

Increasingly, online retailers are employing complex pricing algorithms that take into account factors like an item’s popularity and what competitors are charging for it. Sometimes the systems also factor in data about you—such as where you live, when you shop, how often you’ve visited the site, and what you’ve bought in the past.

The result? You might see prices for an item fluctuate by 15% to 20% in a short period, says Rafi Mohammed, author of The 1% Windfall: How Successful Companies Use Price to Profit and Grow. And the amount you’re charged could very well be different from what your friend will pay.

So-called dynamic pricing has long been used by airlines and hotel chains, which index prices to supply. But now both dynamic and differential pricing (based on who’s buying) are becoming “extremely common” in all aspects of online shopping, says Columbia Business School professor Robert Phillips. Amazon, BestBuy.com, and Walmart.com are among the e-tailers that cop to using these tactics. Beat back price bots with these tricks:

Be a secret shopper

If a retailer knows what you tend to buy and when, it can use that info to jack up the price on items you’re likely to pay more for, says Christopher Elliott, author of Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals. So you generally want to tell merchants as little about yourself as possible.

Most of what sellers know about you comes from “cookies,” small files sent to your browser by each site you visit. These relay info about your habits to other sites you surf.

You could delete your browser’s cookies—“clear browsing history” in the settings menu—before you shop. But this may erase info that could help you in the pricing wars (a shoe e-tailer, for example, may market better deals to someone who often shops at Zappos).

So first try opening a “private” window on Firefox or an “incognito” window on Chrome or turn on “private browsing” in Safari, all of which let you surf without saving cookies. That way, you can compare the prices a retailer offers when it doesn’t know who you are with those it offers when it does.

Also, use multiple browsers or devices. “A different IP address can turn up a different price, even if you’ve cleared cookies,” says shopping expert Andrea Woroch. Digital Folio, a real-time pricing site now known as Cartbound, offers a demo on YouTube: A site rep pastes the URL of a TV costing $199 at Walmart.com on Firefox into Chrome—where it’s priced at $168.

Play hard to get

“Customers who are loyal are the least price sensitive, so it makes sense to charge them more,” says Phillips.

Hesitating on a purchase shows your willingness to go elsewhere and may get a retailer to sweeten the pot. Web research firm Baymard Institute found that 68% of online shopping carts are abandoned after initial click-throughs. Retailers are desperate to convert those carts into sales, so in many cases they’ll offer a better deal to get you to buy, says Phillips.

Coupon site Rather-be-shopping.com found 17 well-known retailers (including Bed, Bath & Beyond, Macy’s, and Williams-Sonoma) that offered coupons (ranging from 20% off to free shipping) to customers who left their carts.

Don’t want to pay full price on those towels from Pottery Barn? Log in to your Pottery Barn account and put them in your cart. Within a few days, you may get an email offering them at a lower price.

Arm yourself

There are a few tools you can use to benefit from price fluctuations.

Camelcamelcamel.com, for example, lets you create price watches on Amazon products. (See the chart below for an example of how dramatic price fluctuations can be over a 30-day period.) You are alerted to changes and can browse products with the biggest price drops.

Another smart tool is InvisibleHand, a browser extension you can install on Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. Whenever you land on a page selling a product, it automatically searches the web for the lowest prices on the item.

These tools can help you stay a step ahead of the retailer, says Woroch. “It’s not always easy, but you can save a lot of money in the long run.”

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MONEY family money

How to Talk to Your Aging Parents About Money

Are bills piling up on Mom’s kitchen table? Are you worried Dad might fall prey to a scam?

Time to discuss if they need help with their finances. Proceed carefully because they may not see things as you do: A 2012 Fidelity study found that while 24% of adult children think their parents will need a hand with money, 97% of the parents do not.

“Conversations about money with your elderly parents are really about control — something they don’t want to lose,” says David Solie, author of How to Say It to Seniors. Try these tips.

THE GROUND RULES

Drop the attitude. An I-know-better air will put their backs up. Take care your concern doesn’t come across as if you think their intelligence is diminished, says Solie.

Avoid saying “you should…” Those two little words are sure to put them on the defensive.

Bring in a third party. To your mom and dad, you will always be a kid — which is why the talk may go better if you deliver it alongside an outside expert, says Paula Span, author of When the Time Comes.

WHEN YOU’RE FACE TO FACE…

1. Opening gambit. “Mom, I just read an article with great tips about how to simplify managing your money as you get older. Can I share a few of them?”

The strategy: “Bring yourself into the equation as a helper, not an overseer,” Span says. Framing the advice as someone else’s ideas may make your parents more open to accepting them.

2. Dangle a carrot. “I think we can save you some money on your cable bill, Dad. How about we take a look?”

The strategy: Suggest a small, concrete action with a clear payoff to start. An Allianz survey reveals that 61% of older Americans worry about outliving their money, so helping your parents cut costs is a good first move.

Seeing how beneficial your suggestions can be is likely to make them more receptive to other, more serious forms of help.

3. Keep your warnings indirect. “I know you’re too smart for this, but I want to tell you about this scam I heard about so you can warn your friends.”

The strategy: Being straightforward — “Mom, Dad, you need to watch out for people who ask for your bank account online” — may feel patronizing to your parents. Instead, plant a seed that doesn’t reflect on their competence to manage their affairs, says Colorado elder-law attorney Catherine Seal.

4. Ask if you can tag along. “My friend’s dad keeps getting invited to free-lunch retirement seminars. Do you? I’d love to go if you go.”

The strategy: Instead of trying to put the kibosh on a move you know is not smart, stand beside them during the sales pitch, suggests Kim Linder, a caregiver consultant. Then ask tough questions that will push your parents to think before they leap.

5. Use metaphors. “You wouldn’t buy a used car without a mechanic checking under the hood. Same goes for your investments. Let’s have a financial adviser look into this.”

The strategy: “In the second half of life, the right brain becomes the gatekeeper for information,” says Solie. “We respond better to stories and metaphors — the stuff that gives meaning to facts and linear data.”

MONEY family money

How to Ask a Pal or Relative to Pay You Back

As far as unpleasant tasks go, asking a relative or friend to repay a loan ranks up there with getting your wisdom teeth pulled or spending a weekend alone with your in-laws.

The best way to avoid this awkward conversation?

“Don’t lend money to friends in the first place,” says Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute. Of course, that advice isn’t going to help if you’ve already ponied up the cash. Here’s what will.

THE GROUND RULES

Talk in person. Don’t text, email, or call; faceless communications are too easily misread. Instead, invite your friend or family member to chat over coffee or a beer so the atmosphere is more relaxed, says Randy Cohen, author of Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.

Let the relationship guide you. Decide what’s more important: getting your money back or staying on good terms with the borrower. If you care more about the person than the cash and you’re in a position to do so, you may be better off forgiving the debt.

YOUR BEST APPROACH

1. Opening gambit. “I was happy to lend you the money when you needed it. That’s what friends do.”

The strategy: You’re gently reminding your pal that you came through when he or she was in trouble.

“Putting it this way shows you sympathize with your friend,” says Cohen. “Chances are, the person feels bad about not paying you back. An understanding tone decreases your chances of a hostile response.”

2. Be direct. “When do you think you will be able to pay back the $500 I lent you?”

The strategy: Hinting will get you nowhere, says Philip Galanes, author of Social Q’s: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries, and Quagmires of Today, because the person may misunderstand (perhaps willfully) what you’re asking.

Like ripping off a Band-Aid, the process will be less painful if you do it quickly and directly.

Start off nicely; getting angry is more likely to result in the borrower pushing back than if you stay calm.

“There’s no sense in starting Defcon 3,” Galanes says.

3. Add urgency, as needed. “We’re going to get hit with some really big tuition bills soon and could really use that money.”

The strategy: Of course, you don’t need to justify asking for your money back, but it can be helpful to cite a pressing reason — as long as it’s true.

“Evoking a specific thing makes repayment seem more like a necessity than simply an option,” says Cohen.

4. Provide a deadline. “I’d really like to get the money back before the end of June.”

The strategy: Specifying a schedule for payback is crucial. Otherwise, the loan may hang out there indefinitely, even if the borrower has given lip service to paying you back — and you’ll just have to revisit the conversation at a later date.

5. Offer flexibility. “Would it be easier for you to pay me back over time, say, $100 a month?”

The strategy: If the borrower pushes back or you know he will have a tough time coming up with the cash, etiquette expert Cynthia Lett suggests breaking repayment into smaller chunks or reaching another compromise.

After all, you must really care about this person; otherwise, you would never have lent him the money.

MONEY

When Putting a Loved One to Rest, Avoid These Misleading Sales Tactics

Laying a loved one to rest typically costs $10,000 or more -- making it one of the biggest expenses families face. Photo: mauricio alejo

Laying a loved one to rest typically costs $10,000 or more -- sometimes much more. As this Money investigation reveals, that's due in part to tactics some in the funeral industry use to manipulate you into overspending. Here's what you need to know.

When Guillermo and Norma Oropeza bought caskets and burial plots from a Florida funeral home and cemetery in 1992, they thought their advance planning would someday save their family money and stress.

Just before Guillermo, a retired print-shop owner, died in 2010 at age 71, the funeral home told Norma that on top of the $6,800 already paid, she would owe $5,000 for services ranging from prepping the body to digging the grave. Norma, by then living on a modest fixed income, didn’t have that kind of cash to spare.

So the family switched to a nearby home that said it would charge $2,000 less and opted to bury Guillermo, a veteran, in a military cemetery at no charge (they figured they’d sell the other burial plots and caskets later).

That didn’t end the Oropezas’ stress. Told that state law didn’t allow the family to move the body — not true, as it turned out — Norma was charged $300 to transport Guillermo to the new facility.

Her daughter, Cathy Kurtinitis, says they were pressed to accept add-ons, from a viewing (they had wanted to hold the visitation at home) to printed programs and a memorial web page.

She bought a casket online, only to be told the funeral home wouldn’t handle it. “Instead of helping our family,” says Kurtinitis, “we felt they were just trying to suck money out of us.”

At a typical price of $10,000 or more for a traditional funeral and burial, making final arrangements for a deceased relative is one of the biggest expenses families face.

All too often, unwary funeral shoppers also meet with aggressive or misleading sales tactics from providers that can add substantially to the bill.

“A significant expense, a vulnerable time, a real problem comparison shopping, which is the key to any good purchase — it’s the perfect storm,” says New York City consumer affairs commissioner Jonathan Mintz.

That some providers in the $17 billion death-care industry, as the government calls it, might take advantage of emotionally wrought customers isn’t news.

In the 1963 bestseller “The American Way of Death,” journalist Jessica Mitford was among the first to expose predatory practices in the funeral and cemetery business. Her work helped lead to the 1984 passage of regulations designed to curb abuses. Called the Funeral Rule, the regulations are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.

Yet a three-month investigation by MONEY has found that consumers still face many of the old hazards — with new twists, as the industry faces revenue pressure caused by a growth in less expensive cremations.

The FTC’s spot check of funeral homes last year found nearly one in four had serious violations of the Funeral Rule, involving their failure to properly disclose prices. Misleading buyers about federal and state law is another common problem. And consumer advocates say grieving families encounter many of the same issues with cemeteries.

Industry training tools obtained by MONEY reveal funeral pros sharing tips on how to hook grieving families into going over their budgets and to divert them from buying cheaper merchandise elsewhere.

And the magazine’s survey of regulators in 48 states shows that financial disputes are growing over pre-need contracts, which allow you to buy funeral arrangements ahead of time and are now one of the top sources of complaints about the death-care industry.

Related: The painful new trend in Medicare

Patrick Lynch, past president of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), says, “The horror stories are exceptions.” And indeed, many funeral directors are compassionate helpers who follow the rules. Still, one in four is a tough stat. You don’t want your provider to be more eager to line his pockets than to smooth the process for you.

In this story — the first in a three-part series looking at the financial challenges of end-of-life care — you’ll learn about the troublesome tactics you may come up against and the best strategies to counter them. This much is sure: You should be able to lay a loved one to rest in a way that honors his or her memory without paying more than is comfortable for you. And don’t let anyone in the funeral business convince you otherwise.

Next month: Money will feature Part Two in the series, “In Search of a Better End,” about managing the costs of end-of-life care for a terminally ill loved one; and Part Three, “Looking Beyond,” a profile of a man dealing with Lou Gehrig’s disease and planning for his wife’s financial future without him.

Funeral homes: Know your rights

It’s the Funeral Rule’s most basic requirement: Provide cost information over the phone and an itemized price list in person so that consumers can pick the specific goods and services they want and compare costs.

That’s important given the wide disparity in funeral-home prices, even in the same area. An analysis of 10 major cities by Everest, a funeral-planning service, found that the difference in cost for a traditional funeral between the least and most expensive establishments within five miles of each other averages 164%. (See chart on the first page)

Yet a surprising number of funeral homes still fail to follow the rules — 27% of the 507 locations visited by the FTC in the past four years, up from an average noncompliance rate of 13% over the four years prior.

In New York City, one of the few cities or states with their own regs, 30% of facilities visited earlier this year did not have readily accessible price lists.

And when a city investigator, posing as the daughter-in-law of a terminally ill man, phoned funeral homes for pricing, 60% didn’t provide it, as required by New York City law. “Stunning,” says consumer affairs head Mintz. (The violators paid fines.)

The Funeral Rule also gives you the right to buy only the specific goods and services you want. Many families complain, though, that funeral directors pressure them to buy a package, says Lisa Carlson, executive director of the Funeral Ethics Organization, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“Often these packages include a lot of stuff you don’t need, as a way to get you to pay more,” she says. Extras such as grief counseling, digital tributes, and expensive floral displays can easily ratchet up the price.

A common tactic in selling such bundles, says Ed Markin, author of “An Affordable Funeral” is to present three price points. “Most people don’t want to be considered cheap or overly extravagant,” he says, so funeral directors know the family will typically choose the middle option and price accordingly.

Related: Senior victims lose big money to financial abuses

And while federal law requires the price list to be presented to the customer, Carlson says it’s not uncommon for it to be included within a jumble of other package pricing in an effort to “confuse the consumer with too much information.”

Scott Gilligan, general counsel of the NFDA, says that more choice is not meant to confuse the customer, and often packages are offered at a discount. “It’s the same thing that McDonald’s does on its value menu,” he says.

A funeral home may also imply that state or local law requires a particular service, such as embalming, according to consumer advocates. The truth is most states almost never require embalming, and if a body does need to be preserved, refrigeration is just as effective, says Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Because embalming brings in nearly $700 on average (and as much as $3,000), however, a funeral director might just forget to enlighten you about the facts, says Slocum.

Dan Rohling, a consumer advocate and former cemetery investigator from California, says homes are under pressure “to squeeze as much profit from every customer they can.”

With 43% of funeral shoppers now choosing cremation over traditional burial, vs. just 26% in 2000, the profit per sale earned by independent funeral homes — the vast majority of the business — has fallen 27% in the past 10 years, the Federated Funeral Directors of America reports. Exacerbating the crunch: The industry has high fixed costs, including for embalming rooms, which are required by 37 states.

Related: Seniors: Beware the sales pitch

Financial pressures are also one reason the FTC has filed so few lawsuits against violators of the Funeral Rule — only six enforcement actions have been taken in the past 12 years. With limited resources to pursue costly litigation, the agency instead mostly diverts offenders into a three-year program that provides ongoing training and monitoring for compliance; they also pay fines (average: $6,000 per violator).

Given the scope of the problem relative to identity theft and other consumer complaints, “we are absolutely doing enough,” says Roberto Anguizola, assistant director of the FTC’s marketing-practices division.

Consumer advocate Slocum says since the FTC doesn’t release the names of offending funeral homes or details about the violations, the agency’s effectiveness is hard to judge.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

Check prices at three homes, minimum. Four out of five consumers don’t shop around when planning a funeral, AARP reports. Don’t feel pressured to go with the first place you see or the one everyone you know used; you can compare costs by phone or online in less than a day.

Ask about both the mandatory basic-services fee, which covers the time and overhead of the funeral director and staff, and itemized charges for the additional services you select.

Get help with the search. If collecting multiple quotes feels too daunting, try efuneral.com or Everest’s Price-Finder tool, good for pricing up to eight homes in your area ($29, everestfuneral.com).

You can also sometimes get discounted rates through your local branch of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (funerals.org).

Beating the high cost of caskets

With average prices ranging from $2,400 (for steel) to $3,500 (wood) and some copper and bronze models going for $10,000 or more, the casket is usually the most expensive item in a funeral.

The good news: Discount suppliers are growing in number, from independent online sellers to retailers like Costco and Wal-Mart, where coffins often go for less than half the price of comparable ones sold by funeral homes.

The bad news: Funeral homes don’t make it easy for you to take your casket business elsewhere.

In some cases, funeral directors may refuse to accept outside merchandise or charge a handling fee, which violates the Funeral Rule. The practice resulted in one of the three enforcement actions by the FTC this year: In June, Andrew Torregrossa & Sons Funeral Home in Brooklyn agreed to pay $32,000 to settle charges that it had refused services to two families (one was an FTC secret shopper) unless they bought a casket in-house.

Owner Andrew Torregrossa called the incidents “unfortunate” and declined further comment.

Related: The worst investing mistake

In the February issue of the trade publication Funeral Services Insider, funeral directors anonymously shared other tactics for handling customers who want to buy merchandise elsewhere. Several suggested raising the basic-services fee to offset lower merchandise revenue. Another favored disparaging the quality of outside vendors by saying, “Go ahead. But we are offering American-made products and not Chinese-made.”

The publication also recommended buying caskets from firms that create private labels: “It will have a different model number, and the family won’t know it’s the exact same option available at another firm.”

Choosing cremation won’t inure you to the casket push. A growing number of funeral homes offer casket rentals, usually for $800 or so, to view the body and expensive urns and containers for the remains.

Some also encourage buying a casket outright for the cremation, even though a cardboard box is sufficient.

Directors may try to get around that with questions that imply going without a casket is less than savory, says Markin. “They might say, ‘Would you like a chance to say goodbye?’ When the grieving party agrees, the funeral director might say, ‘Well, you don’t want to see your mom laid out in a cardboard box.’ Suddenly you’re back to buying a coffin.”

Related: Watchdogs for health care

Gary Runes, a retired dentist from Tiburon, Calif., experienced this while making arrangements for his aunt’s cremation in 2007. She had prepaid the cremation fees, but the funeral director “assumed we would buy a coffin to put her in,” says Runes. “At first, that was the only option offered. I had to ask if there was a plan B — and only then was I told a cardboard box was all that was required, and it was already covered in the cost of the cremation.”

Runes says he was also pitched other products, such as amulets and special urns for “safeguarding” the ashes. Slocum says it’s not uncommon to receive cremated remains in a box or a bag marked “temporary container” to get you to buy a pricey urn.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

Look outside the home. Check out retailers like Costco.com, whose bestselling casket goes for $950, including shipping. Another direct supplier with a wide selection, BestPrice Caskets.com, has free ground shipping. Most caskets can be delivered within a day.

Ask for more options. Casket shoppers generally buy one of the first three models they’re shown. Press for more choices and ask to see a catalogue, says Markin. Also request 20-gauge steel, not 18-gauge, which is thicker and costs $700 to $1,000 more. Markin says, “Both are suitable, and no one would know the difference.”

High-pressure funeral sales tactics

“Upselling Without Upsetting the Client” is one of the continuing-education courses approved by 27 state boards for funeral directors to maintain their licenses.

The online class, which a MONEY writer signed up for, advises funeral directors about techniques to persuade customers to buy more than they need. The sweet spot for going above a client’s budget: 20%.

The course instructor encourages funeral directors to ask about the family’s budget, then say, “We are going to stay as close to that number as possible” — conditioning customers to think prices will stay within reason. Then directors are urged to use phrases like, “We might go a little over your budget, but this particular add-on will go perfectly.”

Lynch, the former NFDA president, calls the title of the course “tacky and inappropriate” and says he’s not familiar with its content. But in general he says upselling is not the norm. “The service we render for folks is far more important than the stuff we sell them,” he says. “If we treat people properly, the sales will take care of themselves.”

And yet many homes do offer a slew of extras: memorial videos and websites, fancy vehicles for the funeral procession, keepsake jewelry (say, a pendant that holds ashes), even a white-dove release for the memorial service (six birds with music might run $200).

“It’s not unethical; it’s just business,” says funeral director Joe Kalmer, a 23-year industry veteran, who left a traditional facility in 2009 to open a discount home. (He keeps prices down by lowering overhead — he has a single van, not a fleet, to transport bodies, and doesn’t store a supply of caskets.)

Special services that add to the cost of cremations are becoming more common too.

In a July webinar offered by the NFDA, consultant David Nixon suggested offering “private time to say goodbye with the body, or making up a body that hadn’t been embalmed with cosmetics to create a better memory picture.” In an interview, Nixon said funeral directors’ experience and training justifies extra fees for these services: “We’re providing added value that helps make a loved one’s passing a little easier.”

Related: Funeral cost-cutting boosts cremations

Not everyone sees it that way. Max Miller, a technology consultant from Los Angeles, was put off by the pressure he says he faced to buy add-ons when his father died at 65 two years ago.

The family wanted a simple cremation and memorial. After being quoted $1,300 over the phone by one funeral home, Miller went with his wife and mother to finalize the arrangements. Once there, they were pitched a decorative box for the remains, a memorial video, and elaborate decorations.

“They insisted we buy a mandatory package with a floor of $2,600, even though we didn’t need the components,” says Miller. His family left, later finding a direct cremation service that charged a flat $895 fee.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

Detail your wishes now. After planning funerals for his mother and two aunts, California dentist Runes and his wife created an end-of-life document spelling out how they want their deaths handled for their two daughters. Knowing what you want ahead of time helps loved ones avoid being upsold later, says Gail Rubin, author of “A Good Goodbye.”

Bring a wingman. A friend who’s less invested can help you make decisions with a clearer head, says Brian O’Laughlin, a Kansas City, Mo., funeral planner.

Shop with a list. Funeral homes play on your emotions by presenting the priciest options first, says Rohling, the consumer advocate: “It gives the impression the lower you go, the cheaper you are — the less you thought of your loved ones.”

Solution: Research options at the funeral home’s website and decide what you want before going in.

Complaints about cemeteries

The hard sell you may get at funeral homes can happen when you’re arranging the burial too. There’s a crucial difference: At the cemetery, there are no federal statutes like the Funeral Rule to protect you, and few states have regulations about sales practices either. Only six states require price lists, for example, says the Funeral Ethics Organization.

Yet equally big bucks are at stake. A single plot runs about $1,500 to $6,000, depending on where you live, according to IbisWorld, and you’ll pay from $600 to $2,000 or more for cemetery workers to dig and re-cover the grave (you’ll pay more if the burial is on a weekend).

Then there’s the grave marker, which could mean $250 for a basic headstone or thousands for an elaborate bronzed, personalized monument.

To boost sales, cemeteries are also expanding offerings for cremation customers — only 15% buy merchandise, and when they do, they spend $700 on average, vs. $1,600 by families opting for a traditional burial, according to Janney Capital Markets.

Among the more common products: a niche, which is a recess in a wall where families can store an urn with cremated remains; and a bench ($3,000 at one Fort Lauderdale cemetery) or a “bench estate” for multiple family members ($15,000) in a “scattering garden,” where relatives can spread the deceased’s ashes and later visit.

Although no federal agency and as few states tracks cemetery complaints, Carolyn Jacobi of Eternal Justice, a cemetery consumer advocate, says she gets as many as 40 calls a day from families detailing problems similar to those heard about funeral homes.

A typical one, says Jacobi: operators telling families they have to buy a grave marker from the cemetery, not an outside vendor. Or a cemetery says the “law requires” a burial vault (average price: $1,195) to prevent the earth from sinking as the casket deteriorates. It’s the cemetery, not regulators, that requires the container, which makes the grounds easier to maintain; a $400 concrete box called a grave liner is as effective, Jacobi says.

Related: Death be not a ripoff

Since cemeteries, unlike funeral homes, are not required to give you a price list, you also can’t tell if you’re being charged fairly, Jacobi says.

A sales manager at Memory Gardens Memorial Park in Medford, Ore., lost his license last year after a judge found he had charged an elderly couple $495 each to dig and then fill in “urn garden plots.” The price on the cemetery’s internal list: $95.

The manager also slipped in a nonexistent $75 processing fee, according to Oregon cemetery-board records, violating laws on misrepresentations. The manager’s lawyer, Dean Alterman, says the mispricing was an “honest mistake,” and the state overreacted.

Consumer advocates say cases like this underscore the need for oversight.

Congressman Bobby Rush (D.-Ill.) has twice proposed legislation to extend the Funeral Rule to cemeteries and intends to try again next year.

The International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association (ICCFA) says examples of wrongdoing are real but not pervasive enough to justify more regulation. It would be “legislation by anecdote,” says executive director Robert Fells, adding the group does encourage members to disclose prices and offers training to improve sales practices.

The one aspect of cemeteries that states do regulate: ensuring that the money consumers pay for ongoing maintenance, called perpetual care, is invested properly. Most states require that a percentage of revenue from plots be set aside in a trust — 10% in Virginia and 15% in Michigan, for example — that pays for upkeep of the grounds.

But some cemeteries may collect the money and not do the job, according to state regulators; in Texas, for example, poor care and maintenance are the most common consumer complaints, says deputy banking commissioner Stephanie Newberg.

Fells acknowledges that inadequate funding sometimes hinders proper upkeep; by law, he notes, cemeteries can tap only the income from the trust, not the principal, and low interest rates have eaten into returns. This particularly affects independent cemeteries, which make up 64% of the industry (the remainder are three large chains) and can’t spread costs among multiple facilities.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

Follow your own Cemetery Rule. Although not required to do so by law, the cemetery should give you a price list on request, says Fells. Also ask for its rules in writing, Carlson says. When cemeteries hedge, Carlson explains, “it’s a red flag that they’re making things up as they go along.”

Enlist an advocate. If a cemetery insists on a burial vault or anything you’re not sure is necessary, contact Funeral Consumers Alliance or Eternal Justice (eternaljustice.com). They can help you distinguish real rules from misinformation to get you to spend more.

Claim military benefits. Did your deceased loved one serve in the armed forces? Honorably discharged vets, their spouses, and dependent children are entitled to be buried free within a military cemetery. Find one at http://www.cem.va.gov.

NEXT: Problems with prepayments

Problems with prepayments

Prepaid arrangements promise to save your family money and stress by allowing you to plan a funeral and lock in prices years early. You choose the arrangements and pay the bill upfront. The money goes into a trust account or an insurance policy until the services are needed. Good deal, eh?

Not so much. With charges ranging from difficulty getting refunds to mismanagement of funds, prepaid contracts are high on the list of complaints about the death-care industry, the MONEY survey of states found.

In Kansas, for example, 28% of complaints over the past five years have been about such products; in Maryland they were the top complaint, at 38% of the total. Indeed, paying in advance for funerals has proved so problematic that the FTC, AARP, and the Consumer Federation of America all recommend against it.

Yet prepaid sales are up sharply. At Service Corp. International SERCIVE CORP INT SCI 0.1374% , the largest funeral chain, prepaid contracts rose 28%, to $1.1 billion, over the five years ending in 2011, according to the company’s financial statements.

That success is due at least in part to clever marketing that combines standard sales pressure with emotional tugs.

At a recent SCI free-dinner seminar in Davie, Fla., speakers stressed that funeral planning is complicated (“There are 72 different decisions to make!”) and draining (“We don’t want you coming here on the worst day of your life!”).

Sales reps at each table urged attendees (including a MONEY writer) to fill out a questionnaire about their preferences, which were entered in a drawing to win a Kindle. And if you signed up by month’s end, you’d get a 20% discount — on what was unclear, since no price lists were handed out. Asked about the appropriateness of those sales tactics, an SCI spokesman simply said the product was a good deal for consumers.

Signing up often seems like a low-risk proposition, since providers usually promise you can transfer your contract to another facility. However, seven states don’t guarantee the right to transfer your contract, and two more allow it only if you relocate — you can’t just change your mind, according to a 2011 NFDA report. Depending on the state, you may also have to pay fees to make the switch.

Laws also differ about how much, if any, refund you’re entitled to. If your contract allows you to cancel, you may pay a fee ranging from interest earned on the account to 25% of its value. Loopholes in the terms may further reduce your refund.

States require funeral homes and cemeteries to set aside a percentage of the money customers prepay. But some allow providers to keep funds paid for merchandise if they can show they’ve delivered it — sending an urn to your home or storing a casket for you in a warehouse.

Advocates say some places inflate the value of the merchandise to avoid setting aside or refunding your money. In 2009, Neptune Society, a cremation company, paid $630,000 to the state of Colorado to settle accusations it did just that — for example, charging $349 for an urn valued at about $13.

Related: Hey Social Security, I’m not dead!

The Department of Insurance is still investigating to see whether the practice continues, says spokeswoman Marianne Goodland. Neptune says that it follows all rules on trusts and refunds and the situation in Colorado was an isolated incident.

It’s also possible to shell out thousands more on a prepaid contract than the funeral costs. That can happen when you buy an insurance policy and pay over time instead of in a lump sum, as Jo Swiger’s family discovered.

In 2004, at 89, Swiger bought a Lincoln Heritage Life policy to cover expenses for the $8,700 funeral she had chosen and spread payments over three years. Cost: $15,688 in premiums.

After her mom died in 2011, daughter Ann Bauer learned that the policy, which had a savings account that grew over time, would pay out only $10,807. “I don’t understand how they can call that an insurance policy,” says Bauer, an account manager at a San Diego radio station.

Lincoln vice president Shirley Grossman says most of its customers are younger and have time for benefits to grow, and adds that Lincoln no longer sells multiple-payment policies to customers over 85. But anyone who pays over time can expect to pay 40% more than the arrangements’ price, says William Stalter, a Kansas lawyer who helps funeral homes create prepayment plans.

Finally, regulators report frequent and rising instances of mismanagement and fraud with prepaid contracts, a December report from the Government Accountability Office found. Regulation is uneven, and many states lack the funds to enforce the rules, says Lynne Nelson, compliance manager of Oregon’s funeral and cemetery board.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

Just say no. You don’t need to buy a special product to set aside money for final arrangements. You may have enough life insurance to cover the bills. Or, set up a “payable on death” account at the bank, making funds available once there’s a death certificate to reimburse funeral expenses. If you don’t want your family to have to put up the money in advance, create a joint savings account with someone you trust to pay the bills.

Kurtinitis and her husband, George, don’t want their family to endure what she and her mom did when it was time to put her stepdad to rest (they’re still trying to sell the unused caskets and plots on Craigslist). So they’ve planned burials in a military cemetery (he is a vet) and a simple viewing in their home. “We don’t want our family to end up with a bill for thousands,” she says. “People need to remember: This is your family member, your burial, your business.”

MONEY Customer Service

7 Secrets to Super Customer Service

Feel like you've been wronged? These strategies can turn just about any company rep into your avenger.

In the past year, my wireless carrier refunded me $50 in international roaming charges that were my fault; airline reps saved me hundreds by rebooking my delayed or canceled flights for free; and my sofa was reupholstered at no charge, long after the one-year warranty was up. My list goes on. I’m either extremely lucky or extraordinarily demanding, right? Nope. I’m just good at getting the companies I do business with to treat me well—and to do the right thing when a situation goes awry. In an age of deteriorating customer service—two out of three consumers switched at least one service provider last year because of poor treatment, a recent survey by Accenture found—that’s no small feat. But it’s one you can achieve too. After consulting with customer service experts, psychologists, industry insiders, and the smartest consumers around (MONEY readers, natch), I’ve arrived at the secrets to getting superb service that follow.

Secret 1: Even hardened pros are suckers for flattery

Front-line phone reps are cursed at, threatened, or belittled seven times a day on average, according to researchers at Pennsylvania State University who studied two call centers for a major phone company. And that treatment can trigger “service sabotage,” such as dropped or misdirected calls. Don’t be one of those callers, and you already have a leg up.

Take niceness a step further, suggests Noah Goldstein, a professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management. When a customer service agent is friendly and responsive, tell him or her that you’re so impressed that you want a supervisor’s contact info so you can write a positive e-mail. Do this before you make a tough request. You’ve offered to do a favor, says Goldstein, so the agent will be motivated to return it. (Follow through, of course.)

Flattery has paid off for Bozeman, Mont., retiree Al Banwart, 66. After witnessing a traveler tirade at the airport, he told the gate agent how well she’d handled the difficult customer. Booked for two middle seats, he and his wife were called to the podium before boarding. “I was handed two first-class tickets,” says Banwart, “with a definite wink.”

Hold your temper, admit your mistakes, employ humor—whatever it takes to charm. People are more apt to do a good deed for someone they like, and those positive feelings can be generated quickly: In a study of how people feel toward each other and compliance with requests, researchers at Santa Clara University in California found that even a quick interaction can make you seem likable, and that nearly doubles your chances of getting yes for an answer.

“Politeness sounds obvious, but it’s the secret weapon,” says Christopher Elliott, author of Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles and Shady Deals. “You can pre-empt almost any problem by being diplomatic.”

Secret 2: Loyalty doesn’t pay unless you act disloyal

Seek out the department with the most power to bend the rules: retention. “Hint broadly that you’re going to leave,” says Linda Sherry, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Consumer Action. “That may get you a ticket to retention.”

This technique worked with my cable company. After my promotional rate had expired, my bill shot up. I called customer service and sweetly said, “My cable bill is just too high right now, and I can’t afford it. I want to scale back my package. Otherwise I’ll probably have to cancel. How can I do that?” I was immediately transferred to an agent in the retention department, who slashed my bill by $40 a month and threw in a year of Showtime to boot. If hinting gets you nowhere, ask to speak to someone in the retention or sales department directly.

Companies spend two to 20 times as much finding new customers as they do keeping old ones, says John Goodman, founder of the customer experience research firm TARP. Exploit that imbalance.

Secret 3: Companies count on you to give up

The desk clerk is squirming or glued to a computer screen. The phone rep won’t stray from a script. You’re probably at the wrong rung of the authority ladder. Cut your losses. A few simple words will do the trick: I don’t want to waste your time. Is this something you’re authorized to do? “More often than not, they will say, ‘Well, I can do this but not that,’ or explain what the procedure is,” says New York City psychologist Guy Winch, author of The Squeaky Wheel.

The truth is, most businesses can make things right—if you reach the right person. But the majority of companies don’t empower low-level employees to make decisions, says customer service consultant Colin Shaw, CEO of Beyond Philosophy.

What’s more, some companies count on you walking away, says Winch, going so far as to build in inconveniences like long wait times. No wonder that even though a third of consumers say they’re treated rudely at least once a month, few report the problem, according to a recent study in the Journal of Service Research.

Rather than give up, try representative roulette, something Chris Constantino, a 27-year-old engineer from Milford, Conn., has employed successfully. “When I called to reschedule a flight I’d missed,” he recalls, “the first person told me it would take the equivalent miles of a trip to Hawaii. The second said it would cost $500. Third time’s a charm! I got away with just a $50 charge.”

Secret 4: Spending all day on Facebook and Twitter is actually somebody’s job

When things don’t go your way, make the Internet your microphone by posting a complaint on the business’s Facebook page or your Twitter feed. “Companies have departments dedicated to surfing the Internet and making sure their brands are protected,” says Sherry. Many firms have separate Twitter handles for help, such as @ComcastCares, @DeltaAssist, and @Zappos_Service. AT&T invites consumers to use Facebook and Twitter to reach the company, calling the service “social media customer care.”

When Jonathan Whitbourne’s dryer malfunctioned just six months after the warranty was up, he posted a complaint on Maytag’s Facebook page. A rep responded within an hour. The result: The 37-year-old Norwalk, Conn., editorial director had to pay a $119 fee for the repair technician, but Maytag agreed to cover parts and labor beyond one hour. Based on other customer stories, he estimates that would have added up to $400.

As more consumers catch on, you may not be able to attract much attention via social media. But for now, keep this tool in your arsenal.

Secret 5: You may have better solutions than the rep does

Last winter, on my trip home from Pakistan to New York, I found myself stranded in Abu Dhabi after bad weather caused me to miss my connection. When I heard the airline agents telling other stuck Americans that all the hotels at the airport were booked, I immediately asked for outside accommodations. I knew that U.S. citizens could leave the Abu Dhabi airport without a visa. The staff seemed surprised by my request, but quickly handed me vouchers for a car service and a night’s stay at a lovely seaside hotel.

My secret? I was aware of what I was entitled to, so I made the agent’s job easier by proposing a workable solution (one that my less informed fellow travelers hadn’t already asked for). Anytime you have a beef, the more specific you are about what fix will make you happy, the better the likely outcome, says John Tschohl, president of Service Quality Institute, a corporate training firm: “Vague requests get you vague results.”

You have to know the rules of the game, from what’s legally required to what hotel front-desk staff, airline employees, and rental-car agents can and can’t do. “The agents have a lot less discretion these days,” says Sue, a veteran of United Airlines. Automated systems have made it next to impossible for them to waive baggage or standby fees. But agents have more latitude to issue miles or upgrade your seat.

A rental-car clerk may have the power to cut your rate. Jesse Rice, 28, of Bloomington, Ind., who has worked in customer service for a decade, including three years at a car rental agency, suggests accepting insurance in exchange for a price break. “We got paid more for selling the insurance, not for the total price,” he notes.

Talk to friends for insider dish, get chummy with the staff, and check out tips on consumerist.com, frequentflier.com, and inflightinsider.com. “Businesses like to say an informed customer is the best customer, but they don’t always mean that,” says Elliott.

Secret 6: A good complaint is like a well-made sandwich

Set aside your blind rage at the ineffectual salesclerk and delayed delivery man and learn to gripe constructively. Your request will be more appetizing, says Winch, if you build a “complaint sandwich.”

The first slice of bread is the “ear opener”—words that keep your target from feeling attacked. We’re wired to get defensive when someone complains, but studies have found that starting with a positive point makes the listener more receptive to criticism.

Next get to the meat—the specific problem you’re having and the solution you’re hoping for. Top off the sandwich with a grateful statement that shows you’re a reasonable person who’s deserving of help—and likely to stay a loyal customer if satisfied.

Your delivery counts too. When you’re speaking to someone on the phone or in person, limit fillers such as “I mean” and “You know?” John Sparks of the University of Dayton, citing studies of courtroom transcripts, points out that listeners associate phrases like that with a lack of credibility.

Secret 7: The top 1% want to hear from you

Well, maybe not. But complaining to the president or CEO isn’t just a tired cliché. The tactic works, even at large corporations, because executives have elite service staff dedicated to solving problems quickly, says Sherry. “They are sensitive about the reputation of their company, so their team is very motivated to help you.”

Thanks to the wonders of Google, you can easily find the phone number or e-mail of top-ranking executives at companies both big and small. If a quick search doesn’t yield results, dig up the address and phone number in a company’s registration statement, free at sec.gov/edgar.shtml. Other websites that are rich in contact information: jigsaw.com, hoovers.com, and Google and Yahoo Finance.

This technique has worked for many MONEY readers, including Ric Franchetti, a 58-year-old finance consultant from Plano, Texas. When the battery on his electric lawn mower from Home Depot stopped holding a charge after a year, he was told that the extended warranty didn’t cover the batteries because they were expendable. Undeterred, Franchetti dashed off a polite letter to the $68 billion company’s CEO. Six days later, the local store manager was at his door. When replacement batteries didn’t fit, the manager gave him a new mower. “They even took my old one away,” he adds.

Bonus Secret: Never Complain Again

Use these tricks for getting better treatment and more perks upfront, and you may not need to fight back.

1. Be loyal in the air

Redeeming miles is harder than ever, but frequent fliers can at least earn better service. Log 25,000 miles a year on most airlines, and you’ll qualify for perks. United and Continental (whose programs are merging in 2012) treat their lowest-level elite members especially well: free checked bags and free upgrades, something other airlines offer only at a higher tier.

2. Get with the program

You can earn perks at hotels fast. After five stays at a Hyatt in a year, you reach platinum status with its Gold Passport program, which entitles you to free Internet and a special customer service line. Log 10 stays at a Starwood hotel, and upgrades are automatic.

3. Travel with the right card

What’s in your wallet counts too. The top airline cards have annual fees, but you can earn that back quickly. With any of Delta’s SkyMiles credit cards ($95 for the basic card, waived the first year), your first checked bag is free (saving you $25 a flight). Bonus: You get priority boarding, so you can be sure to nab an overhead bin.

4. Be a familiar face

Locally, being a repeat customer can pay. Author Christopher Elliott goes to the same Italian restaurant every Friday. On a recent visit, the owner gave him a bottle of wine, unprompted. Don’t be reluctant to call attention to your loyalty—but be subtle. “Talk about people you’ve referred and ask how their visit went,” says Elliott.

5. Don’t shop around

Even at a big chain, loyalty can be rewarding. With the free Best Buy Reward Zone frequent-shopper program, $2,500 in purchases bumps you to the premier silver level, which gives you a free home-theater consultation, a 24/7 help line, free online shipping, and a 45-day return policy (vs. the normal 30). Join the Starbucks loyalty program for free refills and free coffee every 15 cups.

6. Make a memorable impression

Stand out in a good way. Mike O’Brien, a 36-year-old marketing director in Williams Bay, Wis., notes a customer service rep’s first name and uses it during the conversation. “It removes some of the coldness and may put them in a different mindset, more in tune with helping me,” he says. He may be onto something: When you personalize a request, you’re more likely to get a positive response, says Steve Martin, co-author of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. “The neurons in our brains fire up at the sound of our names,” says Dr. Michael Lewis of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “We pay attention to people paying attention to us.”

 

MONEY

Don’t Be Fooled by Credit Score Inflation

Have a 900 credit score? Before you lord it over your friend who can only claim a mere 750, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.

In the September issue of MONEY, I wrote “The quest for the perfect credit score,” which chronicled the efforts of three people reaching for a perfect 850 credit score.

Since then, I’ve received letters from several readers who seem to have these credit score superstars beat. One wrote, “I was a little amused by the…individuals with credit scores in the range of 806 to 813…The last time I checked, my Experian score was 924, with no special effort on my part.”

Comments like this one underscore a larger problem: the confusion around credit scores and scoring models.

In this story, we looked at each user’s FICO score, which operates on a 300- to 850-point scale. But there are competing scoring models on the market with different scales, such as the relatively new VantageScore, a creation of the three major credit-reporting companies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The VantageScore scale starts higher than FICO’s and ends higher, too, ranging from 501 to 990. We stick with the FICO score (for my story, we used Equifax’s version) because the vast majority of lenders still use that model and its 850-point scale.

So how can you compare apples to apples when it comes to scores from different models? Unfortunately, no magical, publicly available website exists to convert your score from one system to another. Part of the problem is that while each scoring model is designed to measure roughly the same thing — how much risk a company would take by lending you money — each uses different inputs and formulas to get the job done. It’s like a high school senior trying to use his score on one college admissions test, the ACT, to figure out his score on the SAT. The only way to get a definitive answer is to take the other test.

That being said, there are ways to get an approximation of your credit score under different models.

One option is to get a free “credit report card” from Credit.com, a company that offers various credit- and credit-card-related services online. Plug in your social security number and other identifying information, and you’ll get — along with a general assessment of your credit profile — an estimate of the range in which your credit score falls under each of five different scoring systems, including FICO, VantageScore and Experian’s PLUS Score. The highest number on the PLUS Score scale, by the way, happens to be 830, so the reader who mentioned a 924 Experian score was probably referring to a VantageScore number.

If you already have a specific score under one model and you’re looking for the rough equivalent in another, we at the magazine have cobbled together a back-of-the-envelope converter — for FICO and VantageScore, at least. It’s based on certain materials released by each of the companies — a blog post in FICO’s case and a white paper in VantageScore’s. Each contains a snapshot, as of two or three years ago, indicating what percentage of the population was assigned to various credit-score ranges under its system. (I used more recent 2010 FICO numbers in my September story, but for this exercise we wanted something closer in time to the VantageScore data we had, dating from before the economic meltdown.)

Some of those ranges match up rather closely, as you can see above in our multicolored bar graph. For example, 25% of VantageScore credit ratings fell in its lowest range of scores, 501 to 639. Meanwhile, 24% of FICO scores fell between its minimum rating of 300 and 599. So it seems safe to say that a VantageScore of 639 is in the same ballpark as a FICO score of 599.

Using the same logic with FICO-VantageScore chart, our letter-writer’s score of 924 is probably in the same neighborhood as a FICO score in the low 800s. That’s no slouch score, but it’s also not so wondrous that one could rub it in the face of the high scorers in my September article.

Whatever the validity of this conversion chart, the lesson here is to understand which model is being used when you’re judging a credit score. Don’t be misled by grade inflation.

And if you know your credit scores under different models, tell us about it in the comments section below.

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MONEY

Mad Credit-Card Users Aren’t Taking It Anymore

It’s a big day for consumers: Sweeping reforms regulating the credit-card industry go into effect today. Among them: Your card issuer won’t be able to increase the interest rate on an existing balance or charge you fees for over-the-limit transactions without your permission. (The Fed summarizes the changes here.) All major victories for cardholders.

But if you think the world of credit cards is going to be all rainbows and unicorns now, think again.

Banking analyst Ron Shevlin summed it up nicely on American Public Media’s Marketplace show Monday morning:

I would characterize what the future’s going to look like here is the airlinification of the credit card industry. They’ve kind of nickeled and dimed consumers to death.

Airlinification, indeed.

If buying an airline ticket was ever a pleasant experience, it’s hard to remember — because now, it’s fraught with a bevy of increasing fees, poor customer service and a general feeling that airlines have nothing better to do than to come up with creative ways to break into your wallet. (Want to check a bag? It’ll cost you. Paying that fee at the airport? It’ll cost you even more. Need a blanket on your flight? You got it — after you pay 8 bucks.)

So that not-so-warm, not-so-fuzzy feeling you get when dealing with the airlines? Prepare to experience it (even more) with your credit card issuer. Let’s face it: The relationship between cardholders and their banks was never all that great. But now, I have a feeling it’s going to be downright hostile. Card issuers are finding ways to get around the new rules by setting all sorts of new traps. And I don’t think there’s any end in sight.

Last week, I wrote about how one issuer, Citibank, is imposing a new annual fee on some of its cardholders (myself included). And judging by your comments, the frustration is reaching a fever pitch. Paula from Los Angeles wrote:

Screw the customer any way you can is the credit card companies’ motto these days.

Added David from Watson, Oklahoma:

We all need to find ways to hit the banks where it really hurts. They make a small fortune on their cards already. I’m also sick of hearing them snivel about their credit losses. Give me a break!! Who bombarded every warm-bodied American with credit offers? It certainly wasn’t me, and I should not have to pay “for their increase in the cost of doing business” now. They can well afford to pay for their own misdeeds.

Paula and David are not alone. That’s just a sampling of the frustrated and angry comments we received — on just one bank’s new fee.

So can anything be done? In this month’s MONEY I wrote a piece on how you can spring yourself from these credit card traps: By dumping your big bank and going with a smaller issuer or credit union instead. That’s because these issuers are more likely to be focused on the customer relationship and less on the bottom line. Remember, there’s still one major difference between banks and airlines: When you need to fly from Point A to Point B, you often don’t have a huge number of carriers to choose from. But credit-card issuers? They’re as plentiful as stars in the sky.

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