MONEY

Consumer Complaints About This Troubling Scam Have Soared

Behold the year's top consumer complaints.

Identity theft was the fastest-growing consumer complaint in 2014, according to a joint annual report by the Consumer Federation of America and North American Consumer Protection Investigators. The list is based on more than 280,000 claims made to 37 consumer-protection agencies in 21 states last year.

Recent, large-scale data breaches at major retailers are at least partly to blame for the rapid rise of identity theft complaints. (It also was the top consumer gripe handled by the Federal Trade Commission last year, making up 13% of all complaints.)

Read next: 10 Funniest & Most Creative Consumer Complaints Ever

Consumer agencies say that stealing someone’s identity to claim their tax refunds, in particular, is a growing problem. “Refund fraud caused by identity theft is one of the biggest challenges facing the IRS,” says the agency, which has 3,000 employees working on tax-related identity theft.

The 37 agencies the two groups canvassed deemed debt collection the worst category overall for consumer complaints, based on a combination of complaint frequency, the dollar amounts involved and how severely vulnerable populations were affected. In some cases, people were hounded to pay debts that weren’t theirs.

“They make harassing phone calls or send threatening emails to scare consumers… to satisfy a loan that doesn’t exist,” the groups’ report says. Other victims who filed complaints with state and local agencies said they were subject to abusive language and other illegal practices from debt collectors, such as threatening them with arrest or calling late at night. (By law, these agencies aren’t supposed to call after 9 p.m.)

Some complaint categories are perennial hot buttons. As in 2013, automotive-related issues were the most frequently reported to protection agencies last year, including, “misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes,” the CFA says. Other mainstays in terms of generating complaints include telemarketing robocalls, construction and home improvement firms, landlord-tenant disputes and shady retail practices like false advertising or issues with gift cards or coupons.

There were plenty of new contenders causing major consumer headaches last year, too. Consumer protection agencies reported an influx of complaints about student loan repayment or consolidation scams, and businesses refusing to honor customer agreements such as rebates, gift certificates and contracts after changing hands, sometimes even though the businesses retained their old names.

“A good recent example is gyms that have closed and be reopened by other, larger corporations,” says Ethel Newlin of the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. In some cases, she says, “Consumers were left with worthless contracts for the rest of the term they had already paid for.”

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MONEY Workplace

How to Handle Your Worst Work Nightmares

box of office supplies on desk
Adam Gault—Getty Images

When you're done breathing into a paper bag, read this.

Your career is sailing along just fine—until one day you get an email from HR, and suddenly it isn’t anymore. While there’s no shortage of advice out there for how to handle the loss of a job, a blow like having your team downsized or being asked to take a pay cut can leave you reeling and without a sure sense of what to do next.

The silver lining, career experts say, is that you can bounce back—and even thrive—if you make the right moves. Career experts offer their advice for turning around these all-too-common professional setbacks.

You’re passed over for a promotion. First, try to figure out what happened, says career coach Todd Dewett. Maybe you had a hand in dealing your fate, maybe you didn’t—either way, it’s better to know. “You want to know if you were part of the cause, what the main cause might be if not you, and whether or not you should expect this to happen again,” he says.

If your performance is up to snuff, consider that there could be something in the way you look or act that could be holding you back. A recent CareerBuilder survey found that bushy beards, gossiping, even keeping your workspace a mess can be enough to keep you from moving up.

You have to take a pay cut. People like to point out that money isn’t everything—which isn’t the most helpful advice when you have to figure out how to get by with less of it. There are two steps to take here. The first is to think about what else motivates you to go to work every day. “Emphasize other aspects of the job or organization that have value… beyond money and position,” says James Craft, professor of business administration at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. For instance, are there social benefits or personal perks (like being to negotiate one Friday a month off) that can ease the sting of that hit to your bank account? “Essentially, redefine what the value is in this employment,” Craft says.

If you come up empty—or if your budget is simply stretched too thin—then dust off that resume and move on to plan B. “Draw on personal and professional contacts to see what other job opportunities would be available elsewhere to continue to move toward [your] overall career objectives,” Craft advises.

Your team gets downsized. If the budget axe chopped your team in half, your job just got tougher. And if the changes result in more work and less reward for your underlings, you could be fighting an uphill battle—one that could reflect poorly on you. In that case, consider whether this might be a good time to move on.

“Spend time revising your resume and be sure your LinkedIn profile is current, and consider going on the market to find an employer that may value your professional competencies [and] positive attitude,” says Dale F. Austin, director of the Career Development Center at Hope College. The job market has picked up, after all, so it might be worth putting a few lines out and seeing if you get a bite.

You get demoted. So maybe you weren’t management material. Your ego might be smarting, but it’s your reputation you need to repair. “The most difficult type of setback is any which is clearly explained by your behaviors or competencies to the exclusion of other explanations,” Dewett says. “It’s on you, and everyone knows it. “ Depending on what went down, “you might need to make amends,” Dewett says. “Then it’s time to identify needed behavioral or skill changes.” Stumped? Ask a friend or trusted colleague in confidence. It’s likely they’ll see something that you don’t.

Your closest colleague quits. Whether it’s your assistant, your boss, or the CEO, an abrupt departure can rattle nerves and create an uncomfortable climate at the office. “Bad news can be unsettling, so be sure you get all of the detail you can,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director of HR consulting company Robert Half. Don’t assume you know what happened: “Ask questions and get clarification,” he says.

In a situation like this, McDonald advises, it’s important to evaluate your emotions and try to look at the situation objectively. “If you’re angry, frustrated, or sad, you may need a day or two to process the news,” he says. Once your emotions aren’t quite as volatile, you’ll be in a better frame of mind to address what happened.

Read next: 3 Sweet Employee Benefits You May Be Missing

MONEY

Gen Y’s Glaring Financial Oversight Could Cost Them Big

woman tying blindfold on herself
Jonathan Fernstrom—Getty Images

It's the simplest thing, really

New research finds that a huge number of millennials don’t bother looking at their bills, an oversight that could be costing them—and anybody else who’s in the habit of paying without perusing—in more ways that you’d expect.

In a survey of more than 2,000 adults under the age of 25 conducted on behalf of technology company Inlet, 32% of respondents said they don’t look over itemized bills before paying them.

One possible reason could be because so many young adults pay their bills electronically these days. “Millennials are digital natives and are accustomed to living their lives on mobile devices and social networks,” Inlet points out in a release accompanying the results. The survey finds that fewer than 25% use paper checks and snail mail to pay bills, while about 10% get email reminders and 5% get text reminders when their bills are due.

But this convenience can have a downside if it leads to carelessness. If you don’t check your bills, here are some potentially costly outcomes that can result.

You might be paying for a service you don’t use. Maybe you signed up for a premium cable channel you no longer watch, or for a data plan that far outstrips your mobile usage. Maybe you signed up for a subscription — anything from a gym membership to movie-streaming site access—that you don’t use anymore. If you don’t look at your bill, this could slip your mind and cost you money.

You could miss out on savings. Sometimes, companies will offer money-saving options on your monthly bill that you won’t know about if you just look at the the total and tap a few keys or write out a check. For instance, you might be able save a few dollars if you opt for paperless statements or electronic payments. Expenses like insurance premiums sometimes can be a few bucks lower if you pay your annual premium in a lump sum rather than spreading out your payments over the course of the year.

You might get ripped off. Maybe you signed up for a cable package at a promotional rate, or were promised a discount on a purchase. The only way to make sure you’re getting what you’re entitled to is to check your bill. Glitches and mistakes do happen, and it’s up to you (not the company!) to be sure you’re not paying more than you should. In the case of credit or debit cards, you’ll also want to verify that you get the refund you’re owed if you return an item, and that you’re not overcharged at places like restaurants.

You could be a fraud victim. Hopefully you’d notice if someone went on a spending spree using your account information, but sometimes, small discrepancies can give you an early warning. When thieves steal a cache of credit or debit card information and sell it on the black market, the buyer will often make a small transaction—maybe a dollar or even less—to see if the stolen digits they just bought are still “live.” Catching an unfamiliar transaction that otherwise might go overlooked could save you a much bigger headache later.

Read next: Automate Your Finances With Our ‘Set It and Forget It’ Checklist

MONEY Benefits

3 Sweet Employee Benefits You May Be Missing

empty seats in lecture hall
Adam Crowley—Getty Images

If your company offers these perks, you may be leaving money on the table.

More than two-thirds of adult workers under 65 are covered by their job’s health plan, and about half of workers participate in their company’s retirement plan. As the labor market starts to heat up, more businesses are adding or enhancing other benefits, as well — but workers might not be cashing in on these perks.

“While workplace benefits such as retirement and healthcare are core to employer offerings, great organizations offer a broad spectrum of benefits,” says Beth Raymond, senior vice president and chief HR officer at Principal Financial Group. You might need to take the initiative and ask, but it’s highly possible, especially if you work for a larger organization, that your company also has one or more of the following set up; if so, figure out whether you’ll be able to take advantage.

Tuition Reimbursement/Professional Development

“Many organizations do not publicize their tuition reimbursement programs well,” says Ravin Jesuthasan, global leader of talent management at HR consulting firm Towers Watson. “Managers may be reluctant to have employees take time away from work for development purposes.” You might need to take the initiative and ask HR what’s available, and then talk to your boss about how you’ll make up for any out-of-the-office time your classwork might require.

The Society for Human Resource Management’s research shows a “statistically significant” increase in the number of companies paying for certifications or recertification, says Evren Esen, who runs the organization’s survey programs, and according to research from Accountemps, about half of companies today are expanding their investment in non-degree professional development. “Some training programs offer a certification upon completion,” says Accountemps district president Bill Driscoll.

Even the ones that don’t could help you advance your career if they give you expertise in a necessary skill, he points out. “There are a wide range of training options companies may offer, from on-site brown-bag sessions and formal instructor-led trainings, to webinars and off-site seminars and conferences,” Driscoll says. These can require a time commitment on your part of anywhere from a few hours for a seminar to months of study to complete some more advanced courses, he says.

Physical Fitness/Wellness

More companies are adding wellness benefits too, although the options vary widely. “It can be something that’s very planned, like having competitions or giving employees Fitbits, or something more informal, like having everyone meet at lunch for a walk,” says Esen.

The most common wellness resource is some kind of fitness-related newsletter, which about 60% of companies in a recent SHRM survey said they offer. About a third fully or partially subsidize gym memberships, although the onus is often on the employee to submit reimbursement forms.

Beyond that, more companies today are offering tools, often via an app you can access from the privacy of your smartphone, that help workers manage stress, relax more and sleep better.

Financial Counseling

“Financial wellness programs are modeled after physical wellness programs,” says Brian Cosgray, cofounder and CEO of DoubleNet Pay, a provider of financial wellness tools to companies. Since fitness-related programs have been well-received, and because employers figured out that workers who are stressed about money are less happy and productive, more companies are adding financial counseling as a benefit, Cosgray says.

These programs, in which you can generally participate for free, may include finance classes, one-on-one counseling sessions, or even apps and video games. They tend to be personalized to help employees reach their own personal financial goals — whether paying down debt, following a budget or saving money.

Read next: Americans Left $24 Billion in Retirement Money on the Table Last Year

TIME

The 4 Biggest Mistakes You Can Make After a Career Setback

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Getty Images

This is the difference between getting back on track and derailing your career

Nobody’s perfect, and plenty of us mess up at work — and it’s what you do after a cringe-inducing moment that impact if or how your career sustains permanent damage.

A Harvard Business Review study took a look at how more than 9,000 people responded to career disasters. Whether or not they managed to bounce back depended to a large degree on how they approached damage control. These are the most dangerous behaviors you need to avoid if you want to recover.

Blaming others. The study showed that people who constantly stewed over how others around them played a role in their professional belly-flop and didn’t take responsibility themselves had the toughest time recovering. Researchers working on the HBR study found that it’s especially bad to expend energy thinking about how you were wronged by colleagues; this kind of self-justification might make you feel better initially, but it almost guarantees that you won’t learn from your mistake — which is probably what your boss (as well as anyone else your mistake impacted) — wants to see.

Not being introspective. Ruminating about the role other people played isn’t the right way to get back on track, but trying to put your mistake behind you by just not thinking about it won’t help you, either. “The idea that you have to ‘work through’ your feelings after a setback might seem self-indulgent to some but it may be the most productive route forward,” the HBR article says. Self-reflection is a good way to think about what you could have done differently. If you can identify what habits or character traits might have contributed to your failure, you’re in a much better position to make changes that will prevent you from being back in the doghouse, so to speak.

Refusing to seek advice. Some people in the study made the mistake of not soliciting feedback from others or asking what they could have done differently. Yes, it probably won’t be easy to open yourself up for criticism, but other people invariably have a different perspective, and it’s entirely possible they’ll see something in the situation you overlooked or didn’t consider. The study results found that a significant number of people dealing with a career setback wanted to make positive changes but couldn’t figure out how or where to start. Silencing your ego and asking your colleagues for some constructive criticism can get you on that path.

Being inflexible. Adaptability is a good thing in practice, but a scary thing in real life, especially for people whose identities are wrapped up in their work, the researchers note. But they argue that the study shows it’s worth the effort. Opening yourself up to new ideas and new ways of doing things can be the catalyst that gets your career back in motion after an implosion.

MONEY

Your Cell Phone Is Killing Your Productivity, but Not for the Reason You Think

woman texting on mobile phone
Getty Images

If you think you can ignore those alerts, you're wrong

OK, so you know not to use your phone while you drive, but your phone distracts you way more than you realize, and it’s hurting your productivity even if you never rear-end a fellow commuter because you’re trying to answer a text.

Unfortunately, even if you’re diligent about avoiding the siren song of that chime or ringtone that indicates a call or message, just hearing the notification is enough to derail you, the researchers find. “Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind-wandering,” they write. “Mobile phones can disrupt attention performance even if one does not interact with the device.”

It’s a tough balance. For many of us, our cell phones are a lifeline to our non-work lives when we’re toiling away during the day. We want to be reachable in case of an emergency, but the constant stream of notifications is death by paper cuts to our productivity.

In a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, researchers found that experiment subjects performing a task that required intense focus performed poorly when they received notification of a text or call on their phone during the experiment.

When the notifications broke their concentration, the subjects had more incorrect answers and were more likely to make rapid guesses. Subjects who received notification of a call — even if they didn’t pick it up — were three times likelier to make mistakes. The researchers had subjects — who didn’t know the point of the experiment — use their own phones, which they say made it more likely a notification would be distracting, since the subjects were expecting those interruptions to be personally relevant.

The reason for these results is that, in spite of all the multitasking we do, our brains aren’t really that good at it. We only have so much attention we can devote at a given moment, and more tasks mean that our concentration is divided. According to the researchers, even though the actual moment of interruption from a phone notification is brief, it disrupts our thoughts for a considerably longer period, making it tough to get back on track. Maybe you’re wondering who it is, or maybe you think of someone it could be and remember that you need to tell them something. Suddenly, you’re down the mental rabbit hole and your concentration is shot.

Researchers call the degree of distraction “shocking,” with error rates about the same as if subjects actually had answered the call or text, according to findings of other research about phone-related distracted driving to which the researchers compared their findings.

In the paper, the researchers points out this discovery could have implications for efforts like “don’t text and drive” campaigns, which just say you shouldn’t view or answer texts or calls, not that you should silence your phone entirely. (That’s actually the researchers’ next project: Seeing if just getting a notification while behind the wheel impairs your driving.) “These findings highlight the need to adopt a broader view of cellular phone related distraction,” they write.

MONEY

Parents, Brace Yourselves: This Is How Much You’ll Spend on Back-to-School Shopping

parent holding hands with two kids with backpacks
Alamy

It's a whopper number, but parents actually say it's lower than last year.

The start of the school year is still more than a month away, but subtraction is already on the lesson plan. Parents this year say they will be spending less on back-to-school clothes, electronics supplies, and other items for their kids, according to a new survey released by the National Retail Federation.

That’s in spite of the fact that a smaller number of parents say the way they shop is influenced by the economy — about three-quarters of parents surveyed, down from more than four out of five last year and the lowest in the seven years the NRF has been asking that question.

Among that 76%, fewer say they’ll be tracking down sales more often or buying store-brand items this year. They’re also confident enough that they’re starting their shopping later this year, rather than getting an early jump on bargain-hunting or spending slowly to minimize the budgetary hit. The number of families who say they’ll wait until just a week or two until school starts went up from 25% to 30% in only a year.

The lower total may simply be due to yearly fluctuations, says NRF president Matthew Shay, as some big-ticket items need less frequent purchases: “It’s unlikely most families would need to restock and replenish apparel, electronics and supplies every year.”

Collectively, American parents with kids in kindergarten through 12th grade will shell out $24.9 billion — a drop of about 6% from last year. On average, a family with school-aged kids expects it will spend $630.36 this year, the lowest it’s been since 2011 and down from $669.28 last year.

It’s not just backpacks and binders. The biggest chunk of families’ overall back-to-school budget goes to clothes, which around 93% of families buy. Across all shoppers, clothing and electronics account for more than $400 of the average family’s back-to-school outlay.

And while not all parents are buying electronics, the 57% who do so spend more on that than on clothes — an average of an average of just about $346 per family. For parents who grew up in an era where a graphing calculator was the most costly gadget a kid could need, this is a big adjustment.

And parents, if you think your kids are going to defray some of the costs by kicking in the contents of their piggy bank of summer job, guess again: Only about four out of 10 teenagers will help pay for their back-to-school expenses, and those who do will only contribute around $82 to the total.

MONEY Workplace

This Is Why You’re Not Getting Promoted

You could be sabotaging yourself without realizing it

You do good work, but you just can’t seem to get ahead. Or maybe you can’t understand why other people’s careers seem to advance so much faster than your own. If this sounds familiar, you might want to take a good, hard look—at yourself.

A new survey of almost 2,200 bosses and HR professionals by CareerBuilder.com revealed exactly what looks, attitudes, and behaviors do the most damage to employees’ advancement prospects.

The top offenders when it comes to your appearance are provocative or sloppy and wrinkled clothing; 44% and 43% of respondents, respectively, said those characteristics would make them less likely to promote a worker.

The survey highlighted several other big no-nos pertaining to how you present yourself. Offbeat piercings? Tattoos? Might want to think about taking them out or covering them—about a third of bosses said piercings could hold you back, while more than a quarter said the same about tattoos. And hipsters, that beard isn’t doing you any favors. About a quarter of hiring managers said “unprofessional or ostentatious” facial hair will keep your career idling in neutral. Finally, don’t show up for a client meeting looking like you just swung by on your way to the beach; no matter how many hoodie-wearing tech whizzes there are in Silicon Valley, the rules are probably different for you. More than one in four respondents said dressing too casually can sink your chances at a promotion.

Aside from how you look, CareerBuilder found that some behaviors are promotion-killers, too. Not surprisingly, a bad attitude and showing up late on a regular basis are the top offenders; in both cases, 62% of hiring managers said this is enough to make them hold off on moving you up the corporate ladder.

If you’re prone to dropping f-bombs at your desk, beware: Just over half of the survey respondents said having a potty mouth is a turn-off in a promotion candidate. Even if you keep your language G-rated, scooting out early or taking “sick” days on a regular basis is almost as damaging, and 44% of bosses will think long and hard about promoting a gossip.

For those of you who silently fume because there’s that one coworker who ditches dirty dishes in the shared sink for days or clutters the office with a trail of paper, don’t worry: They’ll get what’s coming to them. More specifically, what they won’t get is a better job if they work for the 36% of hiring managers who found people that don’t pick up after themselves unworthy of promotions. And almost one in five frown on taking smoke breaks.

Three other red flags from a boss’s perspective are spending lots of time on social media or personal calls, or being that person who constantly wants to yak about Orange Is The New Black or your family camping trip instead of work topics.

The bottom line: Even if your work is good enough overall to keep you from getting fired, you might be holding yourself back from moving up in your career for any number of reasons unrelated to your performance. “While your work performance may be strong, if you’re not presenting yourself in a professional manner, it may be preventing your superiors from taking you seriously,” says CareerBuilder chief HR officer Rosemary Haefner.

MONEY Jobs

Finally, Some Better News For Job Seekers

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Getty Images

There are more jobs, and they're paying better

If you’ve looked for work within the past several years, you know the job market offers pretty slim pickings, even more so if you’re not in a highly-sought-after field like technology. There finally seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, though: A new survey of employers finds that more of them are optimistic about the future and plan to grow their head count. Even better is the news that a substantial number of them are willing to pay more to do so.

CareerBuilder released its mid-year jobs forecast Thursday, and it definitely paints a sunnier picture than we’ve seen in a long time. For starters, roughly half of the 2,300 HR and hiring managers surveyed say they plan to hire full-time workers in the second half of 2015, an increase over 2014. Just over a third plan to hire temps, and 28% will add part-time workers, both increases from a year ago.

What’s even better news is that more HR departments are willing to pay to attract this new talent. Almost half of respondents say they’ll raise starting salaries in the next year, an increase of four percentage points in a year, and about one in six say they’ll hike what they pay new hires by more than 5%.

“This is the best forecast from our survey since the recession,” says CareerBuilder spokeswoman Jennifer Grasz. “Companies are hiring across industries, company sizes and geographies.”

The industries that plan to pick up the pace the most are a diverse lot: IT and healthcare are at the top of the heap, but not all of the fast-growing fields are just for high-skill workers. Hospitality and retail are also outperforming the average. Even embattled industries like financial services and manufacturing are enjoying better-than-average hiring rates.

Hiring is expected to be especially strong at small businesses and tech companies, the survey finds. Although 62% of big companies will add workers, compared with 37% of businesses with fewer than 250 workers, the increase in hiring is rising faster at smaller firms. “Enterprise organizations bounced back first and are considerably more likely to hire, but what’s encouraging is that small businesses have gained confidence every year, and that’s translating into more robust job creation,” Grasz says.

And while the picture is pretty good across the U.S., the Northeast has the biggest uptick: 52% of companies say they plan to add people in the second half of 2015, up from 48% last year. Grasz says the growing investment in technology in this part of the country is one reason for the acceleration, along with other regionally strong industries like healthcare and financial services continuing to rebound.

“This is a very different scenario for the labor market than four or five years ago,” Grasz says. It’s definitely a market job seekers of all types are likely to greet with a sigh of relief.

TIME

You Won’t Believe What Cost Us Nearly $740 Million Last Year

It's literally shocking

They say lightning never strikes twice — which is a good thing, because it’s expensive when it does. Even though 2014 was a pretty mellow season for storms, lightning-related insurance claims shot up, according to new data from the Insurance Information Institute.

The trade group found that insurers paid out $739 million in lightning-related property damage claims last year, up about 10% from 2013, even though there were 13% fewer claims filed. And the average loss per claim grew by 26%, rising from $5,869 in 2013 to $7,400 last year.

Insurance experts blame our growing appetite for complex electronic devices.

“[The cost] has generally continued to rise, in part because of the huge increase in the number and value of consumer electronics in homes,” the Institute says. The group points out that adding lightning rods and surge protectors can help protect against lightning frying our electronics, but not everybody’s been getting the message.

“In addition, better protection systems may have eliminated some smaller claims, while larger claims remain that drive the average higher,” it says. Since 2010, the average cost per claim has ballooned by more than 50%, the Insurance Institute says.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Southern states bear the brunt of lightning-induced damage. Florida was the top state for claims last year, followed by Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and North Carolina, respectively. The top 10 states for lightning claims made up just under half of all claims paid.

While overall losses are still down compared to four years ago, as we keep adding more gadgets and devices, it’s unclear if this rising trend is here to stay. In a release, the Insurance Institute points out that this week is Lightning Safety Awareness Week, and suggests homeowners go to the Lightning Protection Institute for tips on how to protect their homes (and electronics).

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