MONEY Airlines

Airline ‘Transparency’ Law One Step Closer to Misleading Passengers

A bill that would allow airlines to hide the true cost of flights (fees and all) was just passed by the House

Currently, airlines must include the full price of a flight—including federal taxes and fees—in advertisements. However, a new bill, which was approved by the House of Representatives on Monday, would allow the ads to exclude government fees, allowing for marketing that could fool consumers into thinking their flights will cost significantly less than they’ll actually end up paying.

As MONEY’s Brad Tuttle reported in April, $61 dollars of a typical $300 flight comes from federal taxes–20% of the overall ticket price. Under the new law, airlines could ignore that portion of the fare and advertise the same flight at $239. Could anyone actually buy that flight for $239? Of course not.

Regulations passed in 2012 outlawed this type of misdirection, but the airlines are now one step away from bringing it back.

The bill’s advocates argue that letting airlines advertise their unmodified prices would show consumers how much the government is adding to their travel bill. When the law was first proposed in the spring, supporters said it would “restore transparency to the advertising of U.S. airline ticket prices, and ensure that airfare ads are not forced to hide the costs of government from consumers.”

Knowing about government-added expenses is all well and good, but consumer advocates believe the law will do more to confuse flyers than educate them. The National Consumers League says the bill doesn’t provide transparency, and merely allows the airlines to advertise eye-grabbing but deceptive lower prices in order to win more business. In this way, the “Transparent Airlines Act” actually makes what consumers must pay for flights more opaque. That’s the opposite of transparency.

The Transparent Airlines Act still needs to pass the Senate before it becomes a law, and its opponents aren’t going to give up without a fight.

“Our organization, together with other consumer groups, will work closely with Senate staff to stop the passage of a companion bill,” said Charlie Leocha, Chairman of Travelers United, a consumer protection organization focused on travelers. “Even though the name of the bill contains the word ‘transparency,’ the effect of this legislation would be anything but.”

MONEY Banking

Why People Mistrust Financial Advisers

Untrustworthy businessman crossing fingers behind back
RubberBall Productions—Getty Images/Vetta

A financial planner says people can be cynical about her work. Her own experience as a bank customer helps explain why.

Very often, we financial planners convey the impression that getting your financial life into shape is easy. And that we’re in control of our finances.

If we had a bit of humility, we’d admit that we share the same frustrations as our clients.

Like dealing with low interest rates on checking accounts in combination with high banking fees.

“You get interest on this account,” the customer service representative from my bank said. This was about a month ago. I had called the bank upon receiving my monthly statement.

“Yes,” I replied. “I got a penny last month. A penny. And now you want to charge me $25 a month to have a checking account?”

She had to laugh.

I was calling to ask why a $25 charge had shown up on my formerly free checking account.

She asked if anything had changed. It had. I had paid off all my big debts. I was in much better financial shape.

Well, that explained it.

Now that I had repaid my loans to the bank, apparently my relationship with it wasn’t sufficient to earn me free checking. I was no longer paying the bank large amounts of interest, so it would start charging me this monthly fee. That is the way it works.

If this makes sense to you, you must be a banker.

Okay, that was a low blow. But for me, it’s an example of why so many clients have a bad attitude toward financial services institutions and professionals.

It’s not just the malcontents, it’s everyone. The surveys confirm that the public does not hold financial services institutions in high regard.

Many of my clients been burned before. And they’re probably still getting burned by such ridiculous tactics as fee-ing the customer to death or the inability to get a new mortgage or a small business loan without a dossier three feet thick that proves you do actually pay your bills.

I told the woman on the phone, “I just opened two checking accounts at another bank for my twin daughters. The other bank is going to charge $12 a month for each account. And as soon as my girls go show their college IDs, the accounts will be free. So tell me why I should pay you $25.”

I spoke politely, without a trace of anger.

Eventually, the customer service representative found a way to give me some credit for direct deposit of my paycheck. And she switched me to an account that will ding me only $7 a month.

Of course, if the bank had wanted to provide the best deal for a longtime customer, they could have recognized this direct deposit before. But they hadn’t. They had just slapped a fee three times larger than on my new account, perhaps hoping I wouldn’t find out how I could save some money.

Cynicism? Anger? The emotions that I feel are the same ones that people have when they approach me as a professional. As a certified financial planner I have much larger ideas that I need to convey to our customers and the general public than “I won’t cheat you or slip in something that benefits me and not you.”

But it’s tough to get through all that dreck first and get on to the important ideas.

I told the customer service representative that I didn’t mind giving up the penny in exchange for a lower monthly fee.

When I told this anecdote to one of my partners, he just had to raise the ante. “Last month, I got three pennies,” he said.

Another happy financial services customer.

———-

Harriet J. Brackey, CFP, is the co-chief investment officer of KR Financial Services, a South Florida registered investment advisory firm that manages more than $330 million. She does financial planning for clients and manages their portfolios. Before going into the financial services industry, she was an award-winning journalist who covered Wall Street. Her background includes stints at Business Week, USA Today, The Miami Herald and Nightly Business Report.

MONEY Scams

Thousands May Get Refunds on Undeserved Red-Light Camera Tickets

Red light camera
iStock

For years, Chicago and other cities have used red-light camera tickets to juice revenues. Soon, it looks like some of that money will be headed back into the bank accounts of drivers.

While countless drivers may very well feel like they have been given red-light camera traffic tickets without justification—and many would love to see these cameras disappear entirely—a new investigation apparently reveals that thousands and thousands of drivers in the Chicago area have proof that they were hit with tickets and fines they didn’t deserve.

The Chicago Tribune recently analyzed some 4 million tickets doled out via red-light camera surveillance since 2007. What researchers found has alarmed drivers and given conspiracy theorists fresh ammunition about Big Brother police tactics and even corruption regarding city contracts and roadside cameras in general. The paper found several instances of sudden inexplicable spikes in the number of tickets generated by cameras. Seemingly out of nowhere, cameras that usually captured a handful of infractions daily were generating dozens of tickets per day, sometimes for a couple of weeks, before returning to the normal pattern.

City officials and traffic experts haven’t been able to explain these sudden surges in tickets—tens of thousands of which investigators have deemed “questionable”—and the Tribune’s analysis concluded that there is “clear evidence” that they came about due to “faulty equipment, human tinkering or both.”

One example, for example, generated a dozen tickets to drivers rolling through right-hand turns for six months in 2011, and then produced 560 tickets for that same infraction over one 12-day period. The assumption is that someone or something changed how the rule was being enforced over that span, and no other bothered to inform drivers.

The traffic experts asked to look over the Tribune’s research announced right away that all drivers given undeserved $100 tickets should receive speedy refunds without hassle or the need to petition. Now those experts are being joined by several Chicago aldermen, who this week called on City Hall to launch its own investigation—and to hand out refunds whenever appropriate. Another Tribune story quoted one of the city leaders making the case for drivers:

“We want to find out what went wrong, and we want to see refunds where the ticket was wrongly issued,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd. “That would be the way to do it. The basis would be refunds in cases where tickets were wrongly issued.”

What exactly happened to cause these odd sudden surges in cameras generating tickets? Unless the machines truly are taking over, it would seem all but certain that some human element was involved. It wouldn’t be the first time that something underhanded has happened with red-light cameras. Last summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to drop the contract with Redflex, the company then operating the city’s roadside cameras, after a $2 million bribery scheme involving Redflex and a city official overseeing the camera program was brought to light.

While Chicago drivers have a right to feel road rage about its camera system, which appears to be corrupt, incompetent, or both, the fines they’re paying are chump change compared with some of the camera-generated tickets handed out in northern California—which sometimes amount to $480 after all the fees are added up. One notorious roadside camera in Oakland, Calif., hit drivers to the tune of $4.2 million in tickets in 2010 alone.

Scott Waguespack, the Chicago alderman, told the Tribune that he and many others have complained over the years to transportation officials that traffic lights turn from yellow to red much too quickly. But no one did anything about it. “They were like, ‘Don’t worry about it, everything is cool,’” Waguespack said. “Well, clearly it wasn’t.”

Not only are city leaders calling for an investigation and refunds, but several lawyers are now in the process of gathering affected drivers for a class-action suit, or perhaps several suits.

That may be one reason why many cities have decided to do away with roadside cameras all together. Several San Diego County cities, for instance, pulled the plug on their roadside camera programs in recent months. The number of U.S. cities with roadside cameras is on the decline too, from 540 in 2012 to 508 this year. Depending on how things play out in Chicago and in other cities where drivers are protesting roadside cameras, that number could keep on falling.

MONEY Airlines

The New TSA Fee Should Change the Way You Book Flights

An airline passenger is patted down by a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent
An airline passenger is patted down by a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent at Los Angeles International Airport. Kevork Djansezian—Reuters

Airline passengers used to pay as little as $5 round trip in TSA fees. Now everybody pays $11.20, and you could be forced to cough up double that.

As of July 21, the TSA’s September 11 Security Fee structure has been changed, and all travelers flying within the U.S. will be paying more every time a flight is purchased. Passengers on nonstop flights must now pay $5.60 each way, up from $2.50, so therefore the TSA fee on a basic round trip consisting of two nonstop flights is $11.20, up from $5. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around that fee hike, which amounts to a 124% increase. The fees are automatically tacked onto the price of airfare.

In the past, fliers on nonstops paid less in fees than travelers on connecting flights: $5 for a round trip, versus $10. Now everybody pays $11.20, regardless of connections. So in addition to nonstop flights being superior in terms of saving time and avoiding possible delays and missed connections, there was the added bonus of saving a few bucks on the TSA fees.

Now that little bonus is gone.

Even so, it’s almost always still best to go with a nonstop, if possible. Sure, delays and technical troubles can happen on nonstops, but travelers are far more likely to encounter such hassles on connecting flights. With recent airline mergers, carriers have slowly been getting rid of the old hub-and-spoke systems at the same time they’ve been trimming back the overall number of flights. As a result, passengers are generally more likely to find nonstop flights to their destination of choice and more likely to run into extra trouble on connecting flights. (It’s less likely there will be another flight behind the one you missed, and even if there is it probably doesn’t have enough extra seats.)

By going nonstop, passengers also rule out the risk of being forced to pay extra TSA fees on connecting flights with unusually long layovers. In the past, budget travel experts sometimes recommended looking into flights with extra-long layovers as a tactic for saving money. The new TSA fee structure makes that strategy a little less worth the hassle. Now, if a connecting flight has a layover of four or more hours, fliers must pay $5.60 for each leg of the journey. So for a flight from, say, Providence to Los Angeles with a five-hour layover in Dallas, a passenger would pay $11.20 in TSA fees, as opposed to $5.60 to a passenger booked on a nonstop or on a connecting flight with a more reasonable layover wait.

Airfarewatchdog.com founder George Hobica gave the Arizona Republic an example of a recent flight deal that would be affected: $197 for a winter season round trip from Newark to a choice of destinations in the Caribbean. “The catch,” the article explained, is that “travelers had to stay overnight in Miami in both directions.” So their layover would obviously be more than four hours—so they’d get hit with double the usual fees.

Fliers booking multi-stop itineraries—usually for business purposes, but not necessarily—will also feel the impact of the new fee structure more so than others, as they’ll have to pay at least $5.60 for each leg of the journey, rather than as little as $2.50 in the past. Depending on the traveler, number of stops on the itinerary, and the reason for the trip, this might not necessarily be a deal breaker. But it absolutely should factor into the decision making process.

MONEY Kids and Money

How to Keep Your Kids From Racking Up Big In-App Charges

Kids have run up big bills on their parents' tablets. Paul Bradbury—Getty Images

The FTC says Amazon let children run up hundreds of dollars in unauthorized charges for in-app purchases. Here’s how to make sure your kid’s screen time doesn’t cost you a small fortune.

If you’ve been using your Kindle Fire as an electronic babysitter, beware that it might cost you more than a real babysitter. In a new lawsuit, the Federal Trade Commission says that Amazon has wrongfully billed some parents for unauthorized app purchases made by children.

How? Many free apps marketed towards kids let users make additional “in-app” purchases as they play the games. For example, download the free app “Tap Zoo,” and your kid can fill a virtual zoo with imaginary animals and habitats. Sometimes those items cost imaginary money – but other times, they cost real money, the FTC says.

The federal agency cites one customer hit with $358 on game bills (it doesn’t say which game.)

We’ve heard this story before: In January, Apple agreed to settle charges that it too had billed parents for unauthorized charges on kids’ games. But Amazon has pledged to fight the FTC’s lawsuit, arguing that the company has responded promptly to customer complaints, refunded purchases by kids and improved parental controls since launch.

As technology evolves to make it easier and easier to spend money, kids’ apps will likely remain a battleground. But in the meantime, here’s how to keep your kid’s virtual zoo running under budget.

The simplest solution: Turn off in-app purchases entirely.

On Kindle Fire, go to settings for the Amazon Appstore and turn off “in-app purchasing.” Apple products will let you disable the ability to install apps, delete apps or make in-app purchases. Just go to settings and tap “enable restrictions.”

At the very least, set up a password for in-app purchases.

Require that all users type a password before making any purchases – and make sure it’s a different password than the one you use to unlock your device. On Apple products, go to settings and tap “enable restrictions.” On Kindle Fire, go to settings and adjust “Parental Controls.” But here’s the problem: On Kindle Fires, each time you enter your password to buy something—say your kid badgers you into letting him buy that one new animal—the FTC says there’s a window of time when (15 minutes to an hour) when anyone using the device can continue making in-app purchases.

The FTC also argues that the password prompt is vague and doesn’t explain how much you’ll be billed. So enter that password with caution.

Do a little research before you let your kid buy an app.

Maintain a healthy suspicion of “free” apps. Oftentimes, free apps make money by collecting data about users, showing users advertising, or encouraging in-app purchases. But it’s not always easy to tell which apps will let your kid run up a huge bill. As of 2012, about 84% of the apps that let kids make in-app purchases were advertised as “free,” according to an FTC survey. Before you buy an app, read the full description to see if it allows in-app purchases. Also read reviews for the app, and try it out yourself before you let your kid play with it.

Switch to airplane mode or turn off Wi-Fi.

“Airplane mode” is a setting that turns off Wi-Fi – making it impossible to buy or download apps, or do anything else online. Quickly turn it on before handing over your device, and your kid should be able to play without making any new purchases. On Apple products, you can turn on airplane mode or turn off Wi-Fi under settings, or by swiping from the bottom of the screen and tapping the airplane icon. On Kindle Fire, you can turn on airplane mode by going to “Quick Settings” and then “Wireless & Networks.”

Did your kid run up a huge bill on a mobile device? How did they do it? Did you get a refund? Do you have any advice for other parents?

MONEY wants to hear your story. Fill out the confidential form below. We won’t use your information unless we speak with you first.

MONEY Airlines

Tell an Airline How Much You Hate It and Get 8,000 Free Miles

140710_EM_IHateSpirit_1
courtesy of Spirit

The obvious downside of Spirit Airlines' new promo is that you receive 8,000 miles to use on an airline you hate.

The “Hate Thousand Miles” promotion, introduced by Spirit Airlines this week, couldn’t be attached to a more appropriate company. Spirit, known for selling low-cost flights that come with a host of pricey “gotcha” fees, is famous for being a magnet for traveler hate. The carrier is routinely referred to as the Most Hated Airline in the U.S. What’s more, in the recent past, Spirit has more or less taken the stance that it doesn’t care that it is hated by people. “We’re not for everybody, and we’re fine with that,” a Spirit spokesperson told Businessweek in 2013, after the latest survey placed the airline at the very bottom of consumer rankings.

With its new promotion, Spirit seems to be fully embracing its reviled status. Or perhaps it’s trying to bury the hatchet. According to the terms of the deal, anyone with a Spirit Airlines frequent flier account can go to hatethousandmiles.com, spew some ill will, and then collect 8,000 free miles. While it’s assumed most haters will hate on Spirit, you can actually register a complaint about any airline at the site.

“Hate on us – or any airline of your choosing – and we’ll send you 8,000 FREE SPIRIT miles. You’ll be well on your way to earning an award flight with us,” Spirit explains.

Reward flights on Spirit can be had for as little as 10,000 miles one-way, so indeed, with 8,000 free miles, you’re almost there. But again, the downside is that you’ll have to fly on the airline you (probably) just officially targeted with hate.

What’s behind this oddball promotion? Publicity, for one thing. Spirit Airlines is known for being outrageous, with a history of invoking trending scandals (Anthony Weiner, the BP oil spill, Richie Incognito) in ads.

More important, Spirit is trying to use the hate campaign as an education opportunity. Following in the footsteps of Ryanair, Europe’s hated airline that launched a friendly rebranding earlier this year, Spirit stepped up efforts to explain its pricing structure and customer service policies with a campaign that began in May. The Hate Thousand Miles promotion is being viewed as a way for Spirit to call attention to the ins and outs of how it does its hated business, thereby, hopefully, dispelling some of the hate.

“We see this as an opportunity to educate consumers about the differences of Spirit, and in return for their hate, we’ll give them a little bit of love in the form of free miles,” the airline said in a statement to the press.

Perhaps Spirit will also read what it is that customers are complaining about, and make some changes accordingly in order to make passengers happier–or at least less filled with hate.

If you’re in the process of booking or flying on Spirit and want to vent your hate right away, however, there’s a note in the fine print of the Hate Thousand Miles offer you should be aware of: “Submitting your hate feedback is not a means to submit correspondence to our Customer Support team.”

In this case, you’ll need to send your hate message twice: once to customer service, and secondly to the Hate site in order to get your free miles. If you want them.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Ways to Access Cash Abroad

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My 23-year-old daughter will be leaving for France and Spain next week. What is the best and safest way for her to carry money? —K. Bird, Charlotte, N.C.

A: Assuming she’s going for a short time—anywhere from few weeks to several months—her best option will be to carry a debit and credit card issued by an American bank, says John Gower, senior banking analyst at NerdWallet. But she’ll want to be strategic about which institutions she gets these cards from and how she deploys them.

Typically, U.S. banks charge a fee of 1 to 3% of the total transaction amount each time you use a debit or credit card internationally. If you use your debit card to pull out funds from ATMs abroad, you’ll also get hit with an international ATM fee that’s typically around $2, though Gower has seen banks charge upwards of $5. That’s in addition to whatever the ATM you use will charge. So your daughter could be looking at costs of $10 or so each time she takes out $100. This may tempt her to just take out large sums at once, but carrying large amounts of cash through foreign cities isn’t ideal either.

Instead, to cut down on those ATM fees, consider having her open an account with a U.S. bank that has international branches in her destination so she can avoid the international ATM fee. (Citibank is one with many branches overseas.) Or she could open an account with a bank that has international partnerships. Bank of America, for example, is part of the Global ATM Alliance and because of this allows its customers to use their cards at any member banks’ ATMs for free.

Since credit cards offer greater fraud protection than debit cards, Gower recommends that she have a credit card with her as well. The best choice: A card aimed at international travelers that waives foreign transaction fees and has “chip and pin” technology, meaning a microchip is embedded in the card. Because most European countries use this style of card, she will decrease the chances that stores will have trouble reading her card. MONEY likes the GlobeTrek Rewards Visa from Andrews Federal Credit Union, which she can join by signing up for free with the American Consumer Council. This chip-and-pin card has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

If your daughter gets this card, she’d be well advised to use it for her everyday purchases—rather than paying the 3% foreign transaction fee her debit card will charge. Of course, this only makes sense if she’s responsible enough to pay her bill off in full every month.

Does she have plans to be away for quite a while—maybe studying abroad for a year? In that case, she should consider opening an account with a local bank. While there can be hassles involved with understanding another country’s banking rules, she will avoid out-of-network ATM fees and have a debit/credit card that is more universally accepted than an American card might be, says Gower. But she should also keep a U.S. account active in case of emergency, so that someone at home can easily transfer funds to her.

No matter which option your daughter goes with, she’ll want to bring at least two different types of electronic payment. That way if her debit or credit card isn’t accepted by a store or is stolen she has a backup option. She’ll also want to alert her financial institutions prior to departure of where she’ll be going and how long she’ll be there so that the provider doesn’t cancel or halt her card thinking the charges are fraudulent activity.

MONEY Autos

5 Changes That Could Make City Parking Less of a Living Hell

Double-parked cars on an alternate-side parking day
Double-parked cars on an alternate-side parking day, which takes place for street cleaning, in New York, June 16, 2014. A proposal to allow drivers to return to parking spaces once street sweepers pass has set off a fevered debate. Andrew Renneisen—The New York Times via Redux

There is a special place in hell for people who craft parking policies and create confusing signs in order to maximize revenues collected from tickets.

In New York City last week, discussion was under way concerning a suggested change to the maddening alternate-side parking rules, which regularly cause drivers to move their vehicles to allow for street sweeping. Because parking is banned on one side of the street for 90 minutes, drivers are forced to wait in their cars, typically double-parked, even after the street sweepers have come and gone. Leaving a vehicle unattended even a few minutes before the official parking ban is over can mean getting hit with a hefty ticket.

Members of New York’s city council have proposed a reform that would give drivers the OK to park as soon as street sweepers have passed, thereby saving some time and hassle for harried New Yorkers who can’t afford exorbitant private parking facilities. But given objections from the mayor and the Sanitation Department, which have voiced concerns that the changes would make it more difficult to clean streets, the reform is hardly a done deal.

Here are a few other ideas that could make life easier—or at least less mind-numbingly aggravating—for drivers driven nuts by parking policies in cities around the country:

Simplify the Signage
As one driver recently found out in Washington, D.C., parking signs on the same street can be contradictory, and you can still be fined even when you follow the rules posted on the sign nearest your vehicle. Is it too much to ask of cities to make sure that signs on the same street are on the same page?

For that matter, the verbiage, color coding, and symbols on parking signs can often be overwhelming and confusing. New York City took some steps to simplify the message, with signs introduced in 2013 that use no more than 140 characters to explain parking rules, down from as many as 250 characters and three different colors in the past. Even so, some say that shorter signs aren’t necessary clearer signs. “Just because the signs are prettier and easier to read doesn’t mean they’re clearer,” Glen Bolofsky, president of the New Jersey-based ticket fighting service parkingticket.com told reporters when New York tweaked its signage. “The new signs leave out too much information.”

A less confusing parking sign created by New York designer Nikki Sylianteng has been making the rounds online for months, but so far no city has adopted the system, which uses simple colors (red=no parking, green=OK to park) to clue drivers in. The progress of Sylianteng’s suggested “urban intervention project,” as it’s called, can be followed at toparkornottopark.com.

Crack Down on Fake Disabled Parking Placards
The fact that a site with the url handicappedfraud.org exists tells you that there’s a national epidemic of horrible people. The site was created, as you’d probably guess, because the truly “disabled have run out of places to park, as their designated handicapped parking spaces are being taken by fraudulent individuals.” Drivers are encouraged to shame abusers, who obviously hurt the disabled by taking their rightful parking spots, but who also affect local city revenues (because they’re not paying to park like they should) and make life more difficult for pretty much anyone trying to find a parking space.

Countless cases of fake disabled parking placards have been chronicled over the years, with some calling for disabled parking privileges to be eliminated entirely. New Jersey, for one, made it more difficult for drivers to get hold of disabled placards, with a requirement to verify one’s status as disabled every three years. In Washington state, where more than 700,000 drivers have disabled parking placards, discussions are in the works to get rid of the main perk they allow: free parking at metered spots. Rescinding the privilege would certainly reduce fraud, but it wouldn’t do much to help disabled drivers who rely on the help.

Let Drivers Pay Meters by Smartphone App
While fishing around in a car to find quarters to pay the meter, many a driver has been struck by the idea What year is this, 1995? We live in an era when a “smart thermostat” will automatically turn the heat on and off with almost no effort on the behalf of the homeowner, yet drivers still must physically feed parking meter with coins—and then go back in person to feed them again when the time’s about the expire.

So it’s good to see that a wide range of cities, including Arlington, Va., Chicago, and and even Great Falls, Mont., are embracing parking payments by smartphone app.

Boston drivers should also be able to stop scrounging for quarters this fall, when the technology is expected to be introduced. Not that it really needs to be spelled out, but interim Transportation Commissioner James Gillooly explained to the Boston Globe why it makes so much sense to allow drivers to pay for parking without having to resort to quarters: “Two things people have in their pockets: They have a credit card. And they have a cellphone.”

On the other hand, they don’t necessarily have quarters—or the patience to find them.

Embrace and Promote “Robin Hooding”
Wouldn’t it be great if somebody went around feeding about-to-expire parking meters with quarters, so cars wouldn’t be ticketed? Well, that’s exactly what a group of “Robin Hooders” in Keene, NH, have been doing for years. ” If your meter is expired, Robin Hood and the Merry Men and Women will place a coin into the meter to extend your time, presuming we reach the meter before the King’s enforcers,” the group’s site explains.

The group found itself in hot water—and the subject of national attention—when the city of Keene sued, saying that the merry band of Robin Hooders “taunted, interfered with, harassed and intimated the Parking Enforcement Officers.” One of the officers said he had “begun to suffer physical effects due to the stress…and having dreams related to this activity.”

The case was dismissed by a judge last December, and it looks like the Robin Hooders are in the clear. Similar cases, in Eugene, Oregon, for instance, has also led to acquittals for individuals paying for the parking meters of strangers.

That’s great for the Robin Hooders, and for the people whose cars aren’t being ticketed thanks to their efforts. Then again, it’s probably not so good for drivers who are frustrated in their search for parking spots because no one is worried enough about the risk of being ticketed to leave them.

MONEY Autos

The Car Tech That Could Eliminate Speeding Tickets

Car driving through intersection with photo enforced camera radar.
New technology aims to help drivers avoid getting speeding tickets from one of these roadside cameras. Theo Fitzhugh—Alamy

Hyundai has introduced a technology that not only alerts drivers about roadside cameras installed to catch speeders, it automatically slows down your car so you don't get a ticket.

The 2015 Hyundai Genesis has been getting mostly positive reviews from car experts. Kelley Blue Book, for instance, described the new model—the affordable automaker’s high-end vehicle aimed to compete in the luxury category with Mercedes and BMW—as “beguilingly quick” and still very “comfortable and quiet.” And the automatic braking system is a potential life-saver: Using cameras and radar sensors, the vehicle can sense danger up ahead and hit the brakes automatically if the driver hasn’t already reacted.

Yet one of the coolest features in the vehicle’s automatic braking system has been overlooked in most American reviews, which isn’t surprising considering that the technology won’t be available in the U.S. market, at least not yet. As first reported in Australia’s Driver.com.au, Hyundai spokesman Guido Schenken explained that the new Genesis’s GPS is preloaded with the locations of roadside cameras that track speeding cars and dish out tickets when appropriate. The car then alerts the driver that he’s about to zip past a camera and, if necessary, the brakes are applied automatically so the vehicle isn’t over the local speed limit.

“It will beep 800 metres before a camera and show the legal speed, and it will beep at you if your speed is over that,” said Schenken. “It knows there is a speed camera there, it knows where the speed camera is and it will adopt the correct speed.”

The technology, which is expected to be offered in the near future only in a select few markets, including Australia and South Korea, has the potential to save drivers from hefty speeding ticket fines—at least those generated from roadside cameras. It also shows a glimpse into the likely future for all drivers. Even before the era of fully-fledged self-driving cars, tools such as this will probably “take over” cars in a smaller, piecemeal manner and help drivers out in ways our grandparents could never have imagined.

On the one hand, using advanced technology just to save lawbreakers from having to pay speeding tickets may seem frivolous, and perhaps even a bad idea. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that this is a misuse of technology that will actually make roads more dangerous as it helps drivers speed more without the fear of getting busted holding them back.

On the other hand, roadside cameras are almost universally hated by drivers, so the technology is bound to be adopted wherever it’s legal. What’s more, driver groups like to highlight statistics indicating that cameras installed to catch speeders, people who roll through STOP signs, and such can themselves cause accidents. How? Basically because when drivers see the cameras at the last minute, they tend to slam on the brakes, increasing the chances of rear-end collisions.

For what it’s worth, the technology exists right now to help drivers avoid getting ticketed via roadside cameras, and it doesn’t require the purchase of a Hyundai Genesis or a move to South Korea. GPS manufacturers such as TomTom and Garmin offer a range of subscription services that maintain updated lists of roadside camera locations, and the service will beap at the driver as he’s approaching one. “This service helps drivers to be safer on the road and avoid costly traffic tickets,” the TomTom site explains. The Phantom Alert smartphone app, which costs $10 per month or $30 for a year, works similarly.

Just don’t go expecting the car to slow down automatically when the camera alert goes off. It’s up to you, the driver, to actually hit the brakes and get down under the speed limit.

MONEY Airlines

Does the “Southwest Effect” Still Save Fliers Money?

Southwest Airlines planes
Rick Wilking—Reuters

The arrival of a low-cost carrier used to mean cheaper fares across the board. Not anymore.

For years, when Southwest Airlines started doing business at an airport dominated by the major carriers, it meant one thing: cheaper airfares. Lately, however, neither Southwest nor any other “low-fare” airline is necessarily a savior for travelers sick of being overcharged.

The phenomenon of across-the-board fare decreases—and, not coincidentally, increases in the number of flights booked —after the arrival of Southwest Airlines has a name: the “Southwest Effect.” Southwest isn’t the only upstart airline that traditionally has forced competitors to up their game, mainly by way of lowering their prices. Travelers have also taken note of the JetBlue Effect at airports around the U.S., as well as the Ryanair Effect in Europe. No matter what carrier we’re talking about, the effect of a low-fare airline on flight prices and service has been undeniable, and the impact has benefited consumers enormously.

Recently, though, the low-fare effect has come into question. That shouldn’t be surprising, considering that the airline industry has undergone rapid change, and categories have blurred. Terms like “low-fare,” “no-frills,” “upstart,” and “legacy” no longer apply or have lost their meaning all together. “Full service” carriers now routinely nickel and dime passengers with fees for food and checked baggage, while Southwest is among the few allowing customers to still check bags for free.

Nowadays, Southwest proudly trumpets its title as “America’s largest domestic airline,” and it may be time to do away with the idea that this industry powerhouse is a low-fare carrier at all. Writing for USA Today, Bill McGee ran a series of apples-to-apples airfare comparisons and declared that the “vaunted ‘Southwest effect’ no longer seems to be valid.” His research indicates that it can’t be assumed that Southwest has the lowest fares in any market.

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There are places where the presence of Southwest still moves the needle. In March, the Des Moines Register reported that airfares have gotten cheaper and flight bookings have risen since Southwest started flying in and out of Des Moines last September. It’s also expected that Dallas Love Field flight prices will drop substantially when Southwest launches 15 new routes from the airport in the fall.

But overall, the consensus is that the Southwest Effect is shorter-lived and has a lot less impact than it used to. In fact, in some ways, Southwest has embraced the bullying, monopolistic, fare-raising tactics traditionally used by the Americans, Deltas, and Uniteds of the world. Since Southwest purchased AirTran Airways in 2011, an anti-Southwest Effect has been observed in Atlanta, AirTran’s traditional major hub, with fewer flights and higher fares at the gateway. In the battle for new routes at Dallas Love, Southwest was viewed largely as the bully compared to the smaller upstart, Virgin America, which was eventually awarded two gates in order to keep competition vibrant. In other words, Virgin America will do what Southwest used to reliably do: stop a larger, dominant competitor from jacking up prices.

Other airlines also still seem to have some direct effect on the local market. This is especially the case in cities such as Savannah, which until recently had no low-fare service. Then JetBlue launched Savannah service from Boston and New York earlier this year, and the effect was almost immediate:

A walk-up round trip ticket on Delta to JFK leaving this Monday and returning the next day was $758 before the announcement. That same ticket can be purchased today for $276.

The spread of ultra-low-fare (and ultra-high-fee) carriers Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines seems to have some effect on an airport’s flight prices as well. But not in every case. A year ago, Frontier returned to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, a Delta-dominated hub and one of America’s priciest gateways, but the effect has been minimal.

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The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that in the fourth quarter of 2013, the average round-trip ticket price stood at $510, second highest among the largest 100 airports. A more recent report put Cincinnati atop the list of the country’s 75 most expensive airports.

In the 1980s, the upstart PeopleExpress airline made waves with ultra-low fares and a (mostly) flat pricing structure for flights, before ultimately merging with Continental Airlines (which has since merged with United). Very soon, we’ll get to see what, if any, impact the PeopleExpress brand can have on the marketplace. A new version of PeopleExpress, headquartered in Newport News, Va., launches this summer with routes to Atlanta, Boston, Newark, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, St. Petersburg-Clearwater, and West Palm Beach. Fares start as low as $59 one way, and locals are hoping that a “PeopleExpress Effect” kicks into action.

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