Personal Finance 
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How to Strong Arm Your Way to a Better Deal

The economic malaise has probably had an effect on your life, I know it has had one on mine. However, as bad as you think your personal prospects are, it’s worse for companies that have to make payroll, rent, and debt obligations. At the end of the day, you have to take care of you and your own, which is why I recommend that you periodically shop around and use that information to strong arm your way to a better deal on the services you already buy.

Don’t feel badly about using your most powerful a weapon, the power of choice, to negotiate a better deal. When you pay $60 or $80 or $100 a month for cable television, you’re not getting $60 or $80 or $100 worth of service. You’re getting something the company is selling to someone else for $30 a month. They will charge whatever the market will bear and it’s up to you, the consumer, to push back and tell them that their price is too high. At the end of the day, they would rather you spend $5 a month than quit and spend $0.

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 The Home 
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DirectTV Satellite Television Deals

If you hate your cable television, you might want to give satellite providers like DirectTV a look. My friends recently moved into a newly constructed home and discovered they had only one option when it came to cable television – dreaded Comcast. It turns out that in Baltimore, MD, Comcast has a monopoly on cable television service because they “made an agreement with the city” (in other words, Comcast pays the city for the right to offer cable). Until recently, Comcast was one of my only options for cable too, until Verizon FiOS came to town and began snatching up all Comcast’s disgruntled customers.

Rather than go back to Comcast, a company many of us hated dealing with, my friends looked at their options. They decided to go with DirectTV and their satellite television service, in part because they offer NFL Sunday Ticket. For what it’s worth, DirectTV was named #1 in Customer Satisfaction among national cable and satellite TV providers by the University of Michigan Business School in their 2008 American Customer Satisfaction Index.

They have many different packages but the one my friend Jeremy recommends is their PLUS HD + DVR Package, which has 200+ channels and 95 HD channels for only $49.99 a month (normally $72.99 a month). Included in the package is a Free DVR HD DVR Upgrade, which will save you a few dollars. He was planning on getting the NFL Sunday Ticket package so HD was a must, but the PLUS DVR package, which is ten dollars less, is the same number of channels just minus the HD channels (and the HD DVR of course).

Here is the full package line-up or give them a call at 866-277-2216 and they can explain it to you if this mish-mash of terms and explanations is a little confusing:

Name # Channels Promo $/Month Regular $/Month Savings
Premier Package 265+ $81.99 $104.99 $23
20 premium movie channels & 35 sports channels
Plus HD + DVR Package 200+ $49.99 $72.99 $23
Free HD DVR upgrade
Plus DVR Package 200+ $39.99 $62.99 $23
HBO, Showtime, & Starz for 3 months
Choice XTRA Package 200+ $34.99 $57.99 $23
HBO, Showtime, & Starz for 3 months, free DVR or HD DVR receiver
Choice Package 150+ $29.99 $52.99 $23
Family Package 45+ $29.99 $29.99 $0

The deals aren’t too shabby and my friend Jeremy seems to be pretty pleased with his experience thus far. You’ll also want to take advantage of their DirecTV referral program, which will save you a few bucks off your first year’s service.

If you have any experience with DirectTV, please share them in the comments.


 The Home 
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Comcast Triple Play Deals Are Getting More Aggressive

The other day, as I was leaving our house, I saw a rolled up Comcast flyer on my door. When I unrolled it, I saw that Comcast was offering high speed internet and cable television for $89.99. That’s about the same base price as Verizon FiOS, so it wasn’t terribly appealing. As I threw the paper behind my door, we were already on our way out, the guy who left it there was next door and he started talking to me. As he gave me his pitch, the most amazing part about their offer wasn’t the price, it was how Comcast was willing to pay any early termination fees, up to $200, I would be subject to by breaking my contract with Verizon. That’s certainly a first, I’ve never heard of that, but that’s nothing compared to the offers they currently have running online.

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 Shopping 
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Howard County Verizon Technicians: Thumbs Up!

I think that the key to finding a good cable company is identifying which ones have the best local technicians. The call centers will always be spotty, I’m sure those folks are overstaffed and overwhelmed (especially if they’re located internationally, if you’ve ever seen the documentaries), so their performance is always going to vary depending on when in their shift you call. Get lucky and get someone just beginning their shift, you’ll probably get 100% accuracy. Find someone who just ended a horrible 30 minute call with a customer bitching at them… probably not the best time to get them. So the discriminator should be the local technicians (since services will vary little, unless it’s Comcast downsampling HD!) and I wanted to give a ringing endorsement to the local technicians in the Howard County area (I have no idea how their areas are segregated). I’ve had two calls (installation and one repair) and each went very well.

My most recent one began the other day when my wireless connection to the Verizon-provided cable modem and router went down. I turned on my XBox 360 to see if the connection is still good because it’s connected via ethernet cable (I could’ve brought my computer down and connected it but I figured if all was well, I could squeeze in a couple games of Call of Duty 4 for my trouble :) ) but that connection was down as well. So, I called up Verizon and we went through the process of resetting the router, resetting the box outside (not sure what it’s called), and then checking the settings on my computer (traceroutes, pings, resets, the works). All fail. No biggie, electronics fail all the time.

That’s when the Verizon tech said that the problem was probably the coaxial connector on the cable modem/router. The explanation seemed a bit off, since I could ping the IP of the box outside (meaning the signal went through that connector), but the end result was that they’d mail me a new cable modem/router which was a good thing. The modem was supposed to arrive on Monday but when I called that night, the CSR on the phone let it slip that perhaps the last CSR didn’t complete the shipment order. What’s funny is that when I asked him directly whether the package was shipped, he would give me evasive answers (I didn’t ask more than once, I just thought it was funny he’d respond like taht). Anyway, the end result was that a local technician would be out the next day.

So a lackluster performance by the call center but once again the local technicians came through. The woman arrived first thing in the morning and got to work. We tested out everything, swapped out the cable router, and still no wireless or wired connection. She reset the box outside, still no good. She played with the settings on my computer, which I had jacked up trying to get the XBox to use my computer as a wireless modem – I couldn’t figure it out. Still nothing. Eventually we tried the XBox again and then finally the computer connected without a problem. Apparently we just didn’t wait long enough for the box to fully cycle when we tried to connect the first time. Either way, she said that she’d stick around until everything was up and running.

Now, I don’t consider that above and beyond service, but given all the complaints people have about technicians (like sleeping on the job), I figured a story about how a technician that showed up on time, was courteous and did a thorough job, would be a nice change of pace. :)

Thumbs up Verizon, please keep it up.


 Personal Finance 
8
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Don’t Access Private Information from Public Computers

Our home recently lost Internet access because our Verizon FiOS cable modem/router died (after only a couple months!) and my wife sauntered over to the library next door to prepare her taxes while I was at class Monday night. As you can imagine, when she told me this, after she’d prepared her taxes, I got nervous that she had put all that sensitive information through one of the publicly accessible computers at the library. Fortunately I was wrong, she was merely using her own computer connected to their network and thus safe in this regard.

I segregate the world of “personal/private information” into sensitive and routine information. Sensitive information covers all financial and personally identifying information such as bank and brokerage accounts, business assets, and anything account that would cause considerably harm if compromised. Routine information covers everything else including email. Loss of a routine information account wouldn’t cause too much harm (I’d be furious though) and wouldn’t compromise sensitive accounts. This means that sensitive and routine accounts never share the same password, this is a crucial step.

Why do I do this? Publicly accessible computers, such as terminals at libraries and hotels, aren’t within your control and so you never know what’s been done to them. At worst, they have keyloggers installed, either software or hardware, that log your every keystroke. Those keystrokes can be replayed back at a later time for someone to gain access to your accounts.

Also, I can’t trust myself to clear the cache, cookies, and other information every single time (on Firefox, it’s easy, go to Tools -> Clear Private Data or hit CTRL-SHIFT-DEL). What if I’m lax and click “Remember Me?” and leave myself logged in? What if I tell Firefox to save the password out of habit? What if I simply don’t log out and the next person on gets access to my information? Security breaches aren’t always the cause of a malicious act, sometimes they’re caused by user error or mistake meeting an ethically-gray opportunist.

Chances of theft are low. I recognize that the chances of someone installing a keylogger on a hotel computer or the chances of me leaving myself logged in and the next person being an ethically-gray opportunist is slim, but I see it as not being worth it. 99.99% of the time, I won’t ever need to log into a brokerage or bank account at the hotel so why bother?


 The Home 
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Verizon Triple Play: Free 19″ Sharp LCD HDTV Promotion!

This Verizon FiOS promotional offer has ended but was replaced with a promotion for a $200 American Express gift card with activation.

Verizon Triple Play Promotion: Free 19-Inch Sharp LCD HDTVEver sign up for something only to find a hot coupon or promotion after you’ve completed the process? As you may remember, I had Verizon service installed yesterday and today I discovered that they have a Verizon Triple Play promotion where they will give you a free 19″ Sharp LCD HDTV if you sign up for digital cable television, high speed internet, and phone service. I recently only got the Double Play package, which is the Triple Play minus telephone service, but I did not score a free television. :(

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 The Home 
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Verizon: Even On Installs You Can Threaten Cancellation!

Early this month I decided to switch from one crappy cable provider to another crappy cable provider (Comcast to Verizon) in an attempt to chase the lowest rate. Well, yesterday was the day Verizon and I scheduled the install (it was nearly 20 days after the order date!) and they did the typical cable provider not-going-to-make-it-as-scheduled game… until I pulled out the trump card. Let me enjoy the fun of explaining the entire story (it’ll take like a hundred words).

They called at around 10am, saying they needed to extend the installation window from 8-noon to 8-5pm because the installer called in “sick.” I’m sure you’ll recognize this script. They called against at 2 pm saying that there was a 50-50 chance that the installer wouldn’t be able to make it today and that the next available was next Thursday. This brought back memories of what my friend said the weekend before: “Good luck with Verizon, they screwed me three times on missing installs.” (I don’t remember how many times but it was more than the acceptable number of one) Well, when they called at 2 pm and asked if I wanted to reschedule. Ha! I told them that unless the next call is “The technician is standing outside” then they don’t have to send anyone because my business is going back to Comcast. Someone showed up at 4:15 PM.

I was fully planning on canceling Verizon and upgrading service with Comcast. I even called up Comcast to get rates, setup a faux install order (I didn’t fake an order to see the install date, it was a recommendation by the CSR) so they could check the date of the order, and it would’ve been next Tuesday. So, the threat of cancellation works even if you aren’t using their service (yet)!

Does this say something about what I should expect after I’m locked in? Maybe, but all cable companies play this game so you’re dealing with the devil either way, it’s just a matter of what label is on his shirt.


 Shopping 
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Verizon FiOS Internet and Cable Television Deals

So I tried the Comcast “call up and demand a better offer” trick and it failed miserably, even after I told them I was going to go with Verizon FiOS, so it’s time for me to move onto bigger and better things. Verizon just did a huge push of installing fiber in our neighborhood so I think it’s about time to let them capitalize on their capital improvements!

Unlike Comcast, Verizon doesn’t have any “trade the dish” or other strange promotional offer but they do have a little promotion plus very competitive pricing on their plans. For the latest and greatest, check this out for Verizon promo codes. The promotion on the site says “Your first month FREE, $29.99/mo. for months 2-7 (up to 5 mos.), plus a $20 Target gift card.” Everything except the $20 gift card is pretty standard and available all the time.

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