Money-Saving Cell Phone Alternatives

Internet PhoneHow many cell phone minutes do you use each month? Chances are it’s a lot fewer than you’re paying for.

But even if you do talk a lot, cell phones aren’t always the cheapest way to make those calls. Sure, there are times when only a cell phone will work. But if you do a lot of your calling from home, switch to one of these alternatives to save big each month.

I’ll start with the cheapest option and work up to the most expensive (but still cheaper than buying minutes from the cell phone company.)

Google has a service creatively known as “Call phones from Gmail” that lets you call any phone in the US and Canada from within Gmail. They recently announced it will be free for all of 2013. I tried this out the other day after getting fed up with AT&T’s poor cell phone reception in my apartment, and the calls were crystal clear. The caller on the other end said it sounded like I was in the other room talking.

All you have to do to start making calls is install a plugin and log into Gmail. They also offer free video chats, which I didn’t test.

Another option is magicJack Plus. While the original magicJack required a computer to use, this one works with or without a computer. And that’s a game-changer, because who wants to wait for a computer to boot up before making a call? Just plug the device into your modem, and after a brief registration you’re up and running. You can even transfer your current number.

They’re doing a free 30-day trial right now, so check it out. After that it’s $20 a year.

Finally, there’s Ooma. Don’t ask me how they came up with a name like that, but according to Consumer Reports, Ooma is tops in call quality bar none. That includes land lines from AT&T, Verizon and others.

The most expensive of the three, it’s also pretty darn convenient. You don’t need a computer up and running to use Ooma. Yes, it works through the internet, but it plugs straight into your modem. Just like MagicJack, you plug your home phone into the Ooma device and start talking.

Ooma costs anywhere from $130-$150 for the device, although I saw it on sale at Costco for $100 recently. The only other costs after that are about $45 a year in government taxes and fees. You may be able to save that in one month by reducing your cell phone minutes.

My take: If you don’t mind using a headset and sitting at your computer, the first option is best. But if you like using an actual phone and enjoy the flexibility to move around the house, the other two are better options.

All three of these services offer unlimited calls over the internet for basically zero dollars. If you’re on the fence about reducing your cell phone minutes, take the leap and give one of these a try. Talking over the internet is a heck of a lot more cost efficient that busting your budget with the cell phone company.

The call quality is much better, too.

Related posts:

Low-Cost Options for Cell Phone Service

Ways to Save on your Cell Phone Bill

Photo by telebiz.com

When Canceling Cable or Satellite, Get it in Writing

More of us are becoming wise and developing money-saving ways like unplugging from cable or satellite service. For the typical family, this saves $80 a month, or nearly $1,000 each year.

And that doesn’t include the time you’ll save by not parking yourself in front of the TV so much.

“This is great!”, you may be thinking. “Who knew I could save so much money from my paid TV service alone!”

Just because you may be thrilled to save all this money, you can’t assume the cable or satellite company will be equally excited to see you go.

When cutting the cord, most people call the company and cancel over the phone. They assume that after hanging up they don’t have to take any more steps.

That could end up being a costly assumption.

Some providers are so sad to see you leave that when you call to cancel they suspend your service for a few months rather than cancel it outright. How nice of them to assume that we’ll miss them so much six months from now that they’ll just start the service back up without our knowledge or permission!

You may even receive a confirmation email of your phone conversation, but you won’t notice this little gotcha until you read the fine print on page 34.

This is exactly what the desperate cable and satellite TV operators are doing. They’re bleeding subscribers and can’t afford to lose you too.

After canceling service, you typically have 14 days to return their equipment. Some providers send you a postage-paid box to send it back in, while others require you to bring it to their local office. Those who don’t take this extra step may notice a charge of several hundred dollars for a cable box and remote on their final statement.

Even when you do send the equipment back on time, the records at the cable or satellite company may become inaccurate over time. If they incorrectly show you as never having returned their stuff, they’ll send your account to collections and you may find yourself getting calls from a collection agency years down the road.

So how do you protect yourself against rogue providers in the cable and satellite industry?

There are two things you must do each time you cancel cable or satellite service. First, get an email confirmation of your permanent cancellation after you talk with customer service over the phone. Look through the email to make sure they didn’t simply suspend your account for six months. You may have to call back a time or two until you get someone who is competent enough to complete your transaction.

Second, before you release the package containing their equipment to FedEx or UPS, get a receipt showing when you sent it. Hold on to the receipt. Then if a collector calls years later saying you owe them for the equipment you’ll have documentation to prove otherwise.

Photo by ehow.com

9 Tips to Stay Safe Online

We’re spending more time online than ever. With each new device that comes out, our options for staying connected increase. Heck, our DVD players are now connected to the internet.

The Net offers convenience, entertainment and ways to stay connected with those around us, but it also exposes us to new threats. We all want the upside without having to worry about the downside.

So what I’ve outlined below is a series of easy-to-remember tips that will keep you happily blogging, buying, surfing…or whatever you do on the Net.

The first and most obvious thing you can do to keep yourself safe is to (1) use strong passwords. For every website you log into, you need a unique password that contains letters, numbers and symbols. For convenience, use one of your hobbies or your favorite sports team and change up the letters a bit. For example, someone who enjoys fishing might choose f1shIngF@n.

Experts recommend using a different password for every site. If you’re like me you visit about three dozen sites every day. Remembering that many unique passwords wouldn’t be possible without a program like LastPass, which remembers your password for you each time you visit a site.

To keep your computer up-to-date against the latest viruses, you need to (2) set your antivirus program to download and install updates automatically. But for it to be any good, you need to put your antivirus software to work occasionally. At least once a month, (3) scan your entire computer for viruses. To round out your toolbox, scan for malware using Spybot Search & Destroy and Malwarebytes.

Your browser, operating system and other software also need to be kept up to date. So (4) don’t ignore the update notifications that pop up on your toolbar, thinking you’ll get to them later. These updates are your best defense against the latest viruses.

Here’s another no-brainer, but some of us still forget: (5) don’t open suspicious emails. If you don’t know who the sender is, do yourself a favor and hit delete without even opening it. And be careful with emails that appear to be from companies or people you trust – I talked earlier about the fake Facebook notification emails.

Since most of us, including myself, do our banking and shopping online, I have three tips to keep your finances safe. First, (6) don’t check your bank accounts on public networks. That includes the free wi-fi you find at coffee shops and airports, but also public computers at the library. These networks are not secure, so anything you type could be intercepted by criminals. You may disagree with me here, but I think it’s best to avoid doing anything involving your finances while on a public network.

When you go to buy something online, (7) look for the lock in the address bar. You should also see the “s” in “https://” telling you the page is encrypted. (8) Your method of payment should always be credit card. If you pay with a credit card and something goes wrong, all you have to do is dispute the charge with your credit card company. But if you pay with a debit card, it’s your money that’s gone and you have to fight your bank to get it back.

I have one last tip for you as you’re getting your daily fix. Criminals are getting more sophisticated every day in their ability to swipe our personal stuff. Online, things aren’t always what they seem to be. So my last tip is to be careful out there. (9) Think before you click and you’ll stay out of trouble.

Photo by hashout.blogspot.com

Ripoff Alert #13 – Facebook Photo Tagging

The Ripoff Alert is a new series appearing once each week on Fridays. It alerts you to the latest scams and ripoffs trying to get between you and your money, and gives you information you need to stay safe.

Facebook Photo Tagging Virus

Everybody and their 8 year-old kid is on Facebook. In August, the site is expected to reach 1 billion active users a month. These users upload 300 million photos each day.

So naturally, Facebook and its users are ripe targets for scam attempts. Several technology blogs are reporting a new, widespread attempt by scammers to load a virus onto your computer via the photo-tagging notification system.

Here’s how it works: You receive an email saying you’ve been tagged in a photo. You open the email, and it looks very similar to notification emails you’ve always received from Facebook. You click the link and BAM – a virus is loaded onto your computer in just 4 seconds. Then you’re redirected to a real-looking Facebook page. It’s quick, seamless, and you probably didn’t notice a thing.

But before you click on any links, look closely at the sender’s email address. You’ll notice it’s spelled “Faceboook” with three Os. Another way you can tell it’s a ruse is to hover your mouse pointer over any links in the email. Without clicking, you should be able to see they won’t take you to Facebook.

The scamsters know we’ve all received so many of these notification emails in the past that we don’t even think about it anymore. They are using our trust against us. Or maybe just our habits.

Make it a habit to be suspicious of any emails you receive that have links in them. Before you click, make sure you really recognize the email address. In this case, it’s probably best to just delete the email, log into your Facebook account using a new tab, and look at the new photos on your profile page.

Think before you click and you’ll stay out of trouble.

Ripoff Alert #12 – Microsoft Tech Support Edition

The Ripoff Alert is a new series appearing once each week on Fridays. It alerts you to the latest scams and ripoffs trying to get between you and your money, and gives you information you need to stay safe.

Microsoft Tech Support Scam

How do you know if your computer really is vulnerable?

Fraudsters are looking up publicly available names and phone numbers and calling people, claiming to be from Microsoft Tech Support or Windows Helpdesk. They try to convince you that unless you give them access to your laptop or PC, your computer is at risk of crashing or getting a virus.

Their tactics vary. Some try to gain remote access to your machine, while others ask you to install malicious software that will capture your usernames and passwords. After they’ve “fixed” the issue, they send you a bill for hundreds of dollars. There have been a few unsuspecting victims who have lost over $1,000 in this scam.

Others will try to get your credit card information out of you over the phone and charge you for phony services. Still others send you to a fake website and ask you to enter your credit card information there.

You might think the caller is legitimate because he’s able to correctly guess which operating system you are using. In reality, this isn’t too hard because there are only a few mainstream operating systems out there.

All of this isn’t Microsoft’s fault. Microsoft says on their website they will never call you and ask for money to fix a computer problem. They say it in bold type: Do not trust unsolicited calls.

Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself. Never give a third party control of your computer unless you can confirm they’re from a legitimate tech support organization you have reached out to. Again, don’t trust an unsolicited caller who claims he will solve your computer problems.

Also, don’t buy any software or services from anyone who claims to be from a helpdesk, tech support or service center.

If you suspect your PC is infected by a virus or malware, download and run free software from Avast and MalwareBytes. Spybot Search & Destroy is also an excellent tool. For the best protection, make sure to keep these up to date.

Elance: A First-Timer’s Take

I recently started a new series on yourlifeforless called Ripoff Alert, which appears every Friday. These posts alert you to ripoffs and scams that are growing and trying to take advantage of your wallet. As part of these posts, I wanted a logo that would differentiate them from my posts on other topics.

As somebody with zero background in graphic and logo design, I had no idea where to start. The idea of designing an appealing logo myself sounded like a daunting task. I started thinking about outsourcing this task to an expert, and this is when I discovered Elance.

Elance is an online community of experts in several fields and people who wish to hire these experts for hourly or project work. Programming, design, writing and legal work are some of their most popular areas.

After signing up, you’re able to post your job including the specifications and time frame you’re looking for. Then, you wait for contractors to submit proposals for your job, including their price (which is usually negotiable). You can also choose to invite up to 30 people to submit proposals. Some will even submit samples to give you a taste of their work.

After you’ve hired a contractor, a virtual workroom is set up where you can send messages back and forth and where the contractor can post files for your review. Most contractors will make unlimited revisions until you’re satisfied.

I especially like the details you have access to for each contractor. These include what country they’re from, how many jobs they’ve completed, the percent of prior customers who would recommend them, and even the percent of their clients who are repeat customers. These statistics reduce the guesswork and help you make an informed decision about which contractor to hire.

The payment system is very simple. After verifying your bank or credit card account, you make a payment to an escrow account which is held by Elance. The contractor only gets paid when you’re satisfied with the work and you release the money to them. You can choose to set up “milestones”, which are due dates by which certain steps of the project must be completed. After each milestone is completed you release that portion of the escrow account.

My overall experience with Elance was overwhelmingly positive. I recommend them if you need help designing a website or blog, or even just a small logo like I needed.

Who do you turn to for freelance or design work? Do you do it yourself, or do you outsource it?

I was not compensated in any way for writing this review. Image by blog.logodesignguru.com

Showrooming: The Battle Between Retailers and Your Wallet

I think most of us agree that smartphones improve our lives in many ways. They accommodate our busy schedules and enable us to do things on the go that wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago. But for retailers, these devices haven’t exactly been a boon.

Online shopping accounts for 8% of total retail spending, up from 2% just 12 years ago. Even though the majority of spending is still done at physical stores, retailers can’t just sit back and enjoy their success. Instead, they’re forced to develop creative ways to compete against booming online competition, which can offer better prices because of lower costs.

What is showrooming?

Retailers in all industries are facing a new challenge known as showrooming. This is when a customer walks into the store to look at an item, check the price and perhaps test it out, only to ultimately buy it elsewhere. Customers often use a price comparison app on their smartphones to help with the process (my favorite is ShopSavvy.) After scanning the bar code, you’re able to see who else is offering the product and what their price is. Often you can even order the product through the app, right there on your phone.

As you can imagine, this isn’t sitting well with retailers. Before smartphones, consumers had to rely on research they had done prior to entering the store. If they hadn’t done any research they were forced to rely on information provided by the retailer.

Retailers wake up

Smartphones have driven a transformation in the way consumers buy products. They allow us to comparison shop on the spot, giving us valuable information when and where we need it. Using a smartphone, we’re able to look up product reviews and ratings, right there in the aisle.

All of this information makes retailers nervous. They’re starting to realize that we’re becoming more savvy and they’re responding in one of two ways. Some, like Target, are asking manufacturers to come up with unique product numbers for their items so that when a customer scans the bar code it won’t come up anywhere else. They might also change the name of the product.

Other retailers, like Best Buy, claim to offer superior customer service and employee knowledge to differentiate themselves. Whichever strategy retailers use, their goal is the same: to limit comparison shopping. So how can you as the consumer fight back?

Your sword and shield

First, understand which features you need in a product. If you’re buying a window air conditioner, how many BTUs do you need? Do you want an automatic timer or a remote control? Knowing what you’re looking for allows you to look past cutesy product names and focus on the benefits of the products you are comparing.

Next, do some research ahead of time. Are there retailers that might offer a similar product, or the same product by a different name? How do online prices compare to store prices? Having a general idea of price range and availability will benefit you once you’re in the store.

Finally, if you’re not getting any results after scanning the product’s bar code, try a Google search. For example, if you’re at Finish Line looking at running shoes, type in “Finish Line” and the description of the shoe. You might find the same product listed under a different name at other retailers or online.

Conclusion

Using a price comparison app is one of the best ways to get a great deal. Now that retailers are at battle with us to limit our ability to comparison shop, we can’t rely on these apps alone. Add the strategies mentioned above to your arsenal as you’re searching for the best price.

Have you successfully used a smartphone app to find a better price?

Photo by fingerfood.5thfinger.com