Category Archives: Thriftiness

Referral offers, affiliate programs, discounts, deals, free stuff, bargains, and the like. If it’s financial in nature, this is where you’ll find it.

Update 1:59 PM 9/19/2011: Tier 3 support at Virgin Mobile was able to change my Beyond Talk Plan back to $25/month, which was the resolution I was looking for. Nice work, Tier 3.

12:26 PM 9/17/2011

I bought a Virgin Mobile Android phone on July 15, 2011, back when the least expensive plan was $25/month (a terrific deal, IMO). Today, I ported my T-Mobile phone number, but as a result, I was put on the current least expensive plan, which is $35/month (the included minutes and unlimited text, messaging, and data levels of the service are all unchanged). The cost of porting my number, which was only revealed after the port was successful, will be $10/month, to be paid in perpetuity.

The customer service rep that handled the actual porting didn’t seem to know what was going on. At one point, because he seemed so confused, I stopped and asked him point blank if porting numbers was something that happened very often. After the number was ported, I received the text message confirming the change, which noted that my plan was $35/month. The phone, which was supposed to start working after the port, wasn’t able to receive calls. I couldn’t even log into my account at virginmobileusa.com because I had a $0 balance, reportedly because hadn’t paid my $35 monthly bill yet (even though I’d just paid for another month at $25 two days earlier).

I called back, but the rep I reached this time couldn’t change my account back to $25/month, and put me on hold to speak with her supervisor. When she came back, she said the supervisor couldn’t convert my account to the $25/month plan either, and all they could do was credit me the additional $10 that the new plan would cost me this month.

She said that, had the first rep noted in the call that I had been on the $25 plan, this wouldn’t have happened. But because there was no such note, the system wasn’t allowing her to change to the $25 plan.

I told the rep that I would like to keep pursuing a different resolution, and asked for an email address. She gave me fraudalerts@virginmobileusa.com (which seems like a strange address for a department that handles non-fraudulent billing problems, but OK), so I sent the following message.

Date: Sat, 17 Sep 2011 12:25:00 -0500
To: fraudalerts@virginmobileusa.com
Subject: Porting my phone number resulted in my $25/month plan being cancelled…

Hello, there.

I have been a Virgin Mobile customer under the now discontinued $25/month plan for a few months. Before becoming a Virgin Mobile customer, I had a T-Mobile Prepaid – Pay As You Go plan. At the time I bought the Virgin Mobile phone, I still had a few hundred minutes on the T-Mobile plan that I wanted to use before porting that number to Virgin Mobile.

Virgin Mobile changed the plan pricing structure after I became a customer, increasing the price on the $25 plan to $35/month. When I ported the T-Mobile number, my Virgin Mobile account changed to the $35 plan. I wasn’t told at the time that my plan would change, and honestly, I would have stuck with the original Virgin Mobile phone number if I had been told that it would cost me $120/year to port my number.

I think it’s probably possible to activate a $25/month plan, even if the helpful phone support staff cannot do this. Someone, somewhere must have adminstrative access to do this.

Can you please provide contact information for the department that would be able to return my account to the $25/month plan, even if that means putting me back on a Virgin Mobile-assigned phone number?

If the porting of a number is going to cause a change to the account, and I’m not sure why this must be the case, it would be gracious to alert the customer.

Here’s my plan:
1. Try again to submit a ticket using the virginmobileusa.com web site (the first time, I got a page not found error: “The specified URL cannot be found”).
2. Call one more time.
3. Give Virgin Mobile 48 hours to respond to the email to fraudalerts email.
4. File a complaint with the BBB.

8:40 PM 9/17/2011

A few more thoughts:

Virgin Mobile seems to be treating this as a new account when it’s just a number port. I even got an “About Your Phone & Phone Number” email from Virgin Mobile that is identical to the email I received when I first became a customer back in July:

Hey OLIVER,

Thanks for joining Virgin Mobile! We know there are a lot of wireless options out there and we’re really glad you chose us.

Your Phone Number Is: (xxx) xxx-xxxx

Top-Up Now To Start Using Your Phone:
To start using your Virgin Mobile Service all you need to do is add money to your account. If you haven’t done that yet, click here to log in and do it now. Or, give us a call at 1-888-322-1122.

As soon as you’ve Topped-Up, you should be able to start using your phone. Access to Downloads and Voicemail can take up to 4 hours to come online, but usually it’s a lot sooner.

If you want to learn about your phone click here and then click on the Phone, Apps & More page to see additional information about your phone.

Stay Tuned:
We’ll be back in touch soon with some more info about your service. If you have any questions in the meantime, check out virginmobileusa.com or give us a call at 1-888-322-1122. Thanks again, and welcome aboard!
Virgin Mobile

At the bottom of the message is an email address that I hadn’t found when looking for ways to contact customer support: ourteam@virginmobileusa.com. I’ll be sending them a copy of my first email shortly.

Also, the FCC’s Guide to Portability doesn’t mention anything about whether a service provider can change your service on you during a port, but they do state that you can port your number at any time.

The FCC also has an online form for filing a complaint, so along with the BBB, this makes two avenues of recourse if Virgin Mobile won’t resolve this themselves.

11:53 PM 9/17/2011

Just for the record, before I became a customer, I wanted to be sure that the rates for existing customers wouldn’t increase on July 20, 2011. I emailed Virgin Mobile on 07/14/2011 at 10:02 PM, and this was their response (4 days later):

Response Via Email (Jennifer) 07/18/2011 12:54 AM
Hello Oliver,

Thanks for contacting Virgin Mobile Customer Care.

We are so glad to know that you want to become part of our Virgin Mobile family!

You have a great option to take advantage of, purchasing a Virgin Mobile phone that is compatible with our Beyond Talk plans because you cannot sign up for a monthly plan if you have not activated yet a phone, sorry about that! Remember that as of July 20th, 2011, new Virgin Mobile customers will be activated on the new plans while existing Beyond Talk customers will be able to stay on their current plans.

If you need additional assistance, feel free to respond to this email or contact us at 1-888-322-1122 (or *VM from your handset). You can reach us Monday through Sunday from 4am-9pm PST.

Thanks,

Kim
Virgin Mobile At Your Service
www.virginmobileusa.com

I’m pretty sure that I’ve got a good case here.

8:28 PM 9/18/2011

I received a response to my email to ourteam@virginmobileusa.com.

Response Via Email (Jose) 09/18/2011 02:22 PM
Hello Oliver,

Thanks for contacting Virgin Mobile Customer Care.

First let us extend our apologies for any inconvenience this has caused.

Virgin Mobile values each customer and is disappointed to know how you have stated your issue was handled.

Unfortunately, the $25 Beyond Talk Plan is no longer available and there is no way for us to get it active in your account. These rate changes affect new activations and plan changes in our system, and in order to process a Port In Request, the phone serial number needed to be free. That is the reason we needed to deactivate your old Virgin Mobile phone number.

Please accept our apologies for being unable to give you a different response, but this is the policy we are ruled by.

If you need additional assistance, feel free to let us know how we can assist further or contact us at 1-888-322-1122 (or *VM from your handset). You can reach us from Monday to Sunday from 4:00 am- 9:00 pm PST.

Thanks,

Heydi
Virgin Mobile At Your Service

Right off the bat, I think it’s unlikely that there isn’t some administrative override possible. While the $25 Beyond Talk Plan is no longer available, I suspect there is a way to charge my account $25/month. But let’s assume that changing the plan is not an option. Another resolution could be that Virgin Mobile credits me the difference between the $25 Beyond Talk Plan and whatever plan they want me to use. That can be as little as $10/month, or $120/year, for as long as I am a customer. This way I’m not incurring a cost for porting my number, and Virgin Mobile isn’t confronted with the hassle of making that administrative change to my account.

I don’t believe the average wireless customer could be expected to consider the porting of a phone number as a plan deactivation and a new plan activation.

I sent the following reply:

Hello there,

Thanks for writing back to me.

Unfortunately, the issue is not yet resolved to my satisfaction, as I still strongly feel that porting my number should not cost me $10/month for as long as I am a customer.

Now that the plan has been changed, however, there is still a way to resolve this to my satisfaction. Virgin Mobile can keep me on the $35 Beyond Talk Plan, and so avoid the problem of putting me back on the $25 Beyond Talk Plan, but then credit my account the difference each month.

I think that this is a fair and manageable way of handling the issue.

I’ll wait a day to hear back from my friends at ourteam@virginmobileusa.com and then go to the FCC and BBB.

12:30 PM 9/19/2011

I received a response from ourteam@virginmobileusa.com last night.

Response Via Email (Mariela Valenzuela) 09/18/2011 10:49 PM

Hello Oliver,

Thanks for contacting Virgin Mobile Customer Care.

Please accept my apologies on behalf of Virgin Mobile, our customers are highly valued and we are sorry to know that at this moment your experience has not been pleasant and easy.

Regarding your request, unfortunately we will not be able to process a $10 adjustment every month to cover your monthly charge. We are very sorry about that.

We understand your point of view and our main goal is your satisfaction, but our system cannot proceed against our terms of service. We are very sorry for any misunderstanding and inconvenience that you had regarding this issue.

If you need additional assistance, feel free to let us know how we cana ssist further or contact us at 1-888-322-1122 (or *86 from a Virgin Mobile handset). You can reach us Monday through Sunday from 4am-9pm PST.

Thanks & Best Regards,

Maryelah
Virgin Mobile At Your Service
www.virginmobileusa.com

So, it seems that it’s time to file a complaint with the FCC and the BBB. The FCC has a nifty online form for complaints (but it’s limited to 1000 characters), so I submitted the following.

Hello,

I became a Virgin Mobile USA mobile phone customer in July, 2011 under the $25/month plan (“$25 Beyond Talk”). Since then, the $25 Beyond Talk has been discontinued and a new plan, at $35/month, has replaced it for new customers. Existing customers remain on the $25/month plan.

I recently ported my T-Mobile number to my Virgin Mobile account. During the port, my $25/month account was cancelled and a new account was created on the $35/month plan. I was not told of this at the time by the CSR handling the porting and would have declined to port the number.

I have contacted Virgin Mobile in an attempt to resolve this problem, but they have only offered me a one-time $10 credit to my account. Virgin Mobile reports that they are unable to put me back on the $25/month plan, and are unwilling to credit me the difference of $10/month each month going forward.

Details of the correspondence are at //ardamis.com/2011/09/17/virgin-mobile-usa/

Thank you for your assistance.

After submitting that complaint, I received a reply to my email to fraudalerts, sent by Stephanie M from the email address Tier3@virginmobileusa.com. I had only asked fraudalerts for the contact information of a department that could help, and so didn’t provide my phone number or PIN in that email. The reply from Stephanie M was just a request for that information. I replied to Tier3@virginmobileusa.com with the phone number and PIN.

I think I’ll wait to see what comes of the FCC complaint and the Tier 3 investigation before going to the BBB.

1:59 PM 9/19/2011

Well, that was fast. Tier 3 came through with the fix that all other contacts at Virgin Mobile claimed was impossible. Stephanie M set my account to $25/month. Her email to me:

YOUR ACCOUNT HAS BEEN CREDITED 35.00 SO THAT I COULD TAKE OUT 25 .00 FOR THE
25 BEYOND TALK PLAN YOUR ACCOUNT CASH BALANCE IS 10.00

Thank you,
STEPHANIE M
Virgin Mobile Tier 3

I logged into my account at Virgin Mobile and confirmed that the price for my Beyond Talk plan is $25.00/month. I sent Stephanie a thank you.

Stephanie!

Oh my goodness! Were you really able to put my account back to $25/month?

You have no idea how many people have told me this was not possible.

Thank you very, very much.

I think this is the end of the story. I’ll have to try to contact the FCC and cancel the complaint.

A moment ago, a new email arrived:

Hey OLIVER,

Thanks for switching to our $25 Beyond Talk Plan.

For worry-free monthly service, make sure you’ve registered a payment method with us. Or, buy Top-Up cards to cover the cost of your monthly charge.

Manage Your Account The Easy Way.
To Top-Up, get downloads, and check your balance, log in at virginmobileusa.com. Just enter your phone number and Account PIN.

With Virgin Mobile, you’re in control. It’s just that simple.

Thanks, bye.
Virgin Mobile

Update 6.28.11: Yes! The Tribune just posted an article by Jodi S. Cohen that validates all the suspicion and skepticism: Family, friends got head start in Bright Start match Thanks for keeping at it, Jodi.

Well, it looks like those of us who didn’t receive the matching funds from the Bright Start Savings Direct Save and Match program are left with two options: leave the funds in the 529 plan or accept a refund. According to all reports, Bright Start/Oppenheimer Funds will not be doing the stand-up thing and matching the contributions made before the Bright Start and Office of the Illinois State Treasurer web sites were updated to state that the promotion had ended.

The Chicago Tribune wrote a follow-up article, Treasurer to refund Bright Start contributions, that again gives voice to the nagging idea that people closely connected to Bright Start or the Illinois State Treasurer’s office were among the only account owners to benefit from the promotion.

A telling fact in the article is that “About 7,300 account holders, who unknowingly invested too late, are eligible for the refund.” I’m surprised the number isn’t higher, but it still indicates the degree to which the Treasurer’s office underestimated the response.

Also, the Tribune article is clear about where the blame is being placed for not giving account owners up-to-date information. “Oppenheimer, the program manager for Bright Start, was supposed to update the website to reflect when the limit had been reached, Byron has said.”

Oppenheimer, as we all know by now, has been sued by the state of Oregon and eventually settled with Illinois and five other states over mismanagement of the conservative “Core Plus” bond fund when it lost 38% of its value in 2008.

It’s probably time to start turning the screw on Oppenheimer or shopping around for other managers. Is T. Rowe Price available? Two of the top five 529 plans, as rated by Morningstar in their Morningstar Analyst Rating for 529 College Savings Plans 2010, are managed by T. Rowe Price. (But go with them only if they’re willing to offer Vanguard index funds.)

As of June 20, the Bright Start and Office of the Illinois State Treasurer web sites have been updated with what seems like the final word on the matter.

Contribution Reversals for Bright Start June Save and Match Promotion

Participants of the Bright Start June Save and Match Promotion who did not qualify for the match but made contributions prior to the time that the plan’s website was updated to reflect that the promotion had ended, may be eligible to request a reversal of their contribution.

You are eligible to request a reversal of your entire unmatched contribution amount, without being subject to any fees or penalties if:

(a) You made an online contribution prior to the brightstartsavings.com website update at 1:20pm CT on Saturday, June 4, 2011, informing visitors that the match limit had been reached, and you were not allocated the matching funds.

(b) We received your contribution check in good order before close of business June 10, 2011, and you were not allocated the matching funds.

Please contact your own legal or tax advisors to learn more about the rules about how a reversal might affect individual situations.

To request a reversal or for additional information, participants can call 1.877.43.BRIGHT (1.877.432.7444). Reversals must be requested by 8:00pm CT, July 8, 2011, and may take up to 30 days to process.

This material is not intended to provide legal, tax or investment advice, or to avoid penalties that may be imposed under U.S. federal tax laws. Please contact your own legal or tax advisors to learn more about the rules that may affect individual situations.

I don’t have any evidence that either the Bright Start or the Office of the Illinois State Treasurer web site was updated at 1:20pm CT on Saturday, June 4, 2011. If I recall correctly, the Treasurer’s web site was still displaying the incorrect data as of Sunday, June 5th.

What to do?

I’ve already decided to leave the money in the 529 plan. I’m concerned that there would be unforeseen tax implications for withdrawing it.

Thankfully, I have all of my 529 funds invested in the Vanguard age-based index portfolio, so hopefully Oppenheimer gets no more of my money than is absolutely necessary.

Dan Rutherford, if you’re listening, your office and Oppenheimer really borked this up. Distributing the scholarship funds back to Bright Start account owners was a great idea, but the decision to restrict the matches to 2,500 accounts was awful, and it will not soon be forgotten. Both the Bright Start and Office of the Illinois State Treasurer web sites are pretty lousy. Hiring someone with some internet savvy to identify and resolve some of their problems them would be a smart move.

The last official word…

Update: An appropriately humble letter was sent by Bridget Byron to account owners this week. The text of the letter, along with a scan, is below.

June 20, 2011

Dear Account Owner:

I have personally spoken with many of you and understand your frustration with the execution of our recent promotion and that you did not qualify for a match. I want to personally apologize and assure you that the sole intention of the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office in offering this promotion was to give back to current Illinois account holders. The promotion was announced on the Bright Start website on May 27, 2011, and eligible account owners were sent a letter, via first class mail, on May 31, 2011.

The promotion began on June 1, 2011, at 12:01am CT and offered matching contributions for the first 2,500 contributions up to $250. We now know that the maximum number of contributions as set out in the promotion’s rules, 2,500, was reached by the close of financial markets at 3:00pm CT on Friday, June 3, 2011. Unfortunately, due to standard transactional procedures, this information was not available until the afternoon of Saturday, June 4, 2011, and the brightstartsavings.com website was updated at 1:20pm CT on Saturday, June 4, 2011.

We wish we had the funds to accommodate all contributions but we must abide by our promotion’s restrictions. Nonetheless, we have heard and empathize with your frustration and have worked diligently on a solution for participants who did not qualify for the promotion, but who made contributions prior to the time that the website was updated to reflect that the promotion had ended. Therefore, if (a) you made an online contribution prior to the brightstartsavings.com website update at 1:20pm CT on Saturday, June 4, 2011, or (b) we received your contribution check in good order before close of business June 10, 2011, and you were not allocated the matching funds, you are eligible to request a reversal of your entire contribution amount (without being subject to any fees or penalties). Please contact your own legal or tax advisors to learn more about how a reversal might affect individual situations.

You may contact 1.877.43.BRIGHT (1.877.432.7444) if you decide to request a reversal. Reversals must be requested by 8:00pm CT, July 8, 2011. Please be aware that reversals may take up to 30 days to process.

Thank you for your feedback and candid comments. We appreciate you choosing Bright Start to help save for your child’s college education.

Sincerely,
Bridget Byron
College Savings Program Director
Illinois State Treasurer’s Office

This material is not intended to provide legal, tax or investment advice, or to avoid penalties that may be imposed under U.S. federal tax laws. Please contact your own legal or tax advisors to learn more about the rules that may affect individual situations.

Bright Start Contribution Reversal Offer Letter of June, 2011

You can listen to Rutherford’s interview on WJBC about what caused the problems. It starts with some babble about what he eats for breakfast, but then gets into some good information misinformation.

Update 6.28.11: Rutherford and Byron had a number of chances to come clean about Treasurer’s office employees’ friends and family getting a head start on the matching funds, but did not.

Update 6.28.11: Yes! The Tribune just posted an article that validates all the suspicion and skepticism: Family, friends got head start in Bright Start match
Update 6.20.11: A refund of contributions is the best we’re going to get from Bright Start and Office of the Illinois State Treasurer: Illinois Bright Start Match Promotion Update – Refunds
Update 6.11.11: The AP article has been picked up by Forbes and Businessweek. HuffPost Chicago also has a post that references both the AP and Chicago Tribune articles. Bright Start College Savings Program Contributors Feel Duped Over Matching Funds Promise
Update 6.9.11: The AP has written a story about this that has been picked up by The State Journal-Register. Thousands miss out on Illinois college savings offer
Update 6.8.11: The Chicago Tribune has written a story about this. Bright Start contributors angry over missed matches

When I got home from work on Friday, June 3, 2011, I found a letter from Bright Start, Illinois’ 529 College Savings Plan, that announced a really promising contribution-matching promotion. The text of the letter, along with a scan, is below.

Dear Valued Bright Start Account Owner:

As your Illinois state treasurer, thank you for your continued support and investment in the Bright Start College Savings Program. When I took office, I made a commitment to not only the people of Illinois, but also to the over 100,000 Bright Start account owners and their families.

While I am very pleased with the current financial health of the Program, rest assured I will continue to monitor the Program’s progress very closely in order to fulfill my promise to safeguard you investments. Bright Start continues to offer account owners some of the lowest fees in the nation, making it one of the best ways for you to save for your child’s college education.

As we get ready to kick off the summer season, I have some exciting news to help you get your summer off to a BRIGHT START:

We have a new College Savings Programs Director!

Bridget Byron brings 14 years of investment experience to the Bright Start Program. She was employed at UBS Financial Services for the past 11 years and specialized in fixed income securities. Bridget is a graduate of the University of Chicago with a degree in Economics.

We want to help you jumpstart your college savings!

As your state treasurer, I have decided to use our scholarship funds to help you get a little further ahead with your Bright Start account.

For the month of June, any current Bright Start Direct Sold account owner within the state of Illinois can make a onetime, special contribution to each of their beneficiaries’ Bright Start accounts and we will match that contribution, up to $250. If you have been meaning to put extra money away to help your child get to college, make your money worth more in the month of June.

Participation in the matching promotion for current Bright Start Direct Sold account owners within the state of Illinois is limited to the first 2,500 one-time contributions made during the month of June 2011. Please visit brightstartsavings.com to make a one-time contribution.

As you start to plan your summer vacations, please plan for some extra savings for your child’s Bright Start account!

Sincerely,
Dan Rutherford

Illinois State Treasurer IL0000.117.0511 June 6, 2011

Bright Start Match Promotion Letter

Bright Start Match Promotion June, 2011 Letter

Realizing that with 100,000 accounts, the 2,500 available matches were going to be used up quickly, I immediately went to the Bright Start web site, found the little blurb mentioning the promotion on the home page, logged in and contributed $250 to each of my two 529 beneficiary accounts. This was probably around 6:15 pm on Friday, June 3.

False assumption #1: that the letter was the first public announcement of the promotion

The Bright Start web site stated that the number of contributions matched so far would be reported on the Office of the Illinois State Treasurer web site.

When I checked the page at http://treasurer.il.gov/programs/college-savings/college-savings.aspx around 6:30 pm on Friday, June 3, it displayed an image of a stylized thermometer showing that 893 contributions had already been matched. The meter came from a third-party site, and there was a hyperlink at the bottom of the meter to that site. I now deeply regret not taking a screenshot of this meter at the time. I would very much like to know why this company’s data was so wrong and to contact as many of their clients as possible with this story.

Thank you, Google! Below is a screenshot of Google’s cached page as it appeared on Jun 4, 2011 16:48:56 GMT.

Office of the Illinois State Treasurer

Office of the Illinois State Treasurer page as of June 4, showing 893 contributions

Dear www.easy-fundraising-ideas.com, you and someone at the Treasurer’s office have some explaining to do.

Based on the information at the Office of the Illinois State Treasurer web site, I was confident that more than half of the remaining matches were available as of June 3, 2011 and that my contributions would be matched.

False assumption #2: that the information on the Office of the Illinois State Treasurer web site was up-to-date

When I checked the meter again on Sunday, June 5, it had not changed. This sort of made sense, as I didn’t expect that any more contributions would be processed until the following business day, so it was reasonable to believe that the meter was accurately reporting only processed contributions from the previous Friday.

But, it now appears that the meter was not dynamic and was not updated as of the close of financial markets at 3:00 pm C.S.T. on Friday, June 3, 2011. The reported number of contributions as of 6:00 pm Friday was, and probably always was, inaccurate.

Already too late

Today, June 7, 2011, at 5:03 pm, I receved an email from BrightStartCollegeSavingsProgram@e.oppenheimerfunds.com:

Bright Start Match Promotion Update

Dear Valued Account Owner,

On May 31st, 2011, the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office mailed hard copy letters to all of our Illinois Bright Start Direct Sold account owners via first class mail announcing a June Matching Contribution promotion.

Due to an overwhelmingly positive response, the maximum number of contributions as set out in the promotion’s rules, 2500, was hit by close of financial markets at 3:00 pm C.S.T. on Friday, June 3, 2011.

We are thrilled that so many account owners chose to participate in this first-ever matching promotion. While we wish that we had the funds to accommodate all contributions, we must abide by our promotion’s restrictions.

Those contributions that were received, either electronically or via hard check, before the cap was reached will be matched. Please check your upcoming account statements or call 1.877.43.BRIGHT (1.877.432.7444) to verify if your contribution was matched.

We appreciate your continued support of the Bright Start program and hope that you will take advantage of any future incentive programs.

Sincerely,

Bridget Byron
College Savings Program Director
Illinois State Treasurer’s Office

http://ebm.e.oppenheimerfunds.com/c/tag/hBN7p$hB7vEh4B8bk1gEDXGPe7X/doc.html?t_params=&om_rid=EDXGPe&om_mid=_BN7p$hB8bk1giF&heartbeat_id=

So basically, by the time I opened and read my letter (and for those people who received their letters on Saturday, before it was even delivered), this promotion had already been fulfilled.

Bridget, I fervently assure you that I will be very wary of taking advantage of any future incentive programs if they appear as poorly thought-out as this one happened to be.

According to the hard copy letter, there are “over 100,000 Bright Start account owners”. I’ll look for more accurate numbers, but assuming for the sake of argument that all 100,000 owners were citizens of Illinois, that each account owner had only a single beneficiary account, and that each account owner made a contribution of $250 in order to receive the maximum match, that means that only 2.5% of the beneficiary accounts would benefit from the match.

Furthermore, I would venture to guess that a good number of account owners have more than one beneficiary account and contributed $250 to each (as I did), so that the matching funds probably went to far fewer than 2,500 families. If the average account owner has 2.5 kids, then only 1 percent of account owners would have seen any of this money. Now, these estimates are purely hypothetical, but at best, only 2.5% of the families who are saving for college benefited from this.

Would it not have been better to lower the amount of the match and thereby increase the number of accounts that could receive some of the $625,000 in available funds. Halving the match to $125 would benefit 5% of the beneficiary accounts, and reducing it to $25 would have spread it among 25% of the accounts.

Now, it probably wouldn’t have maxed out so quickly, but Bright Start still would have gotten their $625,000 in new contributions, and they wouldn’t have so many pissed-off people, either.

Pats on the back

As of Monday, June 7, 2011, the Bright Start web site has been changed, with the information about how to take advantage of the match replaced with the following text:

Save and Match
Promotion Ends!

Thank you for your interest in the Bright Start Savings Direct Save and Match program. Due to the positive response to this offering, we have met the maximum match offers. Thank you for your continued interest and check back regularly for future promotions.

Hooray! What a huge success!

I feel particularly bad for Bridget Byron, who joined Bright Start as the College Savings Program Director only last month, and who had to put her name on the bottom of the email that must have been among the least favorably received emails in all of Illinois today.

Amusingly, Bright Start has a twitter account: http://twitter.com/#!/Bright_Start but hasn’t used it yet. Also, according to the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office company page at LinkedIn, “Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias serves as the state’s banker”. So maybe it’s no wonder that the office can’t make web sites work. However, I am delighted to find that there are frustrated people on Twitter and elsewhere complaining about this.

There are a few things that I find particularly disappointing about this whole debacle.

First is that there is an expectation that easily measurable data, such as the number of entries submitted so far in a promotion, should be accurate and updated in real-time. There is absolutely no reason that the time-sensitive information on the IL Treasurer’s web site should be so incredibly inaccurate for days at a time.

Second is that the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office/Bright Start makes no apologies for running a promotion that did not distribute the available funds to a sufficient number of account owners. You contacted a huge number of people who even if they had acted as fast as reasonably possible to participate still had no realistic way of getting their contributions in on time.

Third is that the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office/Bright Start did not offer to refund the contribution amount to account owners who had contributed between close of business on Friday and when the web sites were updated and/or the email announcing the end of the promotion was distributed on Tuesday. I feel that this would be just and fair. I participated in this promotion because I saw a high likelihood of getting a 100% return on my investment. Now, as that return is no longer possible, I want to invest that money somewhere else. Sour grapes? Maybe. But Bridget Byron/Bright Start’s attitude in the Tuesday email of “thanks for the money, suckers” is hard to swallow.

I rather expect that Bright Start will consult with some lawyers and decide on a course of action that will compensate the people who made contributions between Friday and Tuesday. I hope that this will get some attention in the Tribune, as it’s not the first time that Bright Start has seriously disappointed its participants.

Update: It seems that the promotion was first announced on the Bright Start website on May 27, 2011, at https://www.brightstartsavings.com/OFI529/PN/generated/en_us/PrimaryNavigation_05-27-11-101806.xml in a post titled “Bright Start wants to jump start your summer savings by matching your special contribution!”.

This would explain how certain account owners were able to take advantage of the promotion before the letter was distributed. So if they were willing to announce it on the web site, why couldn’t they also send an email on June 1st and then follow up with a letter?

The official rules from https://www.brightstartsavings.com/OFI529/PN/generated/en_us/PrimaryNavigation_05-27-11-102113.xml are below:

Illinois Bright Start® College Savings Program Deposit Match Offer Official Rules
The first 2,500 Illinois residents with existing Bright Start Direct-Sold Accounts to make a manual contribution into a Bright Start College Savings Program 529 Direct-Sold Account between 12:00am (CT) June 1, 2011 and 11:59pm (CT) June 30, 2011, will receive a matched deposit, up to $250, from the Bright Start College Savings Program. Manual contributions include both electronic and hard copy check contributions. Please check brightstartsavings.com and treasurer.il.gov to see when the 2,500 limit has been reached. Automatic Investment Purchases and Payroll Deduction Contributions into the Bright Start College Savings accounts are excluded. Limit one (1) deposit match per account. If an account owner has more than one (1) Bright Start account, each account is eligible for one (1) match up to $250 each. Deposit match amount will be deposited to the Bright Start account no later than 90 days after the qualifying deposit. This promotion is only available to existing Account Owners that are Illinois residents with Bright Start Direct-Sold Accounts and is limited to the first 2,500 participating accounts. Accounts opened after 11:59pm (CT) May 31, 2011 or under the Bright Start Advisor-Sold Plan are not eligible. Employees of the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office are not eligible to receive matching funds. Void where prohibited. This material is provided for general and educational purposes only, and is not intended to provide legal, tax or investment advice, or for use to avoid penalties that may be imposed under U.S. federal tax laws. Contact your attorney or other advisor regarding your specific legal, investment or tax situation. Sponsor: Bright Start College Savings, Program PO Box 6498, Chicago, IL 60680-6498.

Seriously, what about the poor saps who sent in checks? They probably haven’t even arrived yet.

The more I think about this, the more it seems like someone came up with this promotion in order to distribute funds to well-connected people who were privately informed of the promotion in advance of the hard copy letter. Bright Start had gained at least an additional $625,000 in the first three days of June, not to mention all of the contributions made by people on Friday evening and over the weekend while both the Bright Start and the Treasurer’s sites still implied that their contributions would be matched. If I were trying to scam people, I’d certainly time the mailing of the letters so that they were delivered on Friday and Saturday, and – oops – forget to update the web site all weekend. It’s pretty outrageous.

And I still want my contributions matched.

It’s widely known that Microsoft allows anyone to install and use any version of Windows 7 for 30 days without having to enter a product activation key. By using the slmgr -rearm command, this 30-day trial period can be extended three times for a total of 120 days before the installation must be activated to continue functioning.

It is less known, perhaps, that Microsoft has implemented a similar method for delaying the activation of Office 2010 for up to 180 days. The steps below are from the Deploy volume activation of Office 2010 instructions on TechNet.

To rearm your Office 2010 installation

  1. Make sure all Office 2010 applications are closed.
  2. Open an elevated command prompt.
  3. Go to %installdir%\%Program Files%\Common Files\Microsoft Shared\OfficeSoftwareProtectionPlatform. If you installed the 32-bit edition of Office 2010 on a 64-bit operating system, %Program Files% is the Program Files (x86) folder.
  4. Run ospprearm.exe.

(The italics are mine, as I was tripped up for awhile by looking for ospprearm.exe under C:\Program Files\, rather than the Program Files (x86) folder.)

The Office 2010 rearm delays the activation requirement for 30 days, and it can be used five times, for a total of 180 days of activation-free use.

If you sign up for GameFly using this referral link, we both get a free month: http://gamefly.tellapal.com/a/clk/cxlkm. Even if you are signed up on the One Game Out plan, if someone uses your referral code to join, your reward is a free month at the Two Games Out plan (so you get an extra game, too).

The GameFly Refer-A-Friend Program is completely legit, even though the tellapal.com site is primitive and cheesy. Due mostly to this little blog post, I’ve been coasting along on free months for the last year, so if you can find a way of getting the word out (blog post, facebook, etc.), I would highly recommend it. It’s basically like having a free Gamefly account.

All told, as of June, 2012, I’ve been a Gamefly customer for 17 months and have only paid for five. I originally signed up using the free trial code in March, 2011, which I converted into the One Game Out plan in April. And that was fine for me, as I really only had time to play a few nights a week. But once I put this post up in May, 2011, the free months started pouring in. By July, 2011, they stopped billing my credit card and I was getting two games per month, which frankly was more than I needed.

My only gripe is that it seems to take one day longer than I’d expect to receive the games, as I live in Chicago and they’re usually shipped from Pittsburgh, PA. But they were awesome in that they sent Skyrim as soon as it was available (which I’ve had since last October). They sell older games for basically what you’d pay at Gamestop or whatever, and you earn more discounts by being a customer for a while.

So, be good to each others and get a free month for each friend who joins GameFly! (They get a free month too!)

I replaced the shattered color wheel on my 61″ Samsung HLN617W DLP television using the excellent instructions at http://www.jangro.com/items/samsung-dlp-replace-color-wheel/.

A shattered Samsung HLN617W DLP color wheel

A shattered Samsung HLN617W DLP color wheel

A color wheel is six separate pieces of glass attached to a hub through which the light from the lamp is cast. The wheel spins insanely fast, and over time the bearings wore and it developed a wobble. Once the wobble became pronounced enough, the wheel tore itself apart. I should have known something was up, because the TV had been making a sound like a vacuum cleaner for a few months.

A shattered Samsung HLN617W DLP color wheel (closeup)

A shattered Samsung HLN617W DLP color wheel (closeup)

While the lamps on DLP sets are easily accessed, replacing the color wheel requires tearing the guts out of the thing. Still, if you’re comfortable with electronics, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with it.

I like DLP, even though the components are subject to wear and replacement, because you don’t get much more analog than using a high-pressure mercury-vapor metal halide arc lamp to generate a pretty intense beam of light, sending that beam of light through a mechanical spinning color wheel and then scattering it with a reflective micromirror chip against a surface.

I fixed our gas oven a few weekends ago by replacing this Oscillation Overthruster.

Whirlpool gas safety valve and regulator assembly

Whirlpool gas safety valve and regulator assembly

What would have been a $400 repair ended up costing about $90 and one hour of a Saturday afternoon.

I was tempted to call this gizmo (really, a “gas safety valve and regulator assembly”) a flux capacitor, but honestly, which film would you rather see again?

Update 2013.1.3: I’ve received a DMCA takedown notice about this page, and so I’ve removed the links to the torrents, which were out-of-date anyway.
Update 2011.5.31: ISOs of updated versions of Windows 7 with SP1 have been made available to Microsoft TechNet and MSDN subscribers. I’ve posted a link to the torrent in my post about the Windows 7 with SP1 (media refresh).

This article explains how to obtain leaked, legitimate ISOs of Windows 7 (both x86 and x64 versions), and create a bootable USB drive that can install any edition (though only Home Premium through Ultimate are recommended). It wraps up with a neat trick to extend the 30-day pre-activation ‘evaluation period’ to 120 days. This article assumes that you intend to purchase your software eventually. It does not tell you how to obtain a product activation key or circumvent activation.

Step 1: Get the RTM Windows 7 release

Windows 7 RTM is build version 6.1.7600.16385. This version was released to Microsoft TechNet and MSDN subscribers in the summer of 2009 and quickly made its way onto BitTorrent.

64-bit (x64) Windows 7 Ultimate RTM English Retail DVD ISO Image

File Name: 7600.16385.090713-1255_x64fre_client_en-us_Retail_Ultimate-GRMCULXFRER_EN_DVD.iso
Size: 3224686592 bytes
CRC: 1F1257CA
MD5: F43D22E4FB07BF617D573ACD8785C028
SHA-1: 326327CC2FF9F05379F5058C41BE6BC5E004BAA7

32-bit (x86) Windows 7 Ultimate RTM English Retail DVD ISO Image

File Name: 7600.16385.090713-1255_x86fre_client_en-us_Retail_Ultimate-GRMCULFRER_EN_DVD.iso
Size: 2501894144 bytes
CRC: C1C20F76
MD5: D0B8B407E8A3D4B75EE9C10147266B89
SHA-1: 5395DC4B38F7BDB1E005FF414DEEDFDB16DBF610

Below are the official SHA1 hashes of these releases copied and pasted from technet.microsoft.com. I’ve checked them against the actual files from the torrents and they match.

64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate
File Name: en_windows_7_ultimate_x64_dvd_x15-65922.iso
Date Published (UTC): 8/6/2009 9:59:56 AM Last Updated (UTC): 8/24/2009 8:59:33 AM
SHA1: 326327CC2FF9F05379F5058C41BE6BC5E004BAA7 ISO/CRC: 1F1257CA

32-bit Windows 7 Ultimate
File Name: en_windows_7_ultimate_x86_dvd_x15-65921.iso
Date Published (UTC): 8/6/2009 9:59:56 AM Last Updated (UTC): 8/24/2009 8:59:33 AM
SHA1: 5395DC4B38F7BDB1E005FF414DEEDFDB16DBF610 ISO/CRC: C1C20F76

As a general rule, don’t download just any torrent that you come across, and do use a hash calculator (like HashCalc) to verify that the hash of the file you’ve downloaded matches that posted by a trusted source. Download the file, calculate the hash, copy it, find a trustworthy web site (like microsoft.com) that displays the hash, and then do a Find in your browser on that page for the hash you’ve copied. If the hash you calculated matches the hash displayed on the web site, you can trust the file is legit.

Step 2: Prepare the USB drive

You’ll need a 4 GB flash drive to hold the installation files. Microsoft offers a neat little program that will extract the ISO to a USB drive and make it bootable. It can also burn the ISO to a DVD. Download the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool.

If you’re currently using a 32-bit version of Windows XP or Vista and want to create a bootable USB drive containing the 64-bit (x64) version of Windows 7, you’ll need to obtain the bootsect.exe file from the 32-bit (x86) version of Windows 7.

If you want to get this file yourself, first download the 32-bit ISO. You can use any number of applications to open the ISO, but I recommend 7-Zip because it’s a great free alternative to WinZip. Open the ISO and then copy the /boot/bootsect.exe file into the same folder as the Windows7-USB-DVD-Download-Tool.exe (e.g. %USERNAME%\AppData\Local\Apps\Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool).

If that’s too much work, you can Google 32-Bit Windows 7 Bootsect.exe and take your chances.

Run the tool (%USERNAME%\AppData\Local\Apps\Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool\Windows7-USB-DVD-Download-Tool.exe) and follow the prompts. After Windows 7 has been loaded on the USB drive, you will be able to boot from it and install Windows 7 Ultimate. (You may have to change the boot order in the BIOS to boot from USB Storage Device.)

Step 3: Configure the installer

What if you want to install an edition other than Ultimate?

Both the 32-bit and 64-bit ISOs contain all the different editions of Windows. The edition you actually install is determined by a tiny text file named ei.cfg in the /sources/ directory of the install media. If you want to install a different edition of Windows, you just need to browse the USB drive and open the /sources/ directory. Open the ei.cfg file in Notepad and change the EditionID to whatever edition you wish to install. The contents of the file will look like this:

[EditionID]
Ultimate
[Channel]
Retail
[VL]
0

The options for the EditionID are:

  • Starter
  • HomeBasic
  • HomePremium
  • Professional
  • Ultimate

In the alternative, if you delete ei.cfg, you’ll be asked to choose which edition of Windows to install during the installation process, which is probably much more useful.

For more information and links to some software that will modify the ISO for you, see How to Select Any Edition or Version (SKU) of Windows 7 to Install From Single Edition DVD Disc Media or ISO.

I would strongly recommend installing the edition that you intend to purchase, as you cannot enter a Home Premium product activation key on a system running Ultimate. You’d have to do a clean install of the edition that matches the key you bought.

Step 4: Extend your pre-activation trial for 120 days

Microsoft allows anyone to install and use any version of Windows 7 for 30 days without having to enter a product activation key. This 30-day trial period can be extended three times for a total of 120 days before the installation must be activated to continue functioning. This extension is done using a Microsoft utility called the Software License Manager (slmgr) that ships with Windows.

If you haven’t entered a product activation key, you can click Start, then right-click Computer and choose Properties to see how many days are left before activation is required. When that number approaches 0, click Start | All Programs | Accessories. Right-click Command Prompt and choose Run As Administrator. Enter your administrator password, if asked.

Type the following command and press Enter:

slmgr -rearm

Be sure to include the space after slmgr and the hyphen in front of rearm.

Restart Windows 7.

In Summary

The last days of Windows 7 RC are approaching, and I’m probably going to end up buying Home Premium. Professional would be my first choice, but it’s probably not really necessary. However, after using Ultimate for so long, I want to know that I’ll be able to get by with a reduced feature set, so I definitely want to test-drive Professional and then Home Premium before I buy.

These Godaddy promotion / coupon codes were confirmed valid as of June 30, 2006. Godaddy expires promotional codes pretty regularly, so it pays to just search for codes when you need them and then try a bunch to find the best discount.

There is a great list of GoDaddy coupon codes at Fat Wallet that is more up-to-date than this one, but even then, some are expired or invalid.

  • david = $1
  • usa6 = $1
  • candy = $1
  • todd = 10%
  • gdbb730 = 10%
  • gdbb85710 = 10%
  • gdbb776 = 10% off non-domain renewals and $7.50 .com & .net renewals
  • goox025afc = 7.49 .com renewals
  • OYH10 = $2.50 off / $7.49 .com and renewals
  • gd4920d5 = 20% off
  • BBCN10AF = 20% off $40 or more
  • BB73025 = 25% off $75 or more
  • gdbba46 = 25% off $75 or more
  • gda3145a = 26% off
  • DEC2012E = 25% off
  • OCT12BB = 30% off $100 or more
  • Jan2014S = 30% off $100 or more
  • HPFBG25 = 25% off