Consumer IQ

Now Read This: 5 Sites Every Smart Consumer Should Bookmark

Did you hear about the Stars & Stripes sweepstakes scam, where newspaper readers get calls by someone claiming to work for the Federal Trade Commission who tells them they’ve won $470,000 in a contest?

You would if you followed the Better Business Bureau online.

How about the bank fee that eats almost all of the earned interest on a CD? You’d know about it if you read Bob Sullivan’s consumer blog, The Red Tape Chronicles, on MSNBC.com.

Back in 1997, Direct Marketing News estimated each of us sees more ads in one year than people of 50 years ago saw in an entire lifetime. Today, it could be argued that we see more ads in one year than people in 1997 did in a lifetime, had that number remained constant. By many estimates, we’re exposed to more than 3,000 commercial messages a day, through TV, radio, social media and billboards. You can’t turn it off.

And how do we counterbalance it?

We don’t. Instead of demanding actionable news about consumer issues, we – and I include myself in this group — click on the videos with laughing babies and cats playing the piano.

But just like in real life, where a diet of cream puffs and soda will eventually kill you, constant intake of fluffy, crowd-pleasing news will eventually turn you into an idiot customer.

Nothing can be learned from Tiger Woods’ divorce or Justin Bieber’s new haircut that will make you a better consumer. Today’s watchdogs are few and far between, and unless you support them, they may face extinction. Here are the sites I have bookmarked.

To keep on top of the latest scams

Better Business Bureau. I’m well aware of some of the criticism leveled against the BBB, but I read its blog not for critical information about its own members, but about scams. It keeps tabs on them because scams can affect legitimate businesses as much as they do customers, and this organization has a vested interest in keeping scam artists off the streets.

For product-related news and reviews

Consumer Reports is known for its no-holds-barred product ratings. A subscription is required to peruse its main content (and if you subscribe to just one consumer publication, this is it), but its blog, The Consumerist is free and it is a must-read for anyone who wants to keep up on the latest consumer news.

When I’m researching a story, I find myself clicking on Consumer World frequently. It catches some of the more obscure – but equally interesting – consumer news from around the Web. It’s not quite as slick as the more corporate BBB or the well-funded Consumer Reports, but it is no less important.

Issues-oriented consumer features

Written by consumer journalist Bob Sullivan, who is a former colleague of mine at MSNBC, the Red Tape Chronicles blog really digs into consumer issues in an in-depth way. His specialty is finding “gotcha” clauses and fine print – he even wrote a book on the subject – and translating it in a way anyone can understand.

WalletPop, an AOL-owned site has a fine collection of columnists, from Jean Chatzky to the “Consumer Ally.” It’s more of an issues-oriented site, and combined with Red Tape, Consumerist, and others, it rounds out my daily diet of consumer news. WalletPop’s posts are well-written and get to the point, which makes them very readable. Update: WalletPop’s content is being migrated to another AOL-owned site, DailyFinance.com.

Before I forget, let me also throw in a pitch for this site. I blog about customer service issues every week here on Mint.com, and on my customer service wiki, On Your Side (www.onyoursi.de). I hope you’ll consider bookmarking those sites too, because I take the very best of these five sites and try to offer good advice on being a better consumer that reflects the day’s most pressing consumer stories.

Know any good consumer news sites? Send me an email and I’ll include them in a future story.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions at On Your Side or by email.