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02/22/2014 8:00 PM

02/22/2014 8:01 PM

Consumer watch

What are car gadgets really doing?

Remember those gizmos car insurers wanted drivers to plug into their cars to track driving habits? They were supposed to save consumers 30 percent to 50 percent on their bills. Not so much.

Company disclosures show the devices can lead to increased premiums in some cases, and an auto executive’s remarks have stirred unease about what companies monitor and what they do with the data.

Whether the gadget becomes a new pal bragging about your exemplary driving, or a tiny turncoat dropping a digital dime on you, can depend on things many drivers don’t realize insurers watch, surveys show. Example: Driving after midnight if you work the night shift or try to beat the crowds at the 24-hour grocery. Or letting your speed creep up past 80 mph on the freeway, even if you never have an accident or get a ticket.

The queasier implications were highlighted by a Ford executive who remarked at a conference this year, “we know everyone who breaks the law” by speeding, thanks to GPS devices. Jim Farley, Ford’s global vice president of marketing and sales, quickly assured drivers that the car company is not supplying that data to others and doesn’t track it without a driver’s consent.

Still, his comments point to a whiff of wariness around the still-evolving relationship between such technology and insurance. Less than 1 percent of drivers overall might be using the gadgets for insurance purposes right now, analysts estimate, but it’s a growing trend.

“The positive is certainly there are opportunities to save money,” said Laura Adams, senior analyst for insuranceQuotes.com, a unit of bankrate.com. “The negative is yes, there is some privacy you’re giving up.”


No payment card, no problem!

Forgetting your wallet may soon be no excuse for sticking your shopping companion with the bill. You’ll just need to pull out your phone instead.

Visa and MasterCard are introducing Internet-based technologies to make it easier for shoppers to buy things at retail stores without pulling out a credit card.

The two technologies were announced separately on Wednesday. They will give merchants and banks more options for incorporating so-called contact-less payment systems into their mobile apps. The customer uses the app to make purchases by tapping the phone to a store’s card reader.

The technologies tap a new feature in Google’s Android operating system. Before, card information had to be stored on a secured part of the phone. Now, it can be stored remotely instead. A retail or banking app on the phone then retrieves what’s needed to complete the transaction.

Health care

Asking doctor extra questions could cost you

Be careful what you ask the doctor during a routine exam. He might just bill you for it.

Many annual preventive exams are covered 100 percent by insurance companies.

But you could be charged for an extra “office visit” if you ask questions about existing medical problems, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol.

In the past year or so, primary care doctors say they have struggled over how to manage their time during preventive visits when patients bring up questions about chronic medical problems. If discussion turns to previously diagnosed conditions, the code for that signals the insurance company to pay for an “office visit,” which usually means a potentially costly co-payment from the patient.

There are multiple factors at work here. This practice of billing for an extra visit began before the Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandate took effect Jan. 1. But some doctors and insurance companies may be using this opportunity to more strictly follow guidelines about what qualifies as a preventive service under the act, and must be covered 100 percent without patient cost-sharing.

Cox Newspapers, The Associated Press and The Charlotte Observer contributed.

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