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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dealing with RV repair demands -- when the money's tight

"Into every life, some rain must fall." So said Longfellow, and it seems that every RVer has his or her own share of precipitation. Too often, those showers come in the form of something that breaks and needs repair – and far too often, it's when you're in the least position to do something about it.

On our current research tour, we had a run-in with our own sort of rain. Coming up California's Highway 99, a strange "ding, ding, ding" sound made its presence known. At first we thought it was something loose on a semitruck that was at our side, but when the truck got ahead of us, the noise kept pace with us. We pulled off at the next exit and found our LP cylinder support rack had broken, and the "ding, ding" was the sound that a full propane cylinder makes while dragging on the pavement, leaving behind metal scrapings. Happily, we were able to repair the support, but a new propane bottle was in order.

A few days later, another "strange noise" manifested itself. Pulling off the interstate we found not just your typical flat tire, but basically no tire, and not much of a rim on the trailer. After the road service guy put on our spare, we found the damage wasn't limited to a tire and a rim – the shredded cording of the wiped out tire had punctured the tire on the next axle. The tire repairman stopped counting holes when he hit a half dozen, so we got two tires and a new rim. When we spun the new rim and tire around, more "odd noises" emanated from the hub – seems that when the tire went, the cords also wrapped around the electrical wiring to the brake magnet, which in turn pulled the magnet loose, and damaged additional brake parts.

Settled down until we could handle all of that, the toilet decided it wanted to get in on the act, leaving a vast pool of water across the bathroom floor. We'd already replaced the water valve in the toilet once before – and the toilet lid had a big crack in it. It's not just an esthetics thing, mind you. Sit on the toilet lid and you'll get a free butt pinch every time. Really, it was time to replace the toilet. At the same time, we also did battle with another water leak – this one between the fresh water tank and the outside fill port.

There was little we could do to save much money on the tire situation. Since we could sit for a couple of days, we saved a couple of bucks by ordering a tire and wheel combination – rather than buying them separately. The brakes? After digesting the cost of the individual parts for repairs, it turned out to be nearly as cheap to simply replace TWO full brake assemblies, including new shoes, backing plates, etc., all put together and ready to simply slap into place. Of course, that came because we ordered the assemblies from a Midwest supplier, and we had to allow time for the units to come in by UPS truck.

But that toilet. Have you priced RV toilets lately? A call to the Big Gorilla of the RV supply industry revealed no big sales on toilets. A visit to our friendly local RV dealer suggested we might be able to skate by for $150 or so. Even the RV salvage yard quoted a minimum of $75 for a used plastic throne. It was with some amount of despair we pondered our alternatives. And then, perhaps by divine inspiration, the light turned on. Check out Craigslist.

Listed on the local Internet classified page, right up at the top of the search results for "RV toilet" was a used China bowl unit. "Foot pedal has crack," warns the advert. We quickly dialed the seller and inquired. Seems that the toilet had been leaking water into the bowl unless one firmly pulled up on the foot pedal. He'd called the manufacturer, who'd sent him a repair kit, but he was too much in a hurry to leave on an RV trip to "fool with" installing the kit, so he popped nearly $300 for a new toilet, and yes, he'd sell us his old toilet (with the repair kit) for $25. The cracked foot pedal, he allowed, still worked.

Mind you, he'd placed the advert 27 minutes before we looked it up – after he and his wife had left home for a few days out of town. So, it was another, "wait a bit," and make the drive to pick the unit up. Turns out, the "crack" in the foot pedal really wasn't – the foot pedal was fine, and after a half-hour investment in figuring out how all the parts went together, we have a pretty much "good as new" toilet – and our posteriors are no longer pinched.

If you're in a pinch, try craigslist.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Protect yourself from "card skimmers"

RVers, who travel extensively and rely on gas pumps and ATMs, may be more at risk than the average guy when it comes to card skimming crooks. Card skimmers take your credit or debit card information right off the card's magnetic strip and use it to rob your accounts.

Some who've been victimized by skimmers wonder how their cards were compromised, as many are careful never to let their card out of their possession. But skimming crooks are clever, and by using modern technology, don't need you to hand over your card. All they need to do is to install a card skimming device over the slot of an ATM or fuel pump. Then, when the victim swipes their card, the crook's skimmer nabs the information.

In the early days of skimming, the bad guys also had to set up a hidden camera to be able to record the victim's 4-digit PIN code. Armed with the PIN code and the magnetic strip information, the thief had all that was required to compromise a bank or credit card account. To thwart the crooks at, say, an ATM, even if a skimmer was attached to the machine, by simply covering the key pad with your other hand while entering your PIN you could effectively block the view of the spy camera. No PIN number, no matter if the magnetic data was captured, it's useless to the thief.

But authorities report that card skimming crooks have gotten smarter. In addition to mounting a card skimmer on an ATM slot, clever crooks are also installing a keypad overlay. Mounted directly over the ATM's existing keypad, the crook's overlay simply records your keystrokes as you enter your PIN code, and, presto! No matter if you cover the view of the keypad, all of your information has been compromised. Other advances in crooked technology include skimmers that transmit your data electronically – the thief doesn't have to come back to the crime scene to pick up his equipment to get your data – he just receives it electronically, from a safe distance.

So what are we to do to protect ourselves – and our financial accounts? It's getting more important to use that inner sense of "something's not right here." We have the innate ability to see when something just doesn't look or feel right. Here are some tips:

Materials and color different -- could be a skimmer. 
When using an ATM, look closely before you insert your card. If something looks different, the materials used are a different color or make, if the graphics on the machine are lining up, it's a tip someone may have tampered with the machine. Before you insert your card, touch the keypad. Does it "feel" hinky? Maybe it's too thick? That's a sign there could be a keypad overlay device in place. If there's more than one ATM at the site, compare the two – if one looks different than the other in some way, it may be best not to use either one.

Tamper evident fuel pump seals
Many fuel pumps are now using tamper evident seals. If the pump has been opened, the seals will either be broken, or may show different writing that advises that the seal has been tampered with. Don't use a pump with a broken or tampered seal. The same about making comparisons to other pumps works here too. It's unlikely that skimmers have compromised more than one pump – so if the pump looks different in any way – particularly with the card reader slot or the keypad – pay inside.

With pumps or ATMs, give the parts a good wiggle. These machines are built solidly, and if the card slot or the keypad has "give" when you grab it and give it a pull and a shake, something may be amiss.

When using a fuel pump, you're better off using a credit card, or use your debit card as a credit card. It's much safer to have to enter your zip code than your 4-digit pin code. And you're generally safer going inside to pay, rather than paying at the pump. Although some crooks have been able to compromise in-the-store card readers, it happens far less often.

And by all means, keep a close watch on your credit and bank account records. If you have online access to your accounts, check them regularly for any suspicious activity – and if you find it, report it immediately. Even if your card is compromised, you're not responsible for the charges, provided you report them in a timely fashion.

photos: ATM -- angusf on flickr.com  Fuel pump seal -- Average Jane on flickr.com