By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com
updated 8/27/2008 4:36:13 PM ET 2008-08-27T20:36:13

Reporting on consumer news never gets old. I’ve warned you about contaminated toys, scam artists, crash tests … anything that helps you become a smarter consumer.

I get a lot of my ideas from you, the reader. From credit scores to oil changes, I receive a wide variety of questions. Here are some of the e-mails that have appeared in my inbox lately.

Q: Will using a credit counseling service ruin my credit score?

It could, but it could also get you moving in the right direction. If your debt load is already unmanageable – your credit cards are maxed out and you’re unable to make payments – your credit score is probably already low. So getting help from a reputable credit counselor is the smart way to go.

The fact that you are receiving credit counseling may be noted in your credit report, but according to Craig Watts, public affairs manager for Fair Isaac Corp., it will not impact your credit score. Watts says your FICO score may be affected (positively or negatively) if the counseling service has you close accounts, pay down outstanding balances, or negotiate partial payments of your debts.

“As a general rule, when a lender settles for only part of the balance due on an account, the way this status is reported to the credit bureaus will lower a person’s score,” Watts explains. The way to restore a poor FICO score, he says, “is to begin a new, consistent pattern of responsible credit management.”

The bottom line: If using the services of a reputable credit counselor gets you back on track, do it.

Q: I received a government coupon to buy a digital TV converter box. When I did decide to use it, it had expired. I asked for a new one, but they said it was against the law to do that. Is that true?

There’s a lot of confusion about the transition to all-digital broadcasting. On Feb. 17, 2009, most TV stations across the country will turn off their analog transmitters and only broadcast a digital signal. Once the switch is made, anyone with an old analog TV — which uses rabbit ears or rooftop antenna — will need cable or satellite service or a digital-to-analog converter box to receive local TV stations.

The converter boxes retail for about $60, but the federal government will pick up most of the cost. Each household can get two $40-off coupons. You can use one per box — they cannot be combined — and they cannot be used to pay for any state sales tax.

These coupons are good for 90 days from the date they are mailed. An expiration date is printed on each one. If you receive one coupon and it expires, you can apply for a second one. But once you are sent two coupons, you cannot get any more.

Q: I use those new compact fluorescent bulbs. I like to save energy, but I’ve noticed that when the bulbs burn out, there are brown marks, that look like burn marks, at the base of the bulb. Should I be concerned?

No need to worry. The safety experts at Underwriters Laboratories tell me this is rather common. You may see some smoke, smell a distinct odor, or see a discoloration at the base of the bulb. “It does not mean the bulbs are a shock or fire hazard. It's just different technology,” says UL’s consumer affairs manager John Drengenberg.

Because they contain a tiny amount of mercury, compact fluorescent bulbs do not go in the trash. They need to be properly recycled, and that's getting easier to do. You can now bring old, unbroken CFL bulbs to any Home Depot store. Ikea also recycles them.

Q: At my place of employment we were given cards to fill out for donations to United Way. We were told we must fill out the card and put an amount even if it were zero. To me and a lot of other employees, this was nothing but an attempt at intimidation. Is this allowed?

I can’t say why your employer did this. But I’ve worked for companies that did the same thing. They said it was so they could get credit for 100 percent participation. I always thought that was ridiculous. I’m a longtime supporter of the United Way, but like you, I don’t want to feel pressure from my employer to give.

John Fine, CEO of the United Way of King County in Seattle says many companies do this “to make sure everyone has a chance to give.” But Fine is quick to say a company “should not force you” to return the donation card.

What should you do next time? Fine suggests telling the boss you received the card and decided not to give. Maybe that will work.

Q: I own a 1975 Porsche Targa. I drive it a few hundred miles a year. Should I continue to change the engine oil every year or two? Would it do damage to the engine to wait until the car has accumulated 3,000 miles of driving? And how often should I start the car to keep it in good condition?

In your situation, the oil changes should be based on time not mileage.

“Oil can be harmed just as much from sitting around in an engine as it does from use,” says Consumer Reports auto technician John Ibbotson. He recommends doing that at least once a year, because moisture will build up inside the engine due to condensation and contaminate the oil.

You should drive the car each month for about 30 minutes. “You want to get things moving,” says Tony Molla, vice president of communication for The National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence. Running the car will get rid of moisture in the engine and also recharge the battery.

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Data: Latest rates in the US

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Home equity type Today +/- Chart
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$30K home equity loan FICO 5.80%
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