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On finance and practice

Online crimes such as "phishing" e-mails, which entice consumers to hand out personal information, and other computer scams represented only 12 percent of all identity thefts in the study. Online fraud also carried a smaller financial cost for its victims, who lost an average of $2,320 from phishing e-mails, compared to $9,243 from the theft of paper mail and a whopping $15,607 from rip-offs by relatives and friends.

Is your insurance agent on your side? Some home and car insurance agents are being rewarded for selling policies to customers who make very few claims, says the Consumer Federation of America. These profit-based commissions can tempt agents to delay processing claims for customers or to discourage them from filing claims, says the nonprofit consumer research group. A study of incentives for agents selling individual policies says some companies also make extensive use of "steering fees" to reward agents for directing business to a particular insurance company.

The Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, a trade group, calls the CFA report "irresponsible" and "misleading."

Warning: Airline water could make you sick

Next time you order coffee or tea on an airplane, ask the attendant to make it with bottled water. Why? Water from airplane galley and bathroom faucets recently tested nationwide was contaminated with coliform bacteria, says the Environmental Protection Agency. The tests were performed on 327 domestic and international flights. Twelve airlines have agreed to improve their water quality monitoring systems and disinfecting processes: Alaska Airlines, Aloha, American, America West, ATA, Continental, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Midwest, Northwest, United, and US Airways. In addition, Delta and Southwest are currently negotiating separate agreements with the EPA.

Index funds delivered better returns Tired of researching mutual funds? Look at no-brainer index funds. Standard & Poor's market indexes did better in 2004 than most mutual fund managers in all investment categories except for large-cap growth funds. In that category, the S&P/BARRA 500 Growth Index beat out only 39 percent of actively managed funds. But for all large-cap funds, including both growth and value funds, the S&P 500 outperformed 62 percent of actively managed funds.

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