Consumer ConfidenceConsumer Confidence

Consumer Confidence

Talk about a completely different kind of financial education. Catherine Hartmann and Bessie Young, both 17 and seniors at Voorhees High School in Hunterdon County, took a trip to Panera Bread Co. one afternoon in the spring of 2006. After lunch they headed to the parking lot, where they noticed a puddle of liquid collecting under Bessie's Dodge Spirit. "At first we thought it was transmission fluid, but it wasn't red. We knew it wasn't anti-freeze because it wasn't orange," explains Catherine. "It turned out to be oil."

No, these ladies aren't mechanics-in-training...they're incredibly informed consumers. Catherine and Bessie, along with three other team members from Voorhees High and their advisor, Debra Hunt, are the 2006 champions of the State Consumer Bowl, a quiz-show-style competition put on each year by the state Division of Consumer Affairs. The students worked their way through the contest ranks, ultimately beating teams from Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin and North Warren Regional High. Statewide, 75 teams participated in this year's competition, which tested students' knowledge on everything from identity theft and telemarketing laws to, well, the color of the fluids in your car.

Why should you care about this stuff? Because teenagers love to spend money, both online and offline. Did you know that the 15 to 23 age group is the largest demographic group of consumers, second only to senior citizens, in the marketplace today? And the consumer market can be a dangerous place. For instance, consumers in the U.S. lost $57 billion in 2005 to criminals who stole their identities, according to a study by the Council of Better Business Bureaus and Javelin Strategy & Research. An increasing number of young people are among these victims.

The best way to stay safe when you're buying something is to stay informed. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power. The Voorhees Consumer Bowl champs, each of whom won a $100 savings bond and a first place medallion, are prepared for whatever comes their way. "We learned about skimming, which is when a thief takes your credit card and copies the strip on it so they can use it," says Bessie. "So now that I'm driving, I use my Sunoco credit card at the gas station, rather than a regular credit card. Always be very cautious."