But as we learned from the report, in an environment where regulation is sketchy, many companies — some of them the trusted brands we've already named — are happy to pick your pocket for $10 to $20 a month. All told, the scam netted these firms several billion dollars over the last few years. 

Here's how it worked: The above-mentioned companies and several others partnered with outfits including Vertrue Inc., Webloyalty and Affinion Group to make you a free offer — a coupon or something — after you've made a purchase online. To accept the free offer, all you needed to do was provide an e-mail address. No big deal, right? I mean, you've always been told that if you don't enter a credit-card number, then you can't be charged, right? Wrong!

If you happen to read the fine print on the free offer, you'd see that by entering your e-mail address, you're allowing them to pass on your payment information to another company.

OK, you're probably saying to yourself, "Maybe these trusted companies weren't actually trying to steal from me after all. Maybe they just were mistaken about what these other companies were doing for them." That's where you'd be wrong (again), because these companies are unapologetic about the practice, offering flimsy excuses and explanations —probably because this kind of deceit has become a very profitable sideline. 

Now a word of warning: When you're shopping online this holiday season, be wary of any offers that come to you after you've made a purchase, because apparently many companies aren't to be trusted to not pick your pocket after checkout. 

Here's a list of companies who have participated in the scam and are mentioned in the commerce committee report — just so you know whom not to trust:

1-800-Flowers.com Inc.

AirTran Holdings Inc.

Classmates.com Inc.

Continental Airlines Inc.

FTD Inc.

Fandango Inc.

Hotwire Inc.

Intelius Inc.

MovieTickets.com Inc.

Orbitz Worldwide Inc.

Pizza Hut Inc.

Priceline.com Inc.

Redcats USA Inc.

Shutterfly Inc.

US Airways Group Inc.
—Bill Streeter

Misery in Missouri
We have an enduring preoccupation with happiness. It's an American art form. Pollsters are constantly probing our psyches, measuring our mood swings, tracking our present state of contentment.

Interesting, though hardly surprising — as Time magazine's Nancy Gibbs notes in her recent essay "The Happiness Paradox" — is that our general sense of well-being plummets to its lowest depths during recession years — 1973, 1982, 1992 and 2001.

So why, ponders Gibbs, is it that in some ways the current Great Recession, which we continue to plod through, is actually making us feel better?

Writes Gibbs:

"When the markets tanked last fall, happiness did too, and anyone who has lost his or her house, job or health care is probably still in a world of pain. But here's the funny thing: By this past summer, overall well-being was higher than it was in the summer of 2008, before the Apocalypse. In fact, the latest report finds America's cheeriness at an all-time high."

Gibbs postulates that the uptick in peachy optimism has a direct correlation to what she calls "the end of Expectation Inflation." In other words, we seem almost relieved that the bubble has burst, that a chicken need not be in every pot and that, after all, we can get along on less. In short, downsizing can be liberating.

This brings us to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which was launched in January 2008 and provides a monthly report card on the country's attitudinal health.

The index is broken down by state and congressional district. Utah was the happiest state last month (must be all those merry Mormons), followed by Hawaii, Wyoming and Colorado. West Virginia ranked the most miserable, even glummer than Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Arkansas.

Missouri finished a distinctly unhappy 44th — a notch above peevish Indiana and a slot below morose Oklahoma.

As far as the nation's 435 congressional districts go, Missouri's 2nd (containing the west and northerly suburbs of St. Louis) scored a relatively cheery 68th. Not bad at all.

In the 8th district, though, they sure could use some happy-face buttons. That south-central swath of Missouri placed 393rd on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index — the saddest of any of the state's nine congressional districts.

And the very gloomiest of them all: eastern Kentucky's 5th district.

—Ellis E. Conklin

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