Follow these tips to avoid scams and common consumer problems
by: Paul Muschick
A report released this week about top scams and consumer complaints offered a lot of advice about how to spot and avoid fraud and common problems.
The report, from the Consumer Federation of America and North American Consumer Protection Investigators, touched on a lot of dilemmas I’ve written about or heard are happening locally, so can learn from their advice:
Look for auto repair facilities that feature technicians certified by the nonprofit National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). For more information go to www.ase.com.
Have a problem with an auto repair shop? Give the owner or manager a chance to resolve it, but if that fails, contact your state or local consumer protection agency for advice and assistance. (In Pennsylvania, that’s the attorney general’s office, 800-441-2555 or www.attorneygeneral.gov).
Before you buy a used car, have it checked out by a mechanic you trust to look for problems that might not be obvious to you until after the purchase.
Eyeing a used car? Get its previous history through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, www.vehiclehistory.gov, so you’ll know what you’re bargaining for. However, there may be problems that don’t show up in these reports. For instance, not all states require cars that were bought back as “lemons” to be “branded” as such. Your state or local consumer protection agency may provide information on its website about what to ask BEFORE you sign on the dotted line. You can also find car buying tips from the International Association of Lemon Law Administrators at http://ialla.net/pub_1.htm.
Do you suspect that a car dealer is doing something shady? Report it to your state or local consumer protection agency.
Need help modifying your loan or avoiding foreclosure? For information about your options and eligibility for help from the government go to www.makinghomeaffordable.gov. To talk to a housing counselor certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development call 888-995-4673, TTY 877-304-9707. These services are free. Your state or local consumer protection agency may also be able to help.
You have the right to dispute card charges that you never authorized. See www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0213-lost-or-stolen-credit-atm-and-debit-cards for tips from the Federal Trade Commission about what to do if your credit card is lost or stolen.
Don’t be pressured into paying money that you don’t owe. If you’re not sure, or the amount is incorrect, or you believe that you don’t owe the debt at all, you can dispute it. Learn more about fake debt collectors at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0258-fake-debt-collectors.
State laws set limits on the number of years that creditors have to sue for debts. That doesn’t prevent debt collectors from contacting people after that time has passed, however, to try to convince them to pay. Learn more at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0117-time-barred-debts and ask your state or local consumer protection agency what the time limit is under your state’s law.
Under federal law, you have the right to tell debt collectors not to contact you again. It’s illegal for them to call with annoying frequency or at certain hours, falsely say they’re going to take legal action, use obscene language, threaten bodily harm, or reveal information about your debt to someone else. You may also have rights under state law; check with your state or local consumer protection agency.
Keep records of loan discharges and other important paperwork in safe-keeping indefinitely since you never know when you might need the documentation.
It’s hard to tell if a website is fake. One thing to look for is whether the “http” at the beginning of the address bar turns to “https” at the point where you are providing your financial information, indicating that the site is secure. But that’s still no guarantee that the site is legitimate. Payday loans are expensive and can trap you in never-ending cycle of debt. If you really need one, it may be safest to apply in person rather than online. Be sure that you know how the loan works, how much it will cost and if it’s legal where you live, and don’t take it unless you’re sure that you can pay it off when it’s due. Learn more at www.consumerfinance.gov/askcfpb/search/?selected_facets=category_exact:payday-loans.
Before you pay for help getting a job, ask your state or local consumer protection agency if there are laws or regulations that the employment agency or service must follow. There may be restrictions, for instance, on charging customers before the promised services are actually provided. Check the company’s complaint records at the Better Business Bureau. For tips on job scams and how to protect yourself, go to www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0243-job-scams.
If you don’t see prices posted for food or other items offered by sidewalk vendors, how can you be sure that you are being charged fairly? Take your business elsewhere.
If you have legitimately won a prize or are in line for an inheritance, you’ll be notified by certified letter, not by email, and you won’t be asked to pay to claim it. These scams take advantage of our natural desire to believe that it’s our lucky day. But if you send money your luck, and your savings, will eventually run out. Learn more about how to spot and avoid scams at www.fraud.org.
Looking for a place to live or to stay while on vacation? Use realtors that are in directory listings or well-known platforms such as Airbnb and beware of danger signs of fraud such as requests to wire money. For more about rental scams go to www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0079-rental-listing-scams.
The IRS doesn’t contact taxpayers via email, text messages or social media channels to ask for personal or financial information. And IRS agents don’t call taxpayers with threats of lawsuits or arrests. Report suspected IRS imposter scams to the Inspector General at the U.S. Treasury.
If someone calls unexpectedly claiming to be from your utility company, demanding payment or your service will be shut off, don’t panic and don’t send any money. Hang up and call your utility company directly to verify your account balance and report the scam. Make sure that everyone in your home and business is aware of utility imposter scams and knows the danger signs, such as asking for payment to be made via prepaid cards, gift cards, or PayPal. It’s also helpful to report this and other imposter scams to your state or local consumer protection agency so that it can issue a public warning.
Last summer the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued an alert about these scams. Go to www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2015/august/business-e-mail-compromise/business-e-mail-compromise.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office within the Department of Homeland Security can answer questions about immigration and supply the required forms. Go to www.uscis.govor call 800-375-5283, TDD 800-767-1833. Only licensed attorneys or nonprofit organizations that are authorized by the USCIS can represent you or give you legal advice about immigration.
Gasoline sales are regulated to make sure that consumers are getting the quantity and the octane that was displayed on the pumps and that the gas is not adulterated. If you suspect that the gas you purchased was bad, ask your state or local consumer protection agency where to report it.
Read your contract for fuel deliveries carefully so you’ll know if it automatically renews for the next heating season and what steps you need to take if you want to get fuel from another supplier.
Prepaying for propane or heating oil may save you money, but make sure you get a written contract that shows what you bought, how much you paid, and whether there will be any additional charges.
Using a credit card is the best way to pay for fitness services in advance because you have the right to dispute the charges if you don’t get what you were promised. Since situations can change, avoid contracts that lock you in for a long period of time and require you to pay a penalty if you cancel.
Be skeptical of claims that you can shed fat without changing your eating habits or exercising. You’ll end up losing your money rather than losing pounds. Learn more about weight loss and fitness at www.consumer.ftc.gov/topics/weight-loss-fitness.
Order health-related products only from businesses that you know and trust or whose reputations you have checked with the Better Business Bureau.
In many states contractors must be licensed or registered to ensure that they are competent and operating safely. Before you hire one, ask your state or local consumer protection agency what requirements apply and how you can check on whether the contractor is in compliance.
Pay only a small deposit when you contract for home improvement work; some state laws limit the percentage of the total price that can be requested upfront. Never pay the full amount until the job is done. Get a written contract that sets out the work and payment schedule. Payments should be proportionate to the work done and the supplies that have been ordered.
Steer clear of driveway pavers, painters, roofers, or other itinerant contractors that show up uninvited at your door. These are scammers whose only interest is to take your money. If they do any work at all, it is shoddy and incomplete. Don’t let them in your house. Just say “no thanks” and contact the police after they leave. If you can, give the police a description of the vehicle and the license plate number.
Remodeling can be an overwhelming project for homeowners. There are so many decisions to make initially, and you may want to change or add things as the job progresses. There may also be unexpected problems with suppliers and subcontractors. Good communication with the contractor is key. Make sure you understand what is included in the contract, get agreement about all changes or additions, and the related costs, in writing, and talk to your contractor as soon as possible if you have any questions or concerns.
Even reputable contractors may take on more jobs than they can handle or experience personal problems that interfere with their work. To protect yourself, pay only a small amount upfront and proportionately as the work progresses.
If the contractor’s work doesn’t look right to you, hold off on making the final payment until you resolve the issue. Ask your state or local consumer protection agency for advice.
New home construction is an expensive investment. Get all promises in writing and if there is a warranty bring any problems to the builder’s attention within the time period required. If defects in materials or construction appear after the warranty has expired, you may still have recourse. Contact your local building inspector. You may need to hire an expert to determine what the problem is and how to fix it.
Before you hire a contractor, get a few estimates for the work and references from other customers. Beware of scare tactics such as “you must have this roof repaired immediately,” especially if you haven’t noticed any problems. If it’s truly an emergency situation and you don’t have time to shop around for the work, at least ask your state or local consumer protection agency if there are licensing or registration requirements that apply and check to confirm that the contractor you’re considering has met them.
If your phone number is on the federal or a state “Do Not Call” registry and you’re getting sales calls from companies that you don’t do business with, or you’re getting pre-recorded sales calls from a company that you never gave written permission to make those kinds of calls to you, it’s a violation of your telemarketing rights. Learn more about your rights and where to report violations at http://consumerfed.org/consumer_info/understanding-your-telemarketing-rights/.
Ask your state or local consumer protection agency if door-to-doors sellers must be licensed or registered in your jurisdiction. If the answer is yes, when salespeople unexpectedly appear at your door, demand to see proof that they have complied, and report them to the proper authorities if they haven’t. If they claim to be from a company that you already do business with, leave them on your doorstep while you call the company directly to check.
To protect consumers from high-pressure door-to-door sales tactics, federal law provides the right to cancel purchases for more than $25 made at home or somewhere else other than the seller’s normal place of business. If you are not given notice of that right at the time of sale, your right to cancel continues. There are some exceptions. You may also have cancellation rights and other grounds for terminating a contract under state law; ask your state or local consumer protection agency. To learn more go to www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0176-buyers-remorse-when-ftcs-cooling-rule-may-help.
The federal Telemarketing Sales Rule requires telemarketers to tell you who they represent, that they are calling to try to sell you something, and, if they are offering the chance to win a prize, that it’s not necessary to make a purchase and that doing so will not increase your chances of winning. There may also be requirements for telemarketers under your state law. Don’t let yourself be talked into buying something that you don’t really want. If you believe that you were misled by a telemarketer, contact your state or local consumer protection agency.
You can put your phone number (including cell phone) on the national Do Not Call registry to reduce the number of sales calls you receive, but there is no government-run Do Not Mail registry. Most legitimate companies, however, will respect your request to stop sending you their offers. There are also services provided by industry associations and credit bureaus to remove you from mailing lists for free or very low cost. Learn more about stopping unwanted mail, email, and telemarketing solicitations at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0262-stopping-unsolicited-mail-phone-calls-and-email.
When you buy an appliance, keep advertisements, receipts, the warranties, and any other documentation that you have in case there are questions later about what you were led to expect. Using a credit card is the best way to pay for a major purchase because you have the right to dispute the charges if the item was never delivered or it doesn’t conform to the claims that the seller made about it.
Manufacturers don’t have to provide warranties, but most do, especially for expensive items, because they want consumers to know that they stand behind their products. If there is a warranty, you have the right to see it before you make the purchase, no matter whether you’re shopping in a store, in a catalog, or on the Internet. Warranties vary in terms of how long they are, what they cover, and what you have to do to get repairs or a replacement. In addition to written warranties, you have “implied warranty rights” to expect that something is going to work as you would reasonably expect it to. To learn more about warranties go to www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0252-warranties.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has launched a campaign to educate the public about the dangers of furniture tip-overs and how to prevent them. Simple steps such as anchoring televisions to the wall, securing top-heavy furniture, and removing toys and other items from on top of furniture so children won’t be tempted to climb to reach them can save lives. For more information go to www.cpsc.gov/en/safety-education/safety-education-centers/tipover-information-center/.
Notice something that looks odd on a gas pump or ATM? It could be a skimming device that identity thieves have attached to steal your account numbers. Report your suspicions immediately to the gas station or financial institution and use a different machine. If you find an unauthorized charge or debit on your account, tell your financial institution immediately.
Don’t wait until April 15th to file your income taxes – do it as early as possible so that if you discover that you’re a tax ID theft victim you’ll be able to start the process of resolving the problem. The IRS is working with law enforcement agencies and tax preparation services to detect and prevent tax ID theft and help victims. More information is at www.irs.gov/individuals/identity-protection. Be aware that if your Social Security number is being used to steal your tax refund, it’s possible that it’s being used for other fraudulent purposes as well. You’ll find a complete guide to what to do if you’re an ID theft victim at https://identitytheft.gov/.
If you’re considering buying a car that is advertised on the Internet take care, especially if the seller is far away. It is well-worth paying a local mechanic to inspect it and getting the vehicle’s history before you commit to the purchase and the expense of having it shipped. If you have problems after you buy the car you may find that it’s difficult to resolve them unless the seller is willing to cooperate.
It’s so easy to find and purchase products and services online that we sometimes fail to focus on the terms and conditions. Pay attention to important information such as whether there will be ongoing charges unless you notify the company that you want to cancel. These are commonly found in offers of “free” products and various types of membership programs. If the terms weren’t made clear or were deeply buried in the fine print, report the problem to your state or local consumer protection agency. You may also be able to dispute the charges on your debit or credit card if they weren’t clearly disclosed.
When you donate to someone who is creating a new product or launching a new business there is no guaranty that you’ll get what you were promised in return. You could lose your money, even if the person you’re giving it to is well-intentioned. If you’re using a “crowdfunding” website to make a donation, check to see if it vets the projects that it lists or provides any protection. See more about crowdfunding at
www.ag.ny.gov/press-release/ag-schneiderman-offers-tips-new-yorkers-using-crowdfunding-websites-make-donations and www.consumerreports.org/cro/money/crowdfunding-scam.
Many states require landlords to ensure that their rental property meets certain safety and health standards. Your lease may also state that the landlord will keep the property in good condition. If you call your landlord about a problem, follow up with a letter and keep a copy so you’ll have a record of when you provided notice. The time limits for landlords to make repairs sometimes depend on the severity of the problems. Your state or local consumer protection agency can give you information about your rights and how to enforce them if the landlord doesn’t cooperate.
If there is a lease, be sure to read it before signing and get a copy so you’ll know what you can and cannot do on the property.
As a general rule, advertising should be truthful and not deceptive, and any information that is important to a consumer’s decision whether to buy or use a product – such as the fact that it is used – should be clearly disclosed.
Counterfeiting is not just a problem for the manufacturers whose brands are being faked; it’s a problem for consumers as well. Counterfeit goods are often poor quality and in some cases, such as with car parts and medicines, they can be downright dangerous. Another reason to be concerned about counterfeit goods is that they are often supplied by organized crime rings, so buying them puts money in the pockets of crooks. Learn more about counterfeits and how to report them at www.stopfakes.gov.
Pay attention when you’re using coupons at the store to make sure that the items ring up at the discounted prices. If there are any problems, politely ask to speak with the manager.
Some scammers take advantage of ethnic, religious or other kinds of relationships to gain people’s trust and swindle them. Because of the insular nature of some groups, these “affinity” crimes often go unreported. If you know or suspect that a criminal is targeting people in your community, contact your state or local consumer protection agency and the police.
Handling the arrangements after a death can be stressful, but just as with other major purchases, it’s important to get a contract that specifies what will be done and when, and to follow up with the seller if the products or services are not provided on time. Don’t pay the full amount before everything you were promised has been done.
Paying for funeral expenses in advance is a good idea. It ensures that the arrangements that will be needed are covered and locks in the price. But it may also lock you into services without the ability to change them later. Read the contract carefully and ask questions so you’re sure you understand the terms. Learn more at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0305-planning-your-own-funeral.
When you’re considering any kind of services, whether it’s tattooing or tailoring, be sure to ask what the total price will be before you agree to purchase them.
Never pay the full amount for services until you have actually received them. Get the date that the services will performed or delivered in writing, and if the deadline hasn’t been met and the business won’t respond to you, ask your state or local consumer protection agency for help.
If a business that has items that belong to you shuts down without making arrangements to get them to you, ask the city or town clerk or the police if they have information about how to reach the owner. Contact your state or local consumer protection agency if you can’t find the person or retrieve the items.
Before you agree to services such as tree trimming, get a few estimates and references from previous customers. Ask your state or local consumer protection agency whether there are any licensing or registration requirements for that type of work. And beware of anyone who comes to your door uninvited and insists that you have the work done right away – that may just be a ruse to prevent you from comparing prices or getting another opinion about whether the work is really necessary.
Timeshare companies often use long, high-pressure sales pitches and the lure of “prizes” that aren’t really free or worth the amount they claim in order to convince you to sign a contract on the spot. Don’t be pressured into buying a timeshare. Consider how the cost compares to staying in other types of accommodations when you go on vacation and whether the dates and locations work for you. Learn more about timeshares at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0073-timeshares-and-vacation-plans.
Own a timeshare you don’t want? Avoid companies that ask for their fees upfront regardless of whether they succeed in selling your timeshare or not, and don’t believe them if they claim that they have eager buyers waiting. Consult with a licensed real estate broker or agent who can tell you if there is a market for your timeshare and will only take a fee if it’s actually sold. For more information about timeshare resale scams go to www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/timeshare-resellers-quick-money-promises.
If you believe that you were towed unfairly, pay the fee to avoid storage charges, get a receipt, and contact your state or local consumer protection agency for advice.
The safest way to pay for travel services is by credit card because you can dispute the charges if the services were never provided. Legitimate travel companies won’t ask you to pay using money transfer services or prepaid cards.
Read contracts for travel services carefully before you pay. There may be restrictions on your ability to change or cancel your plans. Travel insurance may be helpful but the same advice applies: read the terms to understand the coverage and any limitations.