10 RIP-OFF WARNING SIGNS
By Carolyn M. Brown
You know the old saying: "It's not what you earn, it's what you keep." That principle not only applies to saving and investing, but to consumer shopping. This not only means that you should be knowledgeable about shopping for bargains and doing comparison shopping, but you should be cautious about avoiding scams. The worst sources of consumer complaints can be traced to five kinds of businesses: retail stores, home improvement and remodeling companies, general service firms, auto repair shops, and mail-order services. You are the watchdog of your money, therefore, you should know your rights as a consumer and demand that the businesses and services you deal with be held accountable.
If someone if looking to rip you off, how can you stop him or her? The AARP, National Fraud Information Center and Council of Better Business Bureaus all provide information on what to look out for. Here are 10 simple ways to prevent yourself - and your wallet - from getting scammed.
CREDIT CARD OFFERS
Phony credit card offers are at the top of the National Consumer League's annual list of telemarketing frauds. Bogus credit card offers lure folks who have financial problems and are unable to obtain credit elsewhere with promises of a guaranteed card. Telemarketers collect fees but never make good on their promise to provide the card. If anyone asks for payment upfront to give you a credit card or loan, arranging to debit money from your bank account, that's a tip-off you are being conned.
PRIZES AND SWEEPSTAKES
Congratulations! You've just won a car, valuable jewelry, cash, or some other such fabulous prize. Instead of being your lucky day, this is likely a fateful scheme. Never pay to play. It is illegal for a company to require you buy something or pay a fee in order to win or claim a prize. Buying something doesn't improve your chances of winning. Be sure to guard your credit card and bank account numbers. Legitimate sweepstakes companies will provide detailed written information about how the contest works, value of the prizes, and the odds of winning. Keep in mind that taxes will be deducted from any winnings - or you will have to pay them yourself directly to the IRS.
Many people dread taking their cars to the shop and often for good reason. When the California Bureau of Automotive Repair ran an undercover sting, they discovered nearly half of all body repairs were fraudulent. The next time you take your car in for an oil change, maintenance inspection or minor repairs, inconspicuously mark air and oil filters, spark plugs, brake pads, alternators, and other visible parts. Ask for the old parts when you pick up your car. When you get your bill, if the parts the mechanic gives you are missing your markings, you know you've been ripped off. Your old part is still in your car.
TEST DRIVES FOR NEW CARS
Buying a car? It's not uncommon for a dealer to make a photocopy of your driver's license and hand you the keys to a spanking new vehicle so you can go for a ride. With your name and license number, the dealer can instantly get your credit history from a commercial service. By the time you return from your test drive, the dealer is privy to such information as how much you paid for your last car, your mortgage payment, and balances on your credit cards. The dealer may now take you for a ride, since such information helps sales reps size you up in terms of what you will likely spend and what you can likely afford.
Group clubs offer great discounts on products or services. Unfortunately, some people get charged for memberships that they never agreed to join. Or they discover the deals aren't so great. Be aware of trial offers. In most cases, you will be automatically charged the membership fee at the end of the trial period. Watch out for "welcome packages," because what may sound like an offer to join may indeed be an actual notice that you have already been enrolled in this program. Contact the club immediately to cancel. Don't assume you won't get charged even if you didn't give your account number. Sometimes these buyers clubs obtain you credit card information or bank account from another company with whom you do business.
Be skeptical of offers for "free" travel. What sounds like a great deal may turn out to be a bad trip. Airlines and other well-known companies do indeed operate contests for travel prizes. However, there are a number of companies that offer free trips to try to lure you into buying their products or services, particularly time-share properties and travel club memberships. A free or incredibly cheap trip may have hidden costs. You may find that a travel offer may be valid only if you bring a companion along at full fare. Be aware of restrictions such valid dates for only off-peak times, not during school vacations, holidays, or other travel dates. Read the fine print.
You may not get the best hotel bargain by booking online. Websites such as Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, and Hotels.com buy rooms form hotels at a discount price. However, they charge the customer a 24% to 48% markup, according to Peter Greenberg, chief correspondent for the Travel Channel and author of Hotel Secrets (Villard). He suggests if you see a hotel room advertised online for $100 a night, call up the hotel directly and ask to speak to the on-duty manager or sales director and then offer $85. If the hotel offered the online discounter a rate at $65, it is still making a $20 profit with your offer. Another tip from Greenberg if to book flights online between one minute after midnight and 1 a.m. (9:01 p.m. if you are on the West Coast and want to call East Coast U.S.-based Airways or 1:01 a.m. if you are in New York and want to book with American Airlines in Fort Worth) when airline computer systems are flooded with low-fare reservations that were booked but never paid for.
CARRY YOUR OWN MEDICINE
If you don't want to pay $20 a pill for an aspirin or synthroid tablet for your thyroid, before a hospital stay, ask the doctors what drugs you'll likely need following your procedure. Get a prescription and then fill it. Bring these medications with you when you check into the hospital. This also includes medications that you normally take on a regular basis. Sign on when you are admitted that you will supply and administer those particular drugs. Also, you should ask for an itemized list of all services for each day you're in the hospital. This way you will know exactly what and how much you have been billed for drugs, test and services.
WORKING AT HOME
How often have you seen promising ads on earning thousands of dollars working at home in your spare time? These con jobs rank No. 3 on NCL's list. No one is going to pay you for stuffing envelopes or assembling parts. There are few, if any, work-at-home offerings that are legitimate. Never pay up front fees or do business with companies that operate exclusively by phone, mail or e-mail. Be leery of multilevel marketing opportunities. There are legit businesses out there such as the pink Cadillac driving sales reps of Mary Kay. But there are also scores of unlawful pyramid schemes that resemble multilevel marketing sales operations. The key difference is that the crooked operations emphasis recruiting others to join the program more so than selling their wares. Unless you push others to join, you'll wind up warehousing overpriced merchandise and losing money instead of making it.
The most notorious con artists are those door-to-door sales reps who stick flyers on your door about home repairs. The most common dupes are: an offer to recoat your roof or driveway; promise to extend the life of asphalt or wood shingle with a recoating, and bargain deals for using leftover materials from a previous job, according to Tom Kraeutler, a home inspector in New Jersey who hosts a nationally syndicated radio home fix-it-program, The Money Pit. Be especially suspicious of solicitors driving vehicles with out-of-state license plates. Whenever you are getting any kind of contracting work done, always get two or more estimates. Also, be aware of financing schemes and offers, where you could end up locking high-interest rates and paying exorbitant fees for home improvement loans.
It's not uncommon for people to become susceptible to frauds set up to look like bona fide businesses. You can protect yourself by staying abreast of changing fraud alerts and consumer issues. Remember that a crucial part of money management is being a savvy consumer and knowing how to safeguard every penny of your hard earned cash before your can save it, spend it, or invest it.
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