• Be your own best protector. Even with all the consumer protection agencies and laws on the books, consumers must protect themselves by being leery of high pressure “too good to be true” claims. Say “no” whenever you feel pressured or have questions that are not answered yet. Carefully check out businesses and deals before signing anything or paying money up front.
• Do not do business with strangers who approach you at home without doing a thorough check. Make sure you have a permanent address and phone number for the business. Check the company out with your BBB. And make sure any promises are put in writing.
• Read before you sign. Read anything you sign to make sure you understand it, and to make sure it matches what the salesperson told you. And never sign a blank or partially blank contract, mark through the blank spots.
• Do not give any personal information over the phone to an unfamiliar company. This includes your credit card numbers, but also the credit card expiration date, your social security number, driver’s license number and bank account numbers. Even if you are told it is only for “identification” or “verification,” this information can be used for unauthorized credit card charges, bank account debits and identity theft.
• Do not pay in advance for a “guaranteed” loan or job. Advance fee schemers typically ask for hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars up front in order to allegedly deliver what they’ve promised, usually without a written contract.
• Do not fall for calls or letters claiming you have won a prize, but you must pay something. These calls or letters are usually worded very carefully to give the impression that you have already won, when in fact, it is either a low-value “premium with purchase” or a non-required purchase with extremely slim odds that you are the top winner.
• Do not get involved with work-at-home schemes or business opportunities without checking carefully. The BBB sees lots of secret shopper schemes, work-from-home scams, and other phony job offers, but the worst job-related scam can dash your hopes and steal your identity. E-mails, Web sites and online applications all look very professional, and the candidate is even interviewed for the job (usually over the phone) and then receives an offer. In order to start the job, however, the candidate has to fill out a “credit report” or provide bank information for direct deposit of their “paychecks.” There is no job, either. Also, avoid any request to wire transfer money, even if they send a check to cover the costs, the check ends up being counterfeit and you get to repay the bank once it is returned. Online forms are nothing more than a way to capture sensitive personal data – Social Security number, bank accounts, etc. – that can easily be used for identity theft.
• Do not respond to e-mails pretending to be from well-known companies. Such e-mails are often cleverly disguised phishing scams from computer criminals trying to steal your credit card number and other personal financial data.
Many consumers that fall victim to a con artist are too embarrassed to come forward, but we must all realize that these shysters are professionals and that they make their living from scamming the average unsuspecting consumer. To them this is a trade and like many honest workers, they become quite proficient at their trade. Becoming a victim is nothing to be embarrassed by, but it is an opportunity to warn many other consumers to be on the lookout for the perpetrators and possibly help authorities apprehend them.
Reach Kelvin Collins, the president/CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Central Georgia and the CSRA Inc., at (800) 763-4222 or www.bbb.org.