After seeing numerous consumers become victims to ruthless con artist each year, I always like to encourage everyone to think about how you can become a more educated consumer. While schemes and scams take infinite forms, there are basic principles underlying all of them. Knowing the common danger signals and ways to defend yourself can save you time, money and frustration.
Be alert for these red flags:
A deal that sounds much better than any being advertised by firms you know to be legitimate -- offers that are "too good to be true;"
A promoter who is not based locally, provides no telephone number and uses a post office box or private mail box, rather than a full street address or insist on communicating only through e-mail;
A promoter name and/or logo that closely mimics that of a respected brand or business;
Pressure words, such as "urgent," "today only" or a "final deadline," sprinkled throughout the sales literature;
High pressure, threats or harassment, in writing, during a phone call, in an e-mail message or in personal contact;
Any request to wire transfer payment or use a prepaid debit card, even if they send a check to cover the payment, the check ends up being counterfeit and you have to repay the bank once it is returned;
Immediate request or demand for a check, money order or cash to be picked up by a courier or to be sent to a mail drop or post office box;
Vague answers or none at all to key questions you ask about the offer; and
Insistence that you finalize a deal orally or provide personal financial information (such as your social security number or credit card number) without a written contract or other documentation in writing.
Be your own best protector. Even with all the consumer protection agencies and laws on the books, you must protect yourself. The Better Business Bureau offers these tips:
Take your time deciding; be firm in the face of pressure.
Protect your privacy. Provide personal information only if you know who is collecting it, why and how it will be used.
Read before you sign. Fully understand the contract and make sure it matches what the salesperson told you.
Don't believe it just because you saw it on the Internet. Obtain the company's physical address and phone number, and check the company out with your Better Business Bureau.
If asked to purchase goods sight unseen, compare the prices and warranties with those offered by local firms. Remember that you run a risk of getting inferior merchandise when you order products from unfamiliar businesses without being able to inspect them first.
If someone comes to your door offering a deal, understand that many reputable companies are too busy servicing their existing customers to go door-to-door offering "today-only deals."
Groups referred to as "travelers" perpetrate a common scheme that occurs annually, especially in the spring and fall. These schemers prey on unsuspecting homeowners, especially the elderly, by offering discounts on tree trimming, painting and winterizing, heat pump maintenance, driveway paving or sealing and many other seasonal odd jobs. The technique is always the same, the person just happens to be in the neighborhood and has extra material they can offer you a "deal" on, if you act now. They usually ask for partial or full payment upfront or they do a shoddy and rushed job, get you to write them a check and then rush to your bank to cash the check all before the unsuspecting homeowner can react to what has happened.
Many consumers who fall victim to a con artist are too embarrassed to come forward, but we must all realize that these shysters are professionals and 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 about, but it is an opportunity to warn many other consumers to be on the lookout for the perpetrators and possibly help authorities apprehend them.
If you or your group would like more information on avoiding scams, contact your Better Business Bureau at 800-763-4222 or visit our website at bbb.org.
Kelvin Collins is president/CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Central Georgia and the CSRA Inc., serving 41 counties in Middle Georgia and the Central Savannah River area. This tips column is provided through the local BBB and the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Questions or complaints about a specific company or charity should be referred directly to the BBB at 478-742-7999, www.bbb.org or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.