“It’s gonna cost $100 and I GAIN weight?” (online order scams that look OK @ first)

“Yes, that’s me. Yes, correct. Um wait. I signed up for what? No I don’t want that. Can I cancel? No? What you do you mean I have to go to your website? I didn’t order this. OK, yes. I’ll look for the e-mail”

Now, we’re not in the habit of listening in while our friends take phone calls. But, this one caught our ear. Turns out that a good friend of Consumer Courage ordered some weight loss pill from the internet. The pill is supposedly from some fruit that only grows in southeast Asia. The rind (so the legend goes) is used in cooking and does wondrous things like reducing your appetite; increasing athletic performance and reducing metabolism.

Public service announcement: Now hear this! There’s no such thing as a pill that makes you lose weight. Scammers make their living knowing that most Americans are a) unhappy with how much they weigh; and b) willing to do anything to lose it, so long as it is an easy fix. Wanna lose weight? Eat less; eat right and exercise more. (you’re welcome)

Claims aside, there’s one thing that we all should remember when it comes to dietary supplements – the Federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate them. So, although the label may say something that looks OK (Like “1000 mg Garcinia Cambogia Extract”) you can’t really be sure what’s inside. You ask “would somebody lie about what’s inside a pill bottle just to make money?” (Do we really have to answer that?)

What were they offering?

The order was for a 60-day supply of Garcinia something-or-other. The bottle was only $4.95. “Pretty affordable,” she thought.  There’s no way to tell, but she might have lost weight just because she was taking this awesome fruit extract that was cultivated across the globe, whether it was effective or not.  Unfortunately, she didn’t research the side-effects of this little pill (nausea, diarrhea, kidney/liver problems) until AFTER it arrived at her home and Consumer Courage was lecturing her about its ill-effects.

The phone call that we overheard was when they called her back to offer her a second item – some type of life coach services. All she had to do was used it for 21 days and then call them if she wanted to cancel.  After we lost our [stuff] while she was on the phone, she told them that she wanted to cancel that service right now. “I’m sorry, you can’t cancel over the phone. You have to go on our website after 21 days and then cancel from there.”  When she pressed that she wanted to cancel right then & there, the operator relented “OK, we’ll send you another e-mail to show you where to cancel.” (as of the publication of this post, zero e-mails have been sent to explain the cancellation process).  Two things are going on here:

1) She never signed up for that Life-coach service. She remembered a pop-up that came up while she was ordering. But, she specifically remembers clicking “NO” and having it go away; and

2) Suppliers are never allowed to tell you that you can’t obtain a refund, unless you were told that you couldn’t cancel BEFORE the transaction took place.  In fact, telling you that you can’t exercise any of your Consumer rights is a big No-no in Ohio.

I never agreed to that

This is not the first time that we’ve seen this routine.  Many internet sellers have a scheme where you are tricked into agreeing to buy something else you’ve never heard of. (just one more reason you should be used to looking through your credit card bill line-by-line every month)  The pop-up that jumps onto the screen while you’re trying to navigate the purchase is the one that you have to watch out for. Consumer Courage’s friend never agreed to this service. But that didn’t stop the bad guys from pretending that she did. Since they have her credit card information and her approval to charge the card, they have a plan to charge her for more stuff. We have a sneaking suspicion that the phone call to “confirm her e-mail address” was just them trolling to get her approval to charge her credit card a second time (for way more than five bucks, probably). The fact that she told them “I want to cancel now” is not so relevant to them.

We started Googling this company and added the words “ripoff” and “scam” to the search. What we found was a little unnerving. Many folks had the experience that our friend had – they bought the bottle for five bucks and then watched, helplessly as their credit card statement showed monthly charges. $75.00, then $150.00. At that point it became clear why the bottle was so cheap. If the first charge from “middle-of-the-desert” Arizona was for $150.00 it might flag the fraud department. But, once the vendor is an “established payee” (meaning whoever bought the $5 bottle of pills did not challenge the charge) the credit card folks don’t have a problem if the next charge is for much more money.

I’m sorry you can’t cancel

When the official friend of Consumer Courage hung up the phone, she seemed a little frustrated.

Author’s half-confession: We’ll admit that her frustration may – MAY – have been because we were yelling and gesticulating wildly in the background the whole time that she was on the phone “Tell them you want to cancel! Don’t let them lie to you! They’re scamming you!” Let’s just note that she was frustrated and leave it at that.

There are many reasons in Ohio that a Consumer has the right to cancel a transaction: Three-days to cancel the refinance of your mortgage; Three-days to cancel a Home Solicitation Sale (where they entice you to call them – with an ad or a home visit; or if they’re selling from a hotel conference room); Any sale where they don’t say “You can’t get a refund” in plain language and others. Whatever the reason you have a right to cancel a Consumer transaction, the seller is never allowed to tell you that you can’t cancel.

We can argue whether the seller is allowed to say “you can’t cancel over the phone.  You must go on to our website to cancel.” But, she wanted to cancel a service that she was signed up for because the website misbehaved in the first place. So the instruction to go BACK to the website seemed to us to be an invitation to either “accidentally” sign up for more; or a gateway to let them charge her credit card, until she got fed up.  We’re pretty sure that when they told her to wait 21 days and THEN cancel was because they wanted a chance to hit her credit card for a second charge.  If you’re nervous about a transaction, waiting a while to see what happens is not the best idea.

What do we do now?

To review, here’s where our friend was at this point:

  • She was in possession of a $5 dollar bottle of something;
  • She was signed up for some nonsense that she couldn’t cancel over the phone;
  • She had zero trust for the website that these people ran (or their tactics);
  • Her credit card numbers were in the possession of somebody who didn’t seem to be following any set of rules;
  • She was annoyed because a certain Consumer Courage person wouldn’t stop telling her to “do something about it!”

How do you extract yourself from the extract?

According to the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have 60 days from the time a charge first appears on your bill to dispute it with your credit card company. But these folks are banking on the assumption that you’ll either miss the charge at least once, will wait the 21 days and try to cancel at that point. The assumption here is that these bozos would have charged our friend’s credit card for the life coach program, whether she tried to cancel or not. At that point, it’s not a sure thing that the charges will be reversed. If you call your credit card company’s fraud unit and say “well the first charge was OK and I knew I was signing up for this service, but it’s a scam and I want my money back,” they’re not likely to classify it as fraud and reverse the charges. You might get an instruction on how to cancel by mail in the future and have to consider the $100 they charged you for the life coach as a lesson-learned.

We think the population of folks who get taken for a little bit of cash but don’t bother causing a fuss is where the pill-pushers’ margin lies. Most people that get hit for a hundred or so dollars in this sort of mail scam will go away quietly. (After all, if you live in Ohio and someone in Arizona rips you off for a hundred bucks, it’s gonna cost you way more than that to find an attorney in Arizona to handle the case. So you just let it go.) If they can convince a thousand people to order the $5 bottle of pills and then forget to check if they were hit for a bogus $100 charge, they will make $50,000.

First – do your research

It sounds like a lot to do. But, if you’re ordering something over the web, you should really be doing some research before you click “Confirm order.” This goes double if you’re buying from someone who found YOU. If you’re responding to an ad, how do you know if you’re buying from a real company or from someone who still lives in his mother’s basement; has a modem and a computer; some extra plastic bottles, a label maker and a few 50 pound bags of sugar? Even if your research is just typing “[Company name] ripoff” into Google, you’re trying

Second – cancel anything else they want to give you

Just pay for what you wanted to buy in the first place. There are a hundred ways for the “just cancel if you don’t like it” scenario to go south.  If you don’t want it now, you’re not gonna want it after 30 days – trust us. (we realize that if the company had not called our friend back, she might never have known that they signed her up for the free life coach nonsense).  So you might not always get the chance to say “Thanks, but I don’t want it.”  But, have it in your mind to say NO anyway.

Third – call the credit card company

If ANYTHING feels weird, call your credit card company right away. (We’re sure that you used a credit card, because you’ve been reading Consumer Courage and have heard this before.  Credit cards are the only way you can pay and be guaranteed a chance to fight it later. Check cards, debit cards, money orders….when you use these to pay, the money goes up in smoke). Tell your credit card company what’s going wrong, how you think you’re being ripped off and that you are disputing the charge. You have the right to return anything you bought on the web for a full refund. If the website is silent about a return policy, you can return it. If the website says that they don’t allow refunds, that language must be clear and conspicuous. It can’t be hidden, footnoted or only on the confirmation screen. But, even if you aren’t sure that you have the ability to return it, do it anyway. Unless the item was really expensive, you’re not risking much. And your credit card’s fraud department might rely on the fact that you returned the item and reverse the charge.

Fourth – send it back

Write a letter spelling out a few items:

  • How you think they were dishonest;
  • That you are returning the item;
  • That you want a full refund;
  • That you are reporting them to the Attorney General of your state (and theirs) and to the Better Business Bureau if they don’t credit your account;
  • That they don’t have the right to charge any amount to your account now (or in the future);
  • That they don’t have the right to sell your personal identifying information to anybody or any company;

This is important: send the letter in a letter that has a tracking number.  The post office has many options short of “Overnight for $20.00.”  Ask them.  It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there, so much as it matters that you can prove that it got there.  Hopefully, you’ll be able to catch knuckleheads like this before they get any of your cash.

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who has one really nervous friend who is wondering if he’ll tell just who it is who ordered the pills)


“Hey, are you really from customer service?” How to avoid phone scams (part 2)

When to pay

If anyone is asking for money, don’t even consider paying them until you something in writing from them.  It should either be a contract; a letter confirming the terms; a letter describing the transaction…something.  Not just an e-mail. As we already know, anyone with electricity in Minsk can send you an e-mail and make it look very legit.  Yes, letters can be mocked up. But, letters have return addresses and give you something to hold on to when you are doing follow-up research on them.  Many scam artists are just looking for the quickest buck. 

It would be easy for them to print off a letter.  But, the real crooks will just slide over to the sucker who will let them take the easy way out.  We at the “Casa del Consumer Courage” have a rule: the phrase “we can keep our costs down by NOT sending you a letter” is a magic phrase that we interpret as “Please hang up now.  I mean you harm.” 

And, don’t be in a hurry.  Many a scam have been avoided by the consumer who says “You know what, I’d like to sleep on this.  Let’s talk tomorrow.”  Call it “delayed reasoning.”  Whatever blocked you from realizing that you were going to spend $5,000.00 on an electric dog polisher disappears when you hang up the phone.  Trust us: if a deal is there today, it’ll be there tomorrow.  Take what the person is saying on the other end of the line as a clue.  Are they getting more aggressive right after you tell them you need to think about it?  Do they keep talking about how this deal is going to be gone tomorrow?  That should make you want to sleep on it even more.   

How to pay:

Credit card that’s how.

If you’re making a payment over the phone or on the net, use your credit card.  Not only does it make the folks you’re paying more legit, it protects you much better.  Credit card companies keep track where your money is going and if you get scammed, most of them will put a hold on your payment and make the company you paid prove that they’re on the up-and-up.  (not to mention the fact that your credit card company has to follow the Fair Credit Billing Act, which is very consumer friendly)

Take note: there is a difference between credit cards and debit cards. They may look the same. But, a debit card is more like a check card.  It acts more like a portable ATM and when the vendor charges you for the purchase, the cash is gone.  Debit cards very rarely (if at all) have the fraud-protection that a credit cards have. 

How NOT to pay:

Debit card, green dot card, iTunes card, check by phone.  Scam artists want you to pay with these cards because they act just like cash. Meaning to say: they want funds that can’t be traced to them; won’t give the company that issues the card their name & address and won’t give you the chance to dispute the charge.

These cards all do a very good job of transferring funds – but a lousy job of protecting you.  Anybody who suggests that you “buy a green dot card, iTunes card or any loadable debt card” is bad news. If they say this, you should hear “Run away! Run away!” and hang up the phone (or X-out the website you’re on).

Check by phone payments are also like cash and don’t protect your near as much as credit card payments.  You should really only be using a check by phone to pay a bill to a company that you’ve dealt with before and trust.  

Protect yourself

    • “If you didn’t start the call…..don’t pay them anything at all” – just before you say “YES, take my money” ask yourself if you started the call.  If you didn’t, maybe you should worry.
    • “Can I call you back?” – Scam artists will resist giving you any kind of identifying information.  If you get their number, you can look it up on the web and (maybe) see if they’re bad news.  Even if you can’t, calling them back will give you the chance to think twice, slow down and figure out if they are a legitimate business. 
    • “What’s your name, address & phone number?” – You’re giving them your money, why shouldn’t you get some basic info from them?  Anyone who refuses to give you this information is bad news.  If you asked the guy selling stereos from the trunk of his car for his name and address and he said “You see. I can keep my costs down by not associating my operation with any particular address,” would it make you feel better? 
    • Robo calls….Just Hang up – The Consumer Courage family has a saying in our house “if they don’t care enough to put a human on the line, they don’t get to talk to us.” 

Editor’s confession: Actually, this is my saying. Mrs. Consumer Courage will talk to anybody…and apologize to the robot who dialed us because she’s about to hang up.  It’s cute, actually. 

How do you tell if it’s a robo-call?  When you answer, you know how there’s sometime a two second pause followed by someone who mispronounces your name?  THAT’S how you know it’s a robo-call.  If this happens, say “I’m sorry he’s not here.”  Works every time. 

    • Never ever pay anybody with a green-dot card, debit card or other kind of card you have to “run out and put money on.” (did we say NEVER?)
    • Don’t be in a Hurry – hurrying is the bad guy’s friend.  The quicker you go, the more likely you are to forget everything we’ve told you and make a mistake.  Nothing has to be paid for RIGHT NOW!
    • It’s NOT the government on the line – one of the most popular scams right now happens when the scam artists call and pretend that they’re the IRS. Everybody’s afraid of getting dinged for a tax bill. Did the IRS call you?  If the answer is YES: 1. Thank them; 2. Hang up; and 3. TOMORROW, call the IRS on your own and ask what’s going on.  (Call your local “Taxpayer Advocate,” they’re very nice )
    • Either it’s free or it’s not – Free means you don’t have to pay for it. If someone tells you it’s free and then asks for money, tell them that they need to go find a dictionary so they can look up what the word FREE actually means and that their mother would be very disappointed with how their life turned out.

Don’t make your next phone or internet payment be your last. 

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who would’ve hyperlinked a longer clip from the Holy Grail, but forgot exactly how aggressive that rabbit really was)  



How to avoid phone scams

We’re not so sure that you can get away with NOT paying for something on the net (or over the phone).  It’s way too convenient to pay your bills with just a few clicks. For those of us who used to be wary of paying for ANYTHING on the net (Bills, clothes, a great bargain…whatever) paying for the first transaction was the greatest leap. After that, our collective skepticism disappeared quickly and we were buying stuff on the web like crazy.
But, the question begs – how do you take advantage of all of this technology (and pay bills from the convenience of your own home) without getting took.  To be sure, there is a massive difference between the various types of transactions.  The two main categories are:

  1. Making regular payments to a vendor that you are used to dealing with; and
  2. The one-time payment for a great deal, or to pay someone who has reached out and contacted you.

I’m not worried at all…

When you’re paying a bill, you have a relationship with the company that you’re paying. (we’ll call these “regular bills”) You trust that your money is actually going to be applied to the balance due and you are receiving something in return for your payment.  Your worries when paying this first type of bill are centered around whether your information gets hacked from the company you’re paying; whether your own computer is going to get hacked; or whether you are on the correct website (and not a lookalike site set up to rip off the folks trying to pay their bills). 

….But should I be?

The second type of payment is what we’re most concerned with here.  You are about to pay somebody (either on the web or over the phone) that you have not done business with in the past and may never see or hear from again.  Everything about the transaction you are paying for is different from a regular bill. (we’ll call these “standalone payments”)  Standalone payments could be a payment that you WANT to make (buying something new); a payment that you HAVE to make (a bill that’s overdue); a payment that you only THINK you have to make (you get a call in the middle of the night from a relative in trouble); or a payment that you make willingly, but probably shouldn’t (paying in response to a call that offers a stock tip/business deal/threatens legal action). 

Whatever the reason, standalone payments are where so many people get hung up.  They’re not as careful as they should be and let their desire to act quickly cloud their judgment.  With standalone payments, the mindset of the players (you AND the person you’re paying) is very different from the mindset of the parties for a regular bill payment.  Both of the parties to the regular bill payment want you to come back for more.  The fact that you both have to deal with each other again adds trustworthiness to the whole enterprise.  

The standalone payment is different for everybody.  You want a deal and the person on the other end of the line just wants to make a sale.  These can be a lot more dangerous for consumers than regular bill payments.  The more sketchy the deal gets, the more the person on the other end of the line is really just hoping that they get as much cash out of you as they can, because they are never going to see you again.

How can you protect yourself?

Usually, we can come up with a saying that helps you to remember how to stay out of trouble. “Don’t run with scissors,” or “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” or the ever-popular “Don’t…..just don’t.”  But, how to protect yourself from making ill-advised payments on the web (or the phone), can’t be summed up by a short, easy-to-remember saying.  What we can do though, is create a scale that will let us rate the transactions.  The higher on the scale your transaction is located, the more confidence you can have that what you are doing is legit and that your money is going to end up in the right place.

Editor’s Note: the closest we can come to a catchy phrase is: “stop answering the phone!” (Don’t worry. If it’s your daughter, she’ll leave a message or call back).  Something about the proliferation of cell phones makes us think that we have to answer every call…and now! But, an answering machine that you can listen to while the caller leaves a message is one of the best ways to keep the phone-scamming folks at bay.

Here is our “scale of reliability” for all dealings that you have where you have the chance to pay someone over the net or over the phone: 


If the call (or deal) is closer to the 100% line, you’re in pretty good shape.  If it’s closer to the zero% line, the payment you’re about to make is not going to end well.  The transactions at either end of the scale are the easy ones.  What’s not so easy is deciding what to do if you’re in the middle. Let’s try to put our fingers on how to make the choice easier when you are getting ready to pay, but something in your gut is making you think twice. 

How do I decide whether to pay? 

  • 100 % OK – Very High percentage reliable: You found them because of research you did on your own.  Not only did YOU initiate the contact, but you’ve spent a good amount of time researching the item/service you want to buy and the company you want to buy it from.  More importantly, spending the money is YOUR idea. This distinction will come more into focus as we move down this scale and will be a big help when deciding whether to get out your credit card. You can figure this out by asking yourself one question: “Who’s idea was this?”  When you learn to figure out where the idea to spend the money actually started, it’ll help you know when to be more careful.
  • 65% OK – High percentage reliable: Because of research you did on your own, you saw an ad of theirs and called them.  Yes, you responded to an ad. But, you ran across the ad while you were doing research (or you did research, but saw the ad somewhere else). This one is a little different, because the ad was their attempt to make contact.  But, the idea started with YOU; and you know more about the item than just what’s in the ad because you’ve spent time figuring it our for yourself. You can rely on your own ideas, thoughts, knowledge and are much less likely to be taken advantage of.
  • 20% OK – Very iffy: they called out of the blue.  This is where we get into very shaky ground.  If they called out of the blue, the idea to spend the money was NOT your idea.  Your mind should be telling you “OK, let’s go a little slow here,” and “I’m not spending a dime until I’ve had a day or two to think it over.”
  • 20% OK – Very iffy: they came to/called your house because they were “Just doing work in the neighborhood.”  This is a huge problem.  It’s below “they called out of the blue” because anybody who comes to your house has the chance to intimidate you and to trick you by using what he sees in your house as clues.  (This is salesman 1-0-1 and it’s called “Mirroring.” If they see a picture of a kid in an Ohio State sweater – they claim to have gone there. If they see a picture of a dog, they are a dog-person and “You’re not gonna believe this, but I used to have that same dog!” )  If someone comes to your house looking to sell/rent/sign you up for anything you should say (through a closed-locked door) “Leave whatever you have for me to look at on the porch. I’ll call if I’m interested.”
  • 5% OK – Not reliable: They called out of the blue and are offering you something that is free to buy/use/own/rent their product. It’s not free – and you’re NOT interested.  Nuff said.
  • 5% OK – Major concern about whether they’re lying: They are calling and demanding money (You owe a bill; someone you know/love owes a bill; someone you know/love has been arrested and you have to pay right away to get them out of trouble) This is one of the areas where many people are scammed out of their money.  This kind of call CAN be legit, but is almost always not.  Whatever’s doing on, you should not pay a dime before you: 1. Ask them for proof of who they are, where they are and what they are owed in a hard-copy letter; 2. Take a night or two to do your own research (which should include a call to your Attorney General and police).
  • 0% OK – Completely unreliable: They called because you won something and they are just trying to get it to you.  If this ever happens, hang up. (do not pass GO, do not collect $200) Just hang up.  Wanna win the lottery?  Buy a ticket.  Wanna lose a ton of cash? Pay some fool who calls to tell you that you won, but need to pay for “fees,” or a “prize collection tax.”

Next week, we’ll cover When & How you should make your payment and what you can do to avoid all of this nonsense altogether.

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who sold magazines over the phone for two weeks in college.  Well…..he TRIED to sell magazines.  His apparent lack of production didn’t quite fit in w/the business model – which had very little to do w/the scale of reliability)


Give me a thousand bucks and I’ll get you a ticket myself (Should you use a ticket broker?)

This past weekend, I tried to buy some tickets to an out-of-town show.  Not being familiar with the theaters or the shows that were playing, I used a pretty simple Google search to try to find my way.  (Instead of typing in “Joe’s Palace Theater Honolulu” I typed in “Honolulu theaters.”) 

Author’s confession: sadly, Mrs. Consumer Courage and I did NOT travel to Hawaii this past weekend (or any weekend ever, in fact).  We did leave the area for a few days to get away from the snow (although it’s not the snow really – it’s the humidity). We’re just pretending that it was Hawaii.

What type of google search I did is relevant this week as we will see.  I clicked on a play that looked interesting, checked out the dates and hit the little box that says BUY TICKETS.  From there, I was whisked away to a seating chart and a list of prices.  The cheapest seat was close to $368.00.  I looked again to make sure that I did not accidentally check the box that said TICKETS & A MASSAGE.  

At this point, I should confess that I often suffer from a recently diagnosed malady. It’s been with me since childhood and there are no known cures, antidotes or remedies.  It’s called “Acute Vacation Amnesic Spending Euphoria,” (AVASE™) and it manifests itself as a complete lack of concern with normal price-based reason, whenever I’m on holiday. Meaning to say: when I’m on vacation, I lose the ability to shy away from an item that I would normally consider to be ‘too expensive.’ (The fact Canadian money looks like Monopoly money doesn’t help matters, either.)  

Editor’s note: We have to wonder if this is an inherited trait.  The official Dad of Consumer Courage was also known to suffer from this disorder.  While we were growing up, the thought of giving us quarters to play video games was (shall we say) frowned upon.  But, once the family set out on holiday, if we were to ask for money to play video games in the hotel, it seemed like the old man was made of quarters. (You’ll have to ask him if he suffered from AVASE™ or if he just wanted to get us to leave him alone….)

When we went to the box office to buy tickets for another play I asked the clerk “What’s up with that? Why are the tickets for that other play so unbelievably expensive?”
“Oh we’ve heard about that.  Those are probably brokers. Tickets for that other play are between $39 and $110.” 
Wait…..what? “You mean, that’s not your website? And you can’t stop it.”  We’ve heard about ticket brokers before.  (As it happens, not all of the stories are flattering.)  Should you use a broker? Is it safe?

At the most basic level, ticket brokers fill a need.  If people want tickets to everything and will pay dearly, why shouldn’t someone make a buck in the process?  After all, the ability to insert ourselves into a business transaction and make money off of the players without adding value IS one of the things that separates us from the animals.

  • Person A wants a ticket to a concert that he really wants to see but it’s sold out; 
  • Person B knows how to use the internet to find a ticket and can sell it to Person A (albeit with a stiff markup); 
  • Person A is just as happy, even though he spent 5 or 10 times the actual cost of the ticket.  All is well.

But, if you’re a stickler for consumer rights and more than just a wee-bit (ahem) obsessive, it’s not so simple.

What’s good about ticket brokers?

They can get you tickets when you think you’ve been shut out.  Plus, they have an association! (the National Association of Ticket Brokers ) with their very own code of ethics, which should make you feel better.  At the very least, if the person or company you are buying the tickets from is NOT registered w/the NATB (which you can check here ) that should eliminate them from your list right away.  Not that membership in an association is a magic wand or anything.  But, if you’re dealing with a broker that bothers to join a national group of brokers, they’ll be a lot easier to get ahold of if there’s a problem. And, hopefully, it means that you’re doing business with somebody who might act like they care (if only a little bit) what their reputation is.  

What’s bad about ticket brokers? 

Strangely enough, most brokers use a business model that includes what I’m calling “spec sales.”  A spec sale (or speculative sale) is when a broker lists a ticket for sale before he actually owns it. “Hmmmm that’s weird.  You mean when they take my money, they don’t even have a ticket to the event?” That’s right. What you are buying from most brokers is the RIGHT to buy a ticket. This doesn’t really pass the smell test does it? Essentially what brokers are saying is “give me a thousand bucks and I’ll go find you a ticket.”  

Doesn’t their code of ethics outlaw this sort of thing? As it happens….no. All it says is that they have to give you a 200% refund if they guarantee the ticket and can’t deliver. Two points here: 1) they can say a lot of things on their website and not really “guarantee” that you’ll get a ticket; and 2) codes of ethics don’t really have the force of law. They’re more like guidelines. I don’t know the worst thing that can happen to a broker who doesn’t follow their code of ethics.  But, I’m guessing that it’s not something that’s going to make you feel better if you end up in some far away city without the tickets that you thought you purchased.  

“Could that really happen?”  In fact, it did just a few weeks ago.  Some folks who wanted to see the Super Bowl no-doubt had a really favorable view of ticket brokers about a week before the big game.  They took off work, bought plane tickets to Arizona, purchased hotel rooms and (probably even) wore Seahawks underwear on the day of the game.  But, since the broker wasn’t able to score tickets, they were stuck watching from the outside like the rest of us.  (I don’t know these folks or if they’re still mad. But, I would venture to guess that they don’t much care that their brokers have a code of ethics….even if they got refunds)

Don’t take this the wrong way – but you don’t actually HAVE a ticket do you?

You can tell that you’re buying tix from someone who doesn’t actually have them, if you know where to look. We looked at the website for a very popular ticket broker that we’re not gonna name.  What’s your first danger sign?  When the website says something like: 

This site is independently owned and operated and is not affiliated with any official box office or official website. Tickets purchased through this website are fulfilled by trusted secondary market brokers and are sometimes sold above face value to reflect the costs of obtaining premium tickets.

It’s the “not affiliated with any official box office or official website” verbiage that should make you wonder if your purchase is a really good idea.   Another place you should look is whether a specific seat is mentioned.  Broker sites usually have a range of seat numbers for each ticket sold.  That’s your first clue that they don’t have a ticket yet.  And when the guarantee says that they will get you “the ticket you purchased or one that is as good or better!,” they are covering themselves for when you’re not sitting in quite the same place that you saw on the map on their website.

Who reads the Terms of Service, anyway?

Here’s a little secret: when you call yourself something fancy (like, I don’t know, Consumer Courage or something) you read through a lot of Terms of Service pages.  Those are the actual words in the box that we have to click “I agree” to get any further on the website that we are looking at. (Don’t feel bad.  Nobody else reads them either)  If you did, you would see that they hold a treasure-trove of warnings about the exact nature of your ticket-purchase, when you use a broker.

Since the terms of nearly every internet transaction are hidden away in these boxes that would take hours to read, very few of us see the signs that are saying DANGER! Will Robinson. DANGER!  
So what was in the box on the ticket broker’s website that we were about to agree to here? (main bullet points are actual terms of service.  Our translation is indented below each bullet point)

    • [Broker name] acts as an intermediary between buyers and ticket sellers (“TICKET SELLERS”) to facilitate the purchase and sale of event tickets, and as such is not directly involved in the actual ticket sale transaction between the buyers and TICKET SELLERS….
      • The word “intermediary” is the first indication that there are land mines here. 
      • RED FLAG language: They are admitting that they are “not directly involved in the actual ticket sale.” (then why am I giving you my money?)
    • Orders placed through SITE will be fulfilled by one of SITE’S network of participating TICKET SELLERS. Contact information for the TICKET SELLER who fulfills USER’S order (hereinafter known as “FULFILLER”) will be provided to USER upon completion of the purchase process….
      • You’re the USER and the website is the SITE. But, who on earth is the FULFULLER? That’s the person who is going to actually sell you a ticket and this website is admitting that they don’t even know who that person is yet. (new rule: if any contract you see has somebody called FULFILLER, you’re in over your head)
    • Credit Card Charges USER’S credit card will be charged by the FULFILLER responsible for fulfilling their order and not SITE. If USER has any questions about charges on USER’S credit card statement, USER should contact SITE at [customerservice address removed] or direct USER’S question to FULFILLER responsible for completing the ticket order. FULFILLER may charge or authorize USER’S credit card in advance of confirming ticket availability. If tickets are ultimately found to be unavailable, the USER’S credit card will not be charged or USER will receive a full refund for the charged amount.
      • RED FLAG language: “If tickets are ultimately found to be unavailable” which means: they are currently unavailable. So, you’re about to give your credit card numbers to someone who is going to sell you something that they are telling you that they don’t have.
    • Payment by Debit Card In some cases, FULFILLER may attempt to authorize a debit card multiple times, creating several holds on USER’S account….
      • RED FLAG language: “several holds on” your debit card account.  Many people use debit cards for everyday purchases. A hold is when the debit-card company thinks that you spent that money.  If they put three holds on your account for a ticket that is $200.00, the debit card company will think that you spent $600.00. Wanna have your entire account unusable until after the concert is over? (we didn’t think so)
    • Event Listings SITE does not guarantee the accuracy of event information on SITE including but not limited to event name, event location or venue, event start time, or event date.
      • RED FLAG language: “does not guarantee the accuracy of event information.” I don’t even know where to go with this. The date, time and location of the event could all be wrong?  Ye-gods.
    • Ticket Availability SITE cannot guarantee ticket availability until USER is in possession of their tickets. Generally, all ticket listings on SITE are a unique set of tickets from an individual TICKET SELLER. Some ticket listings on SITE may only be representations of available tickets and not actual seat locations or currently available tickets….
      • RED FLAGs: “cannot guarantee ticket availability….” and ticket listings “may only be representations of available tickets.” Riddle me this Batman: when you order dinner, do you want the waiter to bring you food or something that is the “representation” of food?

How to protect yourself

Exact seat-live ticket: Before you plunk down any money (or credit card numbers) for a seat, ticket or backstage pass, beg to see the actual seat you are going to be sitting in.  If you’re on a website that doesn’t give you the EXACT SEAT LOCATION it’s probably because there isn’t (and may not be) one in your future.  Every ticket has three designations to tell you where it’s located “Section#…Row #…and Seat #…..” (if there are no assigned seats, it will say something like “GA” for General Admission).  Spec-sales can’t tell you the exact seat you are buying and usually stop at the “row” level (often giving a list of rows “1-19”).  If this is the case, put your credit card back into your wallet. 

Look for company name, address and phone number: Are you buying tickets from an actual company or some guy in a trailer who can afford a modem? Being an established player does not guarantee that they are legit. But, you will have a much easier time finding them if things go south. 

Use your credit card: Do not use cash or a debit card to buy anything over the web.  Your credit card company has a department to help if you were ripped off. They might even freeze the transaction if you catch it early enough.  If you use a debit card, once you hit the button to MAKE THE PURCHASE, your money is in the wind.  Same goes with PayPal.  As we wrote in an earlier post, PayPal doesn’t protect you so much if you have a beef with what you bought.  Use your credit card instead.  If they refuse to let you use a credit card, consider that proof that they are not legit enough to process credit card payments. 

No Craig’s list: Do we really need to link to an article that shows somebody who showed up to buy something from a Craig’s list ad and got robbed, shot or worse?  Anyone with opposable thumbs can put an ad on Craig’s list or some other online trading site.  You want to pay for tickets, not some scary story. 

Are you REALLY the right place: Buying tickets on the web is incredibly easy.  If you’re not careful, you might find yourself on a website that looks a LOT like its the venue you’re going to.  It could be a broker who made up a dummy website so he can charge out-of-towners $300.00 for a ticket that is only $50.00.  (it’s been known to happen)  If you’re early enough to be buying tickets from the box office, find them on the web and call them directly.  “Are you the box office for _______” should be the first question out of your mouth.  Then if you want to recheck the prices (or seat choice) on the web on your own, have at it.  But, make darn sure that you are buying from the actual theater and not somebody who just wants to make money off tourists who don’t know any better.    

Think twice about using an online Broker: It’s up to you.  Maybe it’ll work out and you’ll see a really killer show.  Or maybe you’ll wind up in Arizona in a pair of Seahawks boxer shorts that keep bunching up on you because you’re on a bar stool and not in a stadium seat. 

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who does NOT own any NFL undergarments.  But, he does have a Terrible Towel) 

“Stop trolling for deals and get back to work!” (what to worry about – besides your boss – on Cyber Monday)

“I’ll never shop online.  I don’t trust that whacky internet thing. I’d rather go to the store and pick up & look at whatever I’m buying!”  That line (though not verbatim) was uttered by us just a few short years ago when we weren’t so full of (ahem) courage.  When the internet was just a wee lad and online monetary transactions weren’t so commonplace it all seemed so scary.  Plug your credit card number into a computer, send it off into the ether and let heaven-knows-who get access to your account?  Puhlease. 

Nowadays it’s a different story.  Most of us are, in fact, very comfortable shopping online.  The National Retail Federation estimates that for the 2014 holiday season 56% – the highest percent ever – of consumers plan to do their shopping online . This, even though data breaches and loss of personal information for millions of consumers has become commonplace.

Editor’s sarcastic note: Quick, name the major retailer that has NOT had a severe data breach in the last 12 months! (I can’t either….but you get the point. It happens a LOT)

While there is little you can do to make sure that the company you are buying from has their own stuff together, there are things that you can do on your end to keep your information as safe as possible.

Where do we start?

Since advice about safe online shopping seems to be as popular as…. well….online shopping, there are plenty of places to look.  Here is an article that has 5 tips for safe online transactions; one with 8 tips; one with 10 tips and one with 11 tips

Research what you want to buy

This is good advice for whatever you’re buying.  One of Consumer Courage’s rules about buying is: the more money you plan to spend, the more research you should do.  You will recall in our series about car-buying we told you to plan on doing an hour of research for every thousand dollars that you’re gonna spend.  “What if I want to buy something that’s less than a thousand dollars? Should I just forget the research?”  Judge for yourself how much time you need to spend researching things at the lower end of the cost spectrum.

You might want to adopt a minimum amount of time for things that you buy over the web.  Why? Because, even though you might not be spending $2,000, if you get ripped off or if some scammer swipes your personal info because you weren’t careful enough, it could cost a lot more than the sticker price.  Call it “preventative research.”

What are you looking for?

A few things. Of course, you want to get the best deal. You also want to make sure that the company you’re going to give your account numbers to is legit and not some scammer in Eastern Europe with a teenager who’s really good at making fake websites. 

• Do they have a physical address?
• Do they have a working customer service phone number? 
• Do they have a name that you recognize? (or at least a name that you can research to verify that they’ve done enough business to make you feel like they’re legit.)

If these questions don’t all get “YESes,” you might want to think twice about using that website. Anybody can rig a website to make it look like they have the exact thing you’re looking for – at the cheapest price you’ve ever seen, no less.  Remember, you’re not trying to figure out if they can sell you something – that’s the easy part.  You’re really trying to figure out what will happen if the new thing doesn’t work or if it arrives damaged. 

If you can’t find the company when you have a problem, the “bad case scenario” is that you’ll be out five hundred bucks because you misread the return policy.  The “worst case scenario” is that you bought a gadget that wasn’t so new…and it doesn’t work…AND that it was sold by someone who is using your credit card number to buy gold-flecked hand cream from a vendor in Hawaii and having it delivered via overnight courier, along with a tin of caviar.

How you find them matters more than you think

If you think you have found the deal that you’re looking for (and the seller you want to buy it from) go through the front door.  Meaning to say: when you finish your research, Google the site you want to visit and go in through their home page.  It’s very tempting to click on the pop-up window that promises to sell you a “gold-plated, diamond-encrusted, antique thing-a-ma-bob from the Napoleanic era for only $149.99,” but that pop-window (or ad) could very well be from someone who wants you to think that they’re a reliable store, when they’re not.

The internet is plenty fascinating and computers can be programmed to make what is completely bogus seem all too real.  Ever get an e-mail that looks like it really IS from your bank’s fraud department?  There isn’t a fraud department on the globe that will send e-mails to account holders asking for information to verify their accounts.  Yet, it happens all the time and they look very real.  This kind of trickery is all over the web.  Be careful and make sure you’re buying from the right kind of seller.

Once you get there, do you still have to be careful?

If you are going after a specific deal, be careful not to miss red flags that would normally make you hesitate. For instance, if you don’t see where it says “No Returns” on the home page and you miss it because the ad said that you had to “hurry, because they’re going fast!” it’s not going to end well.  If the site has a FAQs page, click on it and read all of the questions. 

• Are there extra shipping charges?
• Does the delivery guarantee mean that they will guaranty that you’ll get it in 60 days, instead of the 3 days you wanted?
• Is the item actually used instead of new? 
• Are you agreeing to settle any disputes that you have with the seller in a Native-American Tribal Court in Wakaluk Alaska?

These little tidbits might be hidden on the FAQ’s page.  But, since they were “disclosed” to you and available to see before you clicked “charge my credit card,” it’ll be impossible to argue that you didn’t know about them. 
“Doesn’t all this research take too much time?” you say.  Perhaps. You know what else takes too much time? Sending (and re-sending) that hundred dollar piece of garbage you bought back to the seller that won’t give you a refund; and then cussing at your own credit card’s customer service rep, because they won’t cancel the payment. 

Return Policy/Privacy policy

Nearly every article about buying stuff on the web tells you to read the Terms & Conditions and the Privacy Policy. Which makes sense.  You SHOULD know whether a particular website takes away your rights by telling you that:
“…any disputes you have with seller will be decided by mandatory binding arbitration. By clicking ‘accept’ you are hereby giving up your rights to a jury trial and to file and participate in a class action.” You might even be agreeing to a $3,500.00 fine and face damaged credit if their service is horrible and you write a negative review about their customer service rep on the internet.

The problem is: if you don’t agree to the terms & conditions you’re not buying anything.  That’s because their website is programmed to stop anybody who does not blindly click “I agree” to every term & condition that they offer, no matter how one-sided they are.  This is why it’s so important to be careful about your purchase before you make it – because undoing it can be a lot harder than you think.

Editor’s note of privacy: even though you can’t change their Privacy Terms & Conditions, you CAN write them a letter or e-mail after you’re done and tell them that they “do not have my permission to share my identifying or contact information with anybody,” and they have to listen.  This will help lower the number of unsolicited letters and calls that you’ll get in the future because the seller sold your info to another company for marketing purposes.  

What to pay with

With web purchases, the age-old question: “cash or credit?” is replaced by “what kind of credit?”  We say, if you’re buying something on the net, only use a credit card.  Credit cards offer you the most protections. (Actually, credit cards are really the only type of plastic that offers ANY protections)  If the purchase has a ton of problems and you bring a dispute to your credit card company, the Fair Credit Billing Act says that you are not responsible to pay for the disputed charge, while they investigate. If you get scammed, or if someone steals your account number, don’t worry.  You are not responsible to pay if someone steals your credit card info and makes a purchase. (If you don’t tell the credit card company as soon as you realize that someone used your card, you could be liable – but only up to $50) 

Debit cards/pre-loaded credit cards are a different story. Once money is taken off of the debit card, it’s gone.  If there’s a dispute, or if you give some website your Green Dot card (or some other debit card) to pay a $1,500 box of garbage, you will be outta luck when you try to get your money back.  Add to that the problems that will arise if your debit card is attached to a live account (many checking accounts have debit cards to “prevent you from having to write all of those annoying checks”).  You may have just given a scammer the actual numbers to your checking account.  By the time you find out that the deal was bogus, you could have lost the purchase price AND the rest of the money in your checking account. 

Other tidbits

    • Check that confirmation screen: most internet purchases give you one last chance to confirm the purchase, before they charge your card.  Look very closely to see if there are extra charges. (like shipping charges or some other add-on that you did not agree to) If there is a charge that you don’t recognize, or for an amount that takes you by surprise – wait!  This is the moment when you should say “hmmmm.  Maybe I’ll look somewhere else.” 
    • Be secure at every turn: Unless the WiFi you’re on is the one in your house that requires a password, don’t even consider buying something.  If you’re at Starbucks or some other public place that has a WiFi network, imagine that you’re putting your numbers in big block letters on a billboard. That’s about how secure a public WiFi is.  No matter what network you are using, make sure that the website you’re on has the little padlock or starts with the letters “https.”  The “s” means “Secure.” If a website doesn’t have either of those, remember the billboard analogy.
    • Check your credit card statement often: Every credit card lets you view your statement and account info online.  Instead of waiting for the statement to come in the mail (which could take a month), get in the habit of checking your statement online regularly.  If you don’t buy stuff online, you probably don’t have to do this.  If you do, make it a habit to check the bill at least once a week.  This way, you’ll be able to spot problem charges (or bogus activity) quickly.  Shop online every day?  Check it more often than once a week. 
    • Shipping, tracking and e-mails: Look at the e-mail they send you with the receipt.  Is it different in ANY way?  Is there a charge there that you don’t remember? Call them right away and complain.  If you ship something, follow the tracking website and make sure it actually gets delivered.  If it’s expensive, call the person and make sure it wasn’t damaged.  You don’t want someone to get your gift in pieces and then not call you, because it just felt weird.

And get something nice for yourself.  Go ahead……you deserve it.

Posted by Mark Wiseman (who turns his computer, lights, TV and fuse box off after every internet purchase. Cuz, you know, you can never REALLY be sure)