“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)


“I’m sorry did you say you were a scam artist?” (how to spot phone scams)

If a stranger came up to you on the street and said “Hey, do you mind if I go through your purse while you wait for the bus?”  You would probably hit him over the head with it instead.  So why if that same stranger calls you on your cell while you are waiting for that same bus, will you give him the time of day?  Yes you’ll be skeptical. But, if he plays his cards right, you’ll stay on that call just long enough for him to soften you up and let him through that purse of yours so he can see your checkbook.

Used to be the most you had to worry about when leaving the house to spend some money was buying the wrong thing.  Some folks used to say “don’t buy any wooden nickels,” because the threats you faced were when you actually had to leave the house to buy something.  Today, you don’t have to worry only when go out of your house to make a purchase.  The bad guys have many ways to reach right into your house and come get your money, while you’re still sitting on the couch.

Your cell phone and your e-mail account both provide an avenue to reach you at any time of day or night.  And for some reason, if we get contacted through either of these avenues e-mail or cell-phone, we interpret those communications as if they each contain an inherent hint of credibility.

When we get an e-mail asking us for money (or our password or account numbers) it should be met with the same level of skepticism that we have when a stranger asks us for money in the parking lot on the way to our car after the late movie.  Still many of us will keep reading that e-mail in the hope that this might just be the one chance we’ve been waiting for to make some real dough.  This is why people still fall for the Nigerian prince scam.

The tricks of the trade:

Before we describe some of the scams that are still around it probably makes sense to talk about HOW scam artists work and the tricks they use to knock us off of our game.  It’d be easier if we could just ASK if they were scam artists (much like asking if the new guy to the group is a narc)  Unfortunately, we have to figure it out for ourselves.  Remember: the scammer’s only goal is to get you to make a simple transfer of funds.  All they need is your account numbers.  Be they checking; credit card; savings or debit card.  The only thing they seek is those magical numbers.  Magical because they unlock the moola that is hiding behind the door.  Once they have those numbers, the game is over. They each have a map on their desks that contains their business plan:

  • Locate sucker (by phone or e-mail)
  • Gain their trust
  • Suggest a payment
  • Find the money
  • Get the payment
  • Disappear

Instead of thinking:

“Gee they sound so nice and they seem to know so much about me and what I’m thinking.  They just want to help me. They seem like a friend of mine. I should be nice and try to help them to. After all, why would anybody try to steal from me? I’m a nice person and wouldn’t steal from anybody”

You should be thinking:

“I don’t know who this person is. They could be anybody. They SAY that they have some business with me, but how do I know that’s true?  I’ll bet they are crooks, living in some foreign country laughing at apple pie, Chevrolets and me! I’ll never believe them!”

Here’s how they’ll do it

  • The Lure of the BIG SCORE! – This is really at the heart of every con. Make the person think they’re about to hit it big.  Many of us suffer from the lottery mentality – wishing that you hit it big, but thinking you only have to spend minimal effort (like a dollar) to get it.  Scam artists know this and try to tap into that feeling when they try to con you.
  • Using fear – Oddly, this is just more of the BIG SCORE! idea. The con artist is trying to scare you into thinking that you will lose out on that great thing; or that you will be set up to suffer some great unseen harm if you say “no.”  Sure it’s scary to think that your computer could get hacked, your ID stolen or your house burgled.  But that’s not the reason to say Yes to the person who calls out of nowhere to try and save you.
  • Using mirroring – This is when they listen to what you say and pretend to be just like you.
    • If you mention the dog, they are a dog person;
    • If you mention grandkids, their favorite grandmother just passed away;
    • Whatever city you are in, they just Loooove your college or pro team.
      Being able to process some off-hand comment by someone, turn it around and pretend you have the same thing in less than a second is an art form, to be sure.  Just remember: you’re talking to the artist!
  • Pressure you to act NOW – They know that if you don’t say YES while they have you on the phone during the first call, you will probably not fall for their scam. If you hang up – or just say NO – they have no power.  E-mail scams also contain some pressure to act fast.  That comes from whatever fear they are trying to fill you with.
  • Do a lot of fast-talking – scam artists know that the only way to keep you from being careful is to fill everysinglesecond with the sound of their voice. They figure that if you’re listening to them, you won’t hear your own brain screaming “Ahem…RED FLAG!”  Evasive answers, long-winded explanations, phrases that just don’t sound right, ANY feeling in your gut of doubt or a hint that you don’t trust the speaker should register in your brain as if you’re watching a magician who’s really bad at card tricks. (you’ll gladly watch the trick; but ain’t no way you’re gonna give him a tip)
  • Keep you engaged/won’t let you stop the conversation – Every scammer knows that the victim’s only weapon is to end the conversation/hang up/walk away.  Nobody ever got arrested for hanging up on someone.  Almost every scam victim we talk to says some variation on the phrase “Well he sounded so nice.”

Author’s plea for secrecy: Try not to tell Mrs. Consumer Courage that we’re recommending that you hang up the phone.  She’s the only person we’ve ever seen who will apologize to the person on the other end that she’s about to hang up. (I’ve actually seen this)

  • Change the subject
    • You’ll say: “I want to think this over”
    • They’ll say: “well you have to act now, because this deal won’t be open for much longer”
    • You’ll say: “Can you send me something in the mail?”;
    • They’ll say: “Well, this is how we keep our costs down. We’re only offering this over the phone.”
    • You’ll say: “I’ve read about this. There was an article in the paper about how your product breaks after an hour and a half”
    • They’ll say: “How about this weather!”
  • Can I get this money back? –  No scam is complete until the bad guys get paid. To do this, you need to give them some account number.  What they really want is money that is untraceable.  Your question to yourself if you’re about to make an online (or over the phone) payment is: If I’ve been duped, can I get any of the money back?  Scammers will tell you all kinds of things designed to make you pay, using a method that will not allow you to get your money back if it all goes south.
    • What kind of payments should you worry about?  
    • RED FLAG payment types = anything that acts as instant cash. Once the funds are sent, they are gone for good.  All of these: checking accounts; debit cards; Money Orders; Green-dot cards (any pre-paid debit card) are instant methods and a scammer’s dream.
    • Not so red flag payment types = Most Credit Cards have fraud protection; Pay by mail usually involves a check (so that’s bad). But anytime you’re paying by mail, you have a lot of time to rethink the whole idea (which is good);
  • But “I’ll never fall for that” – Sure you won’t.  But consider this, Consumer Courage had helped people of all ages, incomes, educational levels, racial groups, temperaments and shoe sizes.  Trust us when we say “Nobody is immune to scam artists.”  Strong one day – weak the next; Sharp one day – airheady the next. That’s all part of the human condition.  Trust us, if they get you on a down day, it won’t be pretty.
  • Can you take me to dinner first? – One of your first rules should be: Don’t pay anybody the first time you speak with them. (of course, if YOU started the call this isn’t so important) This is meant for you to refuse to pay anybody who calls you out of the blue.

How to protect yourself

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular scams that are out there.  (They might not all look exactly as they are described here, so don’t get caught up in any one aspect.)

Grandma I’m in Jail!…

  • Target: seniors, or anybody old enough to have grandkids.
  • What happens: grandma answers the phone at 2:00 a.m. and hears “Grandma?” She says her grandson’s name into the phone and the scammer says “That’s right. We have [insert grandson’s name HERE] under arrest. You need to bail him out or he’ll be in trouble.” Grandma gets her checkbook and pays the bail.
  • STOP the SCAM by saying: “Give me your number, so I can call the police.”

Security Department needs to verify account numbers….

  • Target: anyone with an e-mail account.
  • What happens: scammer (pretending to be your bank or phone provider) sends an e-mail asking for your account (or social security) numbers so they can “verify” your information.  You respond to the e-mail with your password, etc and they hack into your computer or bank account and ruin your day.
  • STOP the SCAM by: (1) deleting (or NOT opening) these e-mails; and (2) realizing that no company will EVER use e-mail to get your personal info.

Collecting money on a fake past-due bill….

  • Target: anyone who has bills.
  • What happens: scammer calls you about a fake “bill that is unpaid and about to go to collections,” and threatens to arrest you (or your relative) who owes money.  Lots of stern language and mentions of jail.
  • STOP the SCAM by saying: (1)“send me a letter that proves I owe you this money”; (2)“you can’t arrest me for not paying my bills”; or (3) “give me your number so I can call the local police and the Attorney General.”

Pay a fee to win the Lottery….

  • Target: anyone who wants to win the lottery.
  • What happens: scammer calls and says that you won some far away lottery or contest, but need to pay a fee to get your money. First you pay a small amount. But, since you didn’t win anything, they keep calling back to get more money in larger and larger amounts.  After a while, you keep paying (first out of home, then out of shame)
  • STOP the SCAM by saying: (1) “It’s illegal to charge a fee to claim a prize”; (2) “I’d like your name and phone number to give to the FBI”; or (3) “Send me a letter that tells me exactly what I won and how much I have to pay.”

Can you cash this check for me? My bank is _________________….

  • Target: Anyone with e-mail and/or a bank account.
  • What happens: Someone wants you to do them a favor.  They’ll tell you a sob story about their bank not cashing their check for them (“I bounced a check, now they make me wait” or “there’s a hold on my account but I don’t have time to fix it”)  They will give you a check made out to them that looks very real. (so real, it will actually fool your bank)  All you have to do is cash it and give them their money.  Many times they offer to let you keep some of the money “for your trouble.”  After putting the check into your account and waiting  for it to clear you send them the amount of the money from the check. A week later, your bank says:

“Oops! Even though we told you it was OK, the check you gave us was a fake (yes they can actually do this after telling you that it’s OK) Unfortunately, now you owe us for the money we paid out to cover the check that YOU wrote.  Oh, you can’t find the scam artist? Too bad. You still owe us”

  • STOP the SCAM by: (1) not doing favors that involve you giving people your own money – unless it’s your Mom; (2) practice saying the phrase “Aw. I’m so sorry. I wish I could help you.”

Imposter Scams

  • Target: (mostly) Seniors
  • What happens: Caller tries to impersonate a person of authority, such as: an IRS agent; a bill collector; some government agency looking for payment; a bill collector threatening a relative with jail for non-payment.  You are worried that you (or a loved one) will end up in the slammer, so you agree to pay.
  • STOP the SCAM by: (1) Staying calm when someone on the phone threatens you; (2) ask for them to send you a letter stating whatever story they are telling you; (3) ask for their name, address and phone number so you can give it to the Police or State Attorney General to make sure it’s OK.

Free iPad, iPhone (or some other gadget you’d like but can’t afford) if you would just “help them out and participate in a survey”

  • Target: (mostly) Seniors
  • What happens: Caller (or letter’s author) invites you to participate in a survey to check out this new product/rate this new service.  As an incentive they are offering some big-ticket item. One hint that this is a scam is that the giveaway is expensive.  The survey is just a ruse to get you on the phone to answer some personal questions so they can steal your Identity.
  • STOP the SCAM by: (1) Not participating in any surveys; and (2) if you must, pull the plug once the questions get personal. Promise yourself to never give out your date of birth, social security number or checking account number to someone on the phone. (Especially if it is to “make sure we can give you the free gift!”).

So how do you fight them?

We’re not sure there’s one specific thing to do differently to avoid getting scammed.

  1. Sign up for the Federal Do-Not-Call list.  This will stop a lot (but not all) of the unwanted calls to your house.  You can submit your home and your cell numbers for the list. It’s free.
  2. Be more skeptical than you already are, for starters.  If you are dealing with somebody and you can’t see them, try imagining that they are in Kiev and not some Mom-n-Pop store down the street.
  3. If they have some personal information about you, don’t be blown away and automatically assume that you have reason to trust them.  Realize that if the person calling you has the internet, they can get loads of info about you without trying very hard at all.
    1. Information about you does not equal trust.
    2. Information about you equals internet capabilities and opposable thumbs.
  4. Trip out your home phone and Don’t answer if you don’t know who it is
    • Get voice mail you can hear while the message is being left.  There’s no sin in screening your calls. People who want to scam you will hang up, your daughter will leave a message.
    • Get caller ID.  While it’s true that scammers can fake the caller ID, they are less likely to program the phone to show your Nephew’s number.  They are way more likely to have the number show as “out of area” or “toll free call” or “000-000-0000”  It it’s any of these don’t answer!
  5. You have a dial tone…use it! If you do answer and someone is trying to sell you anything or you feel uneasy for any reason, hang up!  This is not a crime.  Nor can you get into any trouble at all with anyone for hanging up. It’s your phone and your nickel. Don’t be shy!
  6. Don’t pay over the phone, until they send you something in the mail first.  Whoever it is, demand written confirmation of whatever they’re selling, peddling or demanding.  If they can’t afford a stamp, they’re out to trick you!
  7. Do not give out any personal information.  No matter who it is, or what the situation is: if they called you first, they don’t get your info.

Posted by Mark Wiseman (who once had his father hang up on him because he didn’t answer fast enough. Dear old Dad gets an “A” for being a courageous consumer, but a “D-” for making us feel like he really wanted to talk to us)

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)


Just when you thought it was safe to answer the phone…(Staying away from Impostor scams)

This week, we peek in on the ‘imposter’ scam. This scam has many versions. They all center around two major points of focus. First, the scammer convinces the victim that he is a trusted person of authority that works for a legitimate enterprise. Second, the scammer convinces the victim to give up his money (either by giving access to an account, or by making a payment). Everyone is susceptible to this scam – seniors are most at-risk. If you were on the street and some fool came up to you and asked for your account numbers or to get a debit card for $1,000.00 and give it to him, you might smack him. You would surely walk the other way. So, the question begs: why are people so willing to give this stuff up after spending less than 3 minutes on the phone with someone they’ve never met?

Scams and schemes – they’re all just con games

Scams, fraud and confidence schemes all need one thing to work effectively – the cooperation of the victim. Some need more cooperation; some need less. A pick-pocket doesn’t need your cooperation – they just need for you to stop paying attention to your wallet for a second or two. Many scams rely on you to make your cash available…willingly. Most follow the same basic formula.  The trick is to get you to make a payment without realizing that what you are really doing is tossing your money out the window.

Breaking down barriers

We all have internal barriers that make us skeptical when dealing with our money. The feeling you have in your stomach when someone comes to your door selling electric dog polishers is what keeps you from paying the “low-low price of 10 monthly payments of $395.99 each.” Something – your mind tells you – is just not right. So, why do these barriers disappear when we’re on the phone or looking at our e-mails?

It has something to do with the fact that the professionals on the other end of the line have spent their entire careers figuring out how to deal with (and trick) trusting people like us. And it has something to do with fear. That “Oh no!” that they create in your mind acts as a salve for the knot in your stomach and forces you to abandon your skepticism. “Why don’t I trust this guy?” is a lot less compelling than “Oh my G-d. I could lose money!” Especially when the guy you’re skeptical about is talking so nicely and trying so hard to make you feel like you are the center of the world.

Don’t they love me?

No….. they don’t. People selling you things (a new product, a repair service, a warranty) are dealing with you so they can make money – NOT because they looooove you. They want to make money and you are going to make that possible. It’s why people who work for tips smile and laugh when you say something that they don’t agree with. Since breaking down your skepticism barrier is job numero uno for a scam artist, they realize that one way to get your cash is to make you think that they are just trying to help you.

What they say: “We found a virus on your computer and want to help you get rid of it. We’ll save you a lot of trouble, because these viruses can cause real damage. This could cost you thousands if you don’t fix it.”

What you hear: “I’m not here to make money. I just want to help YOU. I will make YOU’RE life better, cheaper and more enjoyable because I love you and want to spread my love by selling this thing right here”

Imposter scam (in the flesh)

The version of the imposter scam that has captured our fancy today has been around for awhile and it works like this:

1. Grandpa buys a new computer.

2. Bogus techie call (Hook…)

After he’s had it for about a week, he gets a call from someone identifying himself as “Jim from Microsoft.” According to Jim, “there are some bad files on Gramps’ computer that would have been taken care of before he left the store…but weren’t.” But don’t worry, Gramps, help is on the way in the form of Jim who will make sure that your computer is in good running shape and free from danger!

3. Believable story, Fear created (…Line…)

To start, Jim just needs to check the computer to make sure that there aren’t any “bad files” left running around in the background and “I just need you to grant me access to your computer” so I can perform the necessary search. “So glad we caught your unit! These virues are really nasty and can lead to thousands of dollars in bills, corrupt files and maybe even a new computer.” We just need to get access to your computer so we can check it out. 

 4. Access given (….and Sinker)

“All you have to do is go click on the link that I’m e-mailing you and then a few YES boxes and we’re set! The cost? Just a few dollars. $199.99 to be exact. But, that’s just a set-up fee. If you let us do this today and keep the program for 10 days, we will refund the money and it won’t cost you anything.”

5. Account numbers handed over. Money spent

“To pay, we’ll need your checking account number and the access code just to debit your account for the $199.99 charge. But, don’t worry, after 10 days, we’ll credit your account for this amount and it won’t cost you anything.” Thereupon Gramps offers up the checking account numbers AND the all-important access code that lets his bank know that it is in fact him (and not some scammer) making the transaction electronically.

Keep in mind, if you enter the account numbers and the access code checks out, your bank could care less where the transaction is coming from. If you live in Akron and the transaction to pay for this $199 software is emanating from Mars, your bank can’t really tell. The only thing they care about is that the access code fits with the right account. If it does…..bingo! The money gets transferred

5. Coming back for more – the mother lode

Thirty days later is when the fun begins. Gramps gets a call from someone else at Microsoft. They are “here to refund his money, so let’s get started. Can I have the account numbers again just to verify, and the access code? Yes, yes, thank you. And here we go…..” [silence and a pause]

“Oh fiddlesticks! I can’t believe I did this. I just deposited an extra $2,000.00 into your account. Aw man. My boss is gonna kill me. I’m in my probation period. They’ll fire me for sure.”

Gramps says “Why don’t you just refund the money back to you and do the transaction for the right amount?”

“I would. But all refunds have to go through my boss and I’m in trouble as it is.” After a few moments of worrying, the new Microsoft guy comes up with a great idea. “I know it’s a little trouble for you. But, if you get a Green dot card or a Money-gram and take the $2,000 that I put in by mistake, you can send it back to me and I’ll put it in our account. That way I won’t be in trouble.” After Grandpa shows the healthy amount of worry “Gee,” he hesitates “that sounds like an awful lot of trouble.”

The rep assures him “Check your statements, you’ll see that $2,000.00 WAS put into the account today. (you can’t be too careful, right?) Once you see that I did put money into your account, you’ll be able to pay us back)” Gramps checks his account and, in fact, there WAS a $2,000 deposit that very same day. Seeing that new-Microsoft-guy is telling the truth, Grandpa goes to the store and puts $2,000 on a Green Dot card to send back to them.

Two things here: First of all, there WAS a $2,000 deposit into Gramps’ account. After the first call (when he gave the scam artists his checking account number and access code) they were able to use that code to take money from his OTHER account – a Pension account – and put it into the checking account just before they called him back to issue him the bogus refund. When he went to verify that there was a deposit he saw one; albeit with his own money.

Which brings us to the second point – they need Grandpa to give the money to them. Even though they have his account number and access code, they don’t want to steal they money. If they do, they’ll break a whole lotta Federal laws AND it would make it much easier for the Feds to trace the money back to live people. If they get paid by a Green Dot card, instead, it will be impossible to trace it to them. More importantly, when Grandpa goes to the cops (or when his kids take him to the cops) he’s probably going to get a shrug and hear something like “Gee, we really don’t know where this money went. It’s going to be impossible to find the bad guys.”

How to avoid the impostors

Hang up! All of the power scam artists possess comes from the fact that you are talking to them (or e-mailing them) and grows every second you do so. Feel queezy? Seems like something’s wrong? Feel like you’re no getting straight answers? Hang up the phone; delete the e-mail; throw away the letter. It’s not a crime to STOP talking to someone.

Wanna cut down on this nonsense a ton? Stop answering the phone altogether. Let the machine get it. If it’s your daughter, she’ll call back (or leave a message).

Let’s slow down: Scam artists all talk a lot – and fast. If they’re filling the air, instead of letting you think for yourself, your less likely to say no.  Usually, the sales pitch is followed immediately with other nonsense that is meant to distract you from your impulse to say No.  If you MUST continue to talk to them do it at your own pace.  Practice saying “OK, now could you repeat the part about the cost,” and “Could you slow down, please?” 

Press them on the details: How did you get my number again? What’s the name of the store that gave you the information? And who did you say you were working for? What’s your address? What’s your phone number? (Give me your extension so I can call you back.) I have a bad part? What’s the brand name? I could be risking losing a lot of money? Tell me where it has happened that someone lost money because of this and how do I verify that you’re telling me the truth?

Google it: Once you’ve asked your questions:

    • Use your friend Mr. Google. Type in the story they gave you and add the word “scam” or “ripoff.”
    • Look up their company name on your local Better Business Bureau’s website.
    • Look up the part name, serial number and any other information you can get out of them about exactly what they are trying to sell you. If it doesn’t exist or get any hits, that’s a pretty good sign they are trying to rip you off.
    • Don’t have a computer? Call a friend, call the BBB, call the Attorney General, call the local library.  The point is – if you don’t do some research about the person who has called you and is asking for money, you’re not trying. 

No You canNOT look into my medicine cabinet: There are laws that prevent people other than you from passing out your personal private information. Your account numbers, your date of birth, your social security numbers, your bank access code; these are all pieces of personal information that are protected by Federal Law. Perhaps you should think twice (or three times) before giving these out over the phone. You wouldn’t let a stranger look through your drawers or rifle through your wallet. Don’t make the same mistake with your computer or personal information.

Don’t call us child, we’ll call you: Other than being a great song from my childhood, this should be your mantra. There is a HUGE difference between someone who called you out of the blue and someone that YOU called yourself. Don’t confuse the two.

What they say: “We were alerted to call you because you filled something out/bought a product/were picked out for a prize.”

What you should hear: “We picked your number off of a list and are trying to trick you into giving us money because scamming nice folks like you is a LOT easier than getting real job.”

Just remember this phrase: If you didn’t start the call, don’t tell them anything at all! 

 Send me a letter (not an e-mail) one of those paper things: Scammers hate mailing letters. They’ll do it. But if they refuse, this should be your first warning that whoever your’re talking to is lying. “Oh, we keep our costs down by not mailing letters. This way we can pass our savings on to you.” Bullcrap. Letters cost 50 cents. Are they saving THAT much money by not mailing you one?  Your answer should be “if you don’t send me a letter, you don’t exist.”

Green dot/money-gram/money-order/western-union all spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E: If you buy anything on the net or over the phone you should use a credit card NOT a Green dot card, Money Gram, Money order or anything else that is instant cash. Instant also means “non-traceable” and “up in smoke.” Most credit card companies have fraud units and will withhold payment to a vender if you call to say that you’ve been ripped off. “We can’t take credit cards, because we need the money right away” or “…because we’re not equipped to take credit card payments.” Both are fibs. Credit cards give them money right away and there are loads of online payment processing services for folks who want to take payment via credit card.  If they say they can’t do this, they’re not really trying.  

Can you help a brother out? This one is as old as dirt. Just a small favor is really the toe-in-the-door to getting your cash into their account. “I’m going to be in trouble with my boss.” Means “Please do this thing you would NEVER do, because you pity me.” As red flags to, this one’s a doozy.

Posted by Mark Wiseman: (who, when he was 10, had to wait hours to hear that Sugarloaf song on the radio. Now he can Youtube it every 10 minutes.  G-d bless the internet)


Be afraid. Be very afraid! (Make sure that deal is good for YOU and only you)

This week, we got a familiar phone call: 

Homeowner:  I responded to an ad on TV that said that they were helping run the ‘Obama plan for Mortgages’ and they would knock my payment down by ½.

Consumer Courage: Did you meet w/anybody?

H/O: No, they had offices in Chicago and Nevada.  They were very nice over the phone.  I gave them all of my financial information (Social Security Number, Date of Birth, and such)  and sent them a check for ½ of my monthly payment. They said they were going to put it in escrow and then talk to my mortgage company about getting a deal.  And that they were part of a government program.

CC: Didn’t your mortgage company say anything when your payment didn’t arrive?

H/O: Oh yes.  They called me right away.  When I told them what I was doing, they said that they hadn’t received anything. 

CC: How long has it been since you’ve made your last payment?

H/O: About 4 months.  I wasn’t even behind. But, the ad said that they could knock my payment down by ½.  Now, the company from the TV ad has shut off their phones and I have no way to reach them.  The bank says they are going to put me into foreclosure.

CC: Oy vey.

Unfortunately, this happens all the time.  Some company promises the moon on a TV ad, or in a radio spot – the info is part half-truth, part-wives tail and part internet-fear.  All they need is a consumer who is just a little too trusting for their own good.   The shame of it is, this poor woman wasn’t even behind when she responded to the ad.  Now, at 68, she blames herself because she fell for a scam that is run by some very nasty, remorseless folks who view money taken from somebody’s Nana as righteous bucks. 

What could she have done?

We think that ‘Be More Skeptical’ isn’t really advice. (more to the point, it’s probably actually advice. The problem is, the only people who will listen to this advice are already skeptical…)  However, there are practical changes that could help somebody who is wrestling with the idea of whether or not to send people like this their money.  

    • TV & Radio Ads contain lies – Don’t ever forget this.  Advertisements & ad-campaigns cycle through production, airing and to the scrap heap waaaaay to quickly for there to be any meaningful inquiry into whether the claims they make are true or not. Is the truth being stretched or fantasized?  The answer isn’t so clear.  What IS clear is that your first bit of research on anything should be to remind yourself to be very reluctant to believe claims that are made in an ad;
    • Ask a friend – Don’t underestimate how much benefit there is from saying this phrase to a friend that you trust “Hey, can I bounce this off of you?  Does this sound like a good idea?”  What this does it give you two perspectives on what you’re about to do.  You hear what a trusted friend thinks and you get to hear it come out of your own mouth.  Too often, once we brand something as ‘good news’ (like a sweet new deal on a type of milkshake that will cause us to drop weight that we’ve been carrying around since the mid-80s) our minds filter out the warning flags that are on the road to decision-making.  Hearing yourself say it out loud will give you one more chance to test out the idea on the BS meter.
    • Do SOME research – Check out
      • Government agencies – For starters, your State’s Attorney General and The Federal Trade Commission both compile lists of people who report that they’ve been scammed.  They can also tell you if the company that you’re dealing with is supposed to have a license to operate inside your State.  If they have to be licensed, you can call THAT other agency and see if they are.  Having a license doesn’t mean that everything about you is legit.  But, if they don’t have the license that they are supposed to have, it can be a red-flag.
      • Non-Profit Watchdogs – To name a few: Better Business Bureau, National Association of Consumer Advocates, Consumer Federation of America, Center for Responsible LendingNational Consumer Law Center all have valuable insight on scams, Consumer Rights and bad guys.  They don’t know all of the scammers who are out there, but they can probably tell you whether what you’re about to do sounds more like you are about to buy magic beans, than the thing that’s gonna solve all of your problems.
      • Try Googling the name of the company you want to deal with and add the word ‘Scam’ or ‘Ripoff’ and see what comes up.

What could we all do to stay away from these scammers?

    • 1.  Start acting paranoid. We don’t mean you should wear sunglasses and never take the same route to work twice. We mean that you should start thinking “How can this go south?” and “if it does, how bad could it be for me?”  Rethink your willingness to spend and to ‘go along with things.’  As the price goes up, your willingness should go down.  If the claim is ‘this is the best candy bar ever!’ you don’t have to be too skeptical.  If you make a mistake, you’re only out a dollar and a half.  But, if the claim is ‘this investment opportunity is once in a lifetime!’ and what your risking is all of your savings or exposing our Social Security number, slow down and give in the desire to worry. 
        • Editor’s Note of motherly advice: the official Mom of Consumer Courage always says “You have to know when to worry.”  Indeed.  Don’t worry about buying the wrong candy-bar.  DO worry about whether or not there will be a problem if you divert your mortgage payment to some voice on the phone who you’ve never met 8 states away.
    • 2. This one’s a two-parter: Don’t act until you have the whole story AND Understand that the pitchman/salesman is only telling you half of it. One thing that all scammers have in common is that they talk fast, use carefully crafted language that includes just enough ‘internet wisdom’ to grab you and are going to say anything to get you to say ‘YES.’ Your job is to wait and make some effort to see for yourself. 
      • Did they say they were helping manage some new ‘Obama mortgage plan?’ Great! After you get them off the phone, go on the net (or call somebody at some government agency) and look up the plan.  Does it exist? Which ones are the places that are actually ‘helping the government?’ Does the REAL Federal Mortgage Help Program involve stopping your mortgage payments and depositing half of the amount into somebody else’s account?
      • Remember: The idea here is that you learn NOT to take the saleman’s word for it. 
    • 3.  Time is your friend: quick action is your enemy – if they have a problem with the phrase “I have to sleep on it. Let me think about it and I’ll call you back,” there’s something wrong.  The only hurry is for the scammer to hurry and get your money, before you get wise.  They know that you really want to believe them.  Why? Because (like our homeowner) you called THEM, which means that you fell for the ad. (or if they called YOU, they know you want to believe – because you haven’t hung up yet). 
    • 4.  When can we meet – one of the problems with the internet is that our system for deciding who to do business with is all out of whack.  Twenty years ago, nearly everyone would have been afraid to give personal financial information out over the phone to somebody across the country who we weren’t ever going to meet.  Now? It’s what’s expected.  Keep this in mind: the more money it could cost you the more necessary it is for you to find, meet and touch the person you are paying.  If they have an office, you can at least drive there if you feel you’ve been ripped off.  If the office is ‘somewhere in Nevada,’ good luck with that.  (it also goes much better in your report to the police if you can give them a local address)
    • 5.  If THEY started the call – don‘t tell them anything at all!  They could be anywhere working for anybody.  “Send me something in the mail and I’ll take a look at it” is the antidote to unsolicited calls seeking your personal info.
    • 6. Let’s exchange information….You first! – we’ll keep on saying this: your social security number, date of birth, account number and credit card number are all gold to you.  If I pulled up to you on the street, rolled down my window and asked for you to empty your wallet into my lap so I could drive away and never call you again, would you do it?  Of course not.  So why should this thinking change because you’re on the phone?  Even if you’ve been on the phone w/them for an hour, they helped deliver your grandson (AND used to have dinner with Mother Theresa) don’t give them anything until they give you basic information.  Expect them to give you their:
      • a. Their own name;
      • b. The company’s name;
      • c. Address;
      • d. Phone Number;
      • e. E-mail;
      • f. The deal they want you to agree to IN WRITING, on official letterhead;
      • g. Their website address
        • But Remember:  anyone with opposable thumbs and a hundred bucks can make a website.  Look at how much information their website has.  If there’s a ton of promises and flowy language, but no information on the people who work there or how to get ahold of them, there’s a problem.

Remember, until you pay, you have all of the power. Once the money is in the mail (or on its way) much of that power turns to ether. 

Posted by Mark Wiseman (who really DOES have a Mother….and she really DOES remind him what to worry about) 

Paint my kitchen, but don’t paint me a fool (what to do before you pay that handyman)

Consumer Courage has a friend who wanted to have her kitchen painted and had settled on a handyman to do the job.  After a quick look-see at the inside of the home, he pronounced the job do-able and provided an estimate of just over $400.00.  Our friend, let’s call her ‘Kate Middleton’ (not her real name) thought herself fortunate.  Although she had to buy the paint, herself, she was going to have her kitchen painted for around five hundred dollars.  It seemed like an incredibly sweet deal.  As we will see, the sweetness didn’t last too long.

After the handyman picked a start date, she bought the paint, got her walls ready and removed the excess items from her counters.   When the date arrived, Kate took time off of work to show him into the house and get him started.   While he was unfolding his drop-cloths and eyeballing the work area, he told her that it would cost a little more, because he ‘didn’t see the molding around the cabinets.’  Since there was so much molding, he told her, it would actually be $800.00 for the whole job.  Before we learn what happened next, let’s try to put ourselves in Kate’s shoes.  She had waited months to get her kitchen painted.  She hired somebody to do the job because she either doesn’t have the time or the know-how to do it – or both.  Ever since the original estimate, she had looked forward to having the kitchen done, trying hard to see the new color every time she walked into the room.  She bought the paint and got the room ready for action.  In her mind, the job was done.  Sure, it had yet to be painted, but she had done everything she needed to do. 

Consumer Courage thinks that the handyman knew what was going through Kate’s mind and was using that against her.  It’s way too easy to say ‘Yes’ to a price-change with the guy in your kitchen on the day the job is going to start. (If the Handyman called her a week beforehand and said that the price would be doubled, she would probably have hung up the phone)  But, since he was in her house and she was missing work time, she began to consider agreeing, just to get it over with.   Now, her sweet deal is turning into a bitter pill.  What the heck happened?

Let’s start with what the painter is supposed to do

The consumer laws that were created by the Federal Government are found either in a particular statute (somewhere in the United States Code) or in rules that were created by one of the Federal Regulatory agencies.  In Ohio, the system works much the same way.  The Ohio Legislature enacts most of the laws that affect Ohio’s consumers.     But, many times the legislature creates a consumer statute and then gives the Attorney General the authority to create rules to make what does (or does not) violate a consumer’s rights more clear.  The so-called OAG Substantive Rules cover many subjects and are meant to add to the laws passed by the State Legislators.  There is one such rule that governs the house painter from our story, the ‘Repair or Services’ rule  

This rule has many benefits.  If someone is performing a repair or service for you (whether it’s at their shop, or at your house) they HAVE TO:

    • Tell you that you have the right to ask for an estimate;
    • Give you the estimate in writing, if you ask;
    • Give you the estimate, BEFORE they start the work;
    • Get your permission IN WRITING, to perform any work that will jack up the price of the job by more than 10% of the original estimate;
    • Give you an itemized list of what they did, when they are done;
    • Give you the part that they replaced;
    • Give you a copy of ANYTHING that you sign or initial, when you sign it;
    • Tell you if anyone other than them or their employee will be doing the work.

They are not allowed to:

    • Lie, by telling you that if you don’t fix something, it will put you in danger, when it’s not true;
    • Lie, by telling you that something is broken, when it’s not;
    • Understate the price of a job in ‘material’ fashion;

The easy part

The easy part here is to figure out what the repairman did wrong.  He ‘Materially understated or misstated the estimated cost of the repair or service,’ (which is subsection (D)(11) of Rule 109:4-3-05  ) The rule, itself, doesn’t define what it means to ‘materially understate’ what a repair or service might cost, when you estimate a job.  But, it’s a good bet that when a repairman announces that he has to double the price of a job ($400 to $800, as it happened here) because of a condition that he most certainly saw when he came to look at the job (molding on the cabinets for a kitchen paint job), Consumer Courage thinks he has ‘materially understated’ the cost of the job.

The hard part

The tough thing here isn’t figuring out that the repairman is playing a game with the cost of the job – it’s feeling comfortable enough to tell him not to start in the first place.  Like our friend Kate, who spent weeks preparing and wants only that her kitchen has a new coat of paint, it’s not so easy to stand up to the guy inside your house – ready to start working.  You can almost hear the conversation going on in the Kate’s head:

“I figured that $400 was pretty low…….He does come recommended, so I know he does good work…. At least I’ll be done…..I’ve got to get back to work……If I start looking for someone else now, it’ll take a few weeks to start and I’ll probably pay around $800, anyway…..OK, yes, go ahead and start”

But, it’s not that simple.   This little hiccup in the cost of the job raises a few other questions in Kate’s mind (or should…):

    • Did he really ‘miss the molding’ like he said, or is he sand-bagging?

Skeptic’s Note: Consumer Courage isn’t a professional painter.  But, even I know that the molding is going to get painted, too.  

    • How do you know that this is the last time he will try to increase the price?
    • How can you trust him to do a good job, if you couldn’t even trust him to honor the estimate that he gave you to get the job in the first place? 
    • If you had a hard time telling him not to start, how easy do you think it’s gonna be to tell him to stop, once he has spent a few days there and has done actual work? 
    • What could I have done differently to prevent this from happening? 

Get at least TWO estimates 

This is one of the most offered (and most ignored) pieces of advice there is.  Any time you hire somebody to perform a service for you, try as hard as you can to get at least two estimates.  That’s one of the quickest ways to see if the price you get is reasonable or too high or too low. (Remember: a low-ball offer can be as much of a red flag as an offer that’s too high) Sometimes, the repairman that you feel more comfortable with will agree to honor the price that a competitor gives you.  If not, he might be willing to tell you why the low offer is too low

“Isn’t it time-consuming to get two estimates?” Yes it is.  You know what else is time-consuming?  Making the handyman leave your house when he is only halfway through with the job, because he keeps jacking up the price.  And then trying to find a SECOND repairman to come in and finish the job that the other guy started! 

Get something in writing from them – YOUR work is just beginning

We have already seen that you can demand a written estimate from them, before you let them start the work.  But, YOUR work is just starting, when you get the estimate.   One of the most important aspects of any home-repair job is how you use the time between when they give you the estimate and when you actually hire them to do the work.  In any case, it is important to make sure that they give you SOMETHING that contains a company name, address, phone number and (hopefully) something about how they are ‘bonded’ or ‘insured’, so you can figure out if they are legit and whether they have messed with anybody else, before they got to your house.  When they leave, you can use whatever they gave you to START your research on the company. 

Too many people think that getting an estimate is the only bit of work that they need to do, before they agree to start paying. 

    • What does Google have to say about them?   (Try typing in the company name and the word ‘Scam’ or ‘Ripoff’ or ‘lawsuit’);
    • What about the Ohio Secretary of State?  (Are they registered with the Secretary of State as an actual corporation?);  
    • What about the  Better Business Bureau? (they have a search function to let you check out a business or charity); 
    • The Ohio Attorney General has a search function that lets you check out other consumer complaints about a particular company; 

All of these are very important sources of information for you.  When you start your research (or if the whole thing goes bad) it’ll be much easier to research (or complain about) a business if you are able to look up Van Delay Industries Latex sales’ instead of ‘I think his first name was Art’

 Don’t fall in love…..

….with the job or the repairman that is.  (If you fall in love with a regular person, by all means, go be in love….who am I to judge?)  But, don’t become infatuated with the guy who comes to give you an estimate or with the idea of ‘just getting done’ with the job.  That can cause you to lose your objectivity.  You are hiring somebody for a business transaction, not to be your friend.  Sometimes, the repairmen who are uber-friendly are that way so you’ll miss an obvious red flag about the situation.  They want you to think “Hey, I could be friends with this guy.  He’s going to paint my house.  I’m having a friend paint my house.” Instead of “Hey, this guy is trying to charge me double.  I should be thinking about whether I should even let him start working.  Maybe this little ‘change’ in the price of the job is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Buyer’s/Homeowners’ remorse

What do you do, if you agree to get some work done on your house and THEN read Consumer Courage and decide that it’s probably not a good idea?   Don’t worry.  There are a few laws on the books that give Consumers the right to cancel contracts signed while they were at home, on the phone or at a so-called ‘temporary’ site, when the seller doesn’t have a principal place of business in your city (hotel rooms, seminars, etc.)…..but, that’s the subject for another post. In the meantime, do the research, get a couple of estimates and be ready to say NO. 

Posted by: Mark Wiseman, who once painted his entire kitchen, and the molding, BRIGHT ORANGE! (take my advice, don’t try that at home)

“I will pull this car over RIGHT NOW…” and other sources of vacation stress

Summer’s here and plenty of us will pick a week, pile into the car and drive to some faraway place that (we hope) will provide a magical combination of adventure and relaxation. So much of us will travel that this year’s expected output for Hotel room charges is (according to one estimate) about $84 Billion.  But, before you hit the road, give some thought to what you can do as a consumer to protect yourself. Once you are out of your comfort zone, you should be more careful about your surroundings. Make sure that your need to relax doesn’t override your need to have good sense.

For instance, if someone called your house at 2:30 in the morning and told you that they “needed to verify your Credit Card number,” you’d inform them that they were not entirely believable and hang up. Yet, when confronted with this situation, some hotel guests were actually swindled.  Apparently, some scam artists were calling a hotel switchboard and asking for random room numbers. When they were patched through, they made a convincing pitch that they were from the front desk and needed to update their computers. Not everyone fell for it. But, somebody did.  What else can you be in the lookout for, while you are relaxing by the pool?

Watch that WiFi

These days, the first thing most people do, after they check into a hotel room is fire up the laptop and hop onto the internet and make sure that they have web access in the room. Even if there’s nothing pressing, most of us make sure that the internet is still there – just in case! Your laptop will pull up the sign-in screen for your hotel automatically. After clicking ‘I agree’ (and summarily ignoring whatever it is you agreed to) you will be re-routed to the Hotel’s homepage. Now you’re free to surf the web, just like at home….or is it?

Just remember to take a few precautions:  

    • Since you are on a non-secure network, make sure to choose the option “This is a Public or Shared Computer” when you log on – That way, your computer knows to protect some of the info that it doesn’t normally hide while you are at home.
    • Let the updates wait until you get home – Even if the update is from a trusted source, your internet experience won’t suffer if you delay downloading that system update. The FBI put out a warning last year after people got snookered trying to download what they thought was a harmless update, while they were away.  It is easy to fall for – hackers are very good at making their products look reliable.
    • Unless you absolutely have to, don’t conduct any personal business on that WiFi connection either – If there’s a payment that you forgot, or if you can’t get around the need to plug your credit card number into a computer to make a purchase, see if the hotel has a business center. You might have to pay a few bucks to use their system. But, it’ll be worth it, when you consider how easy it is for someone to hack the Hotel’s WiFi when you aren’t looking and steal those numbers.  
    • Make it a habit of exiting the internet and turning off your laptop, every time you are not using it – The more time you spend logged on and connected to the net, the more chances some hacker has to get in and do some damage.

Keep those receipts!

Since you’ll probably never ever set foot in the “T-Shirt Shack and Lava Lamp Palace” again, you can throw those receipts away. Just don’t do it while you’re in the room. Dumpster-divers do exist and they can get your credit card number, name or address from a receipt. Don’t make it easy for them. Taking the receipts home; ripping them up; throwing them into a nasty garbage can on the street are all better ideas than just putting them into the waste-basket in your room that has almost nothing else in it.

Do you mind if I look at this right here?

When you check in (or sign up for any service) verify the individual charges and what the total will be. Then, when you pay, take a few minutes to go through the receipt. By the time you hit the highway  or look at your credit card bill a month later,  it will be extra hard to get any funky looking charges reversed. It will turn out much better if you try to challenge the ‘toilet tissue access convenience charge’ while you are standing at the desk and BEFORE you have signed the bill.

Honey, did you check the door?

While you are inside the room, it feels like home. But, if you think that it’s impossible for someone to get into your room, while you are out, you just might be fooling yourself. Check out this chilling article about how 4 Million hotel rooms had locks that could be picked in about 10 seconds.  The company that made the locks has been trying to fix it,  but this cannot be the only time somebody figured out how to get past electronic locks.

When you leave the room, use the safe (if there is one) or hide the important stuff that you have to leave behind. Put it under the dirty clothes; in a bag that is under the bed……anywhere besides on top of the dresser. Also, have a backup plan. Keep one credit card and some cash in a separate place, just in case.

What’s that on the front seat?

If you drove a car to the hotel, chances are you won’t be doing a ton of driving – which means that when you unload your bags, you might not see the car again for a few days. In any case, if you must leave something of value in the car, make sure that it is out of sight – in the glove box; under the seat, etc.  People won’t try to steal what they can’t see. 

Be careful and try to make it so the biggest worry you have on vacation is where you’re gonna go to dinner. 


Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who NEVER made his Dad pull the car over on vacation)

Helpers/Schmelpers……You’re not a real charity!

This week’s introduction comes from none other than Mr. Rogers, who – when confronted with unexplainable trouble or tragedy – considered the words of his mother:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” 

Despite the fact that these words were uttered decades ago, they are no less true these days when sad stories seem to have a ‘and-you-thought-nothing-could-top-this’ edge to them.  It certainly helps to process things, when you are able to focus on those selfless and considerate souls who manage to provide help, comfort or actual salvation to those in need. 

Today, we are going to look at those people who seem to have designed their industry model on the reassuring words of Mrs. Rogers, “Look for the Helpers…….”  Not because they, themselves are trying to understand a situation.  Unfortunately, we are speaking about the folks who hope to capitalize on our collective need to understand and to provide help, in the aftermath of a crisis.  We are speaking about those who pretend to be ‘The Helpers’ so that they can make a little cash.  Those are the people who run fake charities.

Fake Charities only help themselves

Fake charities are those UNworthy causes, that spring up in the days after some unspeakable event happens, trying to take advantage of our confusion and good will.  They know that most people are more likely to contribute to a charity, right after tragedy strikes.  Perhaps it’s human nature? When we see a tragedy, it eases our pain to do something tangible to help the victims.

Let’s set the stage, you’re watching the news about how a small company in Virginia went out of business, because their corporate offices were overrun by giant, poisonous millipedes.  You think to yourself, “If only I could help those people.” And then, the phone rings.

“Hello, this is Marvin with ‘Save Corporate America from Millipedes. We’re a charitable organization that was created to save small businesses from the scourge of an out-of-control millipede population. It’s so tragic when someone loses their income to a creature that can cause such devastation, while being so incredibly creepy.  Our government has overlooked this problem for way too long.  Since we are just a small non-profit, we are more nimble than larger organizations. You can be sure that nearly 100% of our proceeds will provide direct help to those folks who are most affected by the Millipedes.  Won’t you help today?”

Of course, you’re going to think twice about giving to these fools.  Not only are you pretty sure that Millipedes aren’t that dangerous – but, the acronym for the charity’s name is ‘SCAM’. However, when people get calls from a fake charity, the clues are not usually so straightforward.  The company on the phone sounds legit; the name often has a ring to it, like ‘Every child is an Angel,’ or ‘Victims relief wish fund.’ And, the call almost always comes on the heels of some tragedy.  

So, how do you make sure that you don’t send your money to the wrong place?  

There may not be any one test that you can use on the phone to figure out if a solicitor is from a real charity.  But, many of these put together can protect you from sending your hard-earned cash to someone who is only going to help themselves.  Here are a few tips to help you decide which causes are worthy enough to get your charitable donations:

    • Give yourself a week: in nearly every tragedy, the need for donations will be as great one month after the crisis as it will be the next day.  Many times, fake-charity-scammers try to pressure you into making an immediate donation. Phrases like “donate now, so we can provide help right away,” or “each minute you wait could cost a life,” or “the sooner you act, the sooner we can help” are all lies that are geared to get you to let your guard down and make a payment, right away. (think of it this way: if you were somehow able to drive your cash payment to the site of the tragedy and give it to somebody that night – it would probably still take a few weeks to be put to use. If you sit on your checkbook for another week, it won’t make much of a difference);
    • Ask a few pointed questions: These are all questions that a legitimate charity should be willing to answer.  (However, just being able to give you an answer doesn’t make them legitimate.  Whether they seem to be searching for the truth; whether they answer quickly and what their attitude is will also tell you a lot) 
      • What is the name and address of your charity?
      • How much of the donation will go to the victims?
      • When did you become a charity?
      • Where online can I see a copy of your IRS letter?

After they answer your questions, try doing some research to verify their answers.

    • Who are they, REALLY?:  Would you buy a radio from someone on the street without opening up the box to look at the goods?  Heck no!  So, don’t be afraid to spend at least some time researching a so-called non-profit to make sure they’re real.  If you want to help victims, that’s great. But, even a minimal amount of research can help you determine that the ‘needy kids’ you are helping are really a group of children whose father is a scam artist looking to make some extra cash. It’s not enough to just find a website. (Note that in the hours after the Boston Marathon tragedy, there were 125 new charity domain names registered; and within two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, there were 4,600 new ‘charity’ websites, most of which were bogus) Here are some resources to use to see how legitimate that charity is
      • The Better Business Bureau’s ‘Wise Giving Alliance’  may open your eyes about a charity; 
      • The Federal Trade Commission has a very informative page that will help; 
      • If you go to Guidestar, you can actually see the forms that the charity files with the IRS, including the 990, which shows the number of employees and Income & Expenses. (Hint: If there was no 990 filed, it’s probably not legitimate)
      •  Google is always helpful. Try typing in the EXACT name of the charity and the word “Scam” or “Fraud.” You might be surprised.
    • Use a check:  Many scam artists will try to trick you into giving them your credit card number, your checking account number or some other personal information.  You should tape the phrase “Send me something in the mail and I’ll look it over,” on the wall above your phone.  If they say “We don’t send letters out and prefer not to take checks – that’s how we keep our costs down, ” don’t buy it. 
      • First of all, a check is probably one of the only ways to remember who you paid and how much;
      • Second, credit card, debit card, and electronic check (giving your checking account number over the phone) payments to bogus charities are nearly impossible to trace AND give the scammer the ability to try and rip you off at another time;
      • Third, if you write a check, you will have a record of the address;
      • Fourth, writing a check gives you yet another chance to think twice.
    • Mobile-Schmobile: We at Consumer Courage realize that our society is careening toward a reality where phone payments and other mobile manipulations are the rule, rather than the exception. But, for the meantime, don’t get cute.  If you try to donate by sending a text (or making a phone payment) to the wrong person, you just might end up with a charge on your phone bill that could take months to get rid of.  If you’re donating to charity, go old-school and get out the checkbook.

The most important thing is to remember those two words that will protect you from a great many scams and schemes that are out there:  GO……..SLOWLY.  And, if you’re really looking for a charity that is legitimate (and passes all of our tests!), try the Cleveland Courage Fund. It was set up by three Cleveland Council-members in the wake of the story that has been the lead in just about every newscast that Consumer Courage has seen for the last week.  The money will be administered – without any of the usual fees – by the Cleveland Foundation and is one of the few charities, where you know that 100% of the donations will go to the victims. 

Make no mistake, Consumer Courage is not asking you to be a Helper.  But if you do, don’t be afraid to help, very carefully.

Posted by: Mark Wiseman

Don’t wind up with an ear full of cider; why you may NOT already be a winner

Consumer Courage has had a banner week.   We are the proud winners of two round-trip airline tickets to anywhere in Country AND we ‘won’ two MORE tickets, a free 3 night stay at a posh Hotel! What’s that you say?  It might be a trick?…………Well, shiver me timbers!

While it is easy to spot these letters as nothing more than cheap tricks, right now, too many people are just gullible enough to fall for these (and many other) ruses every day.  Getting back to our letters…..A closer inspection revealed a few things:

First of all, there is no such company named ‘US AIRLINES.’ (there is US Airways and American Airlines. But, that’s as close as this offer gets) I have to admit, this got by me. It wasn’t until I googled “Free Airline ticket scam”  that I noticed that the company name was bogus. (the fake Travelocity letter, actually has the real logo in it) 

Second, the only thing on the back of the ‘US AIRLINES’ letter is an artfully worded disclaimer that contains the sentence: “This promotion is not sponsored by or affiliated with ‘US AIRLINES’ or any other third party business referenced in the promotion but they are major suppliers”  (It’s all the more strange that they refer to ‘US AIRLINES’ as a ‘major supplier’ since the company doesn’t even exist) The fake Travelocity letter has the same type of disclaimer on the back in a font that is probably listed as ‘itty-bitty’ in whatever version of WORD they were using.

Third, I’m not winning airline tickets out of the blue! 

The ‘US AIRLINES’ letter is just an attempt to get you to go to a presentation, by some kind of travel agency, where we at Consumer Courage guess that they give you the high-pressure sales  squeeze to buy something that you don’t need.  OR – try to sell you something that you DO need that is so overloaded with fees and exceptions that you wish you had never met them.

There is a scene from Guys & Dolls where the main character tries to convince an acquaintance to make a bet that he’s sure to lose (primarily because the main character knows what the results are, already)  The acquaintance says thanks, but no-thanks by recalling words of advice that his father imparted, just before he left home: 

… One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider. ….

Of course, none of us would ever agree to take the bet with the Jack of Spades and the Cider.  But, what is it that makes us even CONSIDER that the airlines giveaway is for real?  Psychologists call it ‘Optimism bias.’   That’s when the little chip inside your brain makes you think (even though logic dictates that things aren’t going really badly) “everything’s gonna be great!”   Or, in reference to our letters: even though I KNOW that free tickets aren’t going to fall from the sky, I actually think that there is a chance that it might happen to me.  Interestingly enough, this phenomenon doesn’t only trap people who don’t know better.  It seems that optimism bias makes those people who are very educated feel as though they are even MORE immune to getting duped.  Here’s a fascinating article that discusses the different thought processes that conspire to entrap a fraud victim, that was written by a Yale psychology professor (who, himself, turned out to be a Madoff victim) 

Which brings me to my next point, instead of spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on a therapist’s couch, learning to rewire your brain, so you don’t fall victim to the optimism bias, here is a list of things that I personally guarantee will NOT happen to you (or anyone that you know, for that matter)  –  EVER!  All you have to do to protect yourself, is memorize this list and you’ll know to throw the letter about the free tickets right into the trash, as soon as it arrives in your mailbox. 

In your lifetime, you will NOT:

    • Get two free airline tickets (without it costing you dearly);
    • Pay for somebody’s dialysis treatment by putting the tabs from your Coke into an envelope in the company kitchen;
    • Buy an iPad for twenty cents, because you’re the first one to respond to the e-mail;
    • Get an e-mail from anyone that asks for your Social Security Number; Password or account numbers that is anything but completely bogus;
    • Win a foreign lottery;
    • Have a relative that calls you in the middle of the night in need of bail money, but isn’t allowed to talk to you on the phone to verify that it’s actually them;
    • Make money working from home being a ‘secret shopper’;
    • Make money cashing a check for a new business that just needs an American bank account as a pass-through;
    • Make money helping a deposed dictator from Nigeria and his wife hide their Millions from the bad guys;
    • Be better off, after you pay somebody who you don’t know (and didn’t call) to fix your PC’s malware problem for a hundred bucks;
    • Be better off, after you pay a small fee to get some new Facebook feature that even Facebook doesn’t know about;
    • Buy a government-used car that has a blue-book value of Twenty grand, for Three hundred dollars;
    • Get a free [insert expensive product name here] for just ‘letting us mail you one and then completing a short survey to let us know what you think.’

Just in case you’re not convinced of the power of the list, the FTC has some good advice on how to avoid scams. And, Consumer Reports has put together a pretty comprehensive list of some of the most popular current scams.  In any case, now you don’t have to worry about letting your optimism bias override the normal, reasonable, logical thoughts that you have that are saying “Hey! let’s think this over for a while. This seems a little fishy” (And, you certainly won’t have to worry about winding up with an ear full of cider)

Posted by: Mark Wiseman