How can I spot a rip-off?
By taking the following precautions, you can spot a scam and avoid being ripped off.
Don't allow yourself to be pushed into a hurried decision. At least 99 percent of everything that's a good deal today will still be a good deal a week from now.
Always request written information, by mail, about the product, service, investment or charity and about the organization that's offering it.
Don't make any investment or purchase you don't fully understand. Swindlers try to convince individuals that they are making an informed decision.
Ask what state or federal agencies the firm is regulated by, and contact the agency. If the firm says it's not subject to any regulation, you may want to act cautiously.
If an investment or major purchase is involved, request that information also be sent to your accountant, financial advisor, banker, or attorney for evaluation and an opinion.
Before you make a final financial commitment, ask for a refund provision in writing.
Beware of testimonials that you may have no way of checking out.
Don't provide your credit card number and bank account information over the phone.
- If necessary, hang up or walk away. If you hear your own better judgment whispering that you may be making a serious mistake, just say good-bye.
What should I know about Internet fraud?
Legitimate businesses and scam artists alike have equal access to the Internet. It is estimated that about $100 million a year is lost to Internet fraud. Although the figure is insignificant compared to the tens of billions lost to telemarketing schemes, the amounts will catch up as the Internet matures and users proliferate.
Example: In one fraudulent scheme, which called itself Fortuna Alliance, about 95% of investors are estimated to have lost their money. This pyramid scheme lured investors with promises of quick profits. Investors paying anywhere from $250 to $1,750 each dropped about $6 million in total on Fortuna before the Federal Trade Commission obtained a court order prohibiting it from operating.
How can you avoid being snared by Internet fraud? Simple. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Claims of "quick profits," "guaranteed returns," "double your investment," or "risk-free investment" probably indicate a fraudulent investment.
What are some of the Internet scams I should watch out for?
Here are a few of the scams making the rounds on the Internet these days.
The Nigerian Letter Scam
The Nigerian Advance Scheme letter promises a bonus of $600,000 if the recipient's checking account can be used to temporarily store millions of dollars in foreign aid. Of course, once access is given, the only "aid" involved is your money, which is used to line the scamsters' pockets.
"You Are Owed Money"
This scam involves the use of the 809 area code. Individuals are told to call a long-distance number so that they can obtain help in finding funds that they are owed. The catch is that the caller is charged for the call, as with a "900" number.
The Mystery Shopper Scam
Mystery shoppers do not usually indicate a scam; they are individuals who are asked by legitimate marketing professionals to buy products and report results. However, a scam version gets people to pay money for useless information on how to become a mystery shopper. If you are solicited to call an 809 area code to become a mystery shopper, don't dial the number.
How can I prevent the illegal use of my credit card or Social Security number?
Do not subject yourself to fraud by allowing a merchant to write your credit card number on your personal check or your personal information on a bank credit card sales slip. Do not divulge your social security number if you can avoid it.
"Application fraud" occurs when a thief uses your name, Social Security number, address and, perhaps, credit references to apply for credit. They can get much of this information from public sources (e.g., Who's Who Directories), from someone who has access to credit files (e.g., employees of car dealerships, department stores, or credit bureaus), from personal checks, or from stolen wallets. Credit thieves may be aided by "credit doctors" who are paid hundreds of dollars for finding a good credit record for the thief to use.
Another form of application fraud involves the interception of pre-approved credit card offers in the mail. The thief fills out the application and either changes the address or steals the credit card out of your mailbox when it arrives at your address.
Tip: If you find a bill that you do not believe belongs to you on your credit report, check it out immediately. First contact the creditor to find out if they have an account in your name. Ask to see a copy of the original application if they say you do.
How trustworthy are "credit clinics" and other organizations that claim to help me out of financial trouble?
Consumers with credit problems have paid millions of dollars to firms that claim they can "remove negative information," "clean up credit reports," and allow consumers to get credit no matter how bad the credit history. Consumers should beware of the following promises by credit clinics:
The loopholes are the provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), under which you have the right to challenge information in your credit report you believe incorrect.
No matter how quickly you may pay off outstanding bills, creditors are under no obligation to remove negative information from your file.
You will have to "secure" the card first by putting a deposit in the bank and getting a bankcard with a credit limit based on a percentage of that deposit. Why should you pay the credit clinic just to provide an application and deposit slip?
Check with your state attorney general's office to determine if your state has laws that protect consumers against credit clinics, and contact your state Attorney General, consumer protection agency, or Better Business Bureau to check an organizations reputation.
How honest are ads touting "federal government surplus" sales?
Advertisements touting access to little-known sources of federal government property are simply selling the names and addresses of the federal government agencies, which you can get from the federal government or by contacting the agency's local or regional office. Furthermore, the information sold by these businesses may not be accurate or up-to-date. Information about federal sales programs is available for free or at low cost from the federal government.
Another scam involves military jeeps. In 1971, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommended that the M151 series Jeep vehicle not be sold to the public because it was unfit for public use. Businesses that sell the "secrets" of buying surplus military property often claim to be able to teach you (for $19.95) how to buy surplus military jeeps. They neglect to tell you that the M151 cannot be driven by the public and that older jeep models, such as the World War II M38, are virtually nonexistent today.
How can I protect myself from penny stock fraud?
First, here is how penny stock fraud might operate:
Example: Mrs. G got a call from Mr. S, who told her he wanted to help her out with a "little known" investment bonanza. These penny stocks' price could rise by 25% in a few months. After she was told to act before the opportunity vanished., Mrs. G invested $5,000 in the penny stocks. Result: She is still trying to get back her $5,000.
Although she was told during the first few weeks that the stock was going up, within a month the seller was not returning her phone calls. She could not check the price of the stock because penny stocks are not traded on an exchange, but over-the-counter.
Further, the price of the penny stock was not published anywhere. Mr. S's company was the only seller of these particular penny stocks, and had been engaging in price manipulation. Eventually, Mrs. G. turned the case over to her attorney. Half of her $5,000 went in mark-up of the penny stock's actual price and hidden commissions.
Penny stocks can be a legitimate investment opportunity, if you learn be alert. Learn the following warning signs investigate before you invest.
Warning Sign #1: Unsolicited Telephone Calls
Beware of a salesperson who promises you quick profits with little or no risk.
Warning Sign #2: High-Pressure Sales Tactics
These tactics include the following statements by a salesperson:
The salesperson has "inside" information on a stock and that you should purchase now, before the information becomes public
For only for a short period of time, a stock sells at a special or below market price
Due to a series of increases in a stock's price, you should purchase immediately
You may buy a particular stock only if you agree to buy stock of another company
Warning Sign #3: Inability To Sell Your Stock And Receive Cash
Fraudulent penny stock brokers may become inaccessible when you want to sell, or they may refuse to sell your stock unless you buy another one.
How can I protect myself from a pyramid scheme?
The best way to protect yourself is to know how they operate, as this example shows:
Example: Frank L was phoned by a friend and offered an opportunity to "get in on the ground floor" of a business involving selling products to the public. He was told he would get a 50% return on his money within a month and how his friend had made thousands of dollars on a $1,000 investment. Frank L quickly accepted the offer and gave his friend $1,000 to buy a "distributorship" in this business.
What Frank didn't know was that his friend had fallen victim to a pyramid scheme. Such schemes work as follows: A promoter offers investors "distributorships" at $1,000 each. The distributorships give the investor the right to sell other distributorships to friends and neighbors for $1,000 each, and also a right to sell some sort of product. Whenever an investor sells a $1,000 distributorship, he or she must give a percentage, usually half, to the promoter, and can keep the rest.
The tricky thing about pyramid schemes is that, for the first ten or twenty investors, they work. But, the pyramid scheme could continue to provide returns only in a world where there are infinite numbers of investors willing to invest $1,000, and willing (and able) to sell distributorships to others. Returns depend totally on new investors making an investment rather than on any business venture. Result: Because Frank had no sales ability, he was unable to unload even one distributorship, and thus the $1,000 was lost. He is currently trying to get his money back and has reported the investment to the SEC.
How can I protect myself from a Ponzi scheme?
Named for Charles A. Ponzi, who defrauded hundreds of investors in the 1920s, a Ponzi scheme pays off old "investors" with money coming in from new "investors."
Example: Investor A gives Promoter ("P") $1,000 on P's promise to repay $1,000 plus $100 "interest" in 90 days. During the 90 days, P makes similar promises to Investors B and C, receiving $1,000 each from them. At the end of the first 90 day period, P may offer to pay A the $100 "interest" and to return the original $1,000.
More likely, he will invite A to "re-invest" the $1000 plus the $100 "interest" for a similar, or higher, return at the end of another 90 days. Thereafter, A, believing s/he can receive a good return on the investment, is likely to bring other investors to P.
P collects a pool of money that he pays out to those wishing return of their money. Eventually, P. either disappears with all the "investments" or reveals that the investments went "sour."
A major factor in the eventual collapse of a Ponzi scheme is that there is no significant source of "income" other than from new investors.
How can I protect myself from travel scams?
Since travel services usually have to be paid for in advance, disreputable individuals and companies try to sell travel packages turn out to be different from what was presented. If you receive an offer by phone or mail for a free or extremely low-priced vacation trip to a popular destination (often Hawaii or Florida), there are a few things you should look for:
Does the price seem too good to be true? If so, it probably is. Are you asked to give your credit card number over the phone? Are you pressured to make an immediate decision? Is the carrier simply identified as "a major airline," or does the representative offer a collection of airlines without being able to say which one you will be on? Is the representative unable or unwilling to give you a street address for the company? Finally, you are you told you can't leave for at least two months? (The deadline for disputing a credit card charge is 60 days, and most scam artists know this.)
If you encounter any of these symptoms, ask for written information and time to think it over. If they say no, this probably isn't the trip for you. Furthermore, if you are told that you've won a free vacation, make sure you don't have to buy expensive hotel arrangements in order to get it.
If you are seriously considering the vacation offer, compare it to what you might obtain elsewhere. The appeal of free airfare or free accommodations often disguises the fact that the total price exceeds that of a regular package tour. Get written confirmation of the departure date. If the package involves standby or wait-list travel, or a reservation that can only be provided much later, ask if your payment is refundable if you want to cancel. If the destination is a beach resort, ask the seller how far the hotel is from the beach. Then ask the hotel.
Determine the complete cost of the trip in dollars, including all service charges, taxes, processing fees, etc. If you decide to buy the trip, paying by credit card gives you certain legal rights to pursue a charge back (credit) if promised services aren't delivered.
When buying a used car, how can I avoid buying a "lemon"?
Laundered lemons-used cars with serious defects, sold to unsuspecting new buyers-are still being sold in alarming numbers. To avoid buying a "laundered lemon," take these steps.
Beware of used cars with low mileage. These may be described as demo models or program cars, but may in fact be lemons.
Try to get in touch with the previous owner, via the car's title. In some states, the title will tell you whether the car was a lemon-law vehicle.
Beware of cars that come from another state.
Check into the repair work that was done under warranty. The dealer should be able to provide you with this information.
How can I avoid being ripped off by auto mechanics?
It is estimated that anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of the $90 billion Americans spend every year on car repairs is wasted on the following scams:
"Your computer system is down." A common rip-off occurs when something goes wrong with part of your engine, and the mechanic tells you it's the entire computer system that's on the blink. (Modern automobiles have a computer system that controls their systems, and that will indicate when there's a problem in those systems.) You may end up being charged hundreds of dollars for unnecessary work on-or possible replacement of-your car's computer system.
Tip: If a mechanic tells you that you need an extensive repair or replacement of a computer, or any large component, get a second opinion.
The Secret Warranty. Always ask a dealership service department whether a problem is covered by a manufacturer's warranty. (A manufacturer that discovers a widespread defect will often notify a dealership that repairs of the defect will be covered by the manufacturer.) There are only four states-California, Connecticut, Virginia, and Wisconsin-in which it is illegal for a dealership not to tell you a repair is covered by a warranty.
Tip: If the defect is safety-related, you can call an 800 number for a list of warranties and recalls: 800-424-9393.
The $9.95 Tune-Up. A common scam is to lure customers with an extremely low-priced oil-change or other service deal, and then to discover nonexistent problems while the car is on the lift.
- Double Billing. You might be told, for example, that you need repairs done on your brakes, and then discover that you have been billed for several extra items, which are actually part of the brake repair job.
How can I avoid being pick-pocketed?
These tips on how to avoid becoming the victim of a con artist or pickpocket are provided by the New York City Police Department's Special Frauds Squad.
Use handbags that have a zipper and locking flap and carry them securely with the flap side close to your body.
Carry wallets inside your coat or side trouser pockets, never in your back pants pocket.
Beware of loud arguments or commotions in crowded areas. Thieves working together may stage these incidents to distract you while your pocket is picked.
Be aware that a pickpocket may bump or crowd you on public transportation.
If your pocket is picked, call out immediately to warn the driver or conductor. Alert everyone that there's a pickpocket on board, and don't be afraid to shout.
Avoid crowding in the area of the subway car doors when entering or exiting.
Be on guard if a stranger directs your attention to a substance or stain on your clothes.
Be on guard while doing your banking at an automatic teller machine.
Be suspicious if you are approached by a stranger who claims to have just found an envelope full of money or tells you he has a winning lottery ticket with him. This could be the first step in a confidence crime, with you as the victim. Never discuss your personal finances with strangers, and don't draw money out of the bank at a stranger's suggestion in order to build trust in such a situation
Being aware of the most current scams is the best way to prevent falling prey to them. If you or someone you know has been a victim of a con artist, call your local precinct immediately.