Fraud busters: Follow these tips to avoid scams and common consumer problems


A report released this month about top scams and consumer complaints offered a lot of advice about how to spot and avoid fraud and common problems.

The report, from the Consumer Federation of America and North American Consumer Protection Investigators, touched on a lot of dilemmas I’ve written about. Here’s some advice worth following in a number of categories:

Auto* Look for auto repair facilities that feature technicians certified by the nonprofit National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, or ASE. For more information, go to www.ase.com.

* Have a problem with an auto repair shop? Give the owner or manager a chance to resolve it, but if that fails, contact your state or local consumer protection agency for advice and assistance.

* Before you buy a used car, have it checked out by a mechanic you trust to look for problems that might not be obvious to you until after the purchase.

* Eyeing a used car? Get its previous history through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, www.vehiclehistory.gov, so you’ll know what you’re bargaining for. However, there may be problems that don’t show up in these reports. For instance, not all states require cars that were bought back as “lemons” to be “branded” as such. Your state or local consumer protection agency may provide information on its website about what to ask BEFORE you sign on the dotted line. You can also find car buying tips from the International Association of Lemon Law Administrators at http://ialla.net/pub_1.htm.

* Do you suspect that a car dealer is doing something shady? Report it to your state or local consumer protection agency.

Credit/debt* Need help modifying your loan or avoiding foreclosure? For information about your options and eligibility for help from the government, go to www.makinghomeaffordable.gov. To talk to a housing counselor certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, call 888-995-4673, TTY 877-304-9707. These services are free. Your state or local consumer protection agency may also be able to help.

* You have the right to dispute card charges that you never authorized. See www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0213-lost-or-stolen-credit-atm-and-debit-cards for tips from the Federal Trade Commission about what to do if your credit card is lost or stolen.

* Don’t be pressured into paying money that you don’t owe. If you’re not sure, or the amount is incorrect, or you believe that you don’t owe the debt at all, you can dispute it. Learn more about fake debt collectors at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0258-fake-debt-collectors.

* State laws set limits on the number of years that creditors have to sue for debts. That doesn’t prevent debt collectors from contacting people after that time has passed, however, to try to convince them to pay. Learn more at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0117-time-barred-debts, and ask your state or local consumer protection agency what the time limit is under your state’s law.

* Under federal law, you have the right to tell debt collectors not to contact you again. It’s illegal for them to call with annoying frequency or at certain hours, falsely say they’re going to take legal action, use obscene language, threaten bodily harm, or reveal information about your debt to someone else. You may also have rights under state law; check with your state or local consumer protection agency.

* Keep records of loan discharges and other important paperwork in safe-keeping indefinitely since you never know when you might need the documentation.

* It’s hard to tell if a website is fake. One thing to look for is whether the “http” at the beginning of the address bar turns to “https” at the point where you are providing your financial information, indicating that the site is secure. But that’s still no guarantee that the site is legitimate. Payday loans are expensive and can trap you in never-ending cycle of debt. If you really need one, it may be safest to apply in person rather than online. Be sure that you know how the loan works, how much it will cost and if it’s legal where you live, and don’t take it unless you’re sure that you can pay it off when it’s due.

Employment* Before you pay for help getting a job, ask your state or local consumer protection agency if there are laws or regulations that the employment agency or service must follow. There may be restrictions, for instance, on charging customers before the promised services are actually provided. Check the company’s complaint records at the Better Business Bureau, www.bbb.org. For tips on job scams and how to protect yourself, go to www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0243-job-scams.

Food* If you don’t see prices posted for food or other items offered by sidewalk vendors, how can you be sure that you are being charged fairly? Take your business elsewhere.

Fraud* If you have legitimately won a prize or are in line for an inheritance, you’ll be notified by certified letter, not by email, and you won’t be asked to pay to claim it. These scams take advantage of our natural desire to believe that it’s our lucky day. But if you send money, your luck, and your savings, will eventually run out. Learn more about how to spot and avoid scams at www.fraud.org.

* Looking for a place to live or to stay while on vacation? Use realtors that are in directory listings or well-known platforms such as Airbnb, and beware of danger signs of fraud such as requests to wire money. For more about rental scams go to www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0079-rental-listing-scams.

* The IRS doesn’t contact taxpayers via email, text messages or social media channels to ask for personal or financial information. And IRS agents don’t call taxpayers with threats of lawsuits or arrests. Report suspected IRS imposter scams to the Inspector General at the U.S. Treasury at www.treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report_scam.shtml.

* If someone calls unexpectedly claiming to be from your utility company, demanding payment or your service will be shut off, don’t panic and don’t send any money. Hang up and call your utility company directly to verify your account balance and report the scam. Make sure that everyone in your home and business is aware of utility imposter scams and knows the danger signs, such as asking for payment to be made via prepaid cards, gift cards or PayPal. It’s also helpful to report this and other imposter scams to your state or local consumer protection agency so that it can issue a public warning. Last summer the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued an alert about these scams. Go to www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2015/august/business-e-mail-compromise/business-e-mail-compromise.

* The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office within the Department of Homeland Security can answer questions about immigration and supply the required forms. Go to www.uscis.gov or call 800-375-5283, TDD 800-767-1833. Only licensed attorneys or nonprofit organizations that are authorized by the USCIS can represent you or give you legal advice about immigration.

Fuel* Gasoline sales are regulated to make sure that consumers are getting the quantity and the octane that was displayed on the pumps and that the gas is not adulterated. If you suspect that the gas you purchased was bad, ask your state or local consumer protection agency where to report it.

* Read your contract for fuel deliveries carefully so you’ll know if it automatically renews for the next heating season and what steps you need to take if you want to get fuel from another supplier.

* Prepaying for propane or heating oil may save you money, but make sure you get a written contract that shows what you bought, how much you paid, and whether there will be any additional charges.

Health products/services* Using a credit card is the best way to pay for fitness services in advance because you have the right to dispute the charges if you don’t get what you were promised. Since situations can change, avoid contracts that lock you in for a long period of time and require you to pay a penalty if you cancel.

* Be skeptical of claims that you can shed fat without changing your eating habits or exercising. You’ll end up losing your money rather than losing pounds. Learn more about weight loss and fitness at www.consumer.ftc.gov/topics/weight-loss-fitness.

* Order health-related products only from businesses that you know and trust or whose reputations you have checked with the Better Business Bureau, www.bbb.org.

Home improvement/construction* In many states, contractors must be licensed or registered to ensure that they are competent and operating safely. Before you hire one, ask your state or local consumer protection agency what requirements apply and how you can check on whether the contractor is in compliance.

* Pay only a small deposit when you contract for home improvement work; some state laws limit the percentage of the total price that can be requested upfront. Never pay the full amount until the job is done. Get a written contract that sets out the work and payment schedule. Payments should be proportionate to the work done and the supplies that have been ordered.

* Steer clear of driveway pavers, painters, roofers or other itinerant contractors who show up uninvited at your door. These are scammers whose only interest is to take your money. If they do any work at all, it is shoddy and incomplete. Don’t let them in your house. Just say “no thanks” and contact the police after they leave. If you can, give the police a description of the vehicle and the license plate number.

* Remodeling can be an overwhelming project for homeowners. There are so many decisions to make initially, and you may want to change or add things as the job progresses. There may also be unexpected problems with suppliers and subcontractors. Good communication with the contractor is key. Make sure you understand what is included in the contract; get agreement about all changes or additions, and the related costs, in writing; and talk to your contractor as soon as possible if you have any questions or concerns.

* Even reputable contractors may take on more jobs than they can handle or experience personal problems that interfere with their work. To protect yourself, pay only a small amount upfront and proportionately as the work progresses.

* If the contractor’s work doesn’t look right to you, hold off on making the final payment until you resolve the issue. Ask your state or local consumer protection agency for advice.

* New home construction is an expensive investment. Get all promises in writing, and if there is a warranty, bring any problems to the builder’s attention within the time period required. If defects in materials or construction appear after the warranty has expired, you may still have recourse. Contact your local building inspector. You may need to hire an expert to determine what the problem is and how to fix it.

* Before you hire a contractor, get a few estimates for the work and references from other customers. Beware of scare tactics such as “you must have this roof repaired immediately,” especially if you haven’t noticed any problems. If it’s truly an emergency situation and you don’t have time to shop around for the work, at least ask your state or local consumer protection agency if there are licensing or registration requirements that apply and check to confirm that the contractor you’re considering has met them.

— Paul Muschick of The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) helps consumers fight errors, incompetence and arrogance by businesses, governments and institutions.