Keep up with the latest trends and warnings in consumer fraud, identity theft and other issues that affect your wallet with this consumer blog. Our bloggers cover fraud, ID theft, credit, cell phones, used cars and other every other topic that affects consumers in today's world. Your comments and questions are welcome.
Not even a week into the official launch of Cash for Clunkers and the program may be tapped with its future now uncertain. It is hard to believe that the $1 billion that was allocated for the program would last until November. Even Congress initially thought that "Bucks for Old Trucks" fund needed more cash. A prior version of the bill would have deposited $4 billion into the program.
A House vote is expected today to add more money, perhaps another $2 billion. As soon as more details are announced, we will do an updated post.
Update: The House voted to add $2 billion to the program. It will be taken up with the Senate on Monday, August 3.
Hopefully, most of us will be spared the experience: you take out your debit card, thinking that your biweekly paycheck has just cleared, and come to find that while your account balance is up, your available funds are $0. Remember those phone calls from the debt collector you were getting a few months ago? The ones for a credit card that you could have sworn were paid off? Or were for someone other than you? You may be left wondering how that debt collector could have taken your money without ever having taken you to court....Well, here is an explanation of what may have happened, and what you can do about it.
Most debt collectors need to show your bank a judgment from a court before they can levy your bank account. Your bank should have a copy of the judgment that states the name of issuing court. The courthouse should have on file a Return of Service, which will say when and where you were served with a Notice to Appear in court and be heard on whether the debt belonged to you and/or was already paid. If you can show that you weren't actually served with the Notice based on the date and time of service, you may be able to ask a judge, in a written motion, to vacate the judgment and return your money.
Be aware that a narrow class of debt collectors - the Internal Revenue Service for delinquent taxes, the Department of Education for defaulted student loans, child support collectors, and Social Security for overpayments - may be able to levy your bank account without a judgment.
Additionally, you may be able to object to a levy on your checking account if it contains only funds that are exempt from collection under federal law. These include social security benefits, some federal pensions, and others. See the FTC's publication, Debt Collection FAQs: A Guide for Consumers.
There's a lot of attention being paid to a certain dangerous virus spreading around the globe, but there is another virus that you can't fix with medicine: the dreaded computer virus.
Leaving your internet connection on and unprotected is like leaving your front door wide open. The information that a new virus is targeting Macs it is a good reminder to safeguard your computer.
Hackers and spammers invade secretly and hide software to get access to the information on your computer. When they gain this information they can steal your personal information, send spam from your computer, and spy on internet surfing without your knowledge. Some ways you can secure your computer:
- Use antivirus and anti-spy ware software and keep it updated.
- Make sure your computer uses a hardware or software firewall.
- Set up your operating system to download and install security patches automatically.
- Be cautious about opening any e-mail attachments or downloads.
- Disconnect from the internet when you are away from your computer.
- Only download free software from sites you trust.
For more information on protecting your personal information, securing your computer and guarding against internet fraud visit OnGuard Online. This a site that offers practical tips from the federal government and the technology industry.
Scammers seem to come out of the woodwork during Spring. With better weather, comes more door-to-door sales, resulting in an increase in scams.
One such scam is described in this article, which advises caution of "asphalt scams" -- an old scam in which people are approached by a con artist who says he will do repairs on your driveway. After he gets paid, the scammer disappears without repairing your drive.
Once, on a very cold, snowy day, I decided to leave my car running as I ran into the post-office. Unfortunately, I locked the door as I was stepping out of the car. I stood there thinking, "What could be worse than this?"
This morning, a lot of Missourians know what could be worse, after being duped by Dependable Locks, Inc. Instead of coming to the rescue, this locksmith company -- charged consumers 2-3 times more than the price quoted them to consumers to unlock their cars.
AG Koster has sued the locksmith company, who has illegally operated in the KC area under at least 16 different names. If you feel like you've been the victim of this company, contact the AGO immediately!
The MO Missouri Department of Insurance Financial Institutions & Professional Registration -- DIFP -- will be sending representatives to Southeast MO on February 10-12 to assist and counsel victims of the recent ice storms.
The DIFP and local agencies will have centers set up in Poplar Bluff, Sikeston and Kennett.
For more information, see the DIFP website.
A major announcement came this week from Attorney General's Offices across the country, including ours. Toy maker Mattell reached a settlement with several different states including Missouri, agreeing to pay fines and reduce the amount of lead in their toys.
For years the acceptable standard under federal law has been 600 parts per million of lead - and that only applied to the paint. Lead prevention advocates have long insisted that no amount of lead is safe and therefore that number should be much lower. Federal law will kick in next year that lowers that standard to 90 parts per million. In the settlement with the AGs, Mattel has agreed to start complying with the 90 ppm standard immediately - that's a couple of months ahead of the federal law kicking in.
The new federal law is a significant victory. It of course will apply to all manufacturers of children's products. And besides the paint content, it for the first time regulates the lead content of the metal, plastic or whatever else might be underneath - that's known as substrate. Starting in mid-February, toy makers will have to limit lead in the substrate to 600 ppm, and get it down to 100 ppm by 2011.
Our office conducted two lead testing events for the public in 2007, and it was shocking to see the amount of lead in some of the toys people brought to us. Some new toys were in the thousands of ppm. The most memorable was an old toy tractor that had 85,000 ppm - 140 times the federal threshold.
PS: Check out our online clearinghouse that lists recalls of toys, food, drugs and other products.
Internet auction sites give buyers a flea market with new and used merchandise from around the world and sellers a global storefront from which to market their goods. Online Auctions remain a fun, efficient and relatively safe way to shop. Yet, our office consistently receives complaints every year dealing with online auction fraud.
To act prudently and decrease your chances of Internet Auction Fraud please refer to the Federal Trade Commission’s Internet Auction Guide for Buyers and Sellers. You can receive a free copy of the guide on the FTC's website or you can call toll-free 1-877-382-4357.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced a large settlement with Dell. This follows numerous complaints that AG offices around the country acquired from consumers who said they were deceived by phony promotions. Other complaints included customers having problems obtaining warranty services and never receiving rebates.
Missouri consumers can download a Dell claim form or by call the Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-392-8222.
With all the news lately about a massive Ponzi scheme that allegedly defrauded investors of $50 billion, you may be wondering about the difference between this and a pyramid scheme.
The terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. A Ponzi scheme is basically a passive investment scheme. You pay in your money, wait and eventually get a return on your investment. All the organizers ask for is your money. You can recruit other people to invest, but you don't have to.
A pyramid scheme, however, requires that you become involved in the business to make money. So you pay to get in, then you have to recruit others to join before you get paid.
Thus here's a big difference between the two: Ponzi schemes usually have innocent victims. Pyramid schemes, however, don't. By participating in the business, you are likely to be called a co-conspirator by any prosecutor or lawsuit that tries to shut the scheme down.
Here's the similarity: In both cases, money from new investors goes to pay off earlier investors. The reason these scams are illegal is that there are not enough people on earth to guarantee returns for all investors.
This chart from the US Securities and Exchange Commission shows how quickly one of these schemes will run out of potential investors. Note that after just a dozen levels or so, you would need more people than the entire population of the world to keep things going.
We expect to see the scam artists crank up their efforts to take advantage of people who may be in financial need due to the current economic problems. Three scams to watch for in this climate:
- Phishing scams - these are ever-popular, but with consumers nervous about their bank accounts and investments and the safety of both, the crooks may try to cash in on that. For example, you've been hearing news for months about the down market on Wall Street. Then you get an e-mail that claims to be from your investment house saying there's a problem with your account. That may get your attention. So remember, rule #1 of identity theft is never give out your personal information to anyone who contacts you.
- Work-at-home scams - with consumers feeling a financial pinch, they may look to make extra money while working from home. Check out the tips from our consumer encyclopedia on this topic. There are plenty of good ways to make money from home, but there are also scams.
First red flag is unsolicited contact. To get a good work-at-home opportunity, you need to go out and find it. Any contact that comes to you, by phone or e-mail, is probably a scam.
Second red flag is a request for money up front for processing fees, etc. You should never pay to get a job. Remember, they're supposed to pay you.
- "Rescue" scams - this could be credit repair, foreclosure rescue or some other apparent service that will get you out of a jam. Remember that no one can remove negative information from your credit report if it's accurate. Only time and good discipline will improve your credit score. And we've seen plenty of cases of foreclosure rescue scams, including the lawsuits we brought in Operation Stealing Home.
If you're looking to hire a company to help you solve a problem, first check them out for consumer complaints using our KnowMO feature.
We released our annual consumer alert recently on giving wisely to charity. This is typically a busy time of year for charitable contributions, with consumers wanting tax breaks and charities ramping up their fundraising efforts.
Three pointers, detailed in the consumer alert linked above:
- Never give credit card or other personal information to solicitors or anyone else who contacts you
- Check out how the charity spends its money using our online Check-a-Charity feature
- Plan your giving a year at a time so you're not trying to decide on the spot based on phone calls or mailings
In a buyer's market such as this, it's hard for a lot of homeowners to sell their houses. So people are calling our office asking if they can hold a raffle to unload their house. They might charge $1000 a ticket, hoping to get 150 or 200 people to buy tickets - thus raising $150,000 or $200,000. Then they hold a random drawing to determine the winner.
The answer is no. This would be an illegal game of chance under Missouri's gambling law. An illegal raffle is defined by three things:
- Purchase is required to enter (the $1000 ticket)
- Winner is determined by chance (random drawing)
- Winner wins something or value (house)
You can only legally hold these raffles in Missouri if you're a charitable or religious organization, designated by the federal government.
So then some people think up ways they hope will get around the gambling law - hold a contest to see who wins - such as a letter-writing or essay contest. They argue that's a game of skill - not chance - so it's now legal. That may be a hard sell. All we can say is be prepared to defend yourself in court if a law enforcement agency challenges your raffle, calling it an illegal gambling operation.
Businesses with PBX phone systems have been the latest pawns in the phishing scams run by identity thieves. "Vishing" is the term used for a phishing scam that uses the phone, rather than e-mail. Law enforcement around the country is warning that phishers are now taking over PBX systems and using them to make mass robo-calls to try to steal people's personal information. If you've ever worked in an office, you've probably used a PBX system. It handles incoming and outgoing calls, extensions, outside lines, voice mail, call transfering, etc.
Thieves are taking over PBX systems because a) those systems usually have a lot of lines available for mass calling and b) it allows them to look like they're calling from somewhere else.
So if you run an office and use free software to run your PBX system, get in touch with your software provider to make sure it's updated to handle the latest threats. This is similar to how you should handle your computer security - use anti-virus, a firewall and spyware detection, and make sure all of them are updated.
A great way to stay on top of your credit card account, avoid fees and detect fraud is to sign up for alerts from your card company. There are lots of different alerts you can sign up for. Here are some that my credit card offers:
- Balance getting high - they send you an e-mail any time your balance goes above a dollar amount that you choose. ie, you tell them "Send me an e-mail if my balance goes over $2,000."
- Balance update - they e-mail you as often as you want with your balance. ie, "E-mail me once a week with my balance"
- Credit getting low - they e-mail you if your available credit drops below the dollar amount you choose. ie "E-mail me if my available credit is less than $2,000." Your available credit is the difference between your credit limit and the amount you owe, or balance.
- Available credit update - they e-mail as often as you want with your available credit
- Large purchase alert (this is my fave, as a consumer advocate and identity theft prevention guru) - they e-mail you any time there's a charge on your account of more than a dollar amount you choose. ie, "E-mail me any time there's a charge of more than $80." This is an effective way to detect unauthorized charges as soon as they happen. Of course, you'll find out about any unauthorized charges within a month or less because you always check your credit card statement at least monthly.