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.
According to those contacting our office today, consumers in the Ozarks are getting recorded phone calls supposedly from Empire Bank, a biggie in the area. The call says there is a problem with the account and tells consumers to go to a bogus Web site to enter their banking information.
Remember, any time you are contacted by someone asking for personal info - online, by phone, doesn't matter - don't give it. Only give that out when you initiate the contact, to prevent ID theft.
We put out a consumer alert today on what to watch out for with gift cards this holiday season.
We get about 50-80 consumer complaints on these every year. In some cases, the card doesn't work everywhere it's supposed to, or the balance isn't right. Also, if it's a business that hasn't been around very long, watch out. We get a lot of complaints about gift cards to a merchant that has gone out of business. So that money is probably gone.
A couple of days ago, Travis warned us that people in the Springfield area should be aware of a bank scam. MO consumers were receiving automated messages that were supposedly from Empire Bank.
Now, people in Central-Missouri are also receiving calls. These recordings, similar to what the consumers in Springfield have reported, state that there is a problem with their account at Central Bank and they are directed to a fake website. Please be aware of any such phishing scams in your area.
We appreciate all of you who let us know of these scams--not just by filing a complaint or calling our hotline, 1-800-392-8222--but also by commenting on our blog, like these readers:
One reader shared-- I Live in Jefferson City, MO and just received a call very similar to this from "Central Bank Services". Recorded message told me to go to a specific website to fix my account. We don't even have an account with Central Bank. So everyone be aware.
Another-- I live in Columbia and just received the same phone call. Everyone beware!
You may have heard the news story today that several environmental watch-dog agencies got together and conducted safety tests on more than 1,000 toys. The disturbing result was that 35% of the toys contained lead.
Parents should make a list of all the toys they have purchased so far and check our recall website, which is constantly updated with all of the latest recalls released from the US Product Safety Commission. Take some time to investigate whether your children's toys might be dangerous to ensure this will be a safe holiday season for your family.
Think you've got the consumer savvy going? You can put it to the test with quizzes in 12 different categories, ranging from ID theft to credit to car issues and many others. Most of these are new, except for the general consumer quiz, identity theft and credit. Those have been around for a few months.
Mike Hendricks of the KC Star has re-released a column from a few years ago. The apparently true story of a telemarketer asking to speak to his dog. Needless to say, the screening procedures at soliciting companies leaves a lot to be desired.
Have you heard the story of the company that issued a credit card to a tree?
Some important reminders: you can opt out of junk mail and pre-approved credit card offers by checking out this recent blog post. And you can sign up for the Missouri No Call list or file complaints here.
AG Nixon issued a consumer alert today. With so many power outages (mainly in southwest MO, mid-MO and western St. Louis metro), we expect to see the con artists come out of the woodwork.
Price gouging happens when a merchant jacks up the price of necessary supplies just to make money off storm victims. This might be hotel rooms, bottled water, firewood, generators, even ice, as strange as that sounds. (Power outage means fridge outage, which means you may need ice. Or just put your stuff on the back porch like I did.)
Our advice: avoid them. Some of these guys are storm chasers, following storm aftermath hoping to victimize needy homeowners desperate for repairs. Instead, work with companies you know or that are recommended to you by someone you trust. Call your local Better Business Bureau, our Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-392-8222 or search Know MO, our online consumer complaint database.
The St. Louis office of AmeriCorps, the federal volunteer program, is staffing a toll-free hotline to help find warming locations near you in Missouri. 1-888-377-2100, open 8a - 9p seven days a week.
Good reminder article in the Columbia Tribune today about some of the threats that can be attached to e-mails disguised as holiday shopping discounts. Viruses and other computer infections are possible with these e-mails. So be very careful before opening attachments. Sometimes, just opening the e-mail at all can trigger trouble. You should be getting offers only from companies you've done business with in the past. If it's from some other company, call them first and ask if they're offering some e-mail special. If so, you may be safe by opening the attachment. As always, never enter your personal information when contacted by e-mail. A lot of those messages will direct you to a Web link. That's an identity theft scam known as phishing.
Credit cardholders with these three companies are getting letters in the mail inviting them to participate in a class-action lawsuit. Some Missouri consumers are calling our office asking about this and whether it's legitimate. It is. The lawsuit has to do with the fees the cards charge to convert foreign currency. It alleges the three card companies conspired when setting their fees and did not do a good job of disclosing them to consumers. You can find out more about the lawsuit here.
The funeral industry keeps tabs on funeral costs, and the average funeral in the month of October 2007 cost just over $6000. The average casket was $1100. The Federal Trade Commission has some good consumer literature on your rights when buying funeral services.
And our Consumer Encyclopedia has info for people who are considering paying in advance for their funeral while they're still alive.
Travis posted a blog in October informing Missouri consumers of the nationwide transition to pure digital television broadcasting. I then began to wonder if I'd be affected when the changeover is finalized in February, 2009. So, if you are like me and are confused as to what this means for you, here's the breakdown:
If you are a cable or satellite subscriber, you won't need to change anything. According to this article, cable and satellite companies have stated that both services will continue without addition equipment. But if you don't have cable or satellite, and are relying on trusty rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna to view local channels, you will need a converter. Converters will be sold in big-box stores around the state. Further, if you are in need of a converter, you may apply for a federal government coupon, starting in January, 2008. Visit the Digital TV Transition government website for the coupon details.
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With the ice that nailed several Missouri communities last week, we've heard lots of people asking this question. If my tree falls on my neighbor's lot and damages his stuff -- or vice versa -- who foots the bill for that?
The answer is "it depends." Don't you hate that answer? Nice article summed things up in the Jeff City paper over the weekend. (WARNING: this paper's site takes a long time to load for some reason.)
AG Nixon sent out a consumer alert today on these items, which you're likely to come across as you're out at the stores doing your holiday shopping.
We have FAQ page for rebates in our consumer encyclopedia. We also have a consumer publication on warranties, which a nice explanation of the difference between a warranty and a service contract. To be technical, what we call extended warranties are actually service contracts.
You knew this day would come - national statistics now show for the first time that Americans' cell phone bills are now higher than their local and long distance home phone bills. How about yours? Those numbers are based on an estimated 170 million landline accounts in the USA, vs. 250 million cell phones.
Story out of Michigan is that an elected county treasurer is charged with embezzling money from the county to recover from the money he sent to a Nigerian scam. We have seen this repeatedly - upper middle class, well educated people falling victims to the Nigerian letter, or 419 scam. In other words, people who should know better. In this case, the guy's friends even warned him that he was falling for a scam, but he was convinced it was his chance to get rich.
It's easy to talk about these things as silly and obvious, and ask "who would ever fall for that?" But when you get that letter, you can fall for it and fall hard. There was a recent case of a retired psychiatrist who was sending so much money to these guys that his son had to take him to court to get him to stop.
A national survey shows some stores have return policies that may surprise some people after the holidays.
We like to remind people as often as possible that you have no legal right to return merchandise under state or federal law. Most stores will do returns, refunds, exchanges, credit, etc. But they have no legal obligation to, and that's why it's so important to check a store's return policy before you buy.
The survey found restocking fees, time limits on returns and other restrictions. Check them out before you buy - there should be signs that explain them in the store. If nothing else, they're often printed on your receipt.
Article in the Columbia Tribune today talks about a national trend of banks and credit unions starting to offer much lower-cost payday loans. These would be an alternative to the traditional payday loan and check-cashing stores we see all over the place. There are examples of these alternatives here in Missouri.
Credit unions across the state are starting to offer payday loans at a fraction of the cost. Usually, you have to open an account at the credit union. They also may require you put some money in savings and get credit counseling. The counseling is offered because many of the folks who take out payday loans are having trouble managing their monthly finances.
To be a customer at a credit union, you have a either work for a certain organization or live in a certain area. Some CUs are employer-based and others are geographically based. The finance terms for the loans offered by credit unions in Missouri are more in line with what AG Nixon has repeatedly called for in Missouri: 36% annual percentage rate and no renewals. Currently in Missouri the average payday loan carries more than 400% APR and our law allows six renewals. That's much more industry friendly than most other states. Thus we are a hotbed for payday lenders.
Page 18-19 of AG Nixon's publication Know Your Rights gives our 4 critical consumer rules. If consumers followed these rules, most disputes, scams, etc, would be avoided.
1. Never give out your personal information to anyone who contacts you. Only give it when you initiate the contact. ID thieves and scammers who send phishing e-mail and phone calls hope you will violate this rule. Unless you contact them, you simply can't be sure who they are, no matter how important or convincing they sound. And they will sound convincing.
2. Don't pay full price for a product or service you haven't yet received. Home repair fraudsters who come door to door hope you'll violate this rule. Only pay when the work has been done or product received according to the terms of your agreement. If a service provider insists on a down payment, agree to no more than 25%.
3. Do business with companies that you know or have been recommended to you by someone you trust. Again, doing business with a door-to-door home repair stranger violates this rule. You can also contact our Consumer Protection Hotline (800-392-8222) or Web site or your local Better Business Bureau to ask what companies have received consumer complaints. You can check KnowMO, our online database of consumer complaints.
4. Never make financial decisions under pressure. Any high-pressure sales situation is suspicious. Make decisions on spending money or giving to charity only when you've done your homework and you're comfortable with it. If you say no to a high-pressure salesman or telemarketer, you are not going to hurt his feelings. Well, you might - but he'll quickly get over it and move on to the next prospect.
For anyone who has ever leased a car (rather than paying cash or taking out a loan), you know it can be costly to break the lease. It's basically a long-term contract, so breaking it can mean big termination fees, kind of like withcell phone contracts.
But you have some options to avoid all those costly fees - bankrate.com has a nice article about a service that tries to hook you up with other car buyers willing to take over your lease. (BTW, we've talked about similar services for getting out of your wireless phone contract.)
Last week, our office announced its annual "Top 10" list of consumer complaint categories. Here is that list again along with some helpful links that will give you tips on how to recognize and avoid becoming another victim of consumer fraud:
- Financing, credit, and debt collection
- Auto sales, repair, odometer fraud, title and towing
- Gasoline prices and storm-related price-gouging
- Telephone slamming, cramming and billing
- Home repair and remodeling
- Lotteries and sweepstakes
- Identity Theft
- Travel Clubs, timeshares and travel related promotions
- Computer software, online services and internet auctions
- Charitable organizations