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.
Good reminder in the Columbia Tribune today about the importance of telling your wireless company quickly if you lose your phone. Until you do, you may get charged for any calls made from it. If you do have this problem, you can file a complaint with our office, and our mediation may be able to help you.
Sat. Sept. 8, 9 a.m.-noon Reactor Field, Columbia
Mid-Missourians, take note: you've heard those warnings about shredding your personal trash before throwing it away? But you don't have a home shredder or you have so much stuff stored up that you dread running it through the shredder one by one? (I can relate to the latter.)
This event is for you: Shred Day 2007, September 8, from 9 a.m. to noon at Reactor Field parking lot in Columbia. Bring up to three boxes of confidential, unneeded documents to be destroyed on site by a 4-ton shred truck. Lots of crunching and noise, and even a video monitor so you can watch the shredder in action.
The Better Business Bureau held one of these in St. Louis last April and got 6.5 tons of paper in a short amount of time. Shredding sensitive paperwork before tossing it is one important way to prevent ID theft.
Yesterday, AG Nixon responded to the column and gave significant data that disputes the payday loan industry's claims that they are providing help to Missouri consumers. Nixon continues his promise to stand up to the payday loan businesses that take advantage of cash-strapped Missourians.
We often say that fears of online ID theft are overblown - that the old-fashioned way is still the most popular. By that I mean rummaging through garbage ("dumpster diving") and mailboxes, stealing purses and wallets, etc.
But people do use the Internet to steal identities - no doubt about it. The feds have made what they call their first arrest of an ID thief who used file sharing to get his info. This is a lesson to watch what all you make available to file-sharing programs on your computer, supervise your kids' activities online, and of course -- my mantra -- check your free credit report 3x/year to find out if you've been an ID theft victim.
The Kansas City Star recently reported on yet another scam to watch out for: Canadian scams.
Often posing under the guise of a foreign lottery, these scammers from our North have taking millions of dollars from victims in the United States. The issue of jurisdiction between borders makes this scam particularly hard to protect American citizens. While offices like the MO AG, and many other agencies, work to hunt down foreigners who make a living conning innocent people out of their life-savings, they are often limited by international law.
So at this point, your best defense from foreign scams is to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible. The KC Star article mentioned above includes many tips for you to remember. Cut these tips out and freshen up on your knowledge by checking the MO AG Consumer Corner, where you can find quizzes and definitions for all types scam-related issues.
Also, it is very important to remember that the elderly are predominantly targeted in these types of scams. This is for many reasons, but most simply, retirees are home during the day when many scammers call. Further, they often have their life-savings available for criminals to access. Make sure that any elder relatives or friends you know are aware of these scams.
Cut out the tips from the article and put them next to their phone so they'll know whether or not the call is legitimate.
We had a great event this weekend at Shred Day 2007. About 100 consumers came out to shred old, private documents like bank statements, tax returns, etc. This is stuff you don't want to throw in the trash because of the ID theft threat. We packed about 3 tons of paper into the shred truck provided by Cintas. See photos of the event here and here.
Last month, the Missouri Legislature met in special session and overwhelmingly passed what has been called an "economic-development package."
While this package was intended to create a number of tax breaks for businesses and provide funding for repairing bridges, there is one provision that concerns consumers and sports fans alike. Ticket scalping will soon be legal in Missouri.
Currently, selling tickets at a price higher than the value printed on the ticket at sporting events is illegal. Anyone convicted of ticket scalping can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $300 for a first offense. Attorney General Nixon has gone after ticket scalpers in the past.
However, until the law goes into effect on November 28, 2007, our office needs your help. If you see an individual or business scalping tickets, try to get as much information about them as you can and then file a consumer complaint at ago.mo.gov.
Wild story in the news this morning that many homeowners facing foreclosure are current on their credit cards. That means they're paying off their CC debt before their mortgage. Does that mean, if it comes down to it, they'd rather lose their home than their credit cards? Do you or does anyone you know do this? I'm interested in this trend.
Missouri consumer writes:
I was wondering how one goes about finding those government grants and how and where to apply for them. Doing so without being scammed as well.
The answer is very simple: www.grants.gov. This is a Web site run by the federal government that lists available grants. One key to avoiding the scam: if you get an unsolicited offer, it's a scam. The government isn't going to call or e-mail you and offer you money just for being a good American.
Consumer advocates often warn about these, but many, especially seniors, never get the word. You may see advertisements for free lunch seminars that claim to be educational events for financial planning.
A new federal study shows they are mainly sales pitches - and high-pressure ones at that. An investigation also found poor supervision of the salesmen, exaggerated promises of wealth, inappropriate investment advice and outright fraud.
Missouri's Secretary of State often warns about these. She also has an investor fraud hotline and publications on wise investing. I assume we don't have that many seniors reading this blog (correct me if I'm wrong), so pass this on to those older and wiser loved ones in your life.
Both Congress and the FCC are considering limits on those large fees cell phone companies charge to cancel your contract.
Termination fees are a frequent subject of complaints to our office, with consumers feeling stuck in a long-term contract for cell service they don't like. Congress' role would be to pass a federal law that limits those fees. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) could simply issue some regulations on the subject - they're the agency that regulates the telephone industry. The chair of the FCC is talking about an investigation by year's end.
Until then, you have may have options if you want out of your contract. We have blogged in the past about some tricks you can try.
In this era of online-sales technology--such as the website eBay--there is something very simple about the idea of placing an advertisement in your local newspaper's classified section.
Yet, despite choosing a medium that may seem safer than the internet, you could still be the victim of a scam. We already know the so-called "overpayment scam" can be a down-side of online auction websites. This occurs when someone sends more money than the sales price for special services like delivery or shipping fees. This is a scam because the check they have sent is fake and you won't know that until it bounces.
But recently, the MO AG's Office has received several complaints of Missourians who placed classified ads and were conned by overpayment scammers. The Columbia Daily Tribune reported on such a scam earlier this month. To protect yourself from becoming a victim of this type of crime, be apprehensive of anyone who offers you more than your sales price. Unfortunately, because the checks look real, most banks will accept them. But if it looks suspicious, do not send the item you were selling; contact MO AG's Office and file a complaint.
Missouri consumer writes:
Can my water be shut off by the mobile park owner due to non payment of rent?
Missouri law says landlords may only shut off essential utilities for health and safety reasons. This is found in Missouri statute RSMo 441.233.2. You can find more on the issues in our Landlord-Tenant Law publication, which is also available in Spanish. These are both available for free from our online order form.
The popular social networking site Facebook.com recently added a new feature enabling old friends and scammers to peruse for profiles using search engines like Google and Yahoo!
This has many privacy advocacy groups up in arms. Theoretically, someone could type your name into Google and be linked to your profile photo, with an invitation to join to see more information. The privacy disclosure on Facebook's website does enable users to opt out of this feature in order to avoid their picture and name from being displayed, but it is not automatic.
So what do these changes mean to the average user? In my opinion, it means every user needs to take a look at how much information they actually disclose on their profile. Is your full birthday posted? Possibly an email address or a phone number? Any pictures you may not want a potential employer to view before an interview?
You may believe it to be a stretch, but ID thieves and scam artists can piece together personal information and use it to their benefit, the same way a new boss can learn a little more about his or her new employee. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse website has tips regarding how to keep yourself safe online, but the bottom line is to treat these networking sites with caution when it comes to disclosing information. If you wouldn't give the information to a stranger on the street, don't post it on the web.
Missouri consumer writes:
I received a cashier's check for $980. The instructions are to keep $100, then go to Wal-Mart and buy a Money Gram for $850 and send it to someone in Canada. I am supposed to evaluate the whole Money Gram system's effectiveness and efficiency. I didn't know it was a scam, but my sister says it is. I haven't done anything with the check yet.
100% guarantee this is a scam. Why?
- Unsolicited cashier's check - people don't just send these out randomly
- Request to wire money. Wire transfer is one of the most common ways scammers get money.
- Canada. By some estimates, 60% of all money wired to Canada is going to scammers.
- "Keep some money and send the rest." This is the classic overpayment scam.
Cash the check if you want, but don't wire any money! Your bank, within 2 or 3 weeks, will tell you the check bounced. I'd like you to file a consumer complaint and send the check here so we can display it online.
TransUnion, one of the three nationwide credit bureaus, announced it will offer consumers the ability to freeze their credit file.
This is a huge announcement. Consumer advocates have been fighting for state laws all over the country giving consumers this right - and the credit bureaus have been fighting like crazy against it.
More than half the states now have credit freeze laws. Missouri is not one of them, but it appears TransUnion is going to allow us to do that regardless. The fee is $10 to freeze or unfreeze, which is about the same as the fee in the states with credit freeze laws. Keep in mind, your credit report at the other two bureaus - Experian and Equifax - will not be frozen. That means if a creditor / lender goes to pull your file at one of those two, it will be available. So ID thieves should hope they go to lenders who use one of those bureaus.
Consumers Union, the nonprofit that publishes Consumer Reports, is already calling on the other two to follow suit. I predict they'll do it - these bureaus compete ferociously with each other, and offer almost identitcal services, products and prices.
Many consumer advocates, including me, believe a credit freeze is the best way to prevent ID theft. I heard one consumer say not having this option "is like someone telling me I can't put a lock on my front door." For background, here is a previous blog post on credit freezes.
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.
They'll cost non-customers more
If you are a non-BOA customer but you use one of their numerous ATMs for cash withdrawals, your fee will jump from $2 to $3. This article has more on the story, plus some good tips you may not know about saving on ATM fees.
This is one of my most frequently asked questions from consumers. This is a mysterious topic to a lot of people - we've heard rumors about what can raise or lower your credit score.
The pie chart on this page explains what goes into your credit score, or credit rating. Here are the factors they consider, in these proportions:
- 35% History of paying bills on time
- 30% How much debt you have
- 15% How long you've had credit at various places
- 10% Recent applications for new credit
- 10% Types of credit you have (mortgages, credit cards, car loans, etc)
The companies that calculate scores consider their formulas a trade secret - so we don't know exactly what effect all these things have. The higher your score the better. Usually 600-650 is good, 650 and up is very good. Scores below 600 usually have to turn to subprime lenders, who offer less favorable terms - higher fees and interest rates, etc.
PS: When you get your three free credit reports you're legally entitled to each year, you don't get your score. That usually costs $8 or so.
PPS: Checking your own free credit report does not lower your credit score. Another common misunderstanding.
Interesting story in the papers today about local phone companies offering more features and fancier landline phones. This is to try to keep customers from ditching their home phones and going all-cell all the time. Supposedly just over 10% of the U.S. population uses only a cell phone. It also mentions the things cell companies are doing to catch up to the one big advantage of landlines - sound quality.
It didn't take long - another credit bureau now says it plans to offer credit freezes nationwide.
The head of Equifax has done numerous media interviews saying his agency will follow the lead of TransUnion, allowing consumers in all 50 states to lock up their credit reports, regardless of whether their state has a credit freeze. Other than the interviews, Equifax doesn't have any official statement out yet - other than to say they'll make the details known soon.
We blogged last week about TransUnion's dramatic announcement and predicted the other two would follow suit. All eyes are now on Experian to see if they'll complete the picture for consumers, giving Missourians the most powerful too yet against ID theft. Once all the plans have been announced - and we do expect to hear from Experian soon - we'll have instructions online for you on how exactly to take advantage of these services.
Missouri consumer writes:
Does the "lemon law" cover appliances? I purchases a GE dishwasher on Aug 28, it did not work on delivery and GE has been giving me the run around with parts availability. It has been 1 month and numerous calls to GE, with no satisfaction. What are my options?
The answer is no. The Lemon Law only applies to new cars - not used cars, as many people think. For everything else, there is no right to return merchandise under state or federal law. The only exceptions: you have three days to cancel a door-to-door sale, a health club contract or a travel club membership, and five days to cancel a timeshare purchase. Having said that, you are welcome to file a consumer complaint with our office about the dishwasher. We get good results with mediation - $5 million back to consumers in 2006 without ever going to court.
Missouri consumer writes:
What do I do if I owe payday loans and closed my account. Will I go to jail?
This is a good point. I blogged a few months ago that a payday loan check is not considered a bad check under state law, even though it's usually written without sufficient funds in the account. However, there is an exception. State law says this protection does not apply "if the person's account on which the instrument was written was closed by the consumer before the agreed-upon date of negotiation or the consumer has stopped payment on the check." At that point, you're looking at a good-old fashioned bad check case, which is defined in Chapter 570.120, RSMo.
A Missouri Congressman is sponsoring a bill requiring your bank to let you know if you're out of money before an ATM or debit card transaction. Sort of like those YES/NO screens that pop up when you use an ATM that charges a fee. Rather than blocking overdraft transactions, most banks allow them, then charge the consumer an overdraft fee, say $30. Supporters of this bill say most consumers would rather cancel such a transaction, rather than pay the fee later.
Consumer advocates say banks collect a billion dollars a year in such fees from young adults alone (age 18-24) and much more from the general population. Banks are opposed to the legislation.