As a former Federal Trade Commission attorney and currently a volunteer for Consumer Action and Seven On Your Side, the consumer hotline for ABC-TV Channel 7, I have heard a wide range of scams that separated unsuspecting consumers from their money, especially during the holiday season. Below are a number of scams consumers should be aware of and things consumers can do to protect themselves.
First, as a general rule never, ever give your credit card, debit card, or bank account information to anyone you are unfamiliar with. Many scammers attempt to acquire information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details from unsuspecting consumers. This is called phishing.
The holiday spirit includes for many donating to charities. Be wary of appeals that tug at your heart strings, especially pleas involving patriotism and current events. Don't provide any credit card or bank account information until you have reviewed all information from the charity and made the decision to donate. Beware of a charity that won’t provide information in writing such as its mission, where the money goes, and what percentage of the money goes to charitable work as opposed to administrative costs. In California, the attorney general's office keeps a registry of charitable trusts.
Save every receipt. Keep copies of the refund and return policies, your order number, shipping costs and warranties. Remember merchants have different refund and return policies for sales and clearance items.
Beware of "Buy One, Get One Free" or "free trial" pitches on websites. Read the websites "terms and conditions" before giving up your credit or debit card number as you may find $29, $39 or more in charges on your monthly credit card statement.
When shopping online with an unfamiliar company check out the company with the Better Business Bureau and type in "complaints against XYZ company" in a search engine. For example, a consumer should be wary of a business with an "F" rating. Beware of company websites that don't list an address.
Be careful of postcards about "undeliverable" packages. It could be a scam to get you to make an expensive long-distance call or reveal personal information. You may end up paying high long-distance charges that will partially go to the scammers. When in doubt, call the courier's phone number, not the one on the postcard.
I am always surprised as to the number of people who do not check their monthly credit and debit card statements and finally discover unauthorized charges going back months or even years. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), consumers can dispute unauthorized charges within 60 days of notification of the unauthorized charge. Unauthorized charges longer than 60 days cannot be disputed with your credit and debit card issuers. The FCBA is enforced by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Do you receive multiple calls trying to sell you a product or service and the calls keep coming. To prevent such calls in the future, make sure your telephone number(s) are on the federal do not call registry. Most telemarketers should not call your number(s) once it has been on the registry for 31 days. If they do, you can file a complaint on the website. Unfortunately, the Registry does not limit calls by political organizations, charities, or telephone surveyors.
The holiday season brings unwanted commercial mail. The Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) Mail Preference Service (MPS) lets you opt out of receiving unsolicited commercial mail from many national companies for five years. When you register with this service, your name will be put on a "delete" file and made available to direct-mail marketers and organizations. This will reduce most of your unsolicited mail. However, your registration will not stop mailings from organizations that do not use the DMA's Mail Preference Service.
The DMA also has an Email Preference Service (eMPS) to help you reduce unsolicited commercial emails. Registration is free and good for six years.
It is also advisable to check your credit reports and dispute any credit report errors, pursuant to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which is also enforced by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Consumers are entitled to a free copy of their credit reports annually from each of the three credit reporting agencies — TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax.
Remember, consumer protection begins with an alert, careful consumer. Happy holidays.