If I’ve learned anything in this job, it’s that once you’re taken advantage of as a consumer, there often is not much you can do about it.
That’s why, as Ben Franklin said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The state Attorney General’s office just released a list of the most common consumer frauds perpetrated in New York last year. Here are the top five and some tips on how to avoid them.
1. Internet. There were 4,753 complaints about issues related to privacy, spyware and consumer frauds. Complaints in this category are clearly underreported – I get 4,753 fraudulent offers from Nigerian princes in my email every day.
MoneySmart tip: Only do business with reputable websites. When paying for something online, make sure the site is secure and encrypted. The Web address should start with “https,” instead of just “http,” and end with a symbol such as a padlock.
2. Auto. Though many complaints involved buying, renting and repairing vehicles, the biggest chunk involved leasing.
MoneySmart tip: Beware open-ended leases, which require you to pay the difference between a car’s estimated vehicle value at the time you signed the lease and its “realized,” or real, value when you return the car. You could end up responsible for a huge balloon payment to cover a car’s depreciated value – a factor you have no control over.
3. Credit. It’s surprising this isn’t at the top of the list since practices in the debt collection, debt settlement, payday loan and credit repair industries can be so skeevy, not to mention the everyday problems associated with identity theft, credit card billing and the credit reporting agencies.
MoneySmart tip: If you have credit problems, turn to a reputable agency licensed by the state Department of Financial Services, such as Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Buffalo, 712-2060.
4. Consumer-related services. This ridiculously broad category encompasses any of the service providers we deal with on a regular basis, from security systems firms and caterers to landscapers and dating services.
MoneySmart tip: Never do business without a clear and fair contract. A contract should clearly spell out who is responsible for what and when. All restrictions and obligations should be clearly stated and include the amount and payment schedule both parties have agreed should be paid for a service.
5. Mortgage. Hordes of predatory companies have sprung up since America’s housing crisis exploded in 2008, leading to a number of complaints involving mortgage modifications, broker fraud and foreclosures.
MoneySmart tip: You hear companies advertising on the radio every day with official-sounding names, subtly suggesting they’re a government-sanctioned agency appointed to help struggling homeowners. In actuality, they’re often for-profit companies looking to make a buck offering services that are available elsewhere for free.
To find a free nonprofit housing counselor or legal services organization, call the state’s toll-free Homeowner Protection Program hotline at (855) 466-3456.