Savvy Consumer Tips

Stephen J. Moore, President of Moore Mechanical Heating, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, recommends doing some research when choosing a professional to work on your home’s HVAC and ductwork system. The problem is a lot of unlicensed people claim to be experts. You can spot them easily, according to Mr. Moore, because they typically boast duct-cleaning service for less than $100 in their ads. Homeowners have complained that improper work caused thousands of dollars worth of damage to their homes. We checked out quite a few of these companies and didn’t find one that was licensed to work in HVAC. Not one.

Don’t simply accept a contractor’s advertising or word that they’re legitimate or have a current, valid contractor’s license. Protect yourself with these two easy steps: 1) Ask for their contractor’s license number and look them up at www.cslb.ca.gov; 2) Rely on trusted sources like Diamond Certified which verifies credentials.

Doesn't it seem like everything is online today? And does that make you feel just a little bit...uneasy? If so, your fears may not be entirely irrational when it comes to health records. Personal Health Records, also known as PHRs, are part of an online system dedicated to collecting, tracking, and sharing your health information. The purpose? To give you the ability to access and modify your records for new medications, hospitalizations, vaccinations, etc., so they can be shared with whomever you please. PHRs are not Electronic Health Records (EHRs), which are maintained exclusively by health care providers.

The key thing you need to know about PHRs is that not all are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The HIPAA only protects your privacy when dealing directly with health providers, health plans, and health clearinghouses. If you're using a system sponsored by a third party, be careful! You may not be protected.

A gift card can be the perfect gift for the holidays or any occasion—if you protect yourself from a variety of scams that leave gift card recipients with little more than a colorful piece of plastic.

Before you buy a card, inspect it to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with and that the PIN, if there is one, is still hidden under the protective, scratch-off coating. And beware of using one of the online card exchange services that allow visitors to buy, sell or trade gift cards. The opportunities to pay less than the face value of the card may be tempting, but there have been cases of buyers receiving stolen, expired or counterfeit cards. If you want to buy a gift card online, reduce your risk of being ripped off by buying only through a secure Web site. Reputable companies go to great lengths to protect you from fraud.

The passwords to your computer and online accounts are like the keys to your safe deposit box. In the wrong hands, they can be used to steal your money and your identity. Strong passwords - those that are virtually impossible to recreate, even using a special decoder program - will keep your assets and information safe and secure.

A strong password is one that appears to be a random string of characters, including letters, numbers and symbols. The longer your password is, the harder it is to decipher. When creating a password, don’t use personal information such as your birth date or dog’s name. Don’t use real words. Do consider creating a password derived from a “passphrase” that is easy for you to remember. For example, “My favorite number is 13” could be converted to MfaV#=13!. And use a different password for each account to avoid having all your accounts at risk if one password is compromised.

If you’re burdened with overwhelming financial obligations, you may be looking to a debt settlement company for relief. Unfortunately, according to Erica Sandberg, spokeswoman for Consumer Credit Counseling Services-SF, this may only lead to greater problems. A debt settlement company requires that you stop making payments to your creditors, and deposit money into a specially designated account instead. Once you have built-up a certain amount of cash, the company will offer a lump-sum payment to one of your creditors. After one account is settled, they will do the same with the next.

Most debt settlement companies over-promise what they can do for you. They may claim you will be out of financial trouble quickly (not true), and minimize negative credit reports or possible lawsuits. If you need help digging out of debt, choose a non-profit credit counseling agency that can help you develop a realistic and achievable debt repayment plan.

The offer for a "free" credit report blasted from the radio. A young woman, wondering whether her credit was any good, dialed the toll-free number. The report was going to be e-mailed for free. The catch was to get the freebie, she had to agree to try out a credit monitoring service, but everything was "guaranteed." Her next credit card bill showed a charge for an $80 membership, which entitled her to unlimited credit reports and notices when someone checks her credit. It's foolish to buy a package like that when all you really need is the credit report. A single copy costs about $10, and by law, you are entitled to a free copy if you've been turned down for credit within the last 60 days.

According to the San Francisco District Attorney, every Bay Area county is getting complaints right now about modeling agencies that promise more than they can deliver. They even prey on kids! They recruit in malls and tell you if you pay for classes, photos and pictures on a website, you can be famous. Quality modeling agencies don't charge you money up-front, and they don't make you buy your photos from them. They never make guarantees about getting modeling jobs either. The top talent agencies are all licensed and bonded through the State Department of Industrial Relations. Call (415)703-4846 or check www.dir.ca.gov/databases/dlselr/Talag.html.

Why would a gold necklace a friend purchased overseas at a well-established store turn green when she got home? A goldsmith, diamond setter and co-owner of a Diamond Certified Jewelry company, says something can look like gold but only be gold-plated or filled. The necklace was probably made of brass and coated with a thin layer of gold that's worn off. The markings for gold-plated jewelry are 14k h.g.e. and gold-filled jewelry should be marked 1/20 12K k.g.f. Both types should cost a lot less than gold that's gold to the core.

It's not wise to buy expensive jewelry when you're out of town on a holiday unless you know what you're doing. If you want a souvenir from another country, Mr. Jordan suggests you stick with the souvenirs!

I will be the first to admit that I have never thought twice about throwing any and all pre-approved credit card solicitations into the trash. David Rhoads, Vice President of SureShred, a Diamond Certified company, warns against being so careless. He says that identity thieves can easily take these offers from the garbage, change the return address, sign it and get a credit card in your name.

This can be just the beginning of your troubles. Once you put something in the trash, it is considered public property and anyone can sift through it. Besides pre-approved credit card ads, you should also destroy credit card and bank statements, driver's license renewal forms, hospital bills, old tax returns, and anything that has your social security number on it.

When your 5-year-old starts getting pre-approved credit card offers in the mail, that's a clue that someone may be tampering with the child's social security number and credit file. According to Jay Foley, Co-Founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center, identity thieves are now targeting children. Once they get their hands on a young person's social security number, they create a new identity, open credit card accounts, and spend like mad. Kids are the perfect victims in that they won't be applying for credit anytime soon.

Mr. Foley doesn't suggest that everyone run credit checks on all their underage children. Unless you notice some red flags, such as minors receiving credit card offers, wait until the child reaches sixteen or so to see if credit agencies have anything listed. This will give you plenty of time to correct any errors before they apply for their own credit cards or college loans.

Someone is sending around a misleading e-mail again that is confusing thousands of us. The message warns that as of July 2003, major credit bureaus will be allowed to release your credit information to anyone who asks for it. This is not correct, according to Beth Givens at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. However, the message is partially correct when it suggests you can call a toll free number, 888-567-8688, to opt out of having your credit information sold for marketing solicitations.

Two federal laws are being confused here. A 2001 law requires financial institutions to notify you of their privacy policies and offer you the chance to refuse to let them share your credit information with third parties. No toll free number exists for that. The other law does require credit bureaus to provide an opt-out opportunity to consumers who specifically don't want to receive pre-approved credit card offers. To add your name to that list, call 1 (888) 567-8688. The July deadline mentioned in the misleading e-mails does not apply.

Online job scams are prevalent, and the primary targets are job seekers posting resumes. That warning is from Elizabeth Owen, Acting Director of the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators. She says, besides receiving spam e-mail for bogus work-at-home schemes, job hunters may also be an easy mark for identity thieves. People make the mistake of including too much personal information on resumes registered on the web. Do not ever put your Social Security number, birth date, home address and phone number on a resume posted publicly.

It's preferable to use only an e-mail address as a contact point and personal identifier. Ms. Owen thinks job seekers rely too heavily on on-line services for employment. She believes that making contacts through people you know is still the best way to find a good job. When you go for an interview, take along a fresh copy of your resume in a folder, along with your references' contact information.

By some estimates, every unsolicited junk fax that you get costs you 25 cents in paper and toner. That's on top of the inconvenience of having your line tied up and your sleep interrupted when the junk fax systems ring your fax number in a home office at night. While federal law banned unsolicited junk faxes more than 10 years ago, California allows them, IF the sender includes an "opt-out" number at the bottom of the fax. Not surprisingly, some numbers are bogus, so you are at their mercy.

Linda Sherry from the non-profit group Consumer Action advises consumers to call the opt-out number, record the name of the company, and the time and date of your call. If that doesn't stop the unwanted faxes, file complaints with the California Attorney General, the sender's Attorney General and the Federal Communications Commission. For more information on how to fight this problem, contact www.junkfaxes.org.

The more at ease you are on the Internet, the easier it is to let your guard down, as I discovered the other day. I received an e-mail with the subject marked "Billing Notice." Without thinking, I opened it immediately. The e-mail from AOL and said that they were experiencing a problem with charging the monthly fee and suspected my card was about to expire. In fact, the card does expire this month.

They asked me to click on a link update my information. I was about to do that when my daughter noted that AOL notices usually look different. AOL Customer Service confirmed this was a scam. The scammers only use an e-mail address for about 10 minutes to collect card numbers quickly before shutting it down and starting over again. A few get prosecuted, but mostly you have to be vigilante. You can help by reporting suspicious AOL billing e-mails to [email protected]

It goes by this name because the perpetrators are "fishing"for your personal financial information. Elizabeth Owen, executive Director of the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators, says this scam is difficult to detect because it starts with what looks like an e-mail from a known company such as AOL, Citibank or eBay. In the subject line it says, "Important information about your account."Most of us will take a peek.

The company logo looks official, but after you’re directed to disclose account numbers, passwords and pin numbers, you might have second thoughts. They claim they need this information to update software or prevent identity theft, and then they turn around and clear out your checking account. You can be robbed while sitting in the comfort of your own home! Five percent of those contacted fall for the scheme, which law enforcement officials say is impossible to completely eliminate.

Immigrants who do not speak English often negotiate a used car sale in their own language. But they then cannot read the contracts they sign because the agreements are in English. It is illegal if the terms of the written contract are not what was agreed upon verbally, according to Laurel Pallock, a consumer protection investigator with the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. California law, for 30 years, has required that negotiations conducted in Spanish be finalized with a written contract in the same language. And just a year ago, the law was amended to also cover Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Chinese.

The law covers contracts for new and used car purchases and leases, apartment rentals, legal services fee agreements, retail installment plans (for televisions, refrigerators, etc.), and unsecured consumer bank loans. If you find a seller in violation of the law, please report it to your local district attorney's office.

Phony-check scams have become so widespread that consumer groups are using a new website to issue alerts and explain how the schemes work. The National Consumers League, in cooperation with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and others, has launched www.fakechecks.org. You’ll find examples of the phony checks, video from victims and frequently asked questions.

The shocking thing is that the average loss for phony-check scam victims is between $3,000 and $4,000. The scam starts with a real-looking unsolicited check that comes through the mail. The letter describes an opportunity to take advantage of a foreign business offer, a foreign lottery or sweepstakes, or to cash in on a rental or work-at-home scheme. Usually, the scammers ask you to mail cash in return for the phony check. Go to the site and take the fraud test anytime you get one of these offers. One mouse-click could save you thousands.

Every 10 years the U.S. government conducts a census, which is a count of everyone living in this country. Forms are mailed out and if you don’t respond, someone may come to your home to collect information about your household. They want to know about your age, gender, marital status, employment status, etc., and you are required by law to answer the questions.

According to Scambusters.org, scammers are already out in full swing, taking advantage of the opportunity to pose as census-takers. Using this guise, they will try to extract personal information about you so they can sell it to identity thieves.

How do you know if you’re dealing with a census-scammer by mail, phone or in person? They will ask for your Social Security number and personal financial information like bank account numbers and credit card numbers. The official census takers do not ask for this. The scammers might ask you for money, or say that you owe money.

The official Census does not collect data on-line through links, so don’t fall for that tactic. And official representatives have government issued IDs, confidentiality notice and use hand-held computers, according to Scambusters.org. To learn more about the 2010 census, go to the U.S.Census Bureau's website.

 The scammer places a help-wanted ad at a popular job-search site offering a work-at-home job. You fill out an employment application that asks for a Social Security number and your date of birth. Then you’re told you got the job!

Packages arrive at your home with directions to repackage the items and ship them overseas, using your own money which will be repaid. The original packages were paid for with fraudulent credit cards, something you don’t find out until later.

Next, you’re told that you will be paid by cashier's check. But here's the catch. The check will be written for more than the amount owed. You deposit the check and forward the difference to the company’s overseas bank account. Eventually, the cashier's check bounces -- and you owe the bank the amount of the check.

The kicker is --- the ordeal is not over yet. The fraudulent employer has your birth date and SSN. They have applied for several credit cards in your name and use them to buy merchandise that is being shipped to other unknowing victims of the scam.

If you think you may be involved in reshipping fraud, contact the FBI @ www.fbi.gov.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants consumers to beware of telephone sales pitches for magazine subscriptions. While some offers may be legitimate, many are not. Agreeing to buy could result in years of monthly bills for magazines you don’t want or could have gotten elsewhere for less. Or, you could end up paying for a magazine you never receive at all. How do you know if an offer is a scam? Words like “free” and “pre-paid” should alert you. And the caller may try to get your guard down by saying he or she is just calling to conduct a survey. To protect yourself:Don’t give your credit card or other personal information to any caller, ever.

  1. Don’t agree to anything you don’t get in writing first. In some states, you’re legally bound to pay for a   subscription if you agree to it over the phone.
  2. Before you accept an offer to renew a subscription, check the expiration date to determine if it really is coming up. (Check the mailing label. Or, better yet, call the publisher to verify and to confirm that the caller is actually authorized to renew your subscription.)
  3. Tell the caller to put you on the company's "do not call list." If you get another call, hang up and report it to the California Attorney General and the FTC.
  4.  Watch your credit card statements closely, and dispute unauthorized charges immediately.
  5.  Also beware of magazine subscriptions sold door-to-door.

Contact your state attorney general or local consumer protection office to report a scam.

Every 10 years the U.S. government conducts a census, which is a count of everyone living in this country. Forms are mailed out and if you don’t respond, someone may come to your home to collect information about your household. They want to know about your age, gender, marital status, employment status, etc., and you are required by law to answer the questions.

According to Scambusters.org, scammers are already out in full swing, taking advantage of the opportunity to pose as census-takers. Using this guise, they will try to extract personal information about you so they can sell it to identity thieves. They will ask for your Social Security number and personal financial information like bank account numbers and credit card numbers. Official census-takers do not ask for this type of personal information and do not collect data on-line through links. Official representatives have government-issued IDs and use hand-held computers, according to Scambusters.org.

A gift card can be the perfect gift for the holidays or any occasion—if you protect yourself from a variety of scams that leave gift card recipients with little more than a colorful piece of plastic.

Before you buy a card, inspect it to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with and that the PIN, if there is one, is still hidden under the protective, scratch-off coating. And beware of using one of the online card exchange services that allow visitors to buy, sell or trade gift cards. The opportunities to pay less than the face value of the card may be tempting, but there have been cases of buyers receiving stolen, expired or counterfeit cards. If you want to buy a gift card online, reduce your risk of being ripped off by buying only through a secure Web site. Reputable companies go to great lengths to protect you from fraud.