Hard questions for vigilant consumers

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There seems to be recent resurgence of very aggressive, itinerant door-to-door sales people in our area. (Why don’t these people show up in the middle of a North Idaho winter?) So far this year, it seems to be limited to roving bands of 20-somethings hawking satellite and cable television services. According to several callers, the game goes like this:

First they knock on your door and interrogate you about your current internet or television provider. While you’re busy trying not to be rude and answer their questions, they push by you into your house to “inspect and verify” your services by snooping around your modem and CATV control boxes. In an officious manner, they write down all the information, including credit card numbers and bank account numbers so they can ostensibly find the lowest possible price for all your services. Promises are made and if you take the bait, your current equipment will be removed from your home and in short order, a truck pulls up with a technician to install all new modems and control boxes and remotes.

Here’s the problem: The devil is in the details of the contract you will be required to sign. Most of the monthly rates promised are actually heavily subsidized “introduction promotional” rates and vanish within a few short weeks. Also hidden in the fine print are severe penalties for early termination of the contract.

If that’s not bad enough, most of the contracts the consumer is asked to sign are multiyear contracts and contain automatic renewal clauses. All bad things. In addition to the above, the salespeople ARE usually NOT actual employees of the company. They are independent contractors. It is almost impossible to enforce the verbal promises they make, to convince consumers to change service providers.

MY ADVICE: Don’t sign anything presented “at your door” and for goodness sake, don’t let them in your house or give them any personal or financial information.

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WHAT YEAR & MAKE IS YOUR CAR?: Repair work on a vehicle can be expensive and when something goes wrong it’s usually a surprise — the bad kind! There are legions of people peddling “extended” warranties for your vehicle. The sophisticated sellers of extended warranties do their homework by legally or illegally obtaining Department of Motor Vehicle information. They then call you and offer to sell you an extended warranty on your “2010 Subaru Outback.” The consumer thinks, “It must be legitimate. Otherwise how would they know I own a 2010 Subaru Outback?” Of course it really wasn’t too hard for the caller to find out what car or truck you own. They promise the sun and the moon coverage at only pennies a day.

The problem is, as in most “deals” like this, the contract that you’ve agreed to strictly limits the company’s liability and severely restricts what repairs are actually covered. Remember: When promises are made, written contracts overrule verbal promises.

The not-so-elegant form of this pitch starts off with the caller asking leading questions regarding the make, model and year of your vehicle. When they call, they have no idea what kind of car you own. One unfortunate consumer actually signed up for a multiyear, multicar “discount.” Fortunately, he paid for the fake warranty with a credit card and we were able to get all his money refunded.

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IS THAT YOU?: A scam that periodically pops up is the old “drivers license verification” routine. This is an easy one to spot: the Department of Motor Vehicles NEVER CALLS licensed drivers to “verify” their driver’s license information — NEVER! If you get this call, hang up immediately.

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CAN YOU HEAR ME?: This is the warning that if someone calls you to ask “can you hear me” and you answer “yes,” the scammer records the yes and then uses that recording to force you to buy and pay for ongoing expensive goods and services that you in fact never ordered. This scam is largely an urban myth. Any crook who tries to use a bogus recording of you saying “yes” would be forced to appear in court and convince the judge that the dummied up recording was real. That would expose the scammer as a liar and a fraud.

In other words, you will never be confronted with a recording of you agreeing to buy a good or service, cobbled together from chunks of bad tape recordings. The only danger is that the naïve consumer might possibly be pressured into paying for something over the phone by the scammer convincing the consumer that they will be sued in court. If this ever happens to you, call me — immediately!

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IS THAT SMART PHONE STOLEN?: There is a thriving market for stolen smart phones. The problem is — it’s often not immediately apparent that the phone is “hot.” Even some phones that are sold in their original packaging can be stolen phones. Thieves are also ingenious in “repackaging” phones. Apple for one has for some reason removed the “activation lock checker” from their phones. The activation lock provided the buyer of the phone a fairly straightforward way of verifying that the phone was not stolen.

Phones for sale on eBay or Craigslist at ridiculously low prices are the first clue something may be amiss. If you buy a phone like this, you might not be able to activate it because it may still be tied to the legitimate owner’s iCloud account. The way to check that the phone is NOT stolen, before paying any money, is to verify the unique IMEI of the phone with the carrier.

MY ADVICE: Buy a used phone only from someone you can meet in person and go through the setup process BEFORE handing over payment. That way you will know the phone is legal and ready to use.

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PEDDLERS NEED LICENSES: As the weather warms, remember, it brings out the legitimate door-to-door salespeople. Be careful about answering your door, especially if you don’t know who is on the other side. If you decide to open your door, before anything else, ask to see their identification, including a license from the city, if they’re selling something.

NEVER let them in your home — EVER! If their intentions are not on the up-and-up, if they get inside, you’ve got a problem. Don’t put yourself or your family at risk.

If they won’t produce ID and a license, politely ask them to leave, close and lock your door (don’t worry about not being polite). If they don’t leave, call the police. Better safe than sorry!

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REMEMBER BILL BROOKS: “He’s On Your Side”

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I have many more tips and interesting cases that I’m working on. Call me at 208-699-0506, or email me at BillBrooksAdvocate@gmail.com (#GoGetEmBillBrooks) You can follow me at www.billbrooksconsumer advocate.com. I am available to speak about consumerism to schools, and local and civic groups. Bill Brooks is a consumer advocate and the broker and owner of Bill Brooks Real Estate in Coeur d’Alene.

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