Consumer Guy: Local war on scammers paying off for consumers

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It’s a sad fact that the crooks and scammers specifically target the elderly. I can’t tell you how many older people call me and are very upset. Lately, more and more consumers, and especially older consumers, have been calling me to report that they’ve avoided scams via internet, mail and phone. One couple, almost 90 years old, based on the information in this column, avoided a Medicare supplement insurance scam.

Interesting side note, the husband is very hard of hearing and the wife has macular degeneration. She makes and answers the phone calls and he reads all the mail very carefully. The insurance they signed up for was legitimate insurance, although very expensive, but there were no approved providers in our area, hence the insurance is both expensive AND worthless!

Fortunately, they signed up with a credit card, not a debit card. We called the credit card company and put the charges “in contest.” The scammers wouldn’t return the calls of the credit card company and the charges were completely reversed! Another couple has become “hardened targets” for scammers. Now, they don’t give out ANY information over the phone and carefully read all mail. If they’re not sure about a mailing — they call me.

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DEBIT VS CREDIT: I know I’ve addressed this matter in earlier columns but it’s worth going over again — it could save you thousands of dollars.

A credit card and a debit card may look very similar but they are VERY different, particularly in terms of protection afforded users of credit cards under federal law. A debit card is a line directly into your bank account. A credit card has a third party between you and the merchant — the credit card company.

Federal law dictates how they handle items put in dispute, or “in contest.” Some banks may try to assist you if you have a problem with a purchase made with a debit card, but they aren’t required to. In other words, protect yourself and ALWAYS use a credit card. Using a credit card, and paying on time, will also be reflected on your credit report; using a debit card will not.

Many consumers feel they are limited to using a debit card or a pre-paid cash card because they can’t qualify for a “real” credit card. Surprise — you probably can — a secured credit card.

The way a secured card works is that the cardholder — you — places a few hundred or even a couple of thousand dollars on deposit with the bank, usually in a savings account or a certificate of deposit. Once that’s done, the bank sends you a credit card with your name on it. The credit limit is usually what you have placed on deposit.

Each month you pay the minimum, or more. This is reported to the credit bureaus and if you pay on time, it improves your credit rating over time. Best practice is to pay your entire balance on the card each billing cycle. Don’t use your new credit card as a convenient place to get a “loan.” If you can’t afford it — don’t buy it. By the way, if you don’t pay on time, the credit card company will also report that to the credit bureaus and that will damage your credit rating.

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TWO GOOD SECURED CREDIT CARDS: A great secured card for cash back –— Discover It Secured Card by Discover — No Annual Fee 800-347-0264. An excellent secured credit card with small deposit — Capital One Secured MasterCard 844-788-8999.

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HOW TO COMPLAIN: The short answer is, POLITELY! Remember, most consumer complaints boil down to oversights and misunderstandings. This is especially true if you’re dealing with a local merchant.

Remember mom’s old saying — “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” It’s true. Also remember that written contracts will avoid most misunderstandings. If you’re dissatisfied with a product or service, remember to always document the event IN WRITING.

It goes like this: 1. Who did you talk to? Get their name or employee number and position of the company representative you’re talking to; 2. Specifically identify what you are dissatisfied with; and 3. Make clear what you’d like the company to do to correct the problem. It’s amazing how many consumer complaints you can solve if you follow these steps.

DON’T GET MAD: If you are mad when you contact the merchant, you’re likely to get a negative response. It’s just human nature. If you stop for a moment and think about the last time you really got mad, you’ll probably recognize two things; the root of your “mad” was that someone hurt you, or disrespected your feelings, and 2. The outcome of the interaction probably wasn’t what you wanted. A better strategy is to be organized, write things down, and leave “mad” behind when trying to resolve any disagreement. (This technique also works with kids, spouses and significant others. The only difference is — don’t take notes and never ask for an employee number!)

IMPORTANT HINT: Always keep a pad and pencil beside the telephone. Everyone’s memory plays tricks, especially when you’re trying to remember a complicated or emotional conversation.

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CALL BEFORE YOU ACT: If you have a question, call me. It’s much easier to call before you get yourself into a mess.

If someone calls you asking for ANY personal information — hang up. Believe me, if they’re legitimate, they’ll contact you by mail.

If the mail looks suspicious — call me. Think things over for a day or two. If it doesn’t pass the “smell test” or if someone is trying to high-pressure you — don’t do it. Consumers have called me as early as 5:15 a.m. (please wait until at least 7 and as late as 10:20 (I usually go to bed by 9 p.m.). If I’m not able to answer your call directly, please leave a SHORT voicemail. You don’t need to give me your life’s story. I will call you back and THEN you can tell me all about your situation.

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REMEMBER: I’m in your corner.

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I have many more tips and interesting cases that I’m working on as The CDA Press Consumer Guy. Call me at 208-699-0506, or email me at BillBrooksRealEstate@gmail.com or fax me at 866-362-9266. Please include your name and a phone number. I am available to speak about consumerism to schools, and local and civic groups.

•••

Bill Brooks is the CDA Press Consumer Guy and the broker and owner of Bill Brooks Real Estate in Coeur d’Alene.

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