Tax time approacheth, and so do scammers

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Anytime consumers are asked for their personal information, Social Security number, date of birth, etc., is a time for special awareness. Never sign a blank return and always guard your personal information. Also never prepay a tax preparer up front. Get an estimate. Don’t wait until the last minute and don’t allow yourself to be rushed. Taxpayers need to exercise special caution from now until April 15. Not only are the legitimate tax preparers busy, the scammers are also very busy.

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FAST TALK — SMALL PRINT: If you see small print — read it all. If you hear a radio advertisement using what I call “fast talk,” beware of buying those goods or services.

A few years ago, the FTC “legalized” disclaimer tags on radio commercials. At the end of certain radio advertising, disclaimers are read at high-speed. Even before my hearing started to go, I couldn’t clearly understand the words. Once I recorded a commercial like this and slowed it down, I realized that the actual words were legal disclaimers.

How any merchant could rely on a disclaimer like this I don’t know. Anytime I hear a commercial like this I run the other way. I suggest you do, too.

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GET AND CHECK REFERENCES: This week I handled more than 10 consumer complaints. If the consumers had required references AND checked them, they probably wouldn’t have gone forward with the work or project. All but one had either not asked for or checked references. All but two didn’t bother to have a written contract.

It makes me very happy when people avoid scams. Unfortunately, it gives me plenty of things to write about and help with, when consumers disregard the basics.

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I NEED YOUR HELP: I often get calls asking me for recommendations, I certainly have my own suggestions for great products, services and merchants, but I don’t have recommendations in many categories. Someone called me this week and asked for a recommendation for a good men’s hair stylist (we used to call them a barber). Unfortunately, at least in my case, “that ship sailed” many years ago.

If you have some good recommendations, based on your own personal experience, please email them to me. Not just barbers — any product, good, service or merchant. I will put them on my website at BillBrooks.us, so we can all benefit from each other’s experience. My mom always used to say, “if you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.” Let’s keep it positive and make the bad guys conspicuous by their absence.

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CREDIT TIP: If you have a smartphone or access to the web, try Credit Karma, a smartphone app. A few years ago, due to “terminal cancer” (from Agent Orange exposure), I incurred well over a million dollars in medical treatment and care, not covered by my insurance policy. (My policy paid almost a million dollars in one year.) I did beat the odds, and the cancer. However, due to the crushing debt and interest on the debt, and my creditors’ unwillingness to help me work out a payment plan, my wife and I were forced to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Since then, we’ve used Credit Karma to monitor and improve our credit rating. Not only does the app give you your credit scores, it updates them monthly, and shows you what you can do to improve your score.

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SOMETHING’S HAPPENING HERE: My apologies to Buffalo Springfield. Our local Sears store is closing. Remember the Sears Christmas Wish Book? I do. The departure of the Sears store will cost this community, in the short-term, quite a few jobs. It will take some time to absorb those employees. In the longer term, what about guarantees and warranties on products and goods sold by Sears, like appliances, tools and tires to name a few?

If you have anything you bought from Sears, dig out your paperwork and have it on hand. I will do some research and advise readers where to go for warranty services.

The retail landscape is definitely changing. Amazon’s founder is now richer than Bill Gates! It’s good to support our local retailers. Many goods and services are best bought locally, but the list is shrinking rapidly. (And by the way, what did ever happen to Alvah Curtis?)

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JUST BECAUSE THE NAME IS THE SAME: Last week, a consumer emailed me complaining about a local retailer’s poor customer service in spite of the company’s excellent online rating. It just so happens I used the same company this summer, and had the same experience.

It turns out that the company was sold recently, and that the new owners didn’t live up to the former owner’s level of customer service. The new owners are using the name of the company. Unfortunately, little else is the same as the old company. The lesson I learned was this — check out RECENT references and do some research on the company BEFORE signing a contract.

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JUST THE FAX, MA’AM: This week a consumer called me with a sad tale about a local used car dealership. They went shopping for a new buggy. They found a good looking car and took it for a test drive. So far, so good. They asked the car salesman for a CarFax report on the car. The salesman told them he’d get them one.

They drove the car a second time and realized it “pulled” slightly to the right. They asked if the car had been in an accident. The salesman informed them that he thought the previous owner had hit a snow bank, without doing any real damage to the car. The buyers asked once again for a copy of the CarFax report on the vehicle. Once again, the salesman said he’d get one for them.

Later that afternoon, the couple bought, financed and signed for the vehicle. A short time later in the chain of events, the new owners of the vehicle were sent a CarFax report, which showed the vehicle had been involved in three significant accidents, which damaged the front end of the car.

In conclusion, always do your research BEFORE signing paperwork. In this case, the merchant and the consumer are committed to working this problem out, but it will not be done without additional expense and trouble for the buyer.

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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 or fax me at 866-362-9266. You can follow me at www.billbrooksconsumeradvocate.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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