For the new year, resolve to be a smarter consumer

Published 8:05 am Saturday, January 3, 2009

Besides resolving to lose weight, pay off your credit card debt and clean out the garage, pencil in a New Year’s resolution to be a smarter consumer in 2009. As Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), I often work with the staff of our Office of Consumer Affairs (OCA) and have seen for myself some of the many hazards that consumers may encounter in the marketplace. It does take a little extra effort to be a well-informed consumer, but it is well worth it. The consequences of inattention can be disastrous, including a depleted bank account, ruined credit and lost time.

So, with the thought of being a smarter consumer in mind, I asked OCA to provide an overview of current consumer scams you should be aware of, as well as a list of proactive steps you can take to help prevent problems down the road. Let’s begin with three fraudulent activities that you could easily encounter:

n Phishing. In this scam, criminals send e-mails or pop-up messages that look as if they had come from legitimate companies asking you to provide personal information such as Social Security number, account numbers, passwords or PINs. If you are uncertain about the legitimacy of a contact, call the number on your financial statements or on the back of your credit card. Do not give your personal information to anyone you do not trust. If you believe you have been a victim of phishing, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Web site at or call (877) 438-4338.

* Sweepstakes winnings, lotteries and check scams. There is no legitimate reason why anyone you do not know and trust would send you a check or money order, ask you to cash it and then wire a portion of the money back to them. Check out information about bogus lotteries, sweepstakes and fake checks with the United States Postal Inspection Service at If an offer sounds too good to be true, contact OCA’s telephone counselors weekdays from 8:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. via the toll-free Consumer Protection Hotline, in Virginia at (800) 552-9963.

* Inflated claims by employment agencies. Disreputable companies often claim that they have special leads on hundreds of high-salaried jobs and charge consumers up-front fees for a list of those jobs. Before paying an advance fee, make sure you understand what services the company will perform and what your obligations are. Get the refund policy in writing. Is the company offering anything you could not obtain by yourself for free, such as newspaper ads placed by legitimate employers? Also, do not sign any contract before you have read it thoroughly and understand its terms. Be particularly cautious if the company is pressuring you to sign a contract on the spot.

Avoiding scams like these is essential, but there are other basic steps that anyone can take to help protect themselves as a consumer. Put these pro-active efforts on your to-do list for 2009:

* Check your credit report annually for accuracy. The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – to provide you with a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months, at your request. To order your credit report, visit or call 1-877-322-8228.

* Reduce the number of unwanted telemarketing calls you receive by placing your home and cell phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry. Register online at or call toll-free, 1-888-382-1222 from the number you wish to register.

* Opt-out of solicitations for pre-screened credit card and insurance policy offers by calling toll-free 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) or visiting Registration is free.

* To have your name taken off of several nationally based mailing solicitation lists, contact the Direct Marketing Association. Register at or by mail by writing to Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, P. O. Box 643, Carmel, New York 10512. The Direct Marketing Association is not a government entity. The Association represents nearly 3,600 businesses in the direct marketing industry.

* Before you choose to do business with a company, check with OCA on the status of complaints against that company. Ask a telephone counselor weekdays or check a company’s complaint history online at; click on Searchable Databases.

* Before you donate money to a charity, verify that the charity has registered with OCA as required by state law. Go to and click on Charitable Search, or speak to a telephone counselor.