Keep that resolution now – ask us how!
January 6, 2011
Quit smoking! Stop drinking! Earn more! Owe less! Get that degree while shedding 10 pounds of belly fat!
If these are among your New Year’s resolutions, we’d suggest one more: buyer beware. For as surely as the ball drops in Times Square, scammers are gearing up to take advantage of your good intentions.
So how can you maintain your resolve in 2011 while steering clear of pitfalls? We asked Rigo Reyes, acting director of the county’s Department of Consumer Affairs, whose experts looked at some popular resolutions and offered these tips.
Get healthy. “We see a lot of weight-loss programs,” says Reyes, whose team recently has been forwarding complaints and inquiries to the California Medical Board about lap band surgery. But that’s just one get-healthy-quick pitch among many. Faith healers in bogus farmacias prey on Spanish-speaking consumers who want to quit drinking or smoking or overeating. And every year, Reyes says, he hears from couch potatoes who bought sales pitches from some gyms without actually reading the high-priced contracts. “People need to read the fine print and not just believe promises,” says Reyes. Short cuts are imaginary and costly. A walk around the block, on the other hand, is free.
Get out of debt. “This is a top priority for a lot of people in this economy,” says Reyes. But beware of credit repair scams and offers of foreclosure assistance and debt consolidation. No one can legally remove accurate information from a credit report, and if the information is inaccurate, you can get it removed for nothing. If you’re having foreclosure troubles, deal directly with the bank or get help from a HUD-approved nonprofit—don’t waste money on for-profit intermediaries. As for debt consolidation offers, Reyes says many leave consumers with high fees, unpaid debts and worse credit. Scams such as these have become so predatory that new laws have been passed to address them. Up-front fees are now illegal for credit repair, loan modification and foreclosure assistance in California. A new federal telemarketing rule also prohibits them for debt consolidation services offered through phone sales. If you really need help, Reyes says, contact the Consumer Affairs Department at (800) 593-8222 or (213) 974-1452: “We’ll help you out for free.”
Get a job. If the jobless rate is any indication, millions of Californians share this resolution. But employment scams are already worsening life for the desperate. “A lot of them are phishing schemes and bogus mystery shopper programs—you get an email from people claiming to be ‘recruiters’ who can get you a job if you just give them your information, which then leaves you vulnerable to identity theft.” Some of these job scammers go further. They send bogus checks to people to purportedly finance their “start-up” costs. The victims are told to deposit the checks and wire back a portion to third parties. Because the law requires banks to make the funds from the deposited check available before the check completely clears, the scammers get away with the money, which the bank will try to collect from you.
Get a degree. Great resolution, but only if you can use the diploma, so look out for unaccredited and for-profit schools. “The private post-secondary bureau in the state Department of Consumer Affairs used to license these schools, but the legislation authorizing it was allowed to sunset three years ago,” says Reyes. “People are trying to re-establish it, but in the meantime, there has been a free-for-all.” If you want to take classes or get job training, he says, apply to an accredited university, enroll at a community college or check out adult education programs at your local high school. “The Evans Adult School, which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, has a very comprehensive program,” says Reyes, “and you don’t have to pay anything but $5 for a student I.D.”