Consumer Tips

Rip-Off Alerts
Consumer TipsBeware of Drive-By Repairmen
The most notorious scamsters in home-repair frauds are those repairmen who cruise neighborhoods and sell their services at your front door. A tip-off: Check the repair truck's license plate. If it's from out of state or a county miles away, you're probably talking to a fly-by-night operator.

The license plate check is especially important to prevent the most common dupe: an offer to "recoat" your roof or driveway. "A promise to extend the life of asphalt or wood shingles with a recoating is a $1000 rip-off that involves nothing but covering shingles with regular paint to make them look shiny and new," says Tom Kraeutler, a home inspector in New Jersey who hosts a nationally syndicated radio home-fix-it program, The Money Pit. And don't fall for door-to-door driveway resealers who offer a bargain price to use the leftover materials from the "last job." Chances are, your driveway may be recoated, for several hundred dollars, with used and useless motor oil.

Don't Buy an "Etching"
Ironically, one of the biggest consumer rip-offs is an antitheft measure for your new car. The most popular, say Overholt, is an etch – the car's vehicle identification number (VIN) is acid-etched into the windshield or side windows by the dealer to prevent car thieves from altering it. This process costs the dealer less than $100 but typically costs you at least five times that much. It's wasted money because alter-proof VIN's are displayed elsewhere on your car – usually on the driver's doorjamb and the engine block.

Smoke Out Bogus Chimney Improvements
A chimney sweep may tell you that your fireplace is unsafe and needs a new liner. But unless you have visible problems such as cracks or loose or missing bricks, he's probably pulling a scam, says Kraeutler. "They'll come to your house for a $50 cleaning, look down the chimney, and say you need $3000 to $4000 in repair work for the fireplace to work safely." The work they do is usually unnecessary, and it's your money that goes up in smoke. Before agreeing to this expensive "repair," hire an independent home inspector to do an evaluation.

Buy a $2 Pen
All it takes to clean out your bank account is a signed check swiped from your outgoing mail and the chemical acetone commonly found in nail polish remover, says Frank W. Abagnale Jr., the former check forger and identity thief depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can.

It works like this: The crook steals outgoing paid bills from your mailbox and places a piece of cellophane tape over the front and back of your signature on the check. Then he or she places the check into a pan of nail polish remover for about 30 minutes – which lifts anything that's not printer's ink, except for your tape-protected signature The check is then blow-dried and flattened in a book, and the tape is carefully removed. Voila! A blank check signed by you.
Only one type of ink – the kind in gel pens – is counterfeit proof to acetone or any other chemical used in "check washing." "I recommend the Uni-ball Gel Impact Pen, which sells for a bout $2 each at any office supply or chain store," says Abagnale, who now consults law enforcement and corporations on the art of the steal. "I personally sign all my checks and documents with one."

Hire Your Own Spy
One of the best ways to stop identity theft is to subscribe to a service that alerts you when anyone checks your credit account by using your name. But make sure the service is quick about it. Many take a week or longer to notify you or send quarterly statements of this activity. 'You need to know instantly," says Abagnale.
He recommends the PrivacyGuard Enhanced Program, which for a $119-a-year fee notifies you by e-mail immediately. "In the four years I've used this program, I've been amazed how often my credit has been checked – by stores where I shop to companies I do business with." For more information on PrivacyGuard, visit or call 877-202-8828.

Purchase a Paper Shredder
Destroying documents before they're thrown away can prevent vital information such as your Social Security and bank account numbers from falling into the hands of crooks who sift through your trash…but only if you use the right type of shredder. "The most common shredder sold – a straight-cut shredder – only cuts the documents like ribbons; all that's needed is to push these ribbons; all that's needed is t push these ribbons together to get your numbers," says Abagnale, who adds that crooks will happily take the time to do this kind of puzzle work. "Spend the few extra dollars and get a 'confetti,' or cross-cut, shredder. It makes documents impossible to read." Average price: $120.

Don't "Phish" with Strangers
You've heard of spam, or unsolicited e-mail; phishing is spam specifically designed to steal vital information such as password and credit card and bank account numbers. "You'll get e-mail saying your bank, Internet service, or another account needs to be updated or verified," says John Hambrick, an FBI supervisory special agent who works with the Internet Crime Complaint (IC3). When you click on the link provided, you'll be taken to a highly authentic-looking website. The best ones have the same corporate logo and even the URL address of the corporation being impersonated.

How can you tell that it is not legitimate? Because no bank would ever ask those questions online. "Your bank does not need to verify your ATM pin or Social Security number," says Hambrick. "Neither do AOL and other companies."

Get Wise to Online Auction Scams
There are great deals – and great steals – on eBay and other online auctions. Here's how to tell the difference: "Anytime you get an offer from the seller that is outside the normal auction process, it's a scam," says Hambrick. "For instance, you'll get an e-mail saying, 'You aren't the winning bidder, but I have one more of those items to sell.' What they are doing is trying to circumvent the auction system and get you to send them a cashier's check. Trust me, they will not send anything to you in return." Other auction red flags: avoid would be sellers that…
  • don't accept standard third-party payers such as PayPal and instead ask you to use their own escrow system
  • ask for payment by Western Union
  • ask for bank account numbers, Social Security number, or other information not required
  • ship from, or are registered in Andorra, a small country in the Pyrenees well-known to be a home base for phony eBay vendors ship items from an address or area other than the seller's address.
(Source: The AARP Magazine)