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Resolve to be a smarter consumer -- here's how

Dear Readers: The bows and wrapping paper are all crumpled in the trash, the eggnog isn't so fresh anymore, and the credit card bills ... oh, the credit card bills . . .

Yes, it's holiday hangover time, which means it's time for The Fixer's New Year's Resolutions, our annual attempt to help you avoid consumer hassles.

And once again, we owe a big thank you to Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois.

In his two decades as a consumer advocate, Bernas has seen just about every kind of ripoff imaginable.

So, on the count of three, let's all metaphorically hold hands and make these simple consumer vows:

--- You know that old saying, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is?" It's said for a reason. I will remember that -- and I'll consider having it tattooed on my tummy.

--- I'd sooner flush my money down the toilet than sign a contract I don't understand. I will get all promises in writing.

--- I will remember that the "three-day cancellation rule" to get out of a contract only applies to door-to-door or off-premise contracts and not to automobile purchases.

--- When shopping online, I will make sure the Web site is secure (it will have "https" in the Web site address). I know it's tedious, but I will read the terms and conditions, including time constraints affecting return and refund policies. I will print a record of all my transactions.

--- I'll make sure I know the online business' permanent address and phone number. I will check customer references and review its complaint record with the Better Business Bureau and other consumer agencies.

--- A contractor wants all his money upfront- Ha!

--- I won't be an impulse shopper because I know how difficult it can be to return items. This is especially true for electronics. I'll make sure I understand the store's policy before making my purchases.

--- It may sound like a quick fix, but I'll remember that "advance-fee" loans are always a scam. They take fees upfront and promise loans, but the borrowers never get the money. Never. Ever. Ever.

--- I'll be wary of natural gas sellers that say I can lock in a certain rate. Those plans often are more expensive than just getting a regular gas bill.

--- I will ignore fake e-mails that look like they're from my bank, credit union, PayPal, etc., claiming I need to update my account information.

--- That goes double for the fake e-mails telling me I've won a second-chance auction to buy an item on eBay.

--- Someone's selling a product but wants to be paid by Western Union- Can you spell S-C-A-M?

--- I did not win that online sweepstakes because it doesn't exist.

--- Bill Gates did not choose my e-mail address for his giveaway, and I haven't been chosen to inherit a Nigerian oil field.

--- I will obtain my credit report every year to make sure there are no errors. I'm smart, so I will go to www.annualcreditreport.com -- the official Web site for obtaining my free report -- or I will call (877) 322-8228 toll-free -- rather than use one of the many imitator Web sites that will charge me.

--- I won't let a rebate alone influence my decision to buy a product. But, if I do try to claim a rebate, I will follow the directions precisely and make a photocopy of all the materials (including my envelope) before mailing it.

--- I'll remember that scam artists are trolling Internet job sites for victims. If a prospective employer tells me I need to pay in advance for training or equipment, I'll break into my rendition of "Take This Job and Shove It."

--- When I'm offered a "mystery shopper" job and told my first assignment is to deposit a check to test the bank's response, I will remember that the check is always a fake, and once it bounces, I will be on the hook for the entire amount. Really.

--- I'll take a moment to check out contractors and service companies with the Better Business Bureau and other consumer agencies before hiring anyone. I'll make sure the business has a permanent address, check customer references and never choose a company by the size of its yellow pages ad.

--- When undertaking a major project or repair, I'll get at least three estimates.

--- I'll find a reputable locksmith business and keep its number in my wallet for the next time I'm locked out of my home or car. I will remember that there's a huge problem with out-of-state locksmiths giving phony yellow pages addresses and ripping off customers.

--- Scammers don't get rich by being stupid. They tap into our deepest desires for financial security -- as well as our greed. I will remember that.

--- They're also pros at making weight loss seem quick and easy. I will get in shape, but I'll do it without falling for a weight-loss con.

--- There's no such thing as "easy" money, though it is easy to lose some of your money. I will resist those tempting "work-at-home" opportunities because I know they are scams. If stuffing envelopes was a real moneymaker, everyone would be doing it.

--- I won't give out my credit card, bank account, driver's license or Social Security numbers to anyone I don't know, because honestly, I'm not that stupid. I will remember that my bank will never ask for that sort of information in an e-mail to me. Same goes for the IRS.

--- When buying a home, I'll hire my own inspector -- never one suggested by the seller.

--- Now is the time for me to start a file folder of all the contracts, warranties, work orders, receipts and other documentation of the services and appliances I use in my home.

--- No one can "repair" a rotten credit rating. I will resolve to be a responsible consumer, and things will improve in time.

--- If I don't have one already, I'll buy a personal computer or start using one at the local library. I won't be one of those people who say they're "afraid" of computers. I understand that times have changed and having an e-mail address is almost as vital as having a phone number.

--- I won't cut it too close when spending money using a debit card. I'll remember that if I exceed what's in my account, I could get hit with multiple overdraft penalties totaling far more than the amount.

--- I would rather walk to the Loop from Lisle than purchase any vehicle without first inspecting it, driving it and requesting a vehicle history report such as those offered by CARFAX. I know that a proper inspection must be made during daylight hours -- never after dark.

--- That sick feeling I get when the used car guy is wheeling and dealing- It's called intuition, and I will remember to slow down and be careful.

--- If I feel pressured during a sale, I will get up and walk out.

--- If I'm applying for a car loan, and a salesman tells me to "just drive the vehicle home" before my credit is approved, I will stop, ask myself why he's in such a hurry, then run out the door and never come back.

--- There's a reason stockbrokers and investment advisers are licensed. I'll avoid fly-by-night outfits that promise huge returns. I'll only buy registered investment products that I've researched and thoroughly understand.

--- I will read my bills carefully to make sure nothing extra was added.

--- If I do get ripped off, I'll complain -- to help build a public record and prevent others from falling into the same trap. I'll find links and numbers for filing complaints at www.suntimes.com.

--- I will create a family budget, and I will stick to it. I'll tuck away a little extra for emergencies.

--- The next time I'm tempted to buy more useless junk, I'll stop and say these words: "It's your money or your life." And I'll think about whether I'd rather save that money for something more important.

--- I will start a list of my own "good guys" that I can call in an emergency: a furnace company, mechanic, plumber, etc., based on my experiences and those of my family and friends. And I will reward good service with a heartfelt "thank you."

Best wishes for a happy, prosperous and runaround-free year!



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