5 Scams and Ripoffs: How to Avoid or Resolve

Would you like to avoid infuriating calls with customer service agents, home improvement nightmares and identity theft?

We thought so. We consulted 3 experts to get the inside scoop on becoming a savvier consumer.

Complaint: Your home improvement contractor failed to deliver.

  • Ask contractors where they’re licensed; then call that agency or municipality to confirm. The Better Business Bureau’s CEO Steve Bernas says you should also request proof of competency certification for electricians, plumbers and roofers.
  • In our Web-focused society, word of mouth is still the safest way to get referrals. Take note of home improvement companies’ signs in neighbors’ yards. If they had a positive experience with a contractor, you probably will too.
  • Don’t put more than 25 percent down. That way, if the quality isn’t up to snuff, you have leverage.

Complaint: You switched companies and now your utility bill is sky high.

  • If you’re hitting a brick wall trying to resolve a billing dispute over the phone, try going to the local office of your electric, gas or cable company. “We have so much less face-to-face contact now,” says consumer expert Andrea Woroch. “By doing things in person, you will likely get a better response.”
  • You’ve probably received unsolicited calls from alternative gas or electric companies promising big savings. Before switching providers, Bernas says to request a written document detailing how you’ll save.

Complaint: Your online purchase was a dud – or a scam.

  • The golden rules of online shopping: Don’t buy anything on sites that don’t begin with “https,” look for the secure transaction logo at checkout and always pay with a credit card or PayPal.
  • Carefully review the site’s return and shipping policies. Those discounted designer shoes aren’t such a great deal when they come with a $15 shipping charge, no return option and don’t arrive for a month. Bernas says online retailers have 30 days to ship, unless explicitly stated.
  • When shopping smaller specialty sites, call the company’s phone number and check web forums where customers post reviews before placing your first order.

Complaint: Your Groupon isn’t all it was cracked up to be.

  • The recession has spawned a flock of daily deal sites like Groupon, but your deep discount may turn into a big headache if don’t read the fine print. Check expiration dates, exclusions and minimum purchase requirements before you click.
  • Before you buy a coupon for a business you’re not familiar with, Woroch says to read reviews on Yelp.com. But remember, you’re not the only one who got the deal, so expect your new yoga studio, hair salon or pizza joint to be packed with other patrons.If your Groupon has expired, you may still be able to redeem it at face value.
  • Just like that sweater on the sale rack isn’t really a great deal if you don’t wear it, a coupon you won’t use is a waste of money. If you’ve got unused daily deal coupons sitting in a drawer, sell them on CoupRecoup.

Complaint: You’re getting the runaround

  • A customer service representative or a store clerk may not be able to help you, but if you get to the right person, you may get resolution. Linda Sherry with Consumer Action says reaching higher-ups is not as hard as you think. Sites like Hoover’s provide executives’ names, and Sherry recommends calling after business hours, when you may be able to sidestep the receptionist and reach the right person using a dial-by-name directory.
  • Don’t file a lawsuit every time a waiter forgets your appetizer, but if you’re legitimately wronged by a company, report it to your local Better Business Bureau. “You may not get your money back, but you may be able to help someone else,” Bernas says.

The Experts

Steve Bernas
is the president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Chicago and Northern Illinois.
Linda Sherry is a spokesperson for Consumer Action, a non-profit consumer advocacy group with offices in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Andrea Woroch is a consumer savings expert with Kinoli, Inc., which operates GiftcardGranny.com, CouponSherpa.com and other sites.

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