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Watch out for summer scammers

Watch out for summer scammers

The snares and traps are set, but you can avoid them

May 29th, 2013 by James Limbach of ConsumerAffairs in News

With the arrival of warmer weather, you can pretty much count on the bogus home improvement peddlers, vacation rental and timeshare sharks -- along with an assortment of other ne'er-do-wells -- to be on the prowl.

But you don't have to be a victim. In fact, there are many things you can do to prevent yourself from being taken for a ride.

While New York Attorney General Schneiderman is tasked with looking out for the best interest of Empire Staters, his guide to consumer protection applies to residents across the U.S.A. Most important, he says, "Any consumer who has been victimized by a scam should report it to the authorities immediately so that we can hold wrongdoers accountable."

Home improvement scams

How many times have you heard this pitch? "I'm painting a house (or a barn or a garage) in the neighborhood. I am paving a driveway (or patching a roof) around the corner. I have material left over and can do yours for next to nothing."

This kind of offer often results in a watered-down stain instead of paint, inferior shingles on half the roof, and a thin smear of blacktop on the driveway. The scammers typically demand a payment upfront and, if they actually finish the job, it probably won't last through the next rainstorm. Their guarantee? Good luck finding them.

Or this one? ""I was passing by and noticed you had some branches down -- your trees really need a trim." Frequently, the branches are down because the scammer broke them off. If hired, they do work on "unexpected problems" that run up exorbitant charges. Scammers have been known to threaten consumers if the extra charges are disputed, and sometimes follow the owners to the bank for cash payments.

When a community has been hit by a series of rainstorms, you can bet the offers for "free basement inspections" will start rolling in. The proffered solution is usually an expensive pump or excavating the foundation to waterproof, when the problem was really clogged gutters or a drain blocked by root growth.

Free chimney inspections is another common pitch that can have the same results. This "money saving coupon" will usually result in a recommendation for a new chimney or a "cleaning" that involves the sweep spreading soot around to make it look as though the work was done.

What to do:

  • Be suspicious of any unsolicited offer to work on your home. Taking the time to do some research now could save you time and money in the long run.
  • Checkout the contractor with the local Better Business Bureau.
  • Get references, particularly about jobs completed a while back.
  • Use local companies whose addresses you can verify.
  • Get more than one written estimate that includes details about the materials to be used.
  • Check with your town or city to see if permits are required. Don't let a contractor work without the necessary permits.
  • Don't assume the lowest estimate is the best deal. Check the quality of the materials.
  • Be clear that you won't pay for any work not included in the estimate, unless it's agreed upon in writing.
  • Always be sure the contractor has valid insurance.
  • Check with your local Department of Consumer Affairs to see if the contractor is licensed.
  • Always report a scam to local law enforcement and the state Attorney General's Office.

Vacation scams

Whether you're trying to escape the heat of summer or the chill of winter, finding a good deal on a vacation is considered a big win -- except when the good deal isn't so good.

Here are some common scams, and what you can do to make sure you're not on the short end of the stick.

It's just what you wanted! A cottage overlooking a quiet lake; a beachfront condo; an apartment in the heart of the city. The problem? It doesn't really exist. Especially prevalent on listing sites like Craigslist, consumers are drawn in by a great deal, they pay upfront and arrive to find that no such address exists.

What to do:

  • Make sure the seller has a valid address and phone number.
  • Use a mapping website to verify that the address exists and looks like the photos.
  • Ask for references before signing any agreements or making a payment.
  • Use verified payment sources such as PayPal or a major credit card, which can be traced in the event something goes wrong.
  • NEVER make a payment using a wire transfer service such as Western Union or Money Gram.

Vacation Certificate Scams

You buy a certificate entitling you to deep discounts on flights, hotels or other vacation opportunities. But, if you're paying in advance for a vacation at an unspecified time, the companies may be out of business before you use the voucher, or there are so many restrictions that it is nearly impossible to make reservations. And, use of the certificates is often dependent upon using specific, high-priced facilities that negate any other savings, or the facilities are not the quality they claim to be.

What to do:

  • Check online review sites (like this one) and the Better Business Bureau for complaints.
  • Check out reviews of the facilities available to the certificate users.
  • Read the purchase agreement carefully, looking for cancellation policies and making note of blackout dates and other restrictions.

Timeshares and vacation clubs

Although a timeshare or vacation club may be a legitimate enterprise, the marketing techniques frequently involve high-pressure sales that trap people into long term financial commitments they can't afford and may not use.

Firms offer free vacations if you agree to attend a presentation. Or, you're promised "discounts" if you sign up "right now" for a multi-year membership. Frequently, the supposed discounts are cost more than regular offerings, the advantages and protections offered in the pitch are not the same as what's in the contract, and future costs and fees can escalate without notice.

What to do:

  • Never consider this an "investment." There is little market demand for resale and you will almost certainly lose money on it. In addition, the resale market place is rife with fraud.
  • Never sign a contract for a multi-year commitment on the day of the pitch. Take the time to read it carefully, perhaps asking a lawyer to review it.
  • Look carefully at how costs can change over the life of the membership or ownership.