Throughout the year, we’ve brought you a wide variety of consumer problems.
Some were alleged scams and frauds that even led to arrests. Others were misunderstandings or miscommunications between consumers and stores or contractors.
Each week, through the experience of the profiled consumer, we all learned some important lessons about keeping our money safe and how to get satisfaction with consumer disputes.
There were some common themes we should take with us into the new year, so here are the 7 consumer lessons we learned in 2014.
1. Do your research
We received many complaints from consumers who said they hired contractors who didn’t do the work they promised, or who did a sub-standard job. Turns out many of those contractors weren’t properly registered with the state, had past judgments from lawsuits brought by other homeowners and even had similar business troubles under other company names.
Before you hire a contractor, always take bids from several companies, and then, do some homework.
See if the company is properly registered with the state on the Division of Consumer Affairs’ web site or call 800-242-5846. Also ask if the contractor you’re considering has any complaints filed against it.
Then turn to the internet. Plug in the company name, or the contractor name, with the word “complaint,” and see what, if anything, pops up.
Finally, check the Better Business Bureau web site to see if there are any complaints there.
2. Understand requirements for contracts
If you hire a home improvement contractor for a job that’s worth more than $500, New Jersey law requires both parties sign a contract.
But signing any piece of paper won’t do.
Contractors are required to include many items on the contract, including the legal name and business address of the contractor, the start and end dates for the job, a description of the work and the total price. The contract must also show the contractor’s Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) registration number. And finally, the contractor must give you a copy of his commercial liability insurance policy and the insurer’s phone number.
If a contractor doesn’t supply those items on a contract, it doesn’t mean he will do a bad job, but it means he’s in violation of state regs and that should raise a red flag.
3. Be smart about payments
You need to be on alert when you make payments for any kind of products or services.
If it’s a contractor, it’s customary to pay a third up front, a third midway through the job and the final third when the job is completed. If you’re asked to pay differently, be suspicious. Also be wary if the contractor asks for cash payments only.
If you’re making a purchase in a store, you’re responsible to read the receipt. If there is an error — whether intentionally or by accident — it will be much harder to fix once you leave the store.
Then there’s MoneyPak.
We’ve seen a rash of scams in which readers were asked to pay a bill, purchase a car, pay to keep themselves out of jail for supposedly missing tax payments or even receive payments for fake job opportunities.
The one thing in common is they were all told to use MoneyPak, a card that was designed to help customers reload pre-paid debit cards with cash, add cash to PayPal accounts and make payments to approved businesses.
But anyone who can get their hands on MoneyPak numbers can pull the cash off the cards, and the transfer of funds is almost impossible to trace.
The good news is that MoneyPak is being pulled from store shelves, in large part because of how they’ve been used in fraud.
Scammers will have to find another tool now, or go back to Western Union, another common tool used by hucksters to get illicit payments.
We were also reminded of the perils of auto-pay. While it’s convenient, consumers still have to pay close attention to make sure they’re paying for the correct services.
4. Be cautious if you don’t know the seller
There are plenty of legitimate sellers on Craigslist and similar sites, but fraudsters often use online posting sites to try to scam people out of money.
One common scam is a car sale racket, in which the seller tells the buyer they should complete the transaction on eBay Motors’ site. The seller says the buyer will receive an eBay email, but the received communication isn’t really from eBay. The fake eBay instructs the buyer to use Western Union or MoneyPak to make the purchase, and once the money is transferred, it’s too late to trace.
Also be wary of third party sellers on Amazon.com. Those who are authentic only take payments through the Amazon site. Scammers, though, will direct buyers to a spoof site, or communicate through email to request payment from Western Union or via MoneyPak cards. Report any sellers to Amazon immediately.
5. Be suspicious of unsolicited offers
Whether it’s someone who offers services by knocking on your door, sending a letter or email, or calling you on the telephone, if you didn’t ask for someone to contact you, be cautious. Many disreputable business, and even outright scammers, may contact you in the hopes that you take them up on whatever their offer.
Same goes if they say you won a prize for a contest you never entered.
If someone offers you an unsolicited service, be sure to research the provider independently before you invite them into your home or hand over your credit card information. The offer could be for real, or maybe not, but best to be sure.
6. Know what you’re buying
While there are lots of scams and frauds out there, there are other times communication mistakes happen, putting the consumer in a tough position.
We won’t soon forget the story of Joe Lentini, the man who ordered a bottle of wine at the Bobby Flay Steak restaurant at Borgata in Atlantic City. He said the waitress said the bottle cost “thirty-seven fifty,” but when the bill came, the price was $3,750.
So as a customer, make sure you know what you’re buying.
7. Be persistent and don’t give up
If you don’t find success right away when fighting a consumer problem, don’t give up.
Start with customer service reps, and then ask for a manager. If that doesn’t work, move on to the executive office of the company. Sometimes, it’s as simple as reaching the right person within an organization, so make sure you ask lots of questions, and contact a company over and over if necessary so you can exhaust all possibilities.
Other times you need help on the outside.
In the past year, we’ve been able to help many consumers who thought they’d never be able to get a resolution for their problem.
Like the man who tried to get a needed help getting a refund from a hospital after his sister-in-law died.
Or the widow who was denied an insurance policy benefit for her late husband.
Or the guy who kept getting notices to repay $17,000 in unemployment benefits, even though the state said it wouldn’t go after him.
If you have a consumer problem that you can’t solve on your own, file complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the Division of Consumer Affairs.
Or, give Bamboozled a call.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.