Bamboozled: December 31, 2015

typIt’s that time of year again.

New year’s resolution time.

For many, Jan. 1 is a fresh start. A time to be optimistic, and to look ahead to a brighter future. A time to improve yourself. And maybe it’s finally time to lose a few pounds.

Consumers can make a few resolutions, and they’re a lot easier to keep than a new diet. Plus, they will potentially save you money and lots of headaches.

1. Review your ongoing contracts

If you’re like most consumers, you have certain services you receive on a regular basis. Your bills come regularly, too.

Many people just pay without thinking, but you could be spending unnecessary dollars. Even if you got the best possible deal when you signed on for service, things change. Competing service providers may now have better deals for you. You’re may be overspending if you don’t look at your options more closely.

This is especially true for your cell phone carrier, your home and auto insurance policies, your cable television service and your credit card interest rates.

Take an hour or two and go over your bills for these services, and look online or call competitors to see if you can do better.

2. Do your research

Lots of people will do research to compare prices for home improvement projects, but not enough make sure the companies they’re doing business with have good reputations. No matter how good you feel about a businessperson, you need to check them out.

Before you enter into a contract, see if there are any lawsuits or judgments against the person you’re thinking of hiring. Learn about any consumer complaints filed against them, and make sure they’re not otherwise in trouble with the law.

Here’s a primer on how you can do your own public records searches.

3. Read the fine print

If one of your resolutions is to lose weight and join a gym, make sure you understand how to cancel a membership before you sign up for one. It’s common for gyms to charge your credit card monthly for membership dues, and contracts often require you to give 30 days’ notice before cancelling. If you don’t pay attention, it could mean one month’s lost fee, or more, if you don’t time things right.

Also make sure to understand how you must cancel, such as if it must be in writing. If you don’t follow the specifics of the contract, you could be on the hook for extra fees.

This also goes for other contracts, such as those with your cell phone provider, cable TV supplier and home alarm systems provider.

4. Understand contracts

In New Jersey, home improvement contractors must follow certain regulations when they give a contract to consumers.

Learn what’s supposed to be in your contract.

All home improvement jobs over $500 must be in writing and include the legal name and business address of the contractor, the start date, a completion date, a description of the work to be done and the total price. It must also show the contractor’s registration number.

Make sure the contractor is properly registered with the state.

The contractor must give you a copy of a commercial general liability insurance policy and the insurer’s telephone number.

If any items are missing, it doesn’t mean the contractor will take your money and run, but it should be a red flag.

And be sure to read the fine print here. If there’s something you don’t understand, don’t sign the contract until it’s properly explained to you. Ask a friend or loved one for help if you’re not sure.

5. Check your credit report

Your credit report is your lifeline if you ever need to borrow money.

In these days of identity theft, it’s your responsibility as a consumer to make sure all the records about you are accurate.

Don’t leave it to chance.

If there’s a wrong account listed on your report, it could be a simple mistake, or it could be outright fraud. Either way, it’s a pain to correct, and it can be time consuming. You don’t want to learn there’s a problem when you apply for a mortgage or a car loan, so check your reports regularly.

You can get a free copy of your three major credit reports once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com.

6. Help your older loved ones

This is probably the most important resolution you can make.

Sit down with your loved ones and talk about scams and frauds that target older folks. Vow to be their advocate.

It may seem obvious to you that a caller who threatens immediate arrest if you don’t pay your outstanding tax bill is a scammer. Or that your computer needs tech help and will crash if you don’t pay their techs to fix it. Or that your credit card company just needs to verify some information.

Some seniors may be forgetful at times, so they may not be sure if the call is relevant to them. Others may be completely on the ball, but their generation may feel it’s rude to hang up on someone. Still others are lonely, potentially leaving them more vulnerable to a friendly voice on the line.

Tell your relatives that it’s okay to hang up on a caller. It’s also okay to let an answering machine pick up the call if they don’t recognize the number.

If they’re told they owe money but they’re not sure, tell them you want to help to make sure no one takes advantage of them. Tell them you don’t want to get in their private business, but you want to protect them. And if your relative calls, be sure to make time for them.

Be sure they know if they ever receive a call that their grandson or niece or another younger loved one is in trouble — they’ve been arrested or in an accident and they need money, that they were mugged and lost their wallet or that they’ve outright been kidnapped — they need to be skeptical. Explain that scammers call and impersonate grandchildren, or even law enforcement officers who are supposedly with their grandchildren, and they can sound very convincing. Make sure your older relative knows to call you before they ever send cash.

Have you made any resolutions? Let us know in the comments section below.

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. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.