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Consumer Safety


OFFS              17 SIMPLE WAYS TO PROTECT YOURSELF NOW! Don’t get scammed at the car lot, on the Internet, in the hospital, on vacation and more…

                      By Sid Kirchheimer

                         July and August, 2004

                                    AARP Magazine


Car Trouble

1. Leave your mark

Using nothing more than a permanent marker, they discreetly marked auto parts before they took car’s in for repairs. Afterward, they asked for their old part back. “ If it didn’t have the marking we made, we knew that the work wasn’t done,” says investigator Warren Sam.

   Next time take your car in for maintenance inspections, inconspicuously mark air and oil filters, spark plugs, brake pads, alternators, and other visible parts. When you pick up the car, ask for old parts back. If they’re missing your mark when you get them back along with your bill, you’re probably getting a used part from another repair job and your old part is still in your car.  


2.Pass on the test drive

To make a photocopy of your driver’s license. With your name and license number, they can instantly get your credit history from a commercial service.

   “By the time you return from the test drive, they know what you paid for your last car, what’s on your credit cards, and your mortgage payment,” says Duane Overholt, a former car salesman who now counsels consumers on dealership scams. “That tells the dealer your spending habits, and we know that most people typically spend 10 to 15 percent more than the monthly payments on their last vehicle.


3.Don’t buy an “etching”

           Ironically, one of the biggest consumer rip-offs is an antitheft measure for your new car. The most popular, says Overholt, is an etch- the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) is acidetched into the windshield or side windows by the dealer or prevent car thieves from altering it.

It’s wasted money because alter-proof VINs are displayed elsewhere on your car-usually on the driver’s doorjamb and the engine block.


Home Repairs

4.Steer clear of drive-by repairmen  

       The most notorious scamsters in home-repair frauds are those who cruise neighborhoods and sell repair services at your front door.

An offer to “recoat” your roof or driveway. “A promise to extend the life of asphalt or wood shingles with a recoating is a $1,000 rip-off that involves nothing but covering shingles with regular paint to make them look shiny and new,” says Tom Kraeutler, a home inspector in New Jersey who hosts a nationally syndicated radio home-fix-it program, The Money Pit. And don’t fall for door-to-door driveway resealers who offer a bargain price to use the left over materials from the “last job.” Chances are, your driveway may be recoated, for several hundred dollars, with used and useless motor oil.


5.Smoke out bogus chimney improvements 

Unless you have visible problems such as cracks or loose or missing bricks, he’s probably pulling a scam, says Kraeutler. “They’ll come to your house for a $50 cleaning, look down the chimney, and say you need $3,000 to $4,000 in repair work for the fireplace to work safely.”  

6.Avoiding being drained by waterproofing

“What some guys will do is dig up your entire basement and install gutters in the interior beneath the surface of the floor, which can cost $25,000 or more, when all that’s needed is some minor tweaking at a fraction of the cost,” says Kraeutler. (Damp-proofing paints and sealants can help with minor problems, and sump pumps can sometimes be installed without ripping up the entire basement floor.)


Medical Treatment  

7.Make your hospital itemize-daily  

       Three of every hospital bills include over charges that average $1,000-money you have to pay for supplies and services never provided. The reason: bills are calculated from a “block” of medical supplies, drugs, and services predetermined to be necessary for the procedure or treatment.

So, ask for an itemized list for all services for each day you’re in the hospital. The line-item listing, which hospitals must provide if you ask for it, individually lists drugs, tests, and services and allows you to track exactly what you are billed for.

Charles Inlander, president of the People’s Medical Society, a consumer advocacy group.


8.Bring your own medicine

       Before a hospital stay, ask your doctor what drugs you’ll likely need following your procedure, get and fill a prescription for them-as well as the medications you already take-and bring them with you. If your hospital allows you to bring such items, “just sign off when you’re admitted that you will supply and administer those drugs,” says Inlander.


9.Dial “L” for laboratory

       Whether you have an annual cholesterol screening or test for Lyme disease, you’ll pay twice as much for blood drawn from the doctor’s office as you would if pricked at a lab. At the doctor’s, you’re charged for a scheduled office visit, for drawing blood, and for sending it to the lab.

       By getting your own lab work done, says Inlander, you may save up to half the cost.

Labs are found in yellow pages under Laboratories (Medical or Testing). Most will accept insurance, but be sure to ask if they take yours. They may even provide you with test results directly, sparing you yet another doctor visit. 


Financial Privacy

10.Borrow Ollie North’s shredder  

       Destroying documents before they’re thrown away can prevent vital information such as your Social Security and bank account numbers from falling into the wrong hands of crooks who sift through your trash… but only if you use the right type of shredder.

Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can, who adds that crooks will happily take the time to do this kind of puzzle work.


11.Buy a $2 pen

It works like this: The crook steals outgoing paid bills from your mailbox and places a piece of cellophane tape over the front and back of your signature on the check. Then he or she places a check into a pan of nail polish remover for about 30 minutes-which lifts anything that’s not printer’s ink, except for your tape-protected signature. The check is then blow-dried and flattened in a book, and the tape is carefully removed. Voilá! A blank check, signed by you.

       Only one type of ink-the kind in gel pens-is counterfeit proof to acetone or any other chemical used in “check washing.” “I recommend the uni-ball Gel Impact pen, which sells for about $2 each at any office supply or chain store,” says Abagnale.


12.Hire your own spy  

One of the best ways to stop identity theft is to subscribe to a service that alerts you when anyone checks your credit rating or attempts to open a credit account by using your name. But make sure the service is quick about it.

Abagnale recommends the PrivacyGuard Enhanced program, which for a $119-a-year free notifies you by e-mail immediately. “In the four years I’ve used this program, I’ve been amazed how often my credit has been checked.” For more information: or call 877-202-8828.


Internet Security

13.Don’t “phish” with strangers  

You’ve heard of spam, or unsolicited e-mail; phishing is spam specifically designed to steel vital information such as your password and credit card numbers. “You’ll get e-mail saying your bank or another account needs to be updated and verified,” says John Hambrick, an FBI supervisory special agent who works with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

How can you tell that it’s not legitimate? Because no bank would ever ask you those questions online. “Your bank does not need to verify your ATM pin or Social Security number,” says Hambrick.


14.Get wise to online auction scams

“Any time you get an offer from the seller that is outside the normal auction process, it’s a scam,” says Hambrick. “For instance, you’ll get an e-mail saying, ‘You aren’t the winning bidder, but I have one more of those items to sell.’ What they are doing is trying to circumvent the auction system and get you to send them a cashier’s check. Trust me, they will not send anything to you in return.”

       Other auction red flags: avoid would-be sellers that…

Ø  don’t accept standard third-party payers such as Pay Pal and instead ask you to use their own escrow system.  

Ø  Ask for payment by Western Union  

Ø  Ask for bank account numbers, Social Security number, or other information not required  

Ø  Ship from, or are registered in, Andorra , a small country in the Pyrenees known to be a base for phony eBay vendors  

Ø  Ship items from an address or area other than the seller’s.       


Travel Swindles

15.Burn the midnight oil  

You see those enticing offers for low-fare flights in the newspaper, but when you call you’re told they’ve been sold out. It’s not an outright rip-off, but it sure feels like one, because airlines don’t have to reveal how many cheapo seats are on each flight. So, how do we get them?

“Starting from one minute after midnight to about 1 A.M. on Wednesday, all airline computer systems are flooded with low-fare reservations that were booked but never paid for.” This one-hour window of bargain prices varies, depending on the time zone where you live and where the airline you’re flying is based.

In Philadelphia and you’re booking with American Airlines, which is based in Fort Worth, you’d want to start calling at 1:01 A.M. If you live on the West Coast and want to call East Coast-based U.S. Airways, you’d call starting at 9:01 P.M.


16. Split the markup  

Don’t be fooled that you’re getting the best hotel bargain by booking online. Websites such as Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, and buy rooms from hotels at a discount price but then charge you a markup of 24 to 48 percent, says Greenberg.

At the typical markup, you have to figure the hotel is offering it to the discounter at about $65. The hotel still stands to make a $20 profit by booking it from you rather than through the website. Tip: negotiate directly with the on-duty manager or sales director rather than a lower-level reservations operator or desk clerk.


17.Check out those charges  

For example, there’s “double dipping,” which happens when you’re presented with a room service charge on what resembles a credit card receipt.

Another nasty surprise maybe waiting should you have a fax or overnight courier package delivered to your hotel room, warns Greenberg. “The desk will ring you and ask if you’d like the item to be brought up, and most likely you will tip the person who makes the delivery. It isn’t until you check out that you discover that the hotel has tacked on a surcharge of $3 to $5 for every fax or package you received.” In both cases, Greenberg suggests complaining to the manager on duty. “Nine times out of 10 the hotel will remove the offending charge at your request.” 

Typed by MHS student Tamar Baghdassarian for E-News from the original.  

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