Shock therapy to avoid scams
The annual list of the top 10 consumer complaints is out, and it features familiar scams.
Once again, the report is a good reminder to be careful. Some of the scams have become more sophisticated, with more high-tech ways of stealing your money.
Topping the list are auto complaints, including misrepresentations in advertising or sales, faulty repairs, and leasing and towing disputes. In second place are complaints about credit and debt. The category includes mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit-repair schemes, debt-relief services, predatory lending, and illegal or abusive debt-collection tactics. The five fastest-growing complaints are about fraud, debt-collection abuses, do-not-call violations, mortgage-related issues, and problems that people have had with both legitimate and sham home-improvement companies.
New to the list this year are real-estate-related complaints. Hard times have left many people wanting to dump their timeshares, or at least get out from under yearly maintenance fees they can no longer afford. This desperation on the part of timeshare owners has been a boon to schemers.
In one such swindle, “timeshare resellers” tell folks they can help them unload their unwanted properties and ask for an upfront fee for the service. I’m sure you can guess what happens. No buyers are found, no help is really offered and people are out of their money, stuck with a timeshare they can’t afford.
But then another timeshare crook swoops in to add insult to financial injury. Timeshare recovery companies offer to help owners get back the funds lost to resellers. They ask for an upfront fee. It’s a double financial whack because this, too, turns out to be a scam.
In one case handled by the Pinellas County, Fla., Department of Justice and Consumer Services, a woman was conned out of $40,000 by a reseller who promised to find a buyer for her timeshare, which was worth only $20,000, according to the report. On the advice of the reseller, the woman didn’t pay her annual maintenance fees because she was told those would be paid during closing. It was all a lie. The timeshare was foreclosed on because of the unpaid fees. Incredibly, the salesman continued to take money from the woman even though she no longer owned the timeshare.
I know what you are thinking. Stupid woman. She should have known better.
Perhaps. But people get so desperate to get out of a financial bind that they often can’t see what to others would be an obvious scam.
“Timeshares are not bad,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, which put out the list. “It can be a cost-effective way to take a vacation. Even people who never had any qualms with timeshares may have difficulty paying the maintenance fees because of the financial downturn, and so they are very vulnerable.”
If you own a timeshare that you need to sell, ask the company that manages the property to outline your options, Grant said. You should also contact a licensed real estate agent in the area where the timeshare is located. Stay away from companies that require upfront fees to sell your timeshare. And don’t be victimized again by another company to recover money you’ve already lost.
Grant said state budget cuts were most frequently cited as the biggest challenges that state and local consumer-protection agencies faced last year.
“In a year of austerity, consumer-protection services are something viewed as nonessential,” she said.
Consumer-protection agencies also are stymied because many schemes are perpetrated overseas, making it hard to track down the culprits.
“The Internet has opened the door to so many criminals,” said Carlos J. Morales, an investigator supervisor for Florida’s Orange County Consumer Fraud Unit. “They are very savvy. Once the money from our country leaves . . . our laws don’t follow the money. It ends up in the Ukraine, Russia, Africa or Europe. It is just a Wild West out there. And we don’t have a lot of resources from our end to investigate a lot of people.”
Morales said his unit is also seeing more young people being taken advantage of because of their high use of the Internet. The con artists, who have become just as familiar with social-media sites, know the keywords or phrases to use and how to create Web sites to attract young adults.
You should make the time to read the Consumer Complaint Survey Report and the details of how people have been ripped off. You can find it on CFA’s Web site at www.consumerfed.org. Use it as shock therapy. Reading the stories might help increase your paranoia, which could help prevent you from losing your money.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or . Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.