Saturday, August 30, 2008

#6. Scams involving your property

Scam artists attempt to take advantage of victims in many ways, such as “lost property” or “lost pet” scams. Scams can also involve home improvements and auto repairs.

Abigail loved her pet miniature Schnauzer “Tippy.” He was just like one of family. She was devastated when Tippy was missing one afternoon. She searched the entire neighborhood without success. She felt like she had lost her dearest friend.

The next day, she got a picture of her pet and made a flyer on her computer. She took the picture and the flyer to a nearby copy center and made twenty-five copies. Abigail posted the copies on trees and poles in the neighborhood. The next day she received a call from someone who said they had found her dog. Abigail was overjoyed. Then, the person on the phone told her that he would need $150 so he could ship the dog to her. He told her to send money to a mail drop in a nearby town. Abigail didn’t know what to do, but she finally sent to money later that day. Unfortunately, she never received the dog. Abigail was a victim of a lost property or lost pet scam.

Elements of lost property or lost pet scam:

  • The victim loses a valuable piece of property or treasured pet.
  • In an attempt to find the property or pet, the victim advertises, either in the newspaper or by flyers in the neighborhood.
  • The victim is contacted by someone who offers to return property or pet for a price.
  • The victim pays the money, never hears from the person again and never receives the property or pet.

This is one of the most objectionable scams. Only the lowest kind of scam artist would try to take advantage of someone who had lost a pet or other valuable property. The scam artist takes advantage of the victim’s attempt to locate the pet or lost property by obtaining to the victim’s telephone number either through the posted flyers or the ads placed in the classified section of the newspaper.

Usually, law enforcement agencies, such as the police, are anxious to find the scam artist. But, often they have no way to trace the calls or the money. When the police or telephone company has tried to trace the telephone calls to find the scam artist, they usually find that the call was made from a pay telephone. It is practically impossible to determine who placed the call from the pay telephone.

A version of the lost property scam is the unclaimed property scam.

Evelyn received a phone call from a woman who said she represented the Property Clearinghouse of America. She explained that they were an organization that attempted to find the owners of unclaimed property. She said that this week they were dealing in airport property and that she was investigating four large boxes that had been left at the Chicago airport. Apparently, she said, the boxes were addressed to Evelyn at her home address. Evelyn couldn’t imagine who was sending her boxes. The woman explained that the boxes would be sent to Evelyn if she would simply pay the shipping and handling cost. She requested a credit card number and explained the amount of the shipping charge. Evelyn was still very puzzled but she gave a lady her credit card number and confirmed her address. It wasn’t until the next month when she received a credit card bill that she realized she had been scammed.

In these scams, the scam artists usually say the merchandise or packages have been abandoned, but that they can be delivered for a fee. The merchandise or packages are never delivered or, if delivered, are of nominal or very limited value.

Protect yourself by:

  • Absolutely never sending money to anyone as a result of a phone call request. Refuse to give personal or financial information to a telephone caller.
  • Insisting on physical return of the property or pet before making any payment for its return.
  • Contacting the police or other enforcement agency immediately upon receiving a phone call from someone offering to return the property or pet for payment.
  • Taking the time to investigate any representations concerning unclaimed property.
  • Getting a callback number and verifying with the airport or other shipping source concerning the unclaimed property.
  • Taking the same precautions you would with any telemarketing scheme.

Another area in which you should be cautious is that of home improvements or repairs. Many variations exist of the home improvement scam.

Eric was out pruning his roses when a man with a pickup truck stopped in front of his house. “Who could then be?” he wondered. A man got out of the truck and walked up to him.

“Hi, my name’s George. I’m a paving contractor and we just finished a job around the corner and had some extra paving material leftover. I noticed that your front driveway needs patching. We can do the job at a good discount because we already have the materials and I don’t want my men to lose a day’s work.”

Eric looked at his driveway. It certainly did need repair and the man seemed nice enough. “How much would cost?” he asked.

“Well, if we did the job today with the materials that we have on hand, I could do it for $300.”

That seemed pretty expensive to Eric, but the man was right there ready to do the work. In fact, he had already started unloading the truck. Almost before he knew what happened another truck arrived and the men were already doing the job. He didn’t remember telling them that they could start.

“I can only take payment in cash because I have to pay my men,” said the man. “If you don’t have the cash, you could go cash a check and by the time you get back we’ll be finished.”

Eric went to the bank and got the money and came back just as the men were leaving. As the men drove off, he noticed that the truck had an out-of-state license plate and began to worry about the job. Before too long, he realized that he had been taken. The men had used inferior materials and done an extremely poor job. It certainly was not worth $300. He didn’t remember hearing the name of the company. Later, when he had the job done over, he found that a local licensed contractor would do the job for $100 and give him a guarantee. Eric had just become a victim of the home repair scam.

Elements of the home repair scam:

  • An offer to do repair or maintenance work either quickly or for a special price because materials are “left over” from another job “in the neighborhood.”
  • Lack of a written estimate or contract.
  • Request for payment in cash.
  • Offer to do the job while you wait for payment at the end of the job.
  • Cars or trucks with out-of-state license plates.

There are a number of warning signs of the home improvement scam. Scam artists employing this device often look for older people standing outside their homes. They offer to do home repairs at a reduced price using materials “leftover from another job in the neighborhood.” The final price demanded for the repairs is often higher than the initial estimate. Many times the bogus contractor fails to get all the proper building permits and licenses required by the city, county, or state.

Before employing any contractor to do repairs on your property make sure of the repair person is licensed and bonded. It is always a good idea to call the state licensing bureau, such as the registrar of contractors, to verify that the person is licensed and bonded. Another good practice is to contact at least one other contractor for an evaluation and second estimate. Always ask for references whether or not you actually contact them. Take some time‑several days‑to think things over and call the references given by the repair person.

Protect yourself by:

  • Using only contractors registered and bonded by the state.
  • Checking the references and credentials of all contractors.
  • Getting all offers in writing, signed by authorized representative of the contractor.
  • Getting more than one estimate, even for small jobs.
  • Taking your time to think over any contracting job.
  • Making sure you or the contractor gets all the necessary building permits and licenses.

Another type of involves automobile repairs. These scams attempt to get the victim to pay for unneeded parts or service.

Sandra’s husband always took very good care of their automobile. When he passed away suddenly, it took her many months to adjust to loss. While driving to the supermarket she noticed that the car was pulling to the left. She began to worry that there was something seriously wrong and finally decided to take the car to the dealer to have it repaired. The service manager seemed very nice. Sandra waited in the lounge provided for customers while her car was repaired. Finally, after considerable time, the service manager told her that there were serious problems with the steering and the front end of the car. The repairs would be nearly $1,000. Sandra was shocked. She had no idea car repairs could be so expensive. The manager went on to tell her that would be extremely dangerous to drive the car in its present condition. Sandra decided she’d better get the car fixed. In this case, Sandra never did learn the she’d been scammed. What she didn’t learn was that the “steering problem” was nothing more than a low front tire.

Elements of the automobile repair scam

  • Unnecessary repairs done with or without legitimate repairs.
  • Substitution of inferior parts for genuine manufactures replacement parts while charging the full manufactures replacement parts price.
  • Padding the bill with unnecessary or worthless service.
  • Failing to give an accurate estimate before beginning repairs.
  • Replacing good serviceable parts with used bad parts from another automobile.
  • Using the car for business or personal purposes under the guise of “test driving” the vehicle.
  • Overcharging out-of-town or apparently helpless customers.

Unfortunately, Sandra has a lot of company in the world. Unless you are a mechanic and do all the work yourself, it can be difficult to know when every repair job is necessary. However, there are some things you can do to protect yourself. It is very important to at least know, generally, what is wrong with your car before taking it in for repairs. If you do not have knowledge or interest to understand your car’s problems, find a friend or an acquaintance who can help you. If the mechanic recommends an expensive repair it is important to get a second and perhaps even a third opinion.

Protect yourself by:

  • Finding an auto repair shop before you need one.
  • Making sure the mechanic working on your car is qualified to make the repair.
  • Getting a written estimate for all repairs over $50.
  • Checking with any regulatory agencies to see whether complaints have been filed against the repair shop.
  • Obtaining a legible, detailed copy of the repair invoice showing any work done and describing any guarantee.
  • Obtaining more than one estimate on major repairs.
  • Making sure the repair shop is authorized to make manufacturer’s or extended warranty repairs.
  • Insisting that the repair shop contact you if the repairs exceed the estimate by 10%.
  • Immediately making a complaint about any dishonest repair practices to the appropriate government enforcement agency.

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