The new year traditionally is a time for a fresh start, when we all vow to change our ways and do better. With that in mind, here are some resolutions we all should make to keep ourselves safe from unscrupulous businesses, con artists and other devils. Paul Muschick, the Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
Don't rush to do business with anyone calling on the phone, knocking on your door, sending you a letter or advertising on TV and radio. This includes charities. While the salesmen may be offering a legitimate product or service, you have no way of knowing that. If you're in the market for what they're pitching, take the information, read the fine print, check out the company and comparison shop before pulling the trigger.
Never do business with a company you've never heard of and know nothing about. Do some research. The Internet provides information so easily that there's no reason to take such a risk. If you're not online, get help from someone who is, or visit the library. Check the Better Business Bureau, state licensing agencies and online reviews. Remember that you can't believe every review you read, but if you find a pattern of problems, act accordingly.
Never sign up for a "free trial" that requires you to provide a credit card number. What's so free about that? We're inundated with offers for free trials of weight-loss supplements, sexual aids and similar products, many of them health-related. But they all seem to want your credit card, supposedly to pay for shipping. The real reason they want your credit card digits is so they can enroll you in a membership and bill you for future shipments of the product after your free trial ends, if you don't cancel by their tight deadline.
Never pay to "win" a prize. Scammers frequently tell us we've won cash or a car through a lottery or sweepstakes we've never heard of and didn't enter. We're instructed to wire money to pay the advance taxes necessary to claim our prize. Don't do it. You didn't win anything. If you wire that money, it's gone and you've lost the lottery.
Never provide your bank account or credit card information over the phone unless you're certain you know to whom you are talking, and trust them. If the person called you, you don't really know who they are. Remember, caller ID can be manipulated to display a fake number.
Be careful paying in advance for services. Debt management, mortgage relief and other financial companies often demand money up front, before they do their job. Paying them is a mistake because there is no guarantee what kind of results you'll get. You don't pay your hair stylist before she's done and you're satisfied, do you? This applies to contractors, too. Many ask for money, sometimes half of the project cost or more, before they start work. Contractors do need money to buy materials for your job. But by paying too much in advance, you've lost your leverage and exposed yourself to the possibility you'll never see him again.
Read the fine print of all contracts, bank and credit card statements, bills and warranty papers. That's the only way you'll catch errors, new charges and questionable terms.
Document everything. If you're having a problem with a business, take notes of every conversation you have and make copies of claim forms, letters, receipts and other paperwork. Take photos or video if necessary. If the business "loses" your claim or disputes what you're saying, you'll have it documented to present to them, or regulating authorities if the business still stiffs you.