The holiday season means more spending. Con artists know that and often try even harder to separate us from our hard-earned money.
We had a talk with the operations manager of the 21-person Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services about some of the schemes that arise this time of year and what consumers can do to protect themselves.
Deborah Berry, who handles consumer protection issues and also provides support on the law enforcement side of the agency, spoke with us about the justice and consumer services and how it serves the community.
What is the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services and what kinds of services does it offer consumers?
It's a county agency with two divisions. You have the Office of Consumer Protection and the Office of Justice Coordination, which serves as a liaison to the judicial system in Pinellas. Of course, the Office of Consumer Protection is charged with investigating consumer complaints, violations of consumer protection laws.
How did it become the Department of Justice and Community Services?
We merged the departments in 2003. They were small departments. We used to be just the Consumer Protection Agency.
The holiday season seems to be a particular time for scam and con artists to target consumers. What types of things should consumers look out for this time of year?
I think people need to keep in mind con artists impersonate well-known charities. You can get donation requests by mail, telephone and e-mail. Before you give to a charity, be sure that they are registered to do business in Florida. Information is available on our website.
I guess what I'm trying to say is make sure your hard-earned money is going to the intended purpose.
Any other particular holiday scams?
There's a lot of solicitations being made by e-mail, a lot of e-mails about making money. The red flag is if they're asking you to pay money to make money.
Some free gift offers may be designed to get your information. Only tell them what they need to know or nothing at all.
Apart from the scams, look at refund policies. Some stores have special refund policies for electronic items. Make sure you understand the policies so your gift recipient understands how to handle returning an item.
What are the steps consumers should take if they believe they have been harmed by a business or taken advantaged of by a con artist?
Consumers should not hesitate to complain about the problem. It is extremely important that they do their research … to make sure there haven't been any other problems with the product, whether they're buying a TV or a car.
Some of the manufacturers don't provide on-site warranty repair. You have to send it back to them for repairs. You have to check the warranty. We're so used to buying products from major retail locations. Not everybody gives you a warranty. There's no law regulating warranties.
What information can consumers receive from your agency?
We provide an online database of complaints. We don't provide legal advice, but we can point out potential red flags such as free gift offers that require you to give dollars up front. Over the years, consumer agencies have been the first to warn about the problems in identity theft, home improvement scares, phishing scams and foreclosure modification schemes.
How can consumers reach your office?
Consumers can contact us at (727) 464-6200 or they can find us online at pinellascounty.org/consumer, or they can visit us in person at 15251 Roosevelt Blvd., Suite 209, in Clearwater.