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Top consumer complaints: Amid familiar scams, new and higher-tech fraud gets more aggressive

Consumer protection advocates this past week described not just the rising tide of old scams, but newer and more aggressive frauds hurting more people across the country and in the Tampa Bay area.

No wonder so many folks may want to disconnect their phones, unplug their Internet and never answer the front door again.

If deflecting scams were only that easy.

Yes, the top consumer complaints about ripoffs once again are dominated by the old standbys. Auto sales and repair complaints are No. 1 on the latest annual top 10 list unveiled this past week by national groups that track these problems. Right behind were gripes related to home improvement and construction, credit and debt matters, retail sales difficulties and utility billing disputes, among other concerns.

Keeping these traditional hucksters at bay is tough enough in an age of diminishing regulatory muscle, consumer advocates say.

But there are bigger fears. Consumer groups see an increase in more sophisticated and technology driven scams. One is the aggressive wave of telemarketers and automated phone sales known as ID-spoofing "robocalls" that hide their identities while flagrantly ignoring national and state Do Not Call lists.

Another worry is the "tech alert scam" of phone calls and emails from people claiming to be from Microsoft or an Internet provider. They convince consumers that their computer systems have been infected with viruses or malware, and as "tech specialists" the callers need to be given access to an individual's computer systems to check for problems. Once in, they instead plant viruses or direct people to websites that deposit malware designed to steal personal information, from passwords to personal banking or tax information.

Caveat emptor, the buyer beware cliche, sounds almost quaint these days. Tampa Bay has already carved out an unfortunate reputation as a hotbed for identity theft and fraudulent federal tax scams.

"One of the biggest challenges is keeping up with the marketplace of scammers targeting U.S. consumers from other countries," warns Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, a Washington, D.C., association of nearly 300 nonprofit consumer groups. County and state consumer protection efforts are ill-equipped to pursue international fraudsters and even federal regulators have their hands full with domestic ripoffs. The Federal Trade Commission gets close to 280,000 complaints per month just about Do Not Call telemarketing abuses.

The CFA teamed up again this year with the North American Consumer Protection Investigators group to monitor scams and report on consumer complaint trends for its annual survey.

The advocates sound these new alarms at a time when many regulatory and state consumer protection services face leaner budgets.

The Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services, for example, lost two staff positions last year, but hopes to use more technology to maintain its outreach. And the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency continues to cope with little resources for training, new technologies or supplies.

In addition to the annual "Top 10" complaints list, this year the consumer groups emphasized two additional scam rankings.

The "fastest growing" complaints include scams aimed at the elderly, telemarketing abuses, Internet sales and utility billing issues. Based on Tampa Bay reader complaints about utility billing I have recently received by email, that problem seems to be on the rise.

One reader, a frugal 75-year-old widow, this past week complained to me that her utility bill had jumped for no apparent cause to $360.69 from $234.63 a month earlier and way up from just over $177 in the same period a year ago. Another reader, a U.S. Army retiree, complained he was billed $45 out of the blue despite his paying his bills in full and on time.

The second complaint ranking from the consumer groups focuses on "new" types of consumer problems. They include concert tickets purchased online that turn out to be invalid at the concert door, and health clubs with changing ownership that try to charge customers even after they cancel their memberships.

Another headache: websites that collect or aggregate embarrassing or misleading public information online, raising privacy concerns and, in some cases, charging money to individuals in exchange for removing their names from such lists.

Consumer protection groups also are getting more inquiries about safety and other aspects of online ride-sharing services, like the new Uber and Lyft services trying to break into this metro area.

So where does all this leave the basic household trying not to get flimflammed? The sad truth is everyone needs to become better educated about scams and how to deal with them. And, alas, people need to be more skeptical of pushy sales pitches, whether at the door, by phone or email. This is especially true of the more vulnerable elderly who must rely more on others for basic needs.

Consumer advocates want tougher regulations and enforcement power and, of course, more resources to educate people. They want payment system providers like Visa and MasterCard to be more responsible in tracking ripoffs that use their financial services. Advocates also see some hope in antiscam technologies that are slowly starting to become more available on the market.

My favorite: the "Nomorobo" website, a winner of a 2013 FTC challenge to problem-solvers to devise a way to help stop robocall or automated telemarketing phone calls. It's a free service that helps households better repel robocalls, like a spam filter deters unwanted emails. But Nomorobo works only with VoiP — phone service provided over the Internet — and will not work with older phone services operated over copper wire.

But it's a good start.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.

Top 10 consumer

complaints of 2013

1Auto

Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes. Rank in 2012: 1st.

2Home improvement/

construction

Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job. Rank in 2012: 2nd.

3Credit/debt

Billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt relief services, predatory lending, illegal or abusive debt collection tactics. Rank in 2012: 3rd.

4Retail sales

False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver. Rank in 2012: 5th.

5Services

Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, failure to perform. Rank in 2012: 6th.

6Utilities

Service problems or billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas service. Rank in 2012: 4th.

7Landlord/tenant

Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics. Rank in 2012: 8th.

8(Tie) Home solicitations

Misrepresentations or failure to deliver in door-to-door, telemarketing or mail solicitations, do-not-call violations. Rank in 2012: 7th.

8(Tie) Internet sales

Misrepresentations or other deceptive practices, failure to deliver online purchases. Rank in 2012: 9th.

9Health products/services

Misleading claims; unlicensed practitioners; failure to deliver. Not ranked in top 10 in 2012.

10 Fraud

Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, imposter scams and other common frauds. Not ranked in top 10 in 2012.

Source: Complaints compiled from state and local consumer protection agencies, 2013 Consumer Complaint Survey Report, July 2014. Consumer Federation of America, North American Consumer Protection Investigators

Five scams from around Tampa Bay

1Door-to-door sales for home

security systems.

Targeting elderly homeowners, these sales people falsely claim that their companies have bought out the contracts from the consumers' previous security companies and that their systems must be upgraded. Before consumers realize what is happening, a technician has ripped out their old system and installed a new one. It's only when the consumers begin to receive two bills for monitoring – one from their old company, the other from the new one – that they discover they've been misled, says the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency. By then, the three-day period to cancel the contracts has elapsed and the companies refuse to rescind them. Florida law requires that for in-home sales over $25, the salespeople must undergo background checks and obtain permits, which none of these sales people have done. The companies are often based out of state, making complaints more difficult to resolve. When salespeople unexpectedly appear at your door, demand to see proof that they have complied. Report them to the proper authorities if they haven't.

2Sold "new" car that turned out to be used.

A 90-year-old Florida woman bought what she thought was a new car at a tent sale in a local parking lot, trading in her old car and agreeing to a purchase price of more than $22,000. The vehicle she bought was actually used, however, and the woman became concerned that she could not afford the $400 monthly car payments and the increase in her insurance premiums on her $1,475 a month income from Social Security. The dealer refused her request to cancel the sale, claiming that her trade-in had already been sold. After the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services intervened, the dealer agreed to unwind the sale and return her trade-in.

3A new brokerage account

never opened.

A Florida man was contacted by a company that offered to set up a stock trading account. He gave the company $1,000 and was told that the account would be opened for him the following day. It was never opened. When the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency contacted the company, it claimed that the man had actually paid for a webinar, which normally cost $2,500. But it agreed to refund the money immediately. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission offers advice on how to pick a brokerage firm and protect yourself from fraud.

4A "fine" for missing

jury duty.

A caller claims to be from the police or a sheriff's office and informs the potential victim that an arrest warrant has been issued for failure to report for jury duty. To avoid going to jail, the person is told to send money to pay the "fine," usually hundreds of dollars, via a money transfer service or cash reload card. The Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services received several complaints about the "jury duty scam" last year. In a related scam in another state, someone pretending to be a State's Attorney sent emails informing people that there was a subpoena for them to appear in court and that they could avoid appearing by paying a "fee."

5Roofing rip-off.

A contractor knocked on the door of a 92-year-old Pinellas County woman, falsely stating that another contractor had used his company's materials on her roof. He wanted to inspect it. He told her that the roof was leaking and needed immediate repairs. Though she wasn't aware of any leaks, the woman was concerned and agreed to pay $12,281 for the work. The next day he was back and convinced her to agree to nearly $8,000 more for sealants, patch work, and other repairs, which was charged to her credit card without her permission. She canceled that transaction and closed the account, obtaining a new card. The contractor persisted, however, and persuaded her to pay for the additional work. Of the little work that was actually done, most of it was unnecessary or overpriced. Though she declined to prosecute, 14 other complaints against the contractor were identified throughout the state, resulting in revocation of his license, fines and three years of probation.

Source: 2013 Consumer Complaint Survey Report, July 2014, Consumer Federation of America, North American Consumer Protection Investigators

.

Where to make

a complaint

. Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency

hillsboroughcounty.org/

consumerprotection

Phone: (813) 272-5900

. Pinellas County

Department of Justice

and Consumer Services

pinellascounty.org/consumer

Phone: (727) 464-6200

. Pasco County

Customer Service

pascocountyfl.net

. Federal Trade

Commission

ftc.gov/faq/consumer

-protection/submit-consumer

-complaint-ftc

Phone: (202) 326-2222

Top consumer complaints: Amid familiar scams, new and higher-tech fraud gets more aggressive 08/01/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 1, 2014 6:14pm]

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