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New Year's resolutions for smart consumers

In Thursday's column we took a look at some ways you can avoid becoming a victim of fraud by learning to spot red flags. Today, we want to share some other things you can do to protect yourself and become a more savvy consumer. It's not that we want to put ourselves out of work _ unresponsive businesses, misunderstandings, schemes and scams will always be around _ but if you pay attention to the following, you just may avoid needing our services.

Here, then, are Action's New Year resolutions:

+ When sending for rebates, I will follow the instructions to the letter and make copies of everything I send in.

+ When ordering anything by mail, I will check out the company first. I will pay by credit card so I have recourse if something goes wrong.

+ I will not fall prey to offers that sound too good to be true, since they probably are.

+ I will not fall for any work-at-home schemes _ after all, no one gets rich stuffing envelopes.

+ I will sign up on the national do-not-call registry (online at www.donotcall.gov or by calling toll-free 1-888-382-1222).

+ I won't sign any contract or agreement before reading it in its entirety, including the fine print. In fact, I'll get another friend or relative to read it, too.

+ When dealing with home improvement contractors, I will get at least three estimates in writing. I will check licenses with my county's construction licensing board and complaints with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

+ I will not deal with any service people or contractors who solicit my business by knocking at my door. Instead, I will ask friends for references.

+ I will get a copy of my credit report regularly so I can make sure the information is correct and that I have not fallen victim to identity theft. (Note that beginning in June, the three major credit bureaus _ Experian (toll-free 1-888-397-3742), Equifax (toll-free 1-800-685-1111) and TransUnion (toll-free 1-800-888-4213) _ must furnish one report per year to Florida residents for free.)

+ I will go over my bank and credit card statements as soon as I receive them and take care of any inaccuracies immediately.

+ I will not let myself become an easy target for criminals. I will lock my doors _ home and car _ at all times, park in well-lighted places, never carry more cash or credit cards than I need and stay alert to what's going on around me.

+ I will personally call my health insurance company to make sure I am covered before seeing a new doctor or having a medical procedure performed.

+ I will never take part in international lotteries. Nor will I be tempted to help a member of the government of any African nation secure the transfer of millions of dollars in exchange for a few of mine.

+ I will be very careful to whom I give out personal or financial information. I will not take the bait of the many "phishing" scams on the Internet, regardless of who appears to be making the request.

+ I will not wander into a car dealership and leave in a new car, thinking I have three days to change my mind. It turns out I don't!

+ I will buy a used car only after having it checked out by a professional, objective mechanic.

+ I will think twice before buying extended warranties. Instead, I will put the money in a repair fund I may never need.

+ I will find out what a store's return or refund policy is before doing business with it.

+ I will avoid buyer's remorse by shopping around and comparing prices.

+ I will get all oral promises in writing.

+ When I encounter shoddy products or service, I won't just whine. I'll vote with my wallet and tell all my friends.

+ I will treat customer service representatives with the same courtesy I would use with my mother.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, e-mail actionsptimes.com, or call your Action number, (727) 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

We will not be responsible for personal documents, so please send only photocopies. If your complaint concerns merchandise ordered by mail, we need copies of both sides of your canceled check.

We may require additional information or prefer to reply by mail; therefore, readers must provide a full mailing address, including ZIP code. Names of letter writers will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

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