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How to Start Saving Money Now | Financial Monitoring Tools You've Overlooked | How to Opt Out of Unwanted Offers | Email is Not Secure | Fighting Fraud on the Frontlines | Little Known Facts about the Do Not Call Registry | Businesses Can Be Scammed Too | How to Safeguard Your Wallet on the Road | Best Tricks for Beating Cyber Criminals This Halloween | Ten Resolutions for Being a Savvier Consumer in 2017

 

Avoiding the Pitfalls of a Free Trial Period

February 28, 2017

Has someone offered you the chance to try something for free? Maybe a neat kitchen gadget, a beauty product, or even a magazine subscription? Some companies use a free trial period as a sales tactic to get you to spend your hard-earned money on their product or service. But if you forget to cancel it, return it, or notify the company by a certain date, you could be left with product you don’t want – and a big bill. But there are some things you can do to protect yourself from the possible pitfalls of a free trial period.

  1. Ask questions. If you’re offered a free trial for a product while shopping in the store, ask questions before signing up. Make sure you understand exactly what you’re agreeing to and what you need to do cancel. If they can’t answer the questions, then skip the sign-up.
  2. Write it down. Make a note in your calendar of the end date of the free trial. When do you need to notify the company? If you have to mail something back, be sure to allow time for it to be delivered.
  3. Know who you’re dealing with. Before making a purchase, research the company.  How many complaints have been filed against the business and how were those complaints handled? SCDCA makes it easy to look up complaints against a company.
  4. Read your credit card and bank statements. Review your statements once you receive them. If you find charges you didn’t agree to, first contact the company directly. If the company doesn’t resolve the issue, contact your credit card company or bank to reverse the charge. You can also file a complaint with SCDCA at www.consumer.sc.gov

If the company hid details of the free trial in the terms and conditions, it might be hard to understand how the free trial is actually set up. Using these tips will help you know what to look (and what to avoid) when dealing with free trials.

Ten Resolutions for Being a Savvier Consumer in 2017

January 26, 2017

The new year is a time to evaluate bad habits and make new goals. While many focus on losing weight or exercising more, the resolutions below can get you on track to avoid scams and identity theft.

  1. I will change the passwords on my financial and personal accounts every 90 days.
  2. I will not use the same password for multiple accounts.
  3. I will not give personal information to cold callers or anyone I do not know.
  4. I will request my free annual credit report at least once per year.
  5. I will “pay myself first” by putting money into my savings account.
  6. I will make sure I read and understand every contract I plan to sign, before I sign it.
  7. I will consider placing a security freeze on my credit reports.
  8. I will beware of what I share online, because it cannot be erased once it’s out there.
  9. If a legitimate source asks for my personal information, I will ask why they need it and how they will protect it.
  10. I will follow the Department of Consumer Affairs on Twitter (@SCDCA) and Facebook (facebook.com/SCDepartmentofConsumerAffairs) for the latest tips on scams, identity theft and credit.

These simple resolutions can help you avoid common consumer pitfalls this year. Even if you resolve to do only one of the above, it could save you headaches in the future. For more information on protecting yourself from scammers and identity thieves, see SCDCA’s scam guide Ditch the Pitch.

   

Best Tricks For Beating Cyber Criminals This Halloween

October 27, 2016

October is Cyber Security Month, and while we may think that our information is usually stolen through breaches and hacks, we also unknowingly expose our own information. An online banking website can have all the security measures in the world, but if the computer you’re accessing it from has a virus, your information can easily fall into the wrong hands. As Cyber Security Month comes to an end, strengthen your security by using the following tricks:  

    1. Keep up with software updates! Outdated software can make it easier for scammers to hack your device.
    2. Consider using two-step authentication. Sometimes called two-step verification or multi-factor authentication, it can stop someone from getting into your account if they do get your password. This step can usually be activated by updating your account settings.
    3. Boost your router security. Wi-Fi is useful but it can also be the weak link in the security chain. If you have a Wi-Fi router in your home, make sure it is protected with a strong password.
    4. Don’t use the same password for all your accounts. If a scammer figures out the password, they could get into all your accounts.
    5. Password protect your phone and mobile devices. Use a code or pattern, especially on devices that contain personal information or are used to log on to financial accounts.  

Data security is a shared responsibility. Take the time to protect your information and it could save you a lot of time and effort in the long run. For more information on cyber security, check out www.stopthinkconnect.org. If you think a thief has your information, contact SCDCA’s Identity Theft Unit for help.

How to Safeguard Your Wallet on the Road
September 26, 2016

Though summer vacations are coming to an end, holiday travel will be ramping up before you know it. And while traveling can be an incredibly rewarding experience— it can leave you broke if you’re not careful! For this blog post, I’m going to assume you know how to budget, as that is the most important step in being able to travel at all. If you haven’t mastered the art of saving and spending, check out this post first. The following tips will help you keep your finances safe as you travel! 

    1. Leave unnecessary payment methods at home. Don’t travel with all your credit cards, checks, etc. Only take the things you know you will need and plan to use.
    2. Let your bank know. If you plan to travel, tell your financial institution. This will help you avoid having to deal with a blocked card in the middle of a trip.
    3. Know who to call. If your card suddenly stops working or gets lost, you’ll need to contact your bank to fix the problem. Make a note of your bank’s contact information, especially if you’re traveling overseas, since the toll free number on the back of your card may not work outside the US.  
    4. Set up account alerts. Consider fine tuning your account alerts so that you get text messages or emails alerting you to activity that posts to your account. This will allow you to closely monitor your account without having to login constantly.
    5. Remain vigilant. Be sure to closely review your financial statements in the weeks and months following your travel. If you see errors or fraudulent charges, dispute them as soon as possible.

As with most things, preparing a bit on the front end can save you a lot of hassle and headache. And even if you’re not planning on traveling anytime soon, many of these tips are useful for every day. For more information on financial literacy and safety, visit SCDCA’s Consumer Education page. 

 

Businesses Can Be Scammed Too!

August 26, 2016

As the state’s consumer protection agency, SCDCA is committed to warning consumers about scams. It’s easy to forget that scammers will gladly take money or personal information from anyone, including businesses. So, if you have never heard of a business being targeted, take a look at the common scams below and be sure to share with your friends and family:

  • Fake Directory Listings. This scam has businesses getting calls from fraudsters who want to “verify” contact information, seemingly for the phone book or a similar directory. The caller will ask an employee to confirm the listing and tape the call to use it later as “proof” that the employee agreed to the listing. The scammers will then send invoices for hundreds of dollars to the business.
  • Office Supplies. Scammers will send unordered office supplies to a business, waiting a few days or longer to send the invoice. The goal is to let the business use the supplies before they see the invoice, so they feel they can’t simply return the unordered supplies. The invoice will usually include the name of an actual employee, who supposedly “approved” the order.  Keep these tips in mind to avoid the fake directory and office supply scams:
    • Know your rights. You don’t have to pay for goods or services you truly didn’t order.
    • Review your statements carefully. Make sure you aren’t being charged for things you didn’t order. If you spot errors, dispute them as soon as you see them.
    • Train your staff. Make sure employees know how to handle sales calls; establish clear guidelines and consider giving them a script to follow.

  • The W-2 Scam. Businesses have unknowingly released valuable employee information to scammers through this ploy. Scammers will email financial or human resource personnel pretending to be the CEO or owner of the company, asking for employee W-2s. The information on a W-2 is very valuable and makes it even easier for scammers to commit tax refund fraud, one of the fastest growing types of identity theft. If you get an email like this, look for the following red flags:
    • Email addresses that are misspelled by one or two letters. They trick the reader into thinking the email is actually from the CEO or supervisor.
    • The email address may contain the correct username, but an incorrect domain name.
    • Grammatical errors or typos.

When in doubt, do not be afraid to pick up the phone and call the person requesting the information directly. Remember, email is generally not a secure form of communication. So, sending sensitive personal or financial information this way can make it even easier for a scammer to steal. For more information on scams and to report them, visit SCDCA’s Scam Page. Businesses and consumers are encouraged to report scams to the Federal Trade Commission as well.

 

Little Known Facts about the Do Not Call Registry

July 26, 2016

One of the most commonly asked questions SCDCA gets is, “I registered my number with the Do Not Call Registry, so why am I still getting calls?” Many upset consumers think that the constant flood of phone calls will magically stop if they add their number to the list, but they are often unhappy with the outcome. While the Do Not Call Registry is a great tool to help cut down on calls, there are some exceptions that allow the calls to keep on coming.

Even if you’ve signed up for the registry, you may still receive calls from:

    1. Political/charitable organizations and survey takers. If the charity hired a telemarketer to ask for donations on their behalf, the telemarketer should keep a “no call” list and add you to it if you ask them to do so.
    2. Debt collectors. Debt collectors can still call you to collect a debt. However, there are rules about when they can contact you and ways you can get them to stop.
    3. Businesses you already have a relationship with. A business can make sales calls to you if you have bought or rented something from it in the past 18 months. They can also call you if you have contacted them about a good or service in the past 3 months. If you don’t want to receive calls anymore, tell the business to put you on their “no call” list.
    4. Subsidiaries or affiliates of #3, above. Be careful when giving your information out, especially when you are signing up for free trials, sweepstakes or prizes. Make sure to read what you’re agreeing to carefully. Information about who can access and use your data is often buried in the fine print.
    5. Scammers! Scam artists are already breaking the law, so they are not going to follow the rules of the Do Not Call Registry. Remember, if you get a call you’re even a little suspicious about, hang up and follow up to make sure it is real.

Sales calls should only be made between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. If you think someone is breaking the rules, report them to the Federal Trade Commission at 1-888-382-1222, TTY 1-866-290-4236, or go to www.donotcall.gov and to the Federal Communications Commission at 1-888-225-5322, TTY 1-888-835-5322, or at www.fcc.gov/complaints.

    

Fighting Fraud on the Frontlines

June 23, 2016

On June 1, 2016 SCDCA held a Fraud Forum meant to bring community service providers, consumers, and government together to collaborate on the best ways to deter fraud. The Forum featured speakers from the Department of Homeland Security, Microsoft, and the Federal Trade Commission. Each organization was able to talk about their approach to detecting and combatting fraud. The following tips and facts were noteworthy enough to make it to social media:

When it comes to #fraud if you see something, say something!@DHSgov #FraudForum  

Ask your bank or credit union what resources they can offer to protect your accounts & info! #FreeAlerts @TheCCUL

Over 5,000 #SC residents reported #IDtheft to the @FTC last year alone! #FraudForum  

Scams the @FTC says never go away are #travelscams, #timeshareresale, #reloading #scams, #sweepstakes,#charityfraud, etc.  

#SC is number 24 in the nation for #fraud #complaints reported to @FTC in 2015  

An estimated $1.5 billion is lost to #tech #scams annually. @Microsoft  

@Microsoft speaker says more than 250 entities are using the tech support scam to dupe consumers.  

At the end of the day the SC Board of Financial Institutions, Consumer Finance Division (BOFI) and the Carolinas Credit Union League (CCUL) joined in to offer input with the other presenters on the best ways to collaborate to educate the public on how to avoid scams. BOFI offered tips on using their website to look up licensed lenders and the CCUL spoke on free alerts and tools that many credit unions have available. SCDCA shared Ditch the Pitch, a guide to avoiding scams. To request copies of the brochure, contact SCDCA’s Public Information Division by calling 800-922-1954 or access it online.

 

Email is Not Secure!

May 25, 2016

Email is a very common and useful form of communication. People from all walks of life use it as an efficient way to do business and keep in touch with family and friends. From CEOs of large companies to school children, it would be hard to find a person who hasn’t heard of email! While it may be convenient, it is important to avoid sending sensitive personal information via email. The following tips can help make your email experience safer and more enjoyable.

    1. Block spam. Many email providers already have built-in spam blockers. Make sure the spam blocker is on and working. If a spam message gets through, be sure to either block the sender or mark the message as spam. This will help your email provider stop future messages from getting through.
    2. Never reply. Replying to spam messages tells the scammer that the email address is real, with a person on the other end. Be sure to block images in your incoming email from being automatically downloaded, as this can also tell scammers they have found an active email address.
    3. Avoid clicking on links. Be careful when clicking links in emails, even if the message appears to be from a person you know. Look at the email carefully for signs that it could be a scam before clicking on any links, attachments, or pictures.  
    4. Think twice before opening that attachment! Attachments can contain viruses and spyware. Be sure you trust the source before opening any attachments. Scan attachments for viruses before downloading them.
    5. Report. If you receive a scam email, report it to the Federal Trade Commission at spam@uce.gov. If the scammer is posing as a particular organization, you should report the email to them also.

 

How to Opt Out of Unwanted Offers

April 21, 2016

One of the most common questions we get at SCDCA is, “how can I stop getting these annoying phone calls and mailings!?” The FREE tips below can help you get some peace if you’re bothered by mailings and phone calls that seem to have no end!

    1. Junk Mail. Contact the Direct Marketing Association by visiting www.dmachoice.org to unclutter your mail box. After filling out the form, those unwanted ads will stop showing up in your mailbox for five years. Remember: this will not stop mailings from those that do not use DMA's Mail Preference Service.*
    2. Email. The Direct Marketing Association also has an Email Preference Service (eMPS) to help you cut down on unwanted email ads. Opt out of getting email from DMA members by visiting www.dmachoice.org. Registration lasts six years.
    3. Phone calls. If the phone rings off the hook, consider signing up with the National Do Not Call Registry. You can register at www.donotcall.gov, or call 1-888-382-1222 from the phone number you want added to the Registry. It can take up to 31 days for the calls to lessen. Remember: businesses you already have a relationship with can still contact you.* Contact them directly to ask to be taken off their call lists.
    4. Preapproved offers of credit. Credit card companies will send applications for credit to people with certain credit score ranges. These applications can make it very easy for an identity thief to get credit in your name. You can stop receiving them altogether by calling 1-888-567-8688 or visiting www.optoutprescreen.com. Choose to stop getting them for 5 years or permanently; to opt out forever you must mail in the Permanent Opt-Out Election form.

* You may still get calls and mailings from scammers, as they don’t follow the rules set by the groups covered in this post. Keep that in mind when you get calls or mailings from strangers. If you’re ever in doubt, hang up and follow up!

 

Financial Monitoring Tools You've Overlooked

March 24, 2016

The words IDENITITY THEFT can strike fear into most people. With the ever-present threat of becoming a victim of this crime showing up in the news, movies, and advertisements, it’s no wonder people are more actively guarding their information. If you’ve ever wondered, “what else could I be doing to protect myself?” the answer is here! These tips can help you protect and monitor your financial information in ways you may not have thought of before.

    1. Account alerts. Most banks and credit unions have tools that you can use to easily track your finances. For example, you can set up alerts for purchases more than $50 or when your account balance drops below $250, etc. You can also choose if you’d like to have a text, call or email.  The options are almost endless because the alerts can be tailored to your liking. Contact your bank or credit union for more information.
    2. Sign up for my Social Security. This online tool lets anyone still working view estimates of future retirement, disability, and survivors benefits, earnings and Social Security and Medicare taxes you’ve paid. If you’re already drawing social security benefits, you can check your earnings record, change your address, phone number, or direct deposit information and more. Creating an account can help stop a scammer from doing so and re-routing social security checks by updating your direct deposit information. Visit https://www.ssa.gov/myaccount/ for more information.
    3. Get your FREE credit report every 4 months. You can get three free credit reports each year, one from each credit reporting agency. If you want to keep a close eye on your reports, get one every 3-4 months. To request your report visit www.annualcreditreport.com. There are many services that offer your credit report – for a fee! Make sure you’re visiting the official website for getting your FREE credit report.

For more information on protecting yourself from identity theft, visit www.consumer.sc.gov and click Identity Theft Resources.

 

How to Start Saving Money Now

February 24, 2016

Save. Save. Save. It’s easier said than done for most of the population. And while we all know why we should save, strategies for how to save are much less obvious. So, in honor of America Saves Week, SCDCA is serving up some quick tips on how to jump start your savings plans. Try one or try them all, either way, you’ll be one step closer to reaching that savings goal.

    1. Start small. Try the weekly savings method first. To start, you’ll save a dollar during week one, $2 in week two, $3 in week three and so forth. The goal is to ease you in to saving. By week 52 you should have $1,378. Consider reversing the order (start with $52 on week 1) to really make a dent in your savings goal in a short amount of time.
    2. Make it automatic. If you’re in the habit of spending that pay check before it sees your savings account, try automatic withdrawal. Most financial institutions have online banking tools that you can customize to fit your needs. Plan to have $20 automatically deposited into your savings account each pay period and you won’t have the chance to spend it.  
    3. Avoid impulse buys. And when you do, put what you would’ve spent into savings. This can be as easy as eating out less or drinking coffee from home instead of paying $5.00 a cup at the coffee shop. You’ll waste less money and build up your savings in a flash.
    4. Pay off high interest debt first. As the saying goes, “time is money,” and the longer you take to pay off a loan, the more money the lender is making in interest. Once you’ve paid off the loan, keep paying down your most expensive debt first. After you become debt free, save the amount you were paying towards your debt for several months. This will help you boost your savings account.

The South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs aims to protect consumers from inequities in the marketplace through advocacy, complaint mediation, enforcement and education. To file a complaint or get information on consumer issues, visit www.consumer.sc.gov or call toll-free, 1-800-922-1594.