By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/12/2009 1:56:59 PM ET 2009-08-12T17:56:59

This week, I’m dipping into my reader mailbag to field some of your questions. One reader wonders if a check from the FTC is legit. (Yes.) Another wonders if it is ever legal to dine and dash. (No.)

Q: Does the Federal Trade Commission really send checks to people with little or no explanation? I just received one with a case name (FTC v. J.K. Publications, Inc., et al) and no other information. Is this payment genuine?

It is, but you’re smart to be skeptical. Con artists often use fake checks (that look completely legitimate) as bait. In this case, the check is real and the money is yours.

In mid-June, the Federal Trade Commission mailed about 400,000 checksworth more than $12 million to victims of an illegal credit card billing scam run by J.K. Publications of Nevada and other defendants. Most of the illegal billings took place in 1998.

So why are the checks going out now? The FTC says the crooks were able to move millions of dollars of ill-gotten gains offshore. It took federal prosecutors a great deal of time and effort to locate the money and have it transferred back to the U.S.

The FTC routinely send checks to scam victims whenever it settles a case and can get significant restitution. In July, the commission mailed checks to people who filed claims against a Florida company, Integrity Financial Enterprises. Those checks, for more than $200, become void if not cashed by September 13, 2009.

Q: I recently had an unpleasant experience at a local restaurant. The food was cold and the customer service was terrible. I complained to the cashier who was rude and did not care, so I left without paying.  Did I do the right thing? Should I have called the police or the health department to file a complaint?

Actually, you didn’t. If you’re served a meal and it’s not prepared properly, you need to tell the server right then. If the kitchen tries again and still can’t make you happy, tell the server it’s unacceptable and you’re going to leave.

But you can’t eat the food and then decide not to pay – that’s theft – and the people who run the restaurant can call police to have you arrested.

Here’s the right way to handle a situation like this. Ask to see the manager and explain why you don’t want to pay. If you’re turned down, pay by credit card then challenge the charge.

I did that once with a hotel in New York where the rooms were dirty and there was no hot water for my morning shower. I couldn’t get the room rate reduced, so I paid the bill, requested a refund from my credit card company and they removed the charge.

You should have reported the food preparation problem to the health department. Hot food needs to be hot and cold food need to be cold. If not, it could make you sick. Health departments rely on customers to let them know when there’s a problem.

Q: I’m desperate. I need to stop a collection agency from harassing me with phone calls at my job. Today they said if I don’t pay right away they will call my boss and let him know about the debt. What should I do?

That’s against the law. It’s a good thing to arm yourself with information.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act says if you have an attorney representing you about the debt, the collector must contact the attorney, rather than you.

If you don’t have an attorney, a collector may contact other people – but only to find out your address, your home phone number and where you work. Other than to get this location information, a debt collector generally is not permitted to discuss your debt with anyone other than you, your spouse or your attorney.

If you have an address for the debt collection agency, write them a letter and tell them what they are threatening to do is illegal. You should also tell them you’ve filed complaints with the authorities. Then do that. File a formal complaintwith the Federal Trade Commission. You should also file a complaint with your state’s Attorney General or consumer protection office.

If the collection agency calls again, tell them you know it’s illegal to call your employer and that you’ve already contacted the authorities.

One more thing, some debt collectors ignore these rules. So you might consider if it makes sense to tell your boss to expect such a call and that he should not give out any personal information about you.

Q: I’ve figured out a way to prevent someone from stealing my credit card or bank account information. I’m going to use one of those prepaid cards you can get at the grocery store. I can reload the card and it is not linked to my bank account. What do you think?

This may prevent some hassles, but I don't think it's the best way to go. You'll pay a fee every time you reload the card and if you lose it, the money is gone.

Credit cards are your best protection against fraud.  Federal law limits your lose to $50 if your card number is snagged by a crook. Most banks won't even charge you that. Also, a credit card number does not give a thief access to your bank account.

Here’s a better option. Some credit card companies offer disposable numbers that you use only once. So if a crook snags it, they can’t use it again. This might make you feel better when your shop online with an unfamiliar company. It would also prevent the hassle of changing account numbers if a cyber-crook did get your account number.

I shop online all the time with my credit card and don’t worry at all. I know that if something goes wrong, I have that built-in fraud protection.

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