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How to become a 'defensive' consumer

This is National Consumer Protection Week — a time to remember that we all need to be smarter consumers. Here are six tips to for being a smarter consumer.

We are all consumers. We make a lot of decisions throughout the year that can affect us in negative ways.

Sometimes the outcome is beyond our control. But all too often, these self-made problems could have been avoided if we had done something differently. Remember, once the damage is done you may be out of luck. Life doesn’t come with an “undo” switch.

Here — on National Consumer Protection Week —are my six tips for being a smarter consumer. These are based on 30 years of covering consumer issues and talking to thousands of people who have been conned, scammed, or ripped-off.         

1. Question all offers
The world is filled with people and companies who don’t play by the rules. They are willing to lie and cheat in order to get your money. You need to be skeptical of everything — unknown Web sites, telemarketing calls, mail solicitations, e-mail offers, and all advertisements.

Blatantly deceptive ads are all over radio and TV. Every day, I see and hear commercials for bogus weight loss products, moneymaking opportunities, and debt-counseling services. Don’t assume anyone at the stations has verified the claims. In most cases, they have not. Caveat emptor — let the buyer beware!

2.  Don’t be fooled by ‘no-risk’ offers
Free trial offers and money-back guarantees are confidence builders designed to keep you from seriously evaluating the product or service before you buy. “I don’t have anything to worry about,” you tell yourself. “If I don’t like it, I can just send it back.”Maybe. Maybe not.

With most free trial offers you pay the shipping, which often turns out to be more than the product is worth. And once they have your credit card number, some companies sign you up for future purchases — whether you realize it or not — which can be hard to stop.

A money-back guarantee is only as good as the company that offers it. Sometimes the rules are so restrictive that there’s no way anyone could get a refund. I’ve seen cases where merely opening the package voids the offer.

Don’t let your guard down. If you’re not confident in the offer or the company, don’t let a money-back guarantee or free trial offer convince you to buy.

3. Get it in writing
Verbal promises don’t count. It’s as simple as that. I don’t care what the salesperson tells you, the only thing that matters is what’s written down.

If the friendly sales associate tells you the extended warranty covers any mechanical problem and the contract says it doesn’t cover the transmission — you are out of luck if the transmission needs repair. Trust me on this.

You can go back and argue, “But the sales guy told me it was covered! My wife heard it, too!” and it won’t make any difference.

That’s why you need to read, understand, and agree to the terms before you sign.

4. Credit cards vs. debit cards
A credit card gives you better fraud protection than a debit card. Federal regulations spell out what the credit card company must do for you if you challenge a charge. This is not the case with a debit card.

If you pay with a credit card and the company doesn’t ship the merchandise, charges you too much, or the item is defective, you can contact your credit card company and have that charge taken off your bill while they investigate. You can’t always do that with a debit card. I don’t care what your bank tells you. I’ve heard the horror stories.

Some people tell me they’re afraid to use a credit card for telephone or online purchases. But that’s just what a credit card is designed for. If there’s a problem, the credit card company is required to deal with it. This doesn’t mean you can get careless. But credit cards are the safest way you can shop online or over the phone. Even so, do not buy anything by credit card, or any other means, from an unknown telephone solicitor or spammer. Or a door-to-door salesperson you did not ask to some to your door.

5. Best deal may cost more
Cheap is cheap. It’s not always good. Clearly, a higher price does not guarantee a better product or service. But a savvy consumer doesn’t base a decision to buy simply on price. With any significant purchase your goal should be value — good quality at a reasonable price.

What if the cheaper refrigerator is less reliable? It’s not only frustrating; those repair costs could really add up. Do you want a cordless phone that has good reception or the lowest price? Is that cheap paint going to last as long as the higher-priced brand? Saving money now could cost you more in the long run.

When it comes to home repair or remodeling, some people think they’re supposed to get estimates from a couple of contractors and pick the cheapest one. That’s not the goal. You want to find the plumber, electrician, or roofer who is qualified to do the job at a fair price.  Fly-by-night contractors offer incredibly low prices. But once your roof is off and they’ve split town, that super-low price doesn’t look so good.

6. Use your brain
People who get into trouble like to blame someone else. It’s only natural. I’ve heard them all. The Web site looked legitimate. The salesman on the phone sounded so nice. The pictures in the brochure made it look wonderful.

Yes, con artists are clever. They know how to push your buttons to get a response. But the fact is, in many cases, con artists couldn’t make a score without the consumer’s willing participation.

I’m not trying to blame the victim for the crime. But let’s be honest. If someone promises you a free loan and all you have to do is give him your credit card number, shouldn’t you figure out there’s something wrong here? Why would someone give me a free loan? If it’s free, why does he need my credit card number? What’s he going to do with this information?

Don’t say yes to any telemarketer who calls out of the blue. Don’t respond to postcards or letters from unknown companies that require an immediate response. And don’t get greedy! You didn’t win a contest or lottery you didn’t enter. You can’t get rich working part-time from home. And anyone who asks you to send them money so they can give you money is a crook!

One more important warning: No legitimate transaction involves getting a check or money order for more than the amount required with instructions to wire back the extra amount. This is the sure sign of a scam! You and you alone are responsible for any check or money order you deposit in your bank account. If you wire money to a stranger for any reason, you might as well say good-bye to it because it’s gone.

What to do if you get scammed
If you’ve been swindled by a con artist or disreputable company take the time to file complaints. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s important to do.

Contact the Better Business Bureau and your state Attorney General or Consumer Protection office. You can report consumer fraud to the National Fraud Information Center.

Filing a complaint may not get your problem resolved, but it may help prevent others from being taken. The BBB can give the company an unsatisfactory rating which will warn others. Government agencies can prosecute. Consumer complaints are one way they determine which companies to investigate. And if there is a settlement and your name is on the list, you might just get some money back.