Examining ways to fend off scams and ripoffs

Allentown Morning Call

For the consumer, knowledge is power. And when you talk to nearly 100 experts about the most important consumer topics, the collective wisdom can make for smarter spending.

Sid Kirchheimer did that for his new book, "Scam Proof Your Life: 377 Smart Ways to Protect You & Your Family from Ripoffs, Bogus Deals & Other Consumer Headaches," published this year by AARP. But Kirchheimer, author of AARP Bulletin's Scam Alert column, didn't just talk to consumer experts for his book. He relays advice from former car salesmen and jewel thieves, repairmen and con men for juicy inside scoops on how they fleeced consumers.

His interviews and research resulted in consumer tips that could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

The book covers not only illegal scams but all kinds of legal sales tactics that put the consumer at a disadvantage. "The overall theme I learned in doing this book is that everyone will try to get more money from you than it appears they will," Kirchheimer said.

Here are examples from the book of good consumer advice and scams to watch out for:

-- Night owl travel booking. The ideal time to book is from midnight to 1 a.m. Wednesdays in the time zone of the airline you want to book a flight with. Why? That's when the airline computer systems are flooded with all the low-fare reservations that were booked but not paid for. Reservations for those bargain flights are canceled in a batch, making all the best deals available to you.

-- $2 anti-theft device. Check washing starts when a thief steals your signed personal check, often from outgoing mail in your home mailbox. He puts cellophane tape over the signature and uses acetone to rinse out the pen ink, leaving your signature intact. He removes the tape, dries the check and now has a blank check signed by you that he can use to drain your bank account. The solution? Use gel pens like the Uni-ball. They resist acetone and other chemicals used in check washing because their pigments soak into a check's paper fibers. The Uni-ball 207 pen costs about $2.

-- Test-drive hoodwink. When buying a new car, a salesman will often encourage you to take a test drive by yourself. He says he just needs to make a copy of your driver's license.

Don't do it, Kirchheimer said. With your name and address from the driver's license, a salesman can run an illegal credit check and gather financial information about you. He can use that in negotiations on the price of the car. "It gives them inside knowledge on how much they can get you for," he said. "I heard this from three separate car salesmen I talked to."

Instead, insist that the salesman come along on the test drive and keep your driver's license and personal information to yourself until after you negotiate price.

In fact, you can skip the regular car salesman altogether and buy from the Internet salesman or the fleet salesperson, who nowadays often sells to individuals. "These guys, unlike commissioned salesmen, get paid by the number of units, regardless of price," he said, adding that you're more likely to end up with a better deal. And by all means, skip the tent sales, employee discount pricing and no-haggle policies. You'll usually get a worse deal than simply negotiating a price that's $200 to $500 above invoice. Of course, you'll save even more money buying a used car, rather than new.

-- Home sweet swindle. Beware of the door-to-door remodeler who just happened to notice you needed a new roof and offers to do the work. Good contractors are far too busy to be knocking on doors. Be even more wary if the contractor has an out-of-state license plate on his truck. Instead of reshingling the roof, he might simply paint it and be gone with your money, Kirchheimer said.

And that leads to another tip. Don't pay all the money upfront for remodeling jobs. Most legitimate contractors have a line of credit with their suppliers. Pay for a portion of the job after all the materials are on site and they finished the first day's work.

And when negotiating, include a penalty clause in the contract.

If the contractor says it will take two weeks, write into the contract that if he doesn't have it done in three weeks, you'll deduct 20 percent from the final payment. "If he balks at that, he has no intention of finishing the job on time," Kirchheimer said.

-- Phone flimflam. When comparing rates on phone service, obtain the bottom-line price, including all those junk fees that are tacked on. The dirty secret of the phone industry is that even though many of those charges sound like mandatory government taxes, some are not. One is known as the Federal Subscriber Line Charge or a similar name.

"The fact of the matter is, not a single penny goes to the government," Kirchheimer said. "It is basically a way for the phone companies to offset their own business costs." Different phone companies charge different amounts of junk fees, so a lower per-minute rate on long distance, for example, could end up being more expensive if the "federal" subscriber charge is higher.

-- Lead-foot tip. Driving in a highway's left passing lane increases your chances of receiving a speeding ticket, as does driving on Sunday mornings, statistics show. The ticket itself is expensive and will likely boost your car-insurance premiums. If you are pulled over, you have a better chance of receiving only a warning if you speak in short, respectful sentences, don't admit guilt and have an organ donor designation on your driver's license. If you do get a ticket and think it's unfair, contest it. Attorneys and judges may well dismiss it to avoid the court expense.

Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Co. newspaper. E-mail him at yourmoney@tribune.com. For additional discussion on spending wisely, see the Spending Smart blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/spendingsmart/.

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