Schemes that make sucker of you born every minute

PERSONAL FINANCE

April 23, 2006|By EILEEN AMBROSE | EILEEN AMBROSE,SUN COLUMNIST

The Nigerian letter scheme has been around so long that you can't help but wonder whether anyone still falls for the unsolicited e-mail that begs for help in transferring millions of dollars out of the African country.

While that pitch now seems such an obvious fraud, consumers can't get too complacent about their ability to sniff out a fishy proposition. There are plenty of other ways - and some far more subtle - con artists can bilk you out of money.

"Everybody can fall for a scam if done well," says Sid Kirchheimer, AARP's "Scam Alert" columnist and author of the book Scam-Proof Your Life being released this week.

Fraud complaints are on the upswing, according to a database maintained by the Federal Trade Commission. Complaints rose to nearly 687,000 last year, or about 33,000 more than the year before. Losses from fraud exceeded $682 million, jumping more than $114 million in one year. It's unclear whether fraud is up or consumers are better at reporting problems, says Claudia Bourne Farrell, an FTC spokeswoman.

Maryland ranks among the top in the country for complaints based on population size. The state is No. 10 for fraud complaints and No. 11 for identity theft victims, according to the FTC. Losses to fraud here last year topped $10 million, almost doubling the amount from the prior year.

The state's higher income levels make residents attractive targets, but Marylanders are savvier about schemes and more likely to report suspicious pitches to regulators, says Rebecca Bowman, an assistant attorney general in Maryland.

"Little by little, people are becoming more skeptical about too-good-to-be-true things," says Bowman. "It doesn't mean we should let our guard down. As soon as we do, something else will come around and surprise us."

Kirchheimer's book is an eye-opener for consumers who believe they have heard it all or couldn't be duped. He interviewed almost 200 experts for his book, including reformed con artist Frank Abagnale, subject of the movie Catch Me If You Can, and Bill Mason, a former jewel thief who pilfered - but later reportedly returned - an Olympic gold medal of Johnny Weissmuller, a.k.a. Tarzan.

The book isn't about just illegal schemes. Kirchheimer exposes clever, legal ways businesses get consumers to pay more and reveals tips to getting better service. (Your chances of getting bumped up to first-class on a flight depends largely on how nicely you're dressed. Airlines prefer that first-class passengers look the part, too.)

Here are some of Kirchheimer's findings:

Burglary.

The best place to hide valuables while away on vacation?

The washing machine or elsewhere in the laundry room, former jewel thief Mason told Kirchheimer.

"Burglars are in and out in five minutes. The first place they look is the bedroom bureau and closets," Kirchheimer says. "They don't have the time to go rifling through anything."

Keeping the TV or radio on is far more likely to deter thieves than a dog. Mason told Kirchheimer that he would befriend the dog after entering a house, lead it into the bathroom, close the door and rob the place.

House repairs.

Don't pay any money upfront. "If any contractor says he needs money to buy materials, that's a red flag," Kirchheimer says. "Reputable contractors have credit lines to buy materials."

Not all complaints against contractors end up posted with the Better Business Bureau. Dig further by checking for lawsuits against a contractor at your local courthouse, he says. And ask a contractor for local references.

Credit cards.

Be aware that card bills have a due date and a due time. If your payment arrives an hour or so late, you can be hit with a penalty. Even if the card issuer agrees to waive that fee, it can trigger a higher interest rate and you may lose rewards built up, Kirchheimer says.

Car sales.

Be aware that while you're test-driving a car, the dealer may be getting the upper hand in negotiations, Kirchheimer says.

A dealer will make a copy of your driver's license before you take the car out for a spin. While you're gone, the dealer may sneak a peak at your credit report to uncover your disposable income and previous car payments, Kirchheimer says. Car buyers typically spend 10 percent to 15 percent more on their next car, so old car payments give the dealer an idea of how much you are willing to pay this time, he says.

The author recommends not giving the sales staff your driver's license or signing any paperwork until you've negotiated the price. By signing papers, you might unwittingly give the dealer permission to run a credit check on you, he says.

David Hyatt, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association, says that is not an industry practice. A credit report is only checked when the customer is arranging financing through the dealer, he says.

"The dealer, because of the competitive marketplace, has every incentive to build a customer for life. ... and the way to do that is treat them fairly the first time around," Hyatt says.

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