Common language can bilk consumer

Your Money

July 02, 2006|By ANDREW LECKEY | ANDREW LECKEY,TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

I speak your language. Now, may I rip you off?"

Everyone appreciates a familiar face or voice, especially in new surroundings. The only problem is familiarity can breed fraud.

Immigrants long have been welcomed upon entering the United States by those who communicated with them in their native tongue. It might have been a distant cousin, someone from the same city in the old country or a local company wanting to do business.

Such bonding is understandable and helps a successful transition.

Unfortunately, there are always financial sharks. In the film Godfather II, the young Don Corleone set up shop within New York's Italian immigrant community to obtain its members' hard-earned dollars in return for his protection. Some businesspeople with no ties to a community at all simply set out to cheat immigrants by speaking their language.

Recently, Spanish-speaking people have been a primary target of financial con artists. A study by the Federal Trade Commission found Latinos are twice as likely as any other group to be victims of consumer fraud.

In recent months, the FTC has halted the dissemination for a fee of a phony preapproved, guaranteed MasterCard that was offered in Spanish; stopped a mortgage broker who gave Spanish-speaking customers an oral agreement that differed from the actual document in English; and chided television and radio stations that ran certain Spanish-language ads that were deceptive.

State attorneys general and consumer departments have taken legal action and made settlements with various car dealers, mortgage lenders, apartment rental firms and repair companies that advertised in Spanish and then bilked customers.

The victims trusted those who spoke their language. In some cases the crooks hoped immigration issues might block some of the non-English-speaking victims from reporting that a crime had been committed.

Those who prey on non-English-speakers are the same criminals who take advantage of senior citizens and the disadvantaged. They should be subjected to aggressive prosecution. The FTC has joined with the U.S. attorney's office and U.S. Postal Inspection Service not only in legal action but also to hold forums for Latinos on potential fraud they may encounter.

This problem points out the importance of community education about financial issues, as well as the fact that anyone who doesn't develop a rudimentary understanding of the laws of their new country will inevitably be a prime target for crooks. Finally, it should remind everyone that no one is your friend simply because he speaks your language.

Andrew Leckey is a Tribune Media Services columnist.

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