An Anti-Scam Tutorial Part I
We’ve published a selective anti-scam article about once a year, because new scams are being developed all the time and old ones are being recycled. This year’s article is meant to be particularly comprehensive, and will span two issues.
Someone’s At the Door
GENERAL RULE: It’s best to have a chain on the door so that you can open it partway without allowing entry. A little "peep-hole" viewer with a wide angle lens also is advisable; it allows you to see who’s there without opening the door at all. In case you do for some reason decide to let an unknown person enter, have a 911-capable cell phone in hand. If the visitor proves dangerous, leave the house immediately, and use the cell phone.
Scam: Usually this involves two people: They claim that their car has become disabled, or that someone has been injured, and that they need to call for an ambulance or other assistance. Alternatively, they may claim that they need to take some critical medication or have just become very thirsty while walking, or that they feel faint. They ask you if they can come in for a glass of water, or to use the bathroom, or just to lie down briefly. If you let them in, one will distract you while the other searches for valuables.
Countermeasure: Keeping them locked outside, make the phone call for them or get the water and bring it to the door. If they claim to be feeling faint, tell them to sit down on the front steps while you phone for an ambulance. If they want to use your bathroom and your compassion triumphs over extreme caution, let only one person into the house at a time, leaving any others locked outside. Keep side and back doors locked. Accompany the visitor to the bathroom and wait outside the door. If they then make an excuse to go anywhere else in the house, or to have you go elsewhere for something, usher them out of the house. If they are insistent, call 911.
GENERAL RULE: Avoid letting any unknown person into your house.
Scam: Unexpected person claiming to be a telephone or other repairman, housing or other "official" inspector, or a government functionary, who needs to enter your home. They may claim to be from the gas company checking on a report of fumes.
Countermeasure: Be particularly suspicious if there is more than one person. In any case, without letting them in (1) Ask for a photo ID, and close the door immediately if they do not have one. (2) Phone the organization they claim to represent. Do NOT use a phone number they give you – get the number from the phone book or from Directory Assistance. Keep them locked outside while you do this. Only after verifying their identity should you let them in. (3) If you do let them in: Lock the door after them so that no accomplice can slip in. (4) Stay with them the whole time they’re there, even if they ask you to retrieve something.
Scam: Unexpected person offering you a FREE inspection.
Countermeasure: Refuse. Their purpose is to produce business. The inspection will turn up some purported problem that they say they can fix. In extreme cases, the
"inspector" will actually cause the problem: For instance, some unscrupulous pest-control people actually bring insects or rodents with them. They release the creatures surreptitiously during their visit so they can "discover" them.
Scam: Someone comes to your door soliciting donations for a seemingly worthy cause, such as a local school event. They have a collection box, which may be sealed and have a printed label.
Countermeasure: If you want to make a donation to them, offer to mail a check. You have no idea (a) whether they really represent what they claim, and (b) how much of the money they will actually turn over. Do not give them a check at the door, since that has your bank account number and you don’t know whom you’re giving it to.
The countermeasure applies also to collection boxes you see in stores.
GENERAL RULE: When you donate cash, assume that it will go no further than the person who receives the money.
Scam: A home improvement contractor comes to your door and says that he has materials left over from a job he’s just completed, and can offer you work at a reduced price if you sign up immediately.
A variant of the above scam: Someone comes to your door and says that he just happened to be driving by and noticed that your roof or something else on the house is in urgent need of repair or replacement. He says that he has some time before he has to begin on the next job, and can offer you a good price if you make a commitment immediately.
Countermeasure: Refuse the offer: Reputable contractors do not do business in this way.
GENERAL RULE: Shun any offer that is good only for an hour or a day. You need time to give the matter some thought, possibly compare prices elsewhere, and to check the reputation of the person or business.
When the House Really Does Need Work
Scam: You engage someone to do work on your house. They demand a significant portion of the price up front, often claming that they need the money for materials.
Countermeasure: They should be able to buy the materials on credit pending payment as the job progresses. If their supplier doesn’t trust them, neither should you. The more you pay up front, the more likely it is that they will at most complete only a portion of the work, before disappearing indefinitely. You may be left with a partly demolished room and a pile of materials, and if they return your phone calls at all, they’ll have endless excuses for the delay.
Don’t think you can recover your money by suing them: Unscrupulous contractors usually make sure that their business maintains virtually no assets.
GENERAL RULE: You should pay progressively as work proceeds, with only a small portion paid up front. The last payment should be made only after satisfactory completion of the work.
GENERAL RULE: Never do business with a contractor before checking them out with friends and the local office for consumer affairs. (Also check with the Better Business Bureau, but keep in mind that they are business-oriented rather than consumer oriented; consequently the information they provide is of limited value.)
Scam: Someone offers to save you money by working on their "off time" and thereby avoid the overhead of his employer.
Risks: When he is not working as an agent of his employer, he is not covered by their bonding or insurance, so (1) least important, you might not be able to recover for any damage he does. (2) More important, although you can have him arrested if he steals from you or commits some other illegal act, you may not be able to get back any of the stolen money. (3) Most important, if he is injured on your property you may be liable.
Countermeasure: Think more than twice before entering into such an arrangement. Require that any workman provide documented proof of insurance at the very least.
Scam: A worker gives you a verbal estimate for work but when the work is completed, the bill is much higher than the estimate.
Countermeasure: Get all estimates in writing. Check for any fine print that makes the estimate non-binding, or allows a final price that is significantly over the estimate. Allow for an overage of no more than 10%.
This article is based on information from anti-scam organizations, and from pieces in newspapers and magazines. It will be concluded in the June issue of this newsletter.
W. A. Shapiro