Part 1: For 2011, protect yourself by following these do’s and don’ts

Read Part 2 of this series here

Together, we learned a lot in 2010 that can make 2011 easier. As we close out a year that has been difficult for many, here are lessons from Watchdog stories past.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber column first learned, The Watchdog learned in 2010 that consumers should ask why a particular store or company sells a product or service at a price far below what others are asking. Watches, electronics and other items sold at lower prices are sometimes import models that cost less because they don’t come with a U.S. warranty. “Too good to be true” applies more than ever.

Similarly, if an investment adviser is hawking a financial product that offers much higher returns than other investments, investigate why. Every state has a government-run website where you can check the background of financial advisers. In my home state of Texas, check out Texas financial advisers and their records at www.ssb.state.tx.us. The U.S. government site is www.adviserinfo.sec.gov.

If a website showcases a TV reporter touting a product, do an Internet search to see whether the reporter and TV station are real. Creating fake media is a new tactic. Also, beware of websites that display logos of the major TV networks or Oprah Winfrey’s show and claim “as seen on TV.” Anyone can slap a logo on their Web page.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Adult children should consider keeping a closer eye on elderly parents, who can fall prey to swindlers. Stress that they shouldn’t make investments without consulting others. Tell them not to buy anything from salesmen who knock on their door or call or send come-ons by mail or e-mail.

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Beware of door-to-door salesmen selling alarm systems or trying to get you to switch electric companies and that evergreen scam, concrete guys who “just finished a job down the street.”

Skip reading the “terms and conditions” of any transaction at your peril. Donald Hufstedler thought he was getting a free book for only a $1.95 shipping charge. After he got a bill for $90, he called and complained. He was told that he had unknowingly agreed to the purchase. The ad stated, “You’ll get a free* trial.” Don’t ignore the asterisk. Fine print is never fine for you.

Watch for sales words and phrases that should scare you (not entice you): deep discount, pennies on the dollar, greatly reduced prices, promotional gift, prize, incentive, complimentary gift and, of course, that four-letter word, free.

For Texas readers: Instead of worrying about your smart meter, get smart about your electricity contract. Do you know the rate you pay per kilowatt-hour? Most people don’t. Do you know when your contract expires? If you are paying more than 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, you may be overpaying.

For Texas readers: Go to Google’s search page and type in “Dave Lieber Electricity Guide” to find my suggestions about how to shop for a better deal. Or for a hard copy, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Dave Lieber, Star-Telegram Watchdog, P.O. Box 1870, Fort Worth, TX 76101. Hundreds of Texans have saved using my guide.

Get your free annual credit report, as is allowed under federal law, at the government-approved website www.annualcreditreport.com. But once on that site, beware of links that offer other services for sale. No need to buy them. (And don’t get confused with freecreditreport.com, which sells a lot of information and isn’t government-approved.)

In financial disputes, explore small-claims court as an option. You don’t need a lawyer. And if you win, the other side usually has to pay your filing fees.

Don’t put outgoing mail in outdoor blue collection boxes. Go inside the post office to drop off your letters. It’s too easy to steal from the outdoor boxes. Even the post office advises this.

If a friend sends you an e-mail, especially from a foreign country, claiming that he or she is in trouble, don’t believe it. Check with relatives and friends. Usually it’s a con artist assuming your pal’s identity.

Once every six months or so, audit your monthly bills. Contact your credit card companies and ask for a lower interest rate. Ask for better deals from companies that provide your TV, land-line and cellphone service, electricity and Internet connections. Ask for specials. Tell them the competition is offering a lower rate. If you don’t get your price lowered, try again in a few weeks. Plans change constantly, and unless you ask, they won’t tell you.

Use your cellphone to take photos and videos of car accidents you are involved in, unruly salespeople, people you sign contracts with, anything to back your story later.

If someone pressures you to buy now before a “deal” goes away, run for the exit door.

If you have a problem with a collection agency, read the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and learn your rights.

No, sorry, but you didn’t win that foreign lottery. How do I know? Well, you should never be asked to send money to get legitimate contest winnings.

In Part 2, here, I’ll share a few simple principles that should help you avoid problems in 2011.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

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