Call 360-861-4117 and talk to a fake IRS agent. I did!

IRS scammers are calling millions of Americans this week. Watchdog Nation has heard from many people.

So are you ready for a little Watchdog Nation mischief? Let’s sting the stinger.

Call this fake IRS scammer (as I just did) and pretend you will pay him money.

“IRS Officer Daniel Smith”

1-360-861-4117

Listen to my call with him here. Warning: Foul language alert (but not by me).  Note: This is the second call. He hung up on me the first time, so I called back.

This is a Soundcloud file:

Listen HERE.

Make sure you put your phone on Caller ID block so he doesn’t know your number.

I told him my name was Luke Walkersky.

Call him and say hi.  Tell him you are responding to a call. That’s all it takes. The longer you keep him on the phone, the less time he will have to hurt innocent elderly folks who fall for this crap.

Act scared. Make up your information.

He’ll say you owe the IRS $3,000.

String him along. Sting the stinger.

After you are done, post comments on this blog about how it went so we can all be entertained!

IRS phone scam

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

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What’s the biggest lie in the 2015 Texas Legislature?

Do you believe insurance companies will actually walk away from a billion dollars in profits if insurance lobbyists fail to get wicked Senate Bill 1628 passed? Dallas Morning News Watchdog Dave Lieber calls them out on this ridiculous claim the industry is using to promote this bill.

Read a news story about this bill: http://www.dallasnews.com/news/state/headlines/20150420-texas-home-insurers-see-another-strong-year-but-still-seek-limits-on-lawsuits.ece

Read my opinion column: http://www.dallasnews.com/investigations/watchdog/20150409-watchdog-texas-insurance-lobbyists-have-a-plan-you-wont-like.ece

mr moneybags

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Five Bills Designed to Make Texas Consumer-Friendly

Make shopping for electricity fairer for Texans. Force roofers to get a state license. Stop charging extra for people who pay with debit and credit cards. Verify that fingerprinting all Texans for driver’s licenses is legal. Protect auto insurance customers who ask questions about their policies.

These are the five dream bills offered up by Dallas Morning News Watchdog Dave Lieber in his recent two-part series. Read Part One and Part Two.

By far, his Retail Electricity Reform Act of 2015 is his top-priority. “I get more complaints from Texans about their electricity contracts than any other subject,” Lieber says. “I have placed the top ones into my dream bill. I’m seeking one or more lawmakers willing to take on the big powerful interests and clean up all the loopholes. So far, no legislator has taken the big step. But I’m hoping for it.”

Lieber wants to ban minimum usage fees, regulate unregulated fees and make comparison shopping easier by forcing all companies to advertise the full price including the delivery charge.

electricity screen shot

Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber discusses his legislative proposal on NBC5. Watch here:

Read about the four minor bills here.

Read about the major electricity bill here.

Follow The Watchdog at www.dallasnews.com/watchdog and see the progress of this year’s campaign.

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Top 10 Consumer Tips for 2015

This video shows the best tips for 2015 from Dallas Morning News Watchdogs Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez.

How did we figure this out?

Based on our mail and the most common problems we see. If you hit most of these correctly, you’ll lessen your chances for a hassle-free ’15.

Happy New Year from The Watchdog Desk at The Dallas Morning News.

Watch Dave live on NBC5.

Read the full column this is based on here.

For desktop and laptop viewers, here’s the information in a cartoon we made.

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Watchdog reveals secret land deal between Ross Perot Jr. company and TxDOT

Along a 35-mile proposed superhighway only one landowner has been able to sell right-of-way to TxDOT.

The seller is the biggest name in North Texas real estate. Ross Perot Jr.’s Hillwood Development.

Ross Perot Jr.

Ross Perot Jr.

The deal was never revealed to the public until this Dave Lieber Watchdog report in The Dallas Morning News appeared.

Read more Watchdog reports here.

Watch this video by Dallas Morning News Watchdog Desk Administrator Marina Trahan Martinez.

Read The Watchdog every Friday and Sunday in The Dallas Morning News and at DallasNews.com.

 

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New book site: BadDadBook.com

The Watchdog: Time Warner Cable’s fine print fools a customer

I’m fed up with businesses that tease us with large print come-ons in advertising and hide the conditions in small print that most people miss. Until now, the worst I’d seen recently was at the State Fair of Texas. The sign stated, “Ask Me About our Botox.” Underneath, in tiny print, was the word “Effect.”

So it’s not Botox. It’s the Botox Effect. Doh.

Today I call out Time Warner Cable for doing the same to Sherry Buffington of Farmers Branch and who knows how many others.

She received a flier from TWC with a “limited-time offer.” If she upgrades her TV-Internet-phone package, she would receive a Samsung Galaxy Note tablet. “A $399 Value,” the ad states.

Buffington called TWC and asked about the promotion. A customer service rep promised her she qualified for the expensive tablet. She gave the go-ahead for a switch.

But the tablet never arrived. She went round and round with the company for the next several weeks. Nobody would give her a straight answer about why she didn’t receive the promised gift. She contacted The Watchdog and told me she felt “duped.”

TWC informed me that Buffington had not read the fine print on the offer and did not qualify. That was the bad news. The good news, however, was that TWC folks went back and listened to a recording of her original phone call and heard that the rep promised her a tablet when he shouldn’t have.

TWC offered Buffington a $300 bill credit as a makeup for the error. TWC’s position: She had to switch to a specific bundled package (which she didn’t) and the fine print explained that.

I contacted Buffington and told her tsk, tsk, you gotta read the fine print in life. But then Buffington sent me the actual ad and I was truly surprised. The fine print was so small and in a lighter shade of type than the rest of the flier. The rest of the flier was in big letters. But this fine print was so small I couldn’t even read what she sent me. It was disgustingly small.

fine print

To be fair to TWC, the company is not selling the tablet but the bundled package. The tablet is the lure. But this reminds me of the famous saying: “The big print gives, and the small print takes away.”

I asked the company to send me a sharper copy. I measured the font size. The letters are 1/16 of an inch tall. The tiny print alerts customers that they must sign up for a specific package to qualify.

When I asked Melissa C. Sorola, TWC’s director of public relations, about this, she pointed out that the requirements “are stated three times in the documents.” Yes, that’s true. But it was in 1/16 of an inch everywhere. I don’t find that acceptable. Do you?

Font size in ads is an issue when shopping for electricity in Texas. Under state rules electricity requirements must be “written in language that is clear, plain and easily understood, and shall be printed in paragraphs of no more than 250 words and in a font no smaller than 10 point.”

For perspective, a 10-point font size is twice as large as the font used by TWC for its small print.

The Federal Trade Commission gives guidelines to businesses for fine-print advertising on its ftc.gov website. The regulatory agency has what it calls Clear and Conspicuous Standards.

“Your ads should clearly and conspicuously disclose all information about an offer that is likely to affect a consumer’s purchasing decision. Disclose the most important information — like the terms affecting the basic cost of the offer — near the advertised price.

“Print advertisers should not attempt to hide the real cost or the critical terms or conditions by putting them in obscure locations, such as the border area on a print ad, burying them in numerous densely packed lines of fine print or including them in small-type footnotes.”

The FTC adds, “It’s against the law for businesses to bury important details about a product or service in the fine print.”

The Watchdog continues to become less trusting of companies that try to hide information from us. I agree with Buffington when she tells The Watchdog: “Deception is never acceptable, and consumers definitely should not stand for it.”

IN THE KNOW: FTC standards

Here are the Federal Trade Commission’s Clear and Conspicuous Standards:

Prominence: Is the fine print big enough for people to notice and read?

Presentation: Is the wording and format easy for people to understand?

Placement: Is the fine print where people will look?

Proximity: Is the fine print near the claim it qualifies?

If an ad violates these standards, complain to the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP or visit www.ftc.gov/complaint.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

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The Watchdog: Dealer sells a car but later changes its mind

Every so often The Watchdog hears from people who regret buying a car. Maybe they drove home and realized the price was too high. Or they bought the wrong car.

They go back to their dealer and try to return the car. Too bad, so sad. There’s a legal contract, pal. And don’t even think about leaving the car.

If an upset buyer ditches a purchased car, a tow truck comes from the financing company. A black mark for repossession goes on the buyer’s record. But what if it were to happen the other way?

What if a dealer sells someone a car but then a day later gets seller’s remorse? What if a dealer signs a sales contract with a customer and then backs out after their lender doesn’t like the terms?

That’s what’s happening to Sandra Baker, an Arlington resident who works two jobs to save enough money to buy a car. She thought she found her ideal ride at Patterson Kia of Arlington — a 2012 Nissan Sentra for $15,000 that includes an extended warranty.

sentra

High interest at 18 percent, but the best part is no money down. She signed the deal and received the congratulations of the sales staff. When she went back the next day to get it, they wouldn’t give her the car. She was asked to sign a new deal.

The good news was her payments dropped. The bad news was that she was now asked to make a $2,500 down payment and find a co-signer. Baker turned the deal down. A contract is a contract, she said firmly.

The Watchdog discussed the matter with Joe Johnson, general manager at Patterson Kia, and another staffer in the finance department who handled the deal. I learned from them that the documents Baker signed were not final sales agreements but conditional on the availability and approval of outside financing, they said.

The deal was completed late at night after their lender closed. The finance officer guessed what terms would work. But the guess was wrong. They told me that after the lender’s rejection, they were allowed to put the original deal aside and seek a new one.

There was no intent to hurt the customer, Johnson said. “We do everything here by the book.” After we talked, Patterson Kia called Baker and offered her a third deal. This time the offer was a $1,100 down payment. She rejected that offer, too. She likes her original deal with no money down.

“They should honor this,” she says. “It’s not my mistake. If it’s a mistake by their financial officer, I hate it. I’m sorry. But I think they should honor the deal.”

Both sides are at a standoff now. In a phone interview, the dealership’s GM pointed out places in his contract that show Baker didn’t own the car. One document signed by Baker is called a conditional delivery agreement.

It states the deal hinges on whether “final approval of financing is granted by a financial institution.”

That seems clear enough. But North Texas consumer lawyer Jerry Jarzombek reviewed the document for me. He described the language used as “flaky” and pointed to inconsistencies that he said were enough to get the agreement tossed.

Elsewhere in the contract, it states in capital letters, “THIS CONTRACT IS NOT VALID UNTIL YOU AND WE SIGN IT.” Baker signed her name.

But the GM insisted that his dealership did not sign the contract. He’s right. There’s no signature with a pen. But someone stamped the dealer’s name on the line beside the words “Seller signs.” Under federal law, a stamped company name is as good as a signature, Jarzombek said, adding: “They rubber-stamped it. They’ve obligated themselves to deliver the car. They established mutual obligation.”

What can a consumer do? File a lawsuit for breach of contract and possible violations of deceptive trade practice laws.

If a consumer wins, a settlement may include additional money for damages and legal fees. GM Johnson says the language used in his documents is clear. “All I can tell you is, I’m in the car sales business. I’m not a bank. We offered her the terms that the bank made available to her.”

It could be worse. Under Patterson Kia’s conditional delivery agreement, if someone buys a car and drives it off a lot but a lender later doesn’t approve, the buyer has to return the car. If the buyer left a trade-in but that car is gone, Patterson Kia only has to pay the agreed trade-in value to make things right.

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The Watchdog: Stream Energy target of racketeering class-action lawsuit

One of Texas’ best-known electricity companies has been smacked with a major and quite unexpected setback. Stream Energy and its marketing arm Ignite face a class-action lawsuit in a Houston federal court charging that Stream and Ignite sell through a pyramid scheme in violation of federal racketeering laws.

The recipients of any potential settlement include hundreds of thousands of independent associates who worked for Ignite selling Stream electricity contracts between 2005 and 2011.

Houston lawyer Scott M. Clearman, who filed the case, says in a worst-case scenario, if Stream has to pay a major settlement, “It could close the company.”

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

Business experts say the ramifications of this lawsuit are so deep that a Stream loss in the case could wreak havoc across the entire multilevel marketing industry.

Chairman and co-founder Rob Snyder tells The Watchdog the suit is “distressing.” The allegations are untrue, he says.

The company is appealing and several Stream officials tell me they expect an appeals court to dismiss the class-action certification. We’ll see.

Snyder says there is no pyramid scheme because the company sells a true product and uses established multilevel marketing systems to build its massive sales force: “We sell electricity, and we pay for word-of-mouth advertising through our associates,” he says.

Clearman’s 5-year-old lawsuit against Dallas-based Stream tells a different story. The lawyer charges that the company’s sales setup benefits those at the top. He cites federal racketeering laws because, he says, phone and mail were used to perpetrate the fraud in a conspiracy led by Stream and Ignite leaders.

Although promises of big income gains are made to bring sales people in, at least 25 percent of those who invest to get started in the sales program don’t make their money back, his lawsuit claims.

Stream chairman Snyder explains that it’s natural for sales team leaders at the top of a hierarchy to make more money than low-level associates.

“Our leaders build sales organizations, and they get a commission on the sale when our customers use electricity,” Snyder says.

The case has attracted little attention. Even a top-ranking Public Utility Commission of Texas official said the agency was not aware of the class-action certification until informed last week by The Watchdog. But the ramifications go much further than Stream alone.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other sales organizations have weighed in with a legal brief. They argue that if the case is successful, businesses using multilevel marketing could face a series of challenges from participants who lose money.

“A wide range of businesses, from mortgage lenders to for-profit colleges would face the risk of being coerced into extortionate settlements without having a meaningful opportunity to present legitimate defenses,” the brief states.

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Stream’s Snyder says, “All you have to do is allege a pyramid scheme and you’ll be presumptively certified as a class-action. Defendant firms are looking down the barrel of a gun.”

Surprisingly, a staunch critic of pyramid schemes — and someone who once predicted Stream’s selling strategy would collapse under its own weight — now defends the company in this situation.

Southern Methodist University marketing professor Daniel Howard says, “The danger in this lawsuit is that if this goes through, it may ruin an entire industry, and it could bring down some pretty reputable companies as well.

“Once you have a class-action lawsuit like this saying there’s a racketeering and corrupt influence, it gives an ugly veneer to an entire industry, and that’s not necessarily true.”

The lawyer suing Stream and Ignite points to a $329 entry fee to join the sales program and a $29 monthly fee to host a sales website. He says many never make their money back. He cites dozens of sales recruitment meetings in the lawsuit where promises of great wealth were made to hopeful participants.

Until now, Stream has been riding high. The company started in 2005 and now has 350,000 Texas customers and 200,000 more electricity customers in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

Its marketing materials describe it as “one of the fastest-growing new enterprises in the history of American business” and “the largest network marketer of energy in the world.” The company claims about $6 billion in revenue since it began.

Most of the time, the company has stayed out of trouble. The Texas attorney general’s office has only two dozen complaints on file about the company. However, the PUC fined the company $94,000 in 2011 for numerous violations relating to contracts, marketing, connections and many other state rules.

Another top Stream executive, president Mark Schiro, tells The Watchdog: “We feel strongly that we will ultimately prevail in this case.” The judge’s decision was wrong, he adds. “And nothing has yet to be proven.”

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More Watchdog Nation News:

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The Watchdog: JFK launched the U.S. consumer-rights movement

In the billion words written about President John F. Kennedy in these last days, almost everyone has missed one of the most important contributions of his presidency.

JFK is the founder of the American consumer rights movement.

I bet you didn’t know that. Here’s how it happened.

jfk big

The year before he died, Kennedy stood before cameras in the Roosevelt Room in the White House and announced his support for changes in law that we take for granted today: truth in lending, pesticide regulations, meat inspections, government approval of pharmaceuticals, product safety and, my favorite, more TV channels.

Kennedy said, “Consumers, by definition, include us all. If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.”

No president had ever talked like that.

Kennedy went further, announcing his consumer bill of rights:

The right to safety. Products should not be hazardous to health or life.

The right to be informed. Consumers should be protected from fraudulent, deceitful or grossly misleading information in advertising and on labels.

The right to choose. Give people a variety of products at competitive prices.

The right to be heard. Consumer interests should be heeded by legislators and policymakers.

Kennedy’s wishes are now enshrined in law.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

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The Watchdog: An offer of a free cruise or airline tickets always comes with a catch

The next time you receive an invitation offering a free cruise or airline tickets if you attend a sales seminar with your spouse and your credit card, please do The Watchdog a favor: Remember the Harbin family.

The Harbins, along with thousands of other North Texans, received invites with a return address showing the logo of Royal Caribbean International cruise line. The letters included fake boarding passes with the recipients’ names on them.

The letters were actually from Oasis Getaway, a travel club that opened temporary quarters in a business campus off Southlake Boulevard. Oasis Getaway used the logo until Royal Caribbean lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter.

cruise-ships-at-grand-turk-1106432-m

The letters promised a cruise in return for a sales pitch. Kenneth and Jeanne Harbin of Justin like cruises, so they went to Southlake to hear the presentation.

The salesman, Kenneth Harbin recalls, “was slick but believable.”

One salesman was a fast talker from New Jersey who told his personal story. His father left his family. His mother had cancer. He never got to take a vacation. But when he joined the travel program he was now selling, he got to see the world. He’s happily married. Oh, and he’s found Jesus.

And guess what? He sells the same happiness to you for $8,995.

For that one-time payment on a credit card, Oasis Getaway promised to help book vacations around the world at lower prices than generally available.

Oasis Getaway claimed 31 years of travel experience on its website. Actually, the company was only a few months old.

The company sold its services to North Texans by explaining that its partner company purchased vacation packages in bulk and could offer low rates and excellent service for resorts, hotels, cruises, airline tickets and many other travel packages. For families that traveled a lot, the cost would pay for itself in savings, the sales staff promised.

encanto-1217173-m

The Harbins have six children, so they bought seven weeks of condo time, plus the lifetime membership, for a negotiated price of $7,294.

The partner, Reservation Services International of Florida, did provide the Harbins prices that were several hundred dollars lower than what they found on their own and with an actual travel agent.

Oasis offered contracts for lifetime memberships with only a few hundred dollars a year more required for annual dues. Hundreds of Texans paid for memberships, some as low as $3,000, others as high as $10,000.

The Harbins were given five days to cancel. But they didn’t test the service to book vacation trips until a few months later. They said Reservations Services International was slow getting back with price quotes. Sometimes they waited more than a week.

The delays made the Harbins impatient. They booked trips without RSI’s help.

In a protest letter to Oasis Getaway’s owner, the Harbins wrote that they found the membership they bought to be “completely useless so far.”

The Harbins asked for a refund, but they were told the company did not like to give refunds.

So the Harbins researched the company’s owners through state records. Then they filed a small claims lawsuit in an Irving Justice of the Peace court. Oasis Getaway no longer runs sales seminars in Texas, but it lists a residential address in Irving as its current mailing address.

Last week, the Harbins and the Oasis Getaway owners stood in a busy hallway outside the Justice of the Peace court haggling over the amount of a refund.

The owners, Thanh “Tony” Q. Nguyen of Irving and Linh C. Dinh of Duluth, Ga., made the case in the hallway that customers such as the Harbins have the “wrong expectations” about their services.

The Harbins countered that they were only asking for what was promised in the sales seminar.

Dinh has been in the travel business for years. A club he owned in Georgia settled charges of trade and commerce violations for $160,000 in penalties and $35,000 in costs, Georgia records show.

The Georgia Office of Consumer Affairs accused Dinh’s company of misleading customers about the location of travel destinations, not allowing refunds and cancellations, asking customers to pay $249 for free tickets, lying to customers about how the business worked, and using others’ logos to indicate partnerships that did not exist.

The company denied the charges but paid the penalty. As part of that, 43 Georgia customers received refunds of $700 to $7,200.

This time it wasn’t a powerful state agency but Kenneth and Jeanne Harbin. In the hallway, the couple and the owners batted refund numbers back and forth like a tennis rally.

The clincher came when Jeanne Harbin said she didn’t care whether the case went to trial because that would leave a scar on the company’s permanent record that other customers would see.

Hearing that, the owners agreed to refund the Harbins $5,500 in exchange for them dropping the lawsuit. The couple agreed.

Dinh and Nguyen declined to talk to me. “Reporters are never fair,” Dinh said in the parking lot.

Kenneth Harbin’s advice for anyone receiving a come-on with free cruise or airline tickets: “Throw it away.”

Oh, and the Harbins never took the promised free cruise because of paperwork complications.

Read more stories on Watchdog Nation about Oasis Getaway here and here.

In the Know: Tips

Travel clubs are risky. Some who sign a contract after a high-pitched sales seminar later regret it.

Be skeptical of offers of free cruises or airplane tickets in exchange for attending a sales presentation.

Never sign a contract for a travel club immediately after a hard sell. Take the contract home; show it to a lawyer and family members.

If a salesman warns that a deal is no good if you don’t sign immediately, steer clear.

Always check out a club’s reviews on the Internet to find out whether promised services are delivered.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

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Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

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Hipster site: DaveLieber.org