Being a good consumer used to mean simply saving money for the future, comparing prices before you made a big purchase and paying your bills on time. Today, being a good consumer requires so much more. It can be daunting just to live your life without some person or company out there that seems intent on wreaking havoc.
A consumer advocate I once knew said everyone should think of themselves as their own individual little enterprise, taking care of your own affairs. Consider it like this: You, Inc.
We agree: You need to be an informed, engaged consumer because no one will take care of you as well as you.
Here are some best practices to navigate the challenges facing consumers, and a look at the top fraud complaints reported to the Federal Trade Commission and how not to become one of the statistics.
A few overall tips to get you started:
- Feel empowered. You are a smart, capable person. For issues you don’t already know about, you can educate yourself quickly through trusted friends or online resources.
- Whether it’s a car loan or a potential investment or a health insurance claim, if you can’t understand it, don’t say OK. It’s their job to explain it to you in a way you feel comfortable with.
- Read everything before you sign and don’t sign anything you didn’t read.
- Be proactive, not reactive. Protecting yourself doesn’t happen by accident.
- When dealing with an issue with a company, get the name of the person you talked with and log the date of the call. This will help you later if your issue isn’t resolved.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. No one knows everything.
So much fraud!
One of the biggest challenges consumers face today: Fraud, in all of its forms. It’s the single-largest category of reports to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The agency logged 2.4 million complaints about fraud last year, making up nearly half of the total of 5.1 million complaints tallied by the FTC, according to a report released in late February. (Other categories of complaints concern identity theft, credit reports, loans, debt collection and other topics we look at in other posts during National Consumer Protection Week.)
While the number of fraud complaints is roughly the same from 2021 to 2022, losses have soared. This shows fraud remains a problem and people are losing more money per incident. Consumers reported losing nearly $8.8 billion to fraud in 2022, an increase of more than 30 percent compared with 2021.
The biggest dollar losses stem from investment scams. The highest volume of complaints stem from imposter scams.
Overall, in 22 percent of all fraud reports, consumers said they were contacted by text. Twenty percent were contacted through scam calls, while 19 percent were contacted by email. Interestingly, although relatively very few people were contacted with an online ad or pop-up, 63 percent of those who were fell for the scam and lost money. Similarly, among those who reported attempted fraud through websites, apps or social media, more than half reported losing money.
Below we’ve outlined the top fraud complaints, with advice on how you can avoid having a similar problem.
The No. 1 type of fraud complaint: Imposter scams. (This doesn’t include identity theft, which is a completely separate category, not considered fraud.)
An imposter scam happens when you’re contacted by someone pretending to be a relative in need, or a government official, a bank employee, or anyone posing as a company or person that we’re likely to listen to and trust. Imposter scammers simply want to steal your information or your money, or both.
There were 726,000 imposter scam reports to the FTC in 2022, with losses of $2.6 billion, up from $2.4 billion in 2021. The median loss was $1,000.
The imposters usually contact victims through text, phone calls and emails, but also through social media or mail.
The two best ways to steer clear of an imposter scam:
1. Don’t respond to anyone you weren’t expecting to hear from. Period. Full stop. If you think a call, text, email or letter could be legitimate, call the relative or company or government office using contact information you know is correct. Call the number on the back of your bank card, or the number on your internet provider’s most recent statement. Or log into your credit card or Amazon account. Said another way: assume every unexpected call or text or email has bad intentions.
2. Never send gift card numbers or money through Zelle, Venmo, CashApp or another instant payment option for something you weren’t expecting to pay. In general, you shouldn’t wire money or send money through Zelle, Venmo, etc. to anyone who isn’t a close relative or friend. Don’t be fooled by an urgent request to supposedly pay your back taxes or bail your grandchild out of jail or avoid a utility shutoff or claim your sweepstakes prize. Real companies and government offices don’t ask for gift cards or P2P payments. Remember this: Gift cards are for gifts.
For other tips on avoiding imposter scams, see this guide.
Online shopping/negative reviews
These include costs that weren’t disclosed, merchandise that arrives late or not at all, online marketplaces and fake reviews.
Consumers reported losing more money to investment scams in 2022 than any other type of fraud. The total losses of $3.8 billion was more than double the amount lost in 2021. These include investment opportunities and companies that offer advice or seminars on investments.
You should watch out for any “opportunity” that promises guaranteed returns or says it’s no risk. Investments are heavily regulated — for a reason.
Types of transactions that lead to problems include annuities, cryptocurrency, pyramid schemes, callable CDs or opportunities touted by people at your church or another group of people you might inherently trust.
Don’t be rushed into making a decision you’ll regret because of a supposed short-term offer or a cap on the number of investors aceepted. You should research any type of investment you’re considering. Here’s a good place to start to spot warning signs of a scam.
If you have any questions about any investment or any broker, you should ask your state’s department of commerce or division of securities, or the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy by calling 1-800-732-0330 or emailing [email protected]. Or you can submit a form on the SEC’s website with your questions.
One of the biggest problems of late: cryptocurrency. Here are materials to help you if you’re considering crypto:
Business / job opportunities
These include franchise or business opportunities, work-at-home offers, multi-level marketing schemes, mystery shopper offers and more.
Issues with internet services include slower internet speeds than you’re paying for, difficulty canceling ISP service, unexpected fees and internet gaming.
Telephone and mobile services
Issues include cell phone advertising and rates, getting switched to another provider without authorization, VoIP service, apps, charges for calls not made and devices that can connect to WiFi.
Healthcare fraud can include signing up for insurance that isn’t what was promised, robocalls claiming to be from Medicare, and health products that make false claims.
Travel, vacations and time shares
These include misleading or outright deceptive offers for free or low-cost vacations, timeshare offers, etc.
Prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries
When isn’t a free prize free? When there’s a fee or taxes or some other catch. This category also includes foreign lotteries and sweepstakes that you may not have even entered.
Foreign money offers and fake check scams
What was once known as a Nigerian prince scam still lives, in different forms. With these scams, a con artist asks a target to send a small sum of money, on the promise of getting a windfall. Typically, the scammer will send a letter or an email informing you you’re getting a huge inheritance, but need to pay some fee or taxes upfront. Or some rich person in another country offers you a large amount of money if you help them move money to the United States. They’re usually after personal information: Your Social Security number or, better yet, your bank log in information.
Related are scams involving fake checks. With fake checks, you might be selling an item online or think you’ve been hired for a new job. Say you’re selling an item for $1,000. A “buyer” might send you a check for $1,300. You tell the buyer the check is incorrect. They apologize and ask you to deposit the check and refund the erroneous $300 through a wire transfer or P2P payment. Their hope is that you’ll send the money and only later will your bank notify you the check you deposited is fraudulent.
Scammers rely on banks following the law and making funds from deposited checks available quickly, usually within two business days. It may take the bank longer to identity a problem with the check.
Another common type of fake check scam involves accepting an offer for a new job and then receiving an advance payment to buy a computer or software from a specific vendor. You get the check, deposit it and make the purchases as instructed. You’re actually sending money to some accomplice. Meanwhile, the check you deposited is fraudulent, which you’ll find out in the days or weeks ahead.
Other tips guides on important consumer issues:
The dangers of debit cards
Avoiding scams, incorrect medical bills, privacy invasions and more
Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.