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Beware Of The Slick And Fraudulent This Holiday Season


While digging through the consumer fraud warnings piling up in our inbox, we’ve concluded that scams are like slick sidewalks in the wintertime: At first glance, they seem so safe.

* The Most Shameful: Re-Scamming The Scammed

Topping the list is a recent warning from the Federal Trade Commission about a scheme that reminds us that scammers truly have no shame: Fraudstersare buying and selling "sucker lists" that identify people who’ve previously fallen victim to fraud so they can be targeted again.

These scoundrels contact fraud victims, who are often elderly, and promise to help them recover their losses -- for a fee that must be paid in advance.

Demanding advance payment should be a tip-off because, as the FTC notes, laws regulating telemarketers forbid them from requesting payment until seven business days after they deliver what was promised.

The FTC recently shut down one such operation in Florida that bilked an additional $1.3 million from consumers who had already been victimized by bogus timeshare and precious metal schemes. Consumers on sucker lists might not even know they’ve been scammed until they’re contacted by these so-called “recovery experts” who often claim to represent legitimate companies or government agencies. Some claim they’re recovered the funds but can't release them until claims are  filed.

Legitimate agencies or nonprofits that assist consumers do not charge for their services, says the FTC. Consumers should never give out personal information and credit card or checking account numbers to solicitors -- and they should report the schemes to the FTC.

* Watch Those Black Friday Deals

The St. Louis Better Business Bureau says consumers should carefully check out the flux of “Black Friday”deals.

Michelle Corey, president of the local BBB, says consumers should do their homework so they can best evaluate the highly publicized one-day deals and specials, whether they are shopping online or in a store.

"Some deals may look good, but quantities may be extremely limited or the size of the discount greatly exaggerated," Corey said in the BBB report. "By checking prices at several retailers and reading advertisements carefully, consumers can make an educated decision on whether it's worthwhile to stand in line or miss a good night's sleep."

She also recommends checking return and refund policies before making purchases. Some require that returns be made within a few days of purchase or will only accept returns if a product is defective. Others might give store credit instead of cash refunds.

* Hidden Costs In Holiday Layaway Plans

The St. Louis BBB advises consumers to read and understand a store's layaway contract before using the service. That includes understanding fees that could add to the cost of the purchase.

On the plus side, many layaway plans allow buyers to pay for an item in installments at no interest. But some might charge storage fees or penalties for late payments or for canceling a layaway if the consumer no longer wants the product.

The BBB says it’s also important to understand who is handling the transaction. In some cases, third-party businesses provide online layaway plans between customers and retailers that don't have layaway. Customers make installments to the third-party provider who buys the item from the retailer and ships it to the customer once the full price is met.

Consumers can check BBB ratings at the BBB Business Review or BBB Charity Review at www.bbb.org or by calling 314-645-3300.

* Beware Of Holiday Greetings From Scammers

The national Better Business Bureau has also compiled a list of holiday fraud, which includes a warning about scammers who send e-cards and email messages that offer bogus links to delivery information for packages.

The BBB’s warning isn’t new but it bears repeating: Never click on a link or attachment unless you are positive it is from a credible and secure source. Always check emails for things that don’t match up, including email addresses, typos and grammatical mistakes. Keep your antivirus software on your computer current.

* Know Your Tour Company

The St. Louis BBB warns that it’s been getting lots of consumer complaints about R & M Tours, an Illinois company that books charter bus excursions for St. Louis area travelers. According to the BBB, the tour company has refused to refund customers' money after repeatedly canceling trips to Tunica, Miss.

The business has an "F" rating with BBB, the lowest possible.  Consumers have filed 17 complaints against the business, most of them in 2014. Between 1996 and 2005, consumers filed more than 50 similar complaints against other tour businesses operated by the company’s owner.

You can read more about the investigation on the BBB’s website. In the meantime, the bureau has some suggestions for consumers before booking a bus trip:

1. Research both the tour operator and the bus company that will be transporting you, if the two are different. Ask about required licenses and demand proof of insurance. Ask for references. Check the company’s rating with the BBB.

2. Get agreements in writing. Clarify whether taxes and fees are included or must be paid separately.

3. Understand the procedure should you or the tour company cancel the trip. If possible, don't pay for everything in advance.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.