They say 2012 is the year of the apocalypse, and while preventing the end of the world is beyond the power of this consumer advocate, there is one disaster I can definitely help you avoid: The apocalypse of your bank account.
Shady businesses are coming for your money, and they are developing more sophisticated ways of extracting it from your wallet and purse. I know because I spent most of this year researching a book about consumer scams.
Here are 12 things you should never ever do as a consumer if you want to avoid having a scammer or an unscrupulous company clear out your bank account.
Don’t make an impulse buy.
Some businesses make a bulk of their profits – and some of those fraudulently – by appealing to your base instincts. Make a shopping list and stick to it.
Don’t believe everything you read (and hear).
The line between advertising and the rest of your life is blurring, from product placement in TV shows to friends in a bar offering paid-for endorsements. Be skeptical about everything.
Don’t wire money to someone you don’t know.
Too many of the scams I deal with end with someone standing at Western Union, having just sent a chunk of their life savings to a stranger. Not that there’s anything wrong with wiring money; just make sure you actually know the recipient personally.
Don’t forget to review the fine print in your contract.
Ads and brochures are meaningless. Read the actual contract. It may be boring, and even difficult to read, but you’ll thank me for it later. It’s not just a saying – the devil is in the details.
Don’t buy anything from a salesman who approaches you on the street.
Common sense tells you to avoid the come-ons of a stranger, but what if he’s a well-dressed guy inviting you to a no-obligation timeshare presentation? Don’t walk – run! Few, if any, legitimate products are sold by accosting pedestrians.
Don’t take shortcuts.
Credit repair businesses that promise amazing results are probably scams, and they’ll have their very own Federal Trade Commission press release soon to prove it. Taking a shortcut to better credit, a bigger paycheck or a ridiculously low mortgage is just likely to get you into even more financial trouble.
Don’t buy something that sounds too good to be true.
Just don’t. It’s virtually always a scam, and you really don’t want to take a chance, do you?
Don’t forget to read your bill.
You never know what kind of new (and maybe illegal) surcharge a company has come up with. Really, their creativity knows no limits. Only you can stop it.
Don’t believe them when they say you may already be a winner.
You didn’t win the lottery or the sweepstakes. The free cruise offer you got in the mail isn’t really free. Put it directly in the trash and get on with your life.
Don’t make purchases based on rewards.
Points and miles are a byproduct of your hard-earned loyalty. They are not the end-all and be-all. Don’t make a buying decision based on rewards; you’ll just end up spending more and getting less. Better yet, cut up your card and don’t look back.
Don’t forget to do your homework.
Say it with me: An informed customer is the best customer. It also scares the living daylights out of a fraudster. Don’t let them have the last laugh. Read up on the product you’re buying before you plunk down your credit card.
Don’t be stupid.
Don’t give your password or pin number to a friend. Don’t give away any personal information to a site you’ve never heard of – in other words, don’t be a dummy. You could be the next ID theft victim. That’s so 1990s.
Here’s looking at a prosperous – and scam-free – 2012.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions at by email.