I'm getting past due notices for a product I never ordered

January 27, 2016 16:15 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed: 

I keep on getting past due letters for a product I never ordered.  I've tried to explain the error to the company, but I never get responses; I only get past due notices with additional fees. What should I do?

Consumer Ed says:  

Above all, don't be pressured into paying for goods or services you never ordered. Many of these so-called “invoices” appear at first glance to be legitimate bills, and may include threatening or confusing legal jargon to create a false sense of urgency to pressure recipients into making quick payments. Scammers are hoping that you’ll simply pay the bogus bills without checking them out.  

Another variation on the phony invoice is a solicitation that is designed to look like a bill.  It may contain a required legal disclaimer that says in large boldface type:  “THIS IS NOT A BILL. THIS IS A SOLICITATION.”  Unfortunately, this disclaimer is often absent or obscure.  If you’re deceived into paying for the solicitation, you may never receive the goods and services advertised, and will probably have little to no luck in contacting the company, let alone getting them to refund your money.  If you don’t see the above disclaimer, don’t assume it’s a legitimate invoice.  

The following are steps you should take to avoid falling into this trap:

Verify. Search the name of the company sending you an invoice to see if others are reporting similar issues or other problems.  Check a company out with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org), and also try doing an online search using the company name and words like “complaint” or “scam.”

Carefully read all invoices and solicitations that are sent to you.  Check account numbers and the name of the company sending you an invoice.  If you do receive a bill that appears to be legitimate, or from a legitimate company, look it over carefully for the name and location of the company sending the bill.  If there is any difference (no matter how small) between the name of the business entity which sent the “invoice” and the name of a legitimate business, this is likely an indication that the invoice is phony.

Contact the company.  If you ever question an invoice that you have received, call the number on the invoice.  Legitimate businesses will have direct contact information, and will welcome questions.  Ask for a purchase order or other supporting documents.  An inability to contact the sender at the number provided is also an indication that the bill is a fake. 

File a complaint. If you’re getting bogus bills, file a complaint with the FTC at www.ftc.gov/complaint, as well as with the Better Business Bureau.  If the scheme involved and/or was sent to you via the U.S. mail, submit a Mail Fraud Complaint Form to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. You also should alert the Georgia Department of Law’s Consumer Protection Unit online at www.consumer.ga.gov, or by calling 404-651-8600.

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Is "free cruise" promotion real or a scam?

October 9, 2014 15:42 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed:

I am receiving notices in the mail from cruise lines telling me I’ve won a free cruise.  The same company is calling me on the phone and leaving messages.  I’d love to go on a cruise, but I don’t know how to tell whether these deals are legit.

Consumer Ed says: 

You’re right to be suspicious about the free cruise offers.  Almost certainly, the caller wants to sell you something in connection with that purportedly “complimentary” vacation.  There’s a reason someone coined the old adage, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  It may even be that the caller isn’t actually from the cruise line itself, but simply wants to give the impression that s/he is.  You also need to be careful that you’re not setting yourself up to be on the receiving end of high-pressure sales tactics, or worse, falling prey to a scam, such as the following:

  • Your actual cruise may be free, but you might have to go to some lengths to get it.  Usually, such companies require recipients of these “gifts” to attend an extensive sales presentation of some sort before they’ll actually give it to them.  One of the most popular such pitches is for timeshare sales.
  • It’s not clear what part of the trip package is actually “free”:  Your “free” cruise may well not include transportation, lodging, meals, taxes, surcharges, or other items.  Further, if you’re required to pay a deposit up front and you change your plans, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a refund of the deposit.
  • If you accept such an offer from a company via the phone, they usually will want to send you confirmation about the cruise/vacation package in the mail.  Meanwhile, they ask you to provide your credit card number so that they can assess a “small service charge” at the time you accept the vacation.  Your account is charged right away, and your cancellation period will already have expired by the time you receive your confirmation packet, if you’re even sent one. Meanwhile, hundreds of dollars of “service fees” will show up on your account before you can cancel your card.

The three examples above are certainly not all-inclusive.  In 2011, the Better Business Bureau received over 1,300 complaints regarding cruise lines and free-cruise scams. So, how do you protect yourself from vacation scams? First of all, the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act (“FBPA”) has specific provisions related to promotional activities in relation to “free” gifts, prizes, or vacations.  The FBPA’s promotions statutes require companies to give advance notice to consumers if they’re required to attend any kind of sales presentation to claim a free vacation/prize. Even if the notice does not fall into the promotion category, other provisions specifically apply to vacation “awards”:

  • The vacation must include all transportation, meals, and lodging, unless the offer or notice clearly and conspicuously discloses that some or all of these items are not included.
  • If a deposit is required to secure a reservation, the offer or notice must clearly and conspicuously disclose that information.
  • You cannot be required to pay any money other than a refundable reservation deposit (i.e., no service, mailing, or handling fees) in order to receive a prize.
  • The offer may not claim that you are a “winner,” have been selected or approved, are part of any special prize group, or are entering an event from which a winner will be selected, if in fact the intent is simply to reach prospective customers, or if the majority of entrants will receive the same prize or opportunity.

In addition, it’s always a good idea to do some research before you give any personal information or credit card number to a company offering free trips/gifts.  Here are some steps you can take:

  • Research the name of the travel agency and any other company listed on the free cruise offer on the internet.  Go to the Better Business Bureau’s website at www.bbb.org to see if there are complaints against that company.
  • Don’t make hasty decisions.  The sales representative on the phone may use high pressure sales tactics and tell you that you have only a short time to accept the free offer or you will lose the opportunity.  S/he may refuse to answer questions about specific dates and any fees, and only give generic, scripted information.  If this happens, you should end the call immediately.
  • Avoid giving out your credit card (or, especially, bank account) information.  If it is truly a free cruise, you shouldn’t have to pay.  If you have to pay, it isn’t free.
  • Read the written notice carefully, including the fine print.  You may miss important information otherwise. Are transportation, meals, and lodging all included? What other additional fees or charges are there? Do you need pay a deposit to make a reservation? If so, is it refundable?  What are the refund and cancellation policies? Are you required to attend a sales presentation of any kind?
  • If you feel you’ve encountered or been a victim of a scam, you can file a complaint with the Georgia Department of Law’s Consumer Protection Unit.  You can also report your concerns to the Federal Trade Commission for their data collection purposes.  Additionally, if you believe you’ve received a fraudulent vacation offer in the mail, you should contact the Postal Inspection Service online, by calling 877-876-2455, or at this address:

Postal Inspection Service
P.O. Box 16489
Atlanta, Georgia 30321-0489

Finally, you mentioned that the company is calling you on the phone and leaving you messages.  If you no longer wish to receive telephone calls from the company, you can put your number on the National Do Not Call Registry. Visit www.donotcall.gov or call 888-382-1222.


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Putting an end to junk mail

November 4, 2010 07:46 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed:

How can I stop the amount of junk mail I get?

Consumer Ed says:

There are several things that you can do to reduce the amount of unwanted “junk mail” being sent to your house.

To stop pre-approved credit and insurance offers for five years, call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (567-8688) or visit www.optoutprescreen.com.

In addition, the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) Mail Preference Service at www.dmachoice.org allows you to opt out of receiving unsolicited commercial mail from national companies for five years. They also have an option to reduce unsolicited commercial e-mails. 

Finally, you should write to the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – notifying them that you do not want your personal information shared for promotional purposes.  This will limit access to your information, which will keep you off mailing lists.

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