I've been scammed, and I'm not afraid to admit it. I remember when our house in South Florida needed a new fence a few years ago. I soon found myself writing a $400 check to an unlicensed contractor for "supplies.'' He'd been endorsed by friends, and his rates were affordable. A few days later, he knocked on our front door, dropped off a truckload of lumber, dug a few holes and disappeared. (For related reading, see Homeowners, Beware These Scams!)
He had to go "up north'' for a family emergency and ours wasn't the only project he'd left undone. We never saw him again.
TUTORIAL: Investment Scams
Remember the last time someone pulled a fast one on you? "I should have seen that one coming,'' you said, kicking yourself. I certainly did after our experience with the fence guy. I was right, but as I outline in my new book, "Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles and Shady Deals," it doesn't have to be that way. You can fight back – and win.
The first step is to admit that you are scammable. One of my biggest annoyances with other consumer journalists, in fact, is that they pretend they're immune to the rip-offs in society – because they aren't. You are about to discover, neither am I.
Never Buy a TV from a Guy in the Street
During college, my friend Steve and I were unemployed, living with my grandmother in Southern California and eager to find jobs to cover our college tuition bills. As we pulled into the parking lot of a grocer one blazing hot Saturday afternoon, a man approached us and asked if we wanted to buy a color television. It was brand-spanking new, still in the box, and would cost us just $40. We bought it. When we opened the box at home, we discovered it was a broken TV that had been picked out of the dumpster. Scammed! I learned the oldest lesson in the book. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Trust, but Verify
On its website, the bed-and-breakfast on Maryland's eastern shore looked ideal for a quiet country weekend. A wide-angle shot of its English garden and immaculate parlor displaying antique furniture and artwork, not to mention the proprietor's invitation to experience the small inn's "unique" hospitality, were all I needed to convince me to secure a nonrefundable reservation with my credit card. When my girlfriend and I arrived in town to check in, I parked just short of the property and soon realized that the neighborhood was iffy, at best. Dilapidated cars, some apparently abandoned, cluttered the street. The inn was a dump. We'd been duped. We phoned the proprietor and let him know we couldn't make it. He charged us for one night's lodging, which was another expensive lesson. Never make a purchasing decision based on a single source, let alone a source controlled by the company. That applies to brochures, a website or a flyer.
Multi-Level Marketing Equals Trouble
Just after graduating from college, I was invited to attend an "investment seminar" by an elderly affluent couple, who had been family friends for years. The pitch that evening was unlike anything I'd ever witnessed: The auditorium near the office park was packed with well-dressed, seemingly successful types. On stage, men in designer suits made polished presentations, in which they guaranteed us "automatic" six-figure incomes within weeks of signing. The fact that I could escape $3,000 lighter (that's $5,400 in today's money) was a miracle. This, my friends, was a cult of people pulling money from others. Within a few months, this multi-level marketing scheme had collapsed and I lost everything. There are no shortcuts to fortune.
The Bottom Line
I'm embarrassed that I fell for these obvious scams, but I'm also grateful. These rip-offs helped me avoid other, potentially bigger, scams later in life and I hope they will do the same for you.
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.