Awareness is the best antivirus for scams

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Last week, AARP Idaho held a town hall meeting with Brett DeLange of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division. A summary of the meeting was in last Thursday’s paper.

One key takeaway was Mr. DeLange reminding consumers that if you don’t recognize a phone number, you shouldn’t answer the call. While that suggestion works well for individuals it doesn’t work for small business owners.

I receive calls weekly from small business owners frustrated by the number of fraudulent calls they receive. They say they aren’t able to simply ignore calls because the call might be an important customer or prospect calling for a legitimate business reason.

Which brings us to the other important key takeaway from the meeting: The best defense against these scammers is awareness.

For small business owners, this is important because research has shown that half of “attacks” on businesses are malicious intent while the other half are caused by human or computer error. That means employees (along with business owners) need to be educated on these scams in order to protect the company.

The top complaint the Attorney General’s office deals with from consumers/businesses are impostor calls. These calls involve a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.

Case in point: A small business in Hayden received a call from an “IRS agent.” The caller claimed the business owed back taxes of $2,187 and that the money needed to be wired immediately or the company would be shut down. The timing was unfortunate for the business because the owner was out of town and unreachable, so the employee answering the call needed to make a quick decision.

Not realizing the call was a scam, the employee (who was a signatory on the bank account) dutifully went to the bank and transacted the wire as instructed. It wasn’t until a few days later after the owner returned that the error was discovered, but by then the money was gone.

Bottom line: Had the employee known that this was a scam she could have avoided it. She is understandably upset because the caller convinced her the business would be shut down unless she complied.

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CELL PHONE PROVIDER SWITCH: Many feel stuck with their cell phone provider because of early termination fees (ETF). But did you know there are incentives offered by some carriers that will pay your early termination fees if you switch?

For years cell phone companies have deployed the ETF strategy to prevent customers from defecting to another carrier. Some carriers charge upwards of $350 ETF fees and yes, you agreed to it in your terms of service when you signed a service contract with your provider (if it is still in effect).

AT&T, for example, will let you out of your contract for a smartphone and data plan, for $325 minus $10 for each full month of completed service. Sprint charges ETFs up to $350/line for smartphones and up to $200/line for other devices.

You could simply ask the cell carrier to let you out of your contract without any fees. After they get done laughing and you hang up, you can check with other carriers to see what they advertise. Many try to entice you to switch to their service by offering to compensate you the early termination fees in your contract. Most do not charge you anything upfront, but a word of caution: Make sure you know what you’re getting into. Carefully read the fine print in terms of understanding your obligations.

From what I’ve researched, the buyout plans don’t cover taxes or plan charges, so keep that in mind when making the switch. T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint offer buyouts, but each one is different. Verizon offers some incentives in the form of trade-in value on your old device.

Bottom Line: If you’re unhappy with your current cell phone carrier, explore your options because you might be able to find a plan that fits your needs better, but be sure to read the fine print before you sign a new contract.

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Remember: I’m on your side.

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If you’ve encountered a consumer issue that you have questions about or think readers should know about, please email me at terridickersonadvocate@gmail.com or call me at 208-274-4458. As The CDA Press Consumer Gal, I’m here to help. Please include your name and a phone number or email. I’m a fulltime copywriter working with businesses on market messaging, a columnist and a consumer advocate living in Coeur d’Alene.

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