Advice: Trust can land you in some hot water

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A service person agreed to fix a consumer’s hot tub. The guy never showed up. I tried to contact him and he ignored me. It’s pretty obvious that our economy is zooming along, but there are some downsides to a great economy. One is the availability and reliability of competent contractors.

From builders to those many of us rely on to fix hot tubs, do yard work and other odd jobs around the house, it seems that they’ve become rarer and more expensive. The worst part of this crunch is that consumers pay a deposit and then the project is either not started on time or at all, or started and not finished. Contractors often have so much work these days that they overpromise and underperform.

MY ADVICE: Never pay more than 50 percent down and only pay the balance when the project is COMPLETELY finished, and ALWAYS have a written contract, complete with a start date, a finish date and a complete description of the work to be accomplished. Following these simple rules will not eliminate all problems, but it will significantly reduce the number of consumers left high and dry.

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THANKFUL CONSUMER: Thanks to my “brilliant” advice (hey, I gotta take credit when I can!), a retired couple avoided the recent “Bitcoin Bloodbath.”

The consumer and his wife asked my advice about buying 20 Bitcoins as a big part of their retirement portfolio. They called on Dec. 16. I recommended that they NOT buy any crypto currency. The cost on that day for 20 Bitcoins was $386,860. At today’s price, the coins would be worth $117,159 — a difference of minus $269,701.

Know the difference between investing and speculating. Don’t speculate with money you can’t afford to lose.

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CONSUMERS ARE REJECTING DEBIT CARDS: In addition to the federal consumer protection laws that credit cards provide and debit cards do not, the perks associated with many credit cards are attracting new customers. Debit cards do not offer “rewards” for card usage.

MY ADVICE: Leave the debit card at home in the drawer and use a good credit card for all your purchases. In addition to establishing a record of every purchase, using your card offers important protections against fraud or loss. If you can’t qualify for a normal credit card, get a secured card — the protections are the same. DO try to pay off your balance every billing cycle. If you don’t, you’re playing a dangerous game and living on credit. If you can’t pay cash, don’t buy it!

For a great source on credit card research, including secured cards, go to: https://nerd.me/2EnnPLr

Another website to compare credit cards is: https://bit.ly/2u0TvCg

BEST PRACTICE: According to Nerd Wallet — “Keep an emergency fund. Many people go into credit card debt because something bad happens — the car breaks down or they lose a job — and they don’t have enough savings to weather the storm. It’s important to include an emergency fund in your budget. Treat contributions to this fund as an obligation you must pay, rather than just saving whatever’s left (if anything) at the end of the month. The more of a cash cushion you have, the less likely you’ll need credit cards to keep you afloat.”

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SPAM CALLS BY THE NUMBERS: Nick Larsson, head of growth and partnerships at Truecaller, a tech company that offers spam call blocking apps to consumers for their smartphones, warns what NOT to fall for:

• A caller threatens that your loans are past due. They say you must pay the balance immediately.

• A caller claims to be from your bank. They say a hold has been placed on your account and it will be fixed if you provide sensitive information.

• A caller claims to be from the IRS. They say you must pay your taxes and penalties with a credit card or wire transfer.

• A caller says he is a prince from Nigeria. He’s rich and if you help him access his money, he will reward you later.

Here’s what to do:

• Don’t pick up the phone

Americans receive most of their spam calls on their mobile phone. So what should you do if you see a number you don’t recognize? Larsson says the safest advice is to do nothing. Once you answer the phone, a red flag will be put over your head. Scammers will see your number as active and will keep calling. What if you see an unknown number that appears to come from your area? He says just because the number looks like a regional one, it doesn’t mean you’re safe. Scammers have become so sophisticated they can spoof a number so it looks like it’s a local call.

• Block it

If you haven’t registered your phone number on the Do Not Call Registry, you should do so. Larsson notes that the list helps only with regular telemarketers who follow laws and regulations. Scammers don’t follow any rules. The registry accepts registrations from both landlines and cellphones. He says if you are receiving unwanted calls on your cellphone, you can try downloading a spam blocker or a caller ID app. Another option is to block the number on your iPhone or Android device.

• Report it

If you receive a call from a scammer, report it to the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.org or 1-877-FTC-HELP. You will have to provide specific information on your experience, such as when you were contacted, the product or service that was offered, as well as the company’s name.

“One of the most important things is to not suffer in silence,” Larsson said. “If you get one of these calls, report it to authorities or with a spam blocking app so you protect other consumers.”

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REMEMBER BILL BROOKS: “He’s On Your Side”

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I have many more tips and interesting cases that I’m working on. Call me at 208-699-0506, or email me at brookshomes@gmail.com (#GoGetEmBillBrooks) You can follow me at www.billbrooksconsumer advocate.com. I am available to speak about consumerism to schools, and local and civic groups. Bill Brooks is a consumer advocate and the broker and owner of Bill Brooks Real Estate in Coeur d’Alene.

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