Phony Sweepstakes, Debt Collectors, Predatory Schools—Citizens Beware!

March 6, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Scams To Watch Out For

By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN – Bay Ridge resident Theresa Holler went with her family to a wedding in Long Island in the middle of a snowstorm with the expectation that she would be picked up by a Brooklyn car service. But when she called the car service, Holler, who was pregnant, said they didn’t have a car for her. It was only after she complained to the Better Business Bureau that the company gave her a $10 credit.

Gravesend resident Jacqueline Williams received an e-mail telling her that she had won several hundred thousand dollars in a sweepstakes, but that she would have to pay an upfront fee to get the money. She began asking questions, and at one point told the other party on the phone that she planned to call the Federal Trade Commission. She was given a number that turned out to be an answering machine. Then she looked up the real number of the FTC, talked to them, and found that the “sweepstakes” was a scam.

East New York resident and aspiring graphic designer Garvin Gittens took courses in graphic design at the Catherine Gibbs School in Manhattan. He says he learned only a little, and when he decided to continue his education at the School of Visual Arts, he was told his credits couldn’t be transferred. When he tried to contact the Catherine Gibbs School, he found out it had gone out of business.

These are typical of some of the complaints covered Tuesday at a press conference on the top consumer scams of the past year. The conference, held every year at the Customs House in Manhattan, is a collaboration between the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the New York State Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) and other watchdog agencies.

DCA Jonathan Mintz called “predatory schools,” most of them for-profit trade schools and colleges, the top fraud of the year. Many, he said, fail to disclose whether or not credits can transfer or if the financial aid that students receive must be paid back. Others make false promises about job placements and internships.

Mintz said that applicants should check these schools out before they make a commitment. For example, the DCA’s website contains more than 25 complaints about the aforementioned Katherine Gibbs School. He added that CUNY colleges often teach the same subjects as these for-profit schools at a much lower cost.

The FTC’s top fraud complaints included identity theft, debt collection, sweepstakes and lotteries, catalog sales and several others. On the subject of sweepstakes and lotteries, FTC representative Cindy Kapadia says that if a caller tells you he’s from the government and is alerting you to the fact that you’ve won a contest, don’t believe him — government agencies don’t help people claim prizes.

She added that seniors are especially the target of scams. Often, the scam artist will contact an elderly person, saying he’s a long-lost relative or grandchild and desperately needs money.

Like Kapadia, Donna Harris of the U.S. Postal Inspection Office  warned about sweepstakes. “Most foreign lotteries and sweepstakes are illegal,” she said. “The latest ones often come from Jamaica or Nigeria. If it seems too good to be true, it is.”

Sweepstakes “winners” who are asked to deposit a check they receive in the mail into their account, then wire money to the caller or emailer, should never do so, she added. “Most of those checks will bounce.”

Jane Azia of the state Attorney General’s Office said consumers should avoid debt settlement companies that misrepresent the results other people have had and demand fees in advance – an up-front fee for such purposes illegal. Some attorneys in loan modification cases also make false statements – hiring an attorney is not a guarantee that you won’t lose your home.

Marcus Vigil of the New York Department of State warned about high-pressure real estate scams, where the potential buyer is told that “several other people are looking at” a house or apartment, and that they have to pay today or else lose out on the deal.

The Better Business Bureau had its own list of top scams, led by financial services, online stores, consumer electronics, automotive, offers from telephone and cable providers and more.

Clearly, there are as many scam artists out there as ever, and the only way to avoid them is to be diligent, do your research, ask the right questions and know where to go for help.

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