Fraud is a deliberate deception of a buyer by a seller in order to obtain an unfair gain. All states have consumer protection acts that protect consumers against deliberate fraud. The consumer must have suffered damage after having relied on a false statement on the part of the seller to obtain any relief. Exaggeration or “puffing”, however, does not constitute fraud. Everyone knows that a seller may exaggerate the value or quality of an item for sale.
Scams can take many forms, from credit repair clinics to trade school or insurance fraud. If you think you’ve been cheated by anyone selling a service or product, try first to resolve it with the company directly. Send your complaint to a supervisor, manager, owner, or president of the company in writing and provide copies of any documentation of your complaint. Never send original receipts or canceled checks.
It is possible that you will not get any satisfaction from the company that has done you harm, and a complaint to an outside agency may be in order. Send a letter or email with supporting documentation to the appropriate government or private organization.
Describe the situation thoroughly and succinctly, including names and dates. Chances are slim that these agencies will be able to recover any money for you, but if the business has any reputation at all, it will probably make some sort of amends if a government or private agency gets involved. Third party involvement indicates to a business that you are serious about your complaint, and could drum up some bad publicity causing them to lose business.
If nothing else works, you may need to resort to legal action to remedy your situation. Suing in small claims court for relatively minor (usually between $2500 to $10,000) disputes is an option. No attorneys are allowed as representatives of either party. You must sue, however, in the county in which the transaction took place or in which the business has an office. Small claims court advisors are listed in the white pages of the telephone directory under county government office.
These services provide free counseling for the small claims process. If the amount of damages is greater than $5000, or the company is located in a remote county, you may want to consult a lawyer. Bear in mind the impact of legal fees on any damages you might collect.
How to Avoid Consumer Fraud
- Remember it is almost impossible to get something for nothing.
- Research the product or service you are considering buying.
- Avoid putting yourself in situations wherein you may be set up to be defrauded (i.e. listening to telemarketers sales pitches).
- Be wary of clicking suspicious online offers, purchasing from door-to-door salespersons, or purchasing anything over the telephone (unless you initiated the call), particularly if it involves giving your credit card number.
- Do not buy or invest on impulse.
- Read advertisements, agreements, and warranties thoroughly, including the small print.
- Comparison shop for product features, price, and service.
- Get verbal promises in writing.
- Ask the seller to give you time to think before you make up your mind to buy.
- Get a second opinion from a trusted friend, advisor, even an attorney.
- Do not pay cash. You can stop payment on a check before it clears, and have the right to dispute items purchased on a credit card.