Six steps to ensure you’re hiring the right lawn care company

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Image courtesy of vectorolie at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

BBB offers advice for finding a trustworthy business when you’re in the market for landscaping services

Now that spring weather has arrived, many Texas homeowners are thinking about how they can improve their lawns and gardens. For some, it’s a matter of mowing and trimming. Others may want to adjust their landscaping to the Texas climate, using less water, fertilizer and pesticides.

For those who lack a green thumb, a lawn care service or landscaper can help give you the yard of your dreams. However, it’s important to pick the right company. Hiring the wrong company could turn your dream landscape into a nightmare.

Better Business Bureau (BBB) serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin advises consumers to get clear, written expectations for the services the company will provide and agree on a fee before work starts.

Last year, BBB received over 7,000 complaints against landscape contractors and lawn maintenance contractors. Many of the consumers were unhappy with the services provided and alleged  the companies they hired did not perform the duties they agreed upon. Others complained about problems with advertising or billing. It’s important to do your research before hiring a lawn care business. You can find a list of BBB Accredited lawn or landscaping contractors at checkbbb.org.

BBB offers the following six steps to finding a lawn care company you can trust:

  1. Know what you want from a lawn service. Lawn care companies provide many services, so it is important to decide which services and products are appropriate for your needs and budget.
  2. Find a trustworthy company. Go to bbb.org to check the company’s BBB Business Review. You can find important background on the business, such as how long it has been in business, advertising issues, ownership information and how it resolves complaints.
  3. Check references. Ask the company for references and photos of previously completed projects. Call references, and ask about their experience working with the company and if they were satisfied with the services provided.
  4. Ask for a lawn inspection and free estimate. Lawn care companies that quote a price without seeing your lawn may not give you an accurate estimate. A company should be willing to visit your home to provide you with an agreed upon fee.
  5. Get a written agreement. A contract should clearly state the services you will receive, guarantees and refund policies, as well as how and when payment will be handled. If you are using a recurring service, the contract should also include how often the company will come out to work on your lawn, how to cancel the service and a schedule for when payments are due.
  6. Shop around. Get written estimates from a few different companies. Keep in mind the cheapest is not always the best. You may want to pay more for higher quality services.
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Don’t get taken by a fake debt collector!

government actionIt’s easy to get rattled when a debt collector calls. Is the debt real? The caller might use abusive, threatening language, but maybe you took out a payday loan years ago and missed a payment?

It might be tempting to pay and make it go away, but… not so fast. You could be paying a scammer for a debt you don’t owe.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office recently obtained a court order temporarily halting a fake debt collection scam based in Aurora, Illinois. The defendants are charged with using threats and intimidation to get consumers to pay payday loan debts they didn’t owe, or did not owe to the defendants.

The FTC is pursuing a case against K.I.P., LLC, Charles Dickey, and Chantelle Dickey.

Since at least 2010, the defendants allegedly used a numerous business names to go after consumers who received or applied for payday or other short-term loans. The defendants allegedly pressured consumers into paying debts that they either did not owe or that the defendants had no authority to collect.

To pressure consumers to pay, the defendants threatened to garnish consumers’ wages, suspend or revoke their drivers’ licenses, have them arrested or imprisoned, or threatened them with lawsuits. Many consumers paid, either because they believed the threats, or because they wanted to stop the harassing phone calls.

The FTC complaint also charges the defendants with failing to provide consumers with a notice containing: the amount of the debt; the name of the creditor; a statement that unless the consumer disputes the debt, it will be assumed to be valid; a statement that if the consumer does dispute the debt in writing, the defendants will verify the debt is correct; and a statement that upon the consumer’s written request, the defendants will provide the consumer with the name and address of the original creditor if different from the current creditor.

The complaint charges that the defendants: called consumers at work when they knew such calls were prohibited by consumers’ employers; harassed and abused consumers; used obscene or profane language; and called consumers repeatedly with the intent of annoying or abusing them.

The complaint also alleges that the defendants violated the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act and the Illinois Collection Agency Act, and that the defendants are not licensed debt collectors as required by Illinois law.

Defendants include: K.I.P., LLC; Charles Dickey, individually and as an owner, member, or managing member of K.I.P., LLC, and also doing business as Ezell Williams and Associates, Corp.; Ezell Williams, LLC; Excel Receivables, Corp.; Second Chance Financial Credit, Corp.; Second Chance Financial, LLC; Payday Loan Recovery Group, LLC; Payday Loan Recovery Group; Payday Loan Recovery; International Recovery Services, LLC; International Recovery Services; and D&R Recovery. The complaint also names Chantelle Dickey, also known as Chantelle Rudd and Chantelle Williams, as an individual and as a manager of K.I.P.

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Looking to upgrade your home? BBB offers advice for hiring the right contractor

Image courtesy of Idea go at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Idea go at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you plan on staying in your home for the foreseeable future, but would love to make some changes, a home improvement project might be for you.

Most of these projects take plenty of time and money. More importantly, they require skilled, reputable contractors who can bring your dreams to life. But before you commit time and resources, do your research.

Your BBB receives numerous complaints each year from consumers who were unhappy with the contractors they hired to make home improvements. Most complaints allege contracted work was not done properly or final costs were more than quoted. Other consumers complain about repair or billing issues.

It’s important to do your research before hiring anyone. You can find a BBB Accredited contractor at checkbbb.org.

For any business, go to bbb.org to check the company’s BBB Business Review for a history of complaints, advertising issues, and licensing information.

Once you have a list of contractors to contact, ask the hard questions:

How many projects like mine have you completed in the last year? May I have a list of references?

Ask for a list of references to get an idea of how familiar the contractor is with your type of project. A contractor should be able to give you names and phone numbers of at least three clients with projects like yours. Ask each client how long ago the project was and whether it was completed on time.

What are my payment options?

Don’t pay large fees up front or pay in cash. It’s best to solicit bids from at least three different companies. All bids should be in writing and should provide a full description of the services to be provided and the materials to be used. Depending on the nature of work, you may wish to specify the kinds (grade or thickness) of materials that will be used, as this could affect the bid.

Will my project require a permit?

Some building projects may require permits, even for simple jobs like decks. Additions or alterations to your home may affect title transfers or insurance requirements should you ever decide to sell your home. Therefore, be cautious of contractors who state no permits or inspections are required. All contractors are required to obtain permits for their work. Also, be wary of a contractor who asks you to obtain a permit on their behalf. The party that obtains the permit is ultimately held responsible for work that does not meet city code.

What types of insurance do you carry?

The Federal Trade Commission recommends contractors have:

  • personal liability
  • worker’s compensation
  • property damage coverage

Ask for copies of insurance certificates and make sure they’re current, or you could be held liable for any injuries and damages that occur during the project.

Some other things to consider:

Licensing. Use only licensed trade contractors. Do your homework on what trade contractors need to be licensed by researching on Texas state government websites.

Review Warranty Coverage. Find out if the company offers any type of warranty or guarantee on their work, and make certain you understand the terms and conditions of the coverage. Make sure the warranty information is included in the contract you sign.

Carefully read and understand the contract. Most home remodeling and/or repairs will be done under contract. Make sure everything agreed upon/promised is included and written in the contract. Do not sign a contract with blanks. This leaves room for contractors to go back through and fill in additional information that you might not agree with, or want done. Make sure you get a copy of everything you sign.

If you have an issue with a business or feel you have been scammed:

File a complaint with BBB

Contact the Texas Attorney General’s office

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BBB offers tips on choosing the right tax preparer

Need help filing your taxes? Your BBB encourages you to use caution when selecting tax preparation help. Using the wrong preparer could cost a lot–in IRS-related headaches, fines, and fees.

Every year, BBB receives thousands of complaints against tax preparers. Complainants often say the tax preparer made errors in their return, which resulted in fines and fees.

Although tax preparers may sign off on the paperwork, remember you are ultimately responsible for the return. If there are problems, you could be subject to penalties.

BBB offers the following advice when searching for a tax preparer:

  • Ask around. Get referrals from friends and family on who they use. Check the BBB Business Review of the tax preparation service you plan to use at org for detailed complaint information. Use checkbbb.org for a list of BBB Accredited Businesses.
  • Look for credentials. Ideally, your tax preparer should either be a certified public accountant, a tax attorney or an enrolled agent. All three can represent you before the IRS in all matters, including an audit.
  • Don’t fall for the promise of a big refund. Be wary of any tax preparation service promising larger refunds than the competition. Avoid any tax preparer who bases their fee on a percentage of the refund.
  • Think about accessibility. Many tax preparation services only set up shop for the months leading up to April 15. In case the IRS finds errors, or in case of an audit, make sure you are able to contact you tax preparer at any time of the year.
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Cedar Park man pays restitution after alleged securities fraud

government actionThe Texas State Securities Board (TSSB) recently announced a plea agreement from Robert Patrick McGann of Cedar Park, Texas, who allegedly stole money from investors. McGann will pay full restitution of $141,234, receive seven years deferred adjudication and surrender his license to sell insurance in Texas.

McGann, who has never been registered to sell securities in Texas, took money from investors who purchased interests in promissory notes. Three of the investors were age 65 or older.

In January 2008, the Securities Commissioner found that McGann, as managing member of Secure Growth LLC (SGL), was selling an unregistered bond investment. The note promised to yield 15 percent a year for up to seven years, but McGann failed to disclosure his or SGL’s expertise, operating history, and whether SGL had the financial strength to pay investors. In September 2008, he was sanctioned for violations of the Texas Securities Act by selling similar, and unregistered, promissory notes.

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Don’t get scammed by an IRS impostor!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As the tax deadline approaches, scammers are working hard to steal money from unsuspecting victims

Most of us know it’s not a good idea to get on the Internal Revenue Service’s bad side, so a call from someone claiming to be an IRS agent would have to be rather scary. Unfortunately, scammers will take advantage of that fear and steal your money if they can.

Your BBB frequently gets calls from consumers who have been called by scammers pretending to be IRS agents. Make sure you’re dealing with a real IRS representative, especially when they request personal information or a wire transfer.

Victims of the scam are told they owe the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) money, which must be paid immediately through a pre-loaded debit card or via wire transfer. The scammers threaten them with arrest, loss of a business or driver’s license or deportation if they don’t cooperate.

Scammers sometimes use fake names and badge numbers–sometimes they even know the last four digits of a victim’s Social Security number. They also use tricks like spoofing the IRS toll-free number on caller ID, sending bogus IRS emails and calling back pretending to be police or some other official.

Remember the IRS usually first contacts people by mail–not by phone–about unpaid taxes. And the IRS won’t ask for payment using a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer. The IRS also won’t ask for a credit card number over the phone.

If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, BBB advises:

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Don’t let scammers make an ‘April fool’ out of you

APRIL FOOLSEver had the wool pulled over your eyes or taken a wooden nickel? It can happen to the best of us, but with a little knowledge and a bit more caution, you can avoid becoming a scam artist’s next “April fool.”

The scammer might try to get you with a phishing email asking you to click on a link; a phone call telling you your computer has been compromised; or he might show up at your door, claiming to be a contractor ready to trim your trees or pave your driveway. These clever cons make it very difficult to discover if they are who they say they are.

April Fool’s Day is a chance for BBB to remind you about the  scam artists who will try to cheat you out of your hard-earned money. While the details of modern scams are constantly changing, the characteristics of a scam victim are pretty constant. Understanding what scam victims have in common can help you avoid becoming the subject of an April fool’s prank and falling for the next scam that comes your way.

Many times con artists will try and build your trust through emotion, or by offering something that seems too good to be true (because most often it is). Sometimes scammers focus their efforts on the most vulnerable and trusting, because they know they will be able to gain that trust quicker with less effort. However, with technology today, we’re all vulnerable.

Here’s what many scam victims have in common:

  • They take someone at their word. They don’t do their homework, ask questions or check with BBB.
  • They let themselves get emotional.  They are often times motivated by fear, greed, romance or excitement.
  • They don’t recognize common persuasion tactics. Whether it’s stroking the ego, making false promises or putting on the pressure, scammers are great liars. Don’t fall for their stories, get the facts at checkbbb.org.
  • They act impulsively.  They download files, click on pop-up ads, sign-up for trial offers and open emails from unknown senders.
  • They are afraid of being rude. They don’t want to hang up the phone or shut the door.
  • They don’t protect their personal information. They don’t shred documents or keep things locked up. They use the same password for every account.
  • They live alone or are isolated in some way.
  • They are worried about money.  They may have recently lost their job or have increased debt.
  • They don’t read the fine print. Perhaps they left their reading glasses at home.
  • They want so much to believe the lie that they hush the logical “voice of reason” inside them.
  • They rush into decisions.  
  • They are embarrassed.  They won’t tell anyone about being scammed so the scam (and the scammers) continue.

Consumers can avoid the most common scams by:

  • Research before you buy or sign a contract at bbb.org/central-texas.
  • Never wire money, especially to an organization or someone you don’t know.
  • Never pay money in advance for major repair work or for job applications.
  • Use a credit or debit card instead of cash as these offer more protection.
  • Never click on links or open emails from people you don’t know.
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Staying safe on social media sites: BBB offers advice

Image courtesy of Master isolated images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Master isolated images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Social media is a great way to be entertained and stay in touch with friends and family.

Unfortunately, social media sites can get you in trouble if you let your guard down. Clicking on the wrong links could infect your computer or phone with malware or even lead to ID theft.

Your BBB has the following advice to help you stay safe while you enjoy social media:

Do your research. Research the social media site or app before signing up. Visit BBB.org to view a company’s BBB Business Review. BBB requires all BBB Accredited Businesses that collect sensitive data to disclose their privacy policies and to protect the sensitive information of their users.

Read the privacy policy. Reading the privacy policy for a social media site tells you exactly what the business can and will do with your information. What you find might change your mind about the things you post.

Be careful what you click. Just because a friend shares it, doesn’t mean it’s a safe link. When social media profiles are hacked, scammers can share viral links that will download malware on your computer. Hover over a link before you click and never enter personal information if prompted by a shared link.

Secure your information. Be careful when entering sensitive information (credit card number, driver’s license number, Social Security number) online. Always make sure the website is secure by looking for the “s” in “https” at the beginning of the web address.

Think before sending. It’s never a good idea to send credit card numbers, Social Security numbers or other sensitive information to another person through email or text. Doing so could expose your information to the wrong eyes.

Check your privacy settings. Periodically review your privacy settings on social media sites. Limit your profile views to only the people you trust with your information.

Don’t overshare. Think twice before posting your vacation plans or other personal information. Scammers and thieves may take advantage while you’re away and vulnerable.

It’s online to stay. What goes on the Internet, stays on the Internet. Always ask yourself if what you’re posting should be seen by a future boss (or your future in-laws).

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Planning a prom event? BBB offers tips to make sure your child’s event is memorable–in a good way

Spring marks the beginning of many events and school celebrations. From graduation get-ups to prom preparations, the expenses can add up for parents. Graduation can be a year-long expenditure, from invitations and photos to caps and gowns. A senior prom can add up.

Limousines are among the most popular expenses for both festivities. Last year, Better Business Bureau received over 1,100 complaints regarding limousine services nationally. Most complaints alleged the vehicle’s failure to arrive and trouble regaining refunds.

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BBB warns: Don’t get taken by a government grant scam

ID-100297158Your BBB gets a lot of calls from people who had suspicious calls from scammers saying they qualify for a government grant. In reality, you have to apply for government grants. They will never come to you from out of the blue.

If you’re not familiar with how government grants work, the prospect of “free money” from Uncle Sam could seem pretty tempting. Unfortunately, the only one who stands to make money is the scammer.

The calls appear to originate from Washington D.C. Scammers will claim you were randomly picked to receive a seven or nine thousand dollar grant from the government.

Grant scammers usually follow a script. They congratulate you on your eligibility, then ask for your checking account information to either deposit the grant into your account, or to pay a one-time processing fee. The caller may even reassure you that you can get a refund if you’re not satisfied.

To avoid being a victim of a grant scam, BBB has the following tips:

  • Don’t give out your bank account information to anyone you don’t know. Don’t share it unless you are familiar with the company or person and ask why the information is necessary.
  • Don’t pay any money for a “free” government grant. A real government agency won’t ask you to pay a processing fee for a grant that you have already been awarded.
  • Just because the caller says they are with a branch of the government doesn’t mean they are. Take a moment to check the blue pages in your telephone directory, or do a Google search to check if the government entity exists.
  • Phone numbers can deceive. Scammers can use internet technology to disguise their area code in caller ID systems. Although it may look like they’re calling from Washington, D.C., they could be calling from anywhere in the world.

File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission if you think you have been a victim of a government grant scam, complaints can be filed with the FTC online or over the phone, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

For more information, visit bbb.org.

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