Shop Smart, Spend Less. BBB’s Guide To Back-to-school Shopping During Tax-free Weekend

Since 1999, more and more Texans have shopped for back-to-school items during the state’s annual tax-free weekend.  However, this year shoppers are looking to spend less and shop smarter.  According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, the average family with children in grades K-12 plans to spend around $630 in school supplies.  That’s almost $40 less than  last year. The Texas State Comptroller estimates shoppers will be saving $87 million in local and state taxes.

But first it’s important to note which items are tax-free.  The law exempts most clothing, footwear, school supplies and backpacks priced under $100 from sales and use taxes, which could save shoppers about $8 on every $100 they spend.  A complete list of tax-free items are listed on this website.

So what steps can you take to ensure you’re getting to most bang for your buck?  BBB offers these tips to help you save.

Create a budget. Do a search of the items you are looking to buy and add them all up. If you are looking to spend less, make sure you stick to your budget and try not to buy items that your child may not use or need.

Use price comparison apps. Apps can come in handy when you are doing real time shopping. Some apps use your phone’s camera to scan a product code.  Then they search online databases to show you prices and information about similar products sold online or in stores.

Buy used or refurbished items. Don’t think that you have to pay full price for an item that’s good as new. Shopping for clothing, footwear, and school supplies at resale shops could end up saving you a few extra dollars.

Shop online. Avoid the long lines and stress that shopping in a store can bring. Many retailers have what you need on their website and even offer suggestions after you add an item to your shopping cart.  Some stores also offer in-store pickup so that you won’t have to pay for shipping.

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Keep Scammers At “Bae” – Tips to Protect Your Identity on Social Media

In a society ruled by communication and technology, social media is King. Given the active role it plays in our everyday lives, it is safe to assume it is here to stay. Even businesses are turning to social networking as a way to connect with consumers and other professionals. But, is sharing always caring?

Unfortunately, sharing too much personal information may put you at risk of identity theft or hacking. According to the FBI, hackers use social media sites to gain access to your computer or phone by installing unwanted software. Sometime referred to as “social hackers” or “social engineers,” these hackers manipulate people through social interactions online.

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Center for Social Media website, Facebook users share approximately 684,478 pieces of content every minute, and the average user creates 90 pieces of content each month. Once information is posted to a social networking site, it is no longer private. Remember, the more information you post, the more vulnerable you may become.

To protect yourself from potential hackers on social media, BBB advises you:

  • Secure your information. Be careful when entering sensitive information (credit card numbers, 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 site’s web address.
  • Make strong passwords and change them often. Take time to go through your passwords and change them. Every three months is a good timeline to follow, but change them at least twice a year. Avoid obvious or easy-to-guess passwords. You should also avoid using your birthday, child’s name or birthday, mother’s maiden name or the last four digits of your Social Security number. Consider creating a unique password for each of your social media accounts.
  • Be careful what you click. Just because a friend shares it, doesn’t mean it is 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. Also, be cautious of pop-up windows and keep your antivirus software up-to-date.
  • Don’t overshare. Never share your Social Security number on social media sites. Also, think twice before sharing your vacation plans away from home, or information that makes you vulnerable, as scammers and thieves could take advantage of you.
  • Check your privacy settings. Periodically, review your privacy settings on your social media accounts. Limit your profile views to only your friends and the people you trust with your information. Also, read the terms of service and privacy policy on social media sites, as it tells you exactly what the site can and will do with your information.
  • Think before you post. Once a status or photo is posted, even if deleted, it is still somewhere in cyberspace forever. Use your best judgement: always ask yourself if it should be posted and think of the possible ramifications of the information shared. 
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BBB Accepting Submissions For Annual Awards Competition

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Do you think you have what it takes to be the next Torch Award winner? Does your business demonstrate a solid commitment to marketplace trust? Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin is now accepting entries for the regional 2016 Torch Awards for Ethics competition.

BBB created the Torch Awards for Ethics regional competition to recognize and celebrate ethical business practices for companies located in Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin. Spotlighting these companies fits BBB’s mission, which is to be the leader in advancing marketplace trust.

Any for-profit business in the 79-county service area of BBB can submit an entry for the Torch Awards. Entrants must be in business for at least three years. While BBB Accreditation is not a requirement, businesses must be in good standing with BBB and have at least a “B” rating to be considered for the award. Also, past winners can only enter once every three years.

Candidates will be evaluated by a panel of judges from the business and academic communities. The judging criteria includes these six categories:

  • Leadership Commitment to Ethical Practices
  • Communication of Ethical Practices
  • Leadership Practices to Unify the Organization
  • Organizational Commitment to Performance Management Practices
  • Organizational Commitment to Ethical Human Resource Practices
  • Organizational Commitment to the Community

The winner of the 2016 Torch Award has the unique opportunity to receive public recognition for their excellence in ethical business practices. Being selected as a BBB Torch Award Winner is not only an honor, but includes the following recognition:

  • Inclusion in a press release announcing winners
  • Announcements made via BBB’s social media channels
  • Inclusion in several BBB promotional vehicles
  • Lifetime use of the BBB Torch Awards Seal (As long as winners maintain a “B” rating with BBB)
  • Torch Award trophy presentation by BBB
  • Professional quality photos taken of the winning business by BBB
  • Website recognition.
  • Perpetual placement on Torch Awards winners page (As long as winners maintain a “B” rating with BBB)
  • Announcement and recognition at the BBB Annual Meeting in February 2016
  • Qualification to enter the 2016 International BBB Torch Awards for Ethics

Austin Real Estate Partners, Dyezz Surveillance and Abacus School of Austin were awarded the 2015 BBB Torch Awards for Ethics in February. You can watch interviews with the winners here.

Businesses may also register to attend a FREE “How to Submit Your Torch Entry” webinar on Thursday, July 30, 2015, by clicking here. For entry forms and additional information, click here.

The deadline for submission is Oct. 14, 2015.

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BBB offers advice about door-to-door sales this summer

If you live in a home, chances are you have talked to a sales representative eager to sell you cleaning supplies, cosmetics or magazine subscriptions. This summer,Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin advises you to be on guard the next time a sales representative knocks on your door.

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According to the Texas Attorney General, under Texas law, a door-to-door seller must advise you verbally and in writing that you have a right to cancel the sale within three days. The sales representative must also give you a contract or receipt stating the date of the sale, the name and address of the merchant and a statement of your right to cancel the contract, which includes the address where you send your cancellation notice.

BBB offers these tips for consumers to consider if or when a sales representative comes to your door:

  • Know who you are buying from. If you purchase from or contract with a local business, you can probably return the product or dispute the work done. On the other hand, if you buy from a “fly-by-night” sales representative, you take the risk of never seeing that person again.
  • Do your research and ask questions.  Always ask for a physical address and for references, and take time to check the information out. According to the Texas Attorney General, businesses in Texas are required to register with the Secretary of State. You can check with the Secretary of State or your BBB.
  • Resist pressure to “buy now.” Don’t be pressured to take advantage of a time-sensitive offer, like “once in a lifetime” or “today only.” Instead do some comparison shopping and take time to decide whether you want the product being sold. For a business you can trust, check out BBB’s Accredited Business directory at checkbbb.org.
  • Know your rights. The Texas Business & Commerce Code states that you have three days to cancel a contract for goods or services sold to you, regardless of whether you have received the goods or services. Keep your receipt or contract and a copy of your cancellation notice. Remember, you are not obligated to return goods to the seller until you have recovered either your money or your agreement to pay money.

For more information about your local BBB, to file a complaint or to find or report a scam, visit bbb.org/central-texas.

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BBB warns of loan scams during Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week”

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Are you strapped for cash? Maybe you just need a little extra cash until payday, or you are an entrepreneur looking for a last-minute loan. Don’t go swimming in shark-infested waters. In honor of “Shark Week,” Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin advises you to watch out for hungry sharks looking to prey on you through loan scams.

Most predatory lenders target new entrepreneurs or desperate consumers in need of immediate financial help. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, it is easy to miss a scam when you are busy trying to get your business financed. The Small Business Association warns prospective business owners of “fake investors,” who are located overseas and require a steep fee in return for quick approval.

Payday lenders charge high interest rates, set unaffordable payment terms and use high-pressure collection tactics that can make paying off loans nearly impossible.

Advance-fee lenders charge an upfront fee and will “guarantee” you a loan despite your credit history. Also, chances are, you won’t get your money back. Real lenders, like banks or credit unions, check your credit history – even if your credit history is good.

In 2014, BBB received over 6,700 complaints nationwide regarding loans, loan servicing and small business loans. Most consumer complaints reported issues with contracts, billing or collection and sales.

If you are looking to take out a loan, BBB advises you to “keep your head above water” and be on the lookout for these red flags:

  • The lender’s track record is poor. Consumers should review the BBB Business Review for any business before a transaction. A history of unanswered complaints, advertising issues or government action will let consumers know the company should be avoided.
  • The lender requires an upfront fee.Legitimate financial lenders do not charge up-front fees to process a loan application. Beware of consultants, brokers and loans that require a fee up front and collect your money as a step towards getting investment.
  • The lender uses high pressure sales tactics. Advance-fee loans can carry extremely high interest rates and have detailed information in the contract. Consumers should never feel forced to make a decision on the spot and should take time to get everything in writing before agreeing to the terms of the loan.
  • The lender has little contact information. Beware of any business that only has an online presence and no physical address and businesses with no contact information beyond an email address or phone number.

To find a trustworthy loan business or service, visit BBB’s Accredited Business Directory on check.bbb.org or your local BBB website.

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Online precious metal dealer receives over 100 complaints regarding delivery and refund issues

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Bullion Direct, an online precious metal dealer located in Austin, Texas, is racking up complaints with Better Business Bureau (BBB) serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin. Consumers are located in 35 different states. This year, BBB has received over 100 complaints against the business. While some of these complaints have been resolved, many are either pending a response from the business or have been closed unanswered. Additionally, three dozen of those complaints have been filed in the past 15 days.

Complainants allege that they have ordered products from Bullion Direct, but the product has not been received after several weeks, despite their payment being processed. Disputes also allege consumers have sold products through the Bullion Direct exchange and the product was delivered, but the consumer never received the payment promised. Additionally, consumers report to BBB that they contracted with Bullion Direct to store their previous purchases but were unable to reach anyone and get their product out of storage. The disputed amounts range from $300 to $97,000. In most cases, consumers have sent their money to Bullion Direct via wire transfer.

In general, consumers are requesting BBB’s assistance to have the products or funds delivered immediately or a refund of the purchase. According to its website, www.bulliondirect.com “provides a platform for the trading, clearing, purchasing, and validation of physical previous metals.” The company’s website has a list of items on its homepage, with individual pricing ranging from several hundred dollars to more than $10,000 for items such as an individual Bullion Gold Bar .999 Pure CUMX (10.000 oz.). A special note at the top of the homepage reads, “Bullion Direct has experienced significant transactional delays. To avoid further inconvenience or other adverse consequences to our customers, Bullion Direct is suspending its operations as it attempts to resolve those issues. We intend to keep you informed at this website. Thank you for your patience.” According to the website, Bullion Direct has been operating out of Austin, Texas, since August 1999.

Consumers interested in investing in precious metals should keep the following advice in mind:

  • Research the company advertising the investment. BBB Business Reviews are available online at bbb.org. Make sure the company has a long history of dealing with precious metals, resolving consumer disputes and is free from any advertising concerns.
  • Research the history of the specific precious metal you are interested in purchasing. Advertised claims such as “rare” or “in limited supply” may not be indicative of how much of that precious metal is available on the open market.
  • Consider consulting with a financial advisor. Many banks offer bullion investing or have staff that specialize in financial planning.
  • Be wary of buying bullion or precious metals that are not in your possession. Companies may recommend your precious metals be stored at a “secured facility,” by the seller or a third party. When you buy precious metals without taking delivery, you face the risk it does not exist, are not of the quality described or not properly insured.
  • Understand the risks of wiring money. Wiring money is just like sending cash, and it can be nearly impossible to reverse the transaction.
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BBB offers tips to secure your online safety on Social Media Day

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Image courtesy of ddpavumba at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the fast-paced world we live in today, it is no surprise social media has its own day of recognition. On June 30, people around the world celebrate the impact social media has made on society.

Not only is social media used as a way to connect with family and friends, but is a tool businesses use to market its brand and network with consumers and other businesses. In honor of Mashable’s sixth annual Social Media Day, your BBB has helpful tips to keep you safe online.

BBB advises consumers to read the privacy policy on social media sites. The privacy policy tells you exactly what the site can and will do with your personal information, including information and photos you share.

Check your privacy settings and limit your profile to be viewed by only the people you trust and know.

Be careful when entering sensitive information like credit card numbers and don’t overshare.

Think twice before posting vacation plans or other personal information, as scammers and thieves could take advantage while you are away.

Keep in mind that what is posted on the Internet stays on the Internet. Always ask yourself if what you are posting should be seen by your boss or a future boss.

For more tips you can trust, visit bbb.org/central-texas. For the latest news and information, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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BBB warns of scams that target senior citizens

ID-10090006We all love Grandma, don’t we? She’s always been there for us. Unfortunately, scammers love Grandma too, but for the wrong reasons. Scam artists often target seniors because they’re more likely to be home – possibly even alone – and may have some money saved up.

Last year, there were nearly 215,000 complaints of fraud and identity theft from victims over the age of 60, according to the 2014 Consumer Sentinel Network. BBB encourages senior citizens to be aware of scams or fraud schemes that can affect them. It’s also important for families to keep the lines of communication open regarding finances and common scams targeting their elderly loved ones.

Some common scams that target senior citizens include:

Grandparent scam: Also called an “emergency scam.” Scammers will place a call to a senior posing as their grandchild or a relative in need of help or trapped in a foreign country. They will usually ask for cash to solve the problem and ask for payment through a money wiring service. Some red flags to look out for include urgent callers pressuring quick action and callers claiming to be in Canada or another international location.

Health care or insurance fraud: Scammers may pose as a Medicare or insurance representative to get seniors to give them their personal or financial information. This was a popular scam recently with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Foreign lottery scam: This scam will sometimes include a very real looking check and many times will ask you to pay a “tax” or “fee” on your winnings. Most will originate from Canada, Ireland, Spain, the Caribbean or Nigeria. They will come in numerous variations and are illegal in the U.S. So, remember if you’ve truly won, you shouldn’t need to pay.

Home repair scam: Many senior citizens may be physically incapable of making home repairs; therefore, many scammers will use this disability as an opportunity to take advantage of you. Be wary of people who ask you to get the required permits, pressure for an immediate decision or demand cash only or full payment up-front. Try to ask a lot of questions.

To avoid falling for scams like these, BBB offer this advice to seniors and their families:

  • Start with Trust.Find a business you can trust by doing your research first through bbb.org.
  • Beware of high pressure sales tactics. If someone is pressuring you to make an on-the-spot decision without allowing you to research first, be prepared to walk away from the offer.
  • Be wary of unsolicited correspondence. Do not verify or give out personal information through email or over the phone unless you have confirmed the identity of the caller on the other line. Also, consider registering your phone number with the National Do-Not-Call registry at donotcall.gov.
  • Use secure payment methods. Never send money by wire transfer or prepaid debit card to someone you don’t know. Use a credit card for additional protection. Also, be wary of requests for a large lump sum of money in advance of work or products.
  • Safeguard your personal information.Avoid sharing your Social Security Number, financial information, birth date or address with an unknown source.
  • Report fraud. If you think you may have fallen victim to a fraud, contact your BBB online or over the phone at 512-445-2911. You can also file a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s office or report it to your local FBI office.
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Wire fraud scam targets real estate buyers in Texas

scam alert 150x150BBB and the Texas Association of REALTORS® warns consumers of online real estate scams

It all started with one click. A few emails later, $50,000 was gone and a Texas realty company became the latest victim of a widespread wire fraud scam.

The Story

Earlier this year, a Texas realty company found out that one of their agent’s buyers was deceived into wiring closing funds to a bank account the buyer assumed was the Realtor’s.
The scam was set in motion when the agent’s assistant opened a link from an email she believed was from a legitimate website. The link directed the assistant to a website that looked similar to a site she intended to go to. Not realizing the website was fraudulent, the assistant entered her login information.

Once the con artists had access to the assistant’s email account, they were able to access all contacts, including potential home buyers. The scammers created a new email address that mirrored the assistant’s, but with a slight variation.

The scammers — who were operating out of California — emailed the buyer and directed them to wire money to the realty company’s bank account, which really belonged to the con artists. The scammers then forged the agent’s signature and ultimately made off with $50,000.

The scam that affected this Texas realty company occurred because of phishing — a way to obtain important information like usernames and passwords through email. Hackers target individuals or send out mass emails and see who will take the bait. Typically, you can spot a phishing email due to improper grammar or misspelling. With this scam, the hackers knew how real estate transactions worked and used proper grammar and spelling. While there are certain tools you can use to heighten your security, most phishing scams are successful because of a person’s actions, not a failure of technology or because of a certain email service.

Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin provides tools online to help consumers protect themselves from con artists. Consumers can report a scam or find scams by using BBB’s Scam Tracker. It shows scams reported nationwide on an interactive map. Consumers can navigate the site and find scams near them by clicking state by state. Scam Tracker also includes trending scam types, which are scams published in the last three days.

To protect yourself against online scams, your BBB and the Texas Association of REALTORS® recommends:

• Secure everything. This includes your network and various devices you use to access the Internet. Install antivirus software and keep it up-to-date.
• Communicate with your agent in person or by phone. Avoid communicating only via email to protect yourself from potential online scams and miscommunication.
• Don’t open unfamiliar emails. Beware of unusual requests, like when a business contact wants to start using a personal email address after always using a company email address. Do not click on unfamiliar links as this is sometimes a way for scammers to obtain your information.
• Never wire money. Never wire a large sum of money to someone else’s account. Write a check or pay with a credit card. Once money is wired, it is almost impossible to trace where it ends up, much less recover it.
• File a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center and your BBB. The FBI recommends businesses that are victims of a scam file a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center, also known as IC3. The IC3, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, investigates complaints about criminal Internet activity. You can also report a scam with your BBB at bbb.org/central-texas.

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BBB Wise Giving Alliance offers giving tips following Charleston tragedy

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the wake of the horrific shooting that killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, BBB Wise Giving Alliance (BBB WGA) is warning about the potential for fundraising scams. BBB WGA urges donors to beware of the different circumstances that often emerge in tragedy-related philanthropy.

“The hate crime that is being called the ‘Charleston massacre’ is such a shocking and emotional event,” said Art Taylor, president and CEO of BBB WGA, the national charity monitoring arm of Better Business Bureau.

“Many people are going to want to donate to the families of the victims, the historic church and the community,” Taylor said. “We are warning donors to be on the lookout for questionable solicitors and scammers, not to mention people who might have good intentions but no experience with charity fundraising.”

BBB Wise Giving Alliance urges donors to give thoughtfully and avoid those seeking to take advantage of the generosity of others. Here are BBB WGA’s tips for trusted giving:

  • Thoughtful giving. Take time to check out the charity to avoid wasting your generosity by donating to a questionable or poorly managed effort. The first request for a donation may not be the best choice. Be proactive and find trusted charities that are providing assistance.
  • Respecting victims and their families. Organizations raising funds should get permission from the families to use either the names of the victims and/or any photographs of them. Some charities fundraising for the victims of previous shootings did not do this and were the subject of criticism from victims’ families.
  • How will donations be used? Watch out for vague appeals that don’t identify the intended use of funds. For example, how will the donations help victims’ families? Also, unless told otherwise, donors will assume that funds collected quickly in the wake of a tragedy will be spent just as quickly. See if the appeal identifies when the collected funds will be used.
  • What if a family sets up its own assistance fund? Some families may decide to set up their own assistance funds. Be mindful that such funds may not be set up as charities. Also, make sure that collected monies are received and administered by a third party such as a bank, CPA or lawyer. This will help provide oversight and ensure the collected funds are used appropriately (e.g., paying for funeral costs, counseling and other tragedy-related needs).
  • Advocacy organizations. Tragedies that involve violent acts with firearms can also generate requests from a variety of advocacy organizations that address gun use. Donors can support these efforts as well but note that some of these advocacy groups are not tax exempt as charities. Also, watch out for newly-created advocacy groups that will be difficult to check out.
  • Online cautions. Never click on links to charities on unfamiliar websites or in texts or emails. These may take you to a lookalike website where you will be asked to provide personal financial information or to click on something that downloads harmful malware into your computer. Don’t assume that charity recommendations on Facebook, blogs or other social media have already been vetted.
  • Financial transparency. After funds are raised for a tragedy, it is even more important for organizations to provide an accounting of how funds were spent. Transparent organizations will post this information on their websites so that anyone can find out and not have to wait until the audited financial statements are available sometime in the future.
  • Newly created or established organizations. This is a personal giving choice, but an established charity will likely have the experience to quickly address the circumstances and have a track record that can be evaluated. A newly-formed organization may be well-intentioned but will be difficult to check out and may not be well managed.
  • Tax deductibility. Not all organizations collecting funds to assist this tragedy are tax exempt as charities under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Donors can support these other entities but keep in mind they may take a deduction for federal income tax purposes. In addition, contributions that are donor-restricted to help a specific individual/family are not deductible as charitable donations, even if the recipient organization is a charity.

ABOUT BBB WISE GIVING ALLIANCE: BBB Wise Giving Alliance (BBB WGA) is a standards-based charity evaluator that seeks to verify the trustworthiness of nationally-soliciting charities by completing rigorous evaluations based on 20 holistic standards that address charity governance, effectiveness reporting, finances, fund raising, appeal accuracy, and other issues. Learn more about the 20 BBB Charity Standards and about local charity review at local Better Business Bureaus at Give.org.

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