BBB to hold National Moving Month kickoff at Texas Capitol on May 4

May marks the beginning of the busiest moving season for Texans. It is also a time when unscrupulous and unlicensed operators are most likely to take advantage of consumers.

Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin, along with the Southwest Movers Association, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles and the Texas Association of Realtors, will kick off National Moving Month at 2 p.m. on Monday, May 4 at the South Steps of the Texas State Capitol in Austin.

In order to educate Texans on the importance of hiring a trustworthy mover, State Representative Celia Israel (District 50-Austin) will kick off National Moving Month with Better Business Bureau (BBB), Texas Association of Realtors (TAR), Southwest Movers Association (SMA), Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TxDMV), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and American Moving and Storage Association (AMSA).

Rep. Celia Israel, who owns a consulting firm focusing on public affairs and real estate, will join these industry experts to share important consumer tips on how to avoid moving scams, along with information on increased penalties for rogue operators.

SMA’s Pinnacle Movers, an elite group of companies adhering to high ethical standards and professional competence, will be on hand with moving trucks for on-site demonstrations of best practices. These movers are also BBB Accredited Businesses, adhering to BBB’s eight Standards for Trust, which includes advertising honestly, honoring promises and safeguarding privacy.

Consumer victims who have been taken advantage of by rogue operators will also be on hand to share their personal stories.

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BBB warns consumers to be cautious when giving to Nepal earthquake victims

Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Currently, the death toll from the weekend’s earthquake in Nepal is 3,800 and rising. The survivors are going to need a lot of help and many Americans will be looking for ways to donate time and money.

Before you get out your credit card, however, Your BBB warns you to be cautious. Scammers and fraudulent businesses often take advantage of tragic events and prey on the people who are trying to help others.

BBB advises consumers to donate to charities listed with BBB Wise Giving Alliance.

The American Red Cross is an accredited charity with WGA and is accepting donations.

Tips for giving with confidence:

  • Thoughtful Giving. Take the time to check out the charity to avoid wasting your generosity by donating to a questionable or poorly managed effort.
  • Help spread the Wise Giving Word. Remind your friends and family to be cautious about giving requests in the wake of such a tragedy and ask them to spread the word as well.
  • 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 more 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-meaning 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 this in mind if they want to 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.
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Don’t get taken by a government grant scam

scam alert 150x150Sooner or later, you may get a call from an “official” saying you’ve been chosen to receive a government grant for thousands of dollars—a grant that you never applied for. It would be great if money just fell out of the sky like that. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

If you get a call like that, hang up. It’s a scam. The caller will try to get an upfront payment to cover “fees,” usually by some type of pre-paid debit card. Once the scammer gets everything he can out of you, he’ll disappear and so will your money.

The government grant scam is trending right now on the BBB Scam Tracker. Your BBB gets frequent calls from consumers who report getting called by grant scammers claiming to be with various government agerncies.

A man from Corpus Christi wrote in saying he had been scammed out of $825 by a grant scam from someone who pretended to be with the Social Security Administration. By the time he realized he’d been scammed, it was too late.

Don’t let that happen to you. Here are some tips to keep from getting taken by a grant scam:

  • You have to apply for a government grant. If you didn’t apply for the grant, you didn’t receive one. If someone calls, saying you’ve received a grant you never applied for, hang up.
  • The government doesn’t call you over matters like grants. You won’t receive information from the government through a phone call.
  • If you get one of these calls, just hang up. You may be tempted to call back, but this will only give the scammer another chance to steal your information.
  • Don’t give out personal information to someone you don’t know. Never give out your bank account numbers, date of birth, credit card number or Social Security number to an unsolicited caller or anyone you don’t know.
  • According to grants.gov, the FTC points out you shouldn’t have to pay fees for a “free” government grant.

If you would like to apply for a grant, visit grants.gov. This website provides all of the federal grant opportunities including: different types of grants, rules for applying and how to track your submissions.

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BBB: Protect your personal information from identity thieves

Identity theft is serious problem. If they get your sensitive information, criminals could drain your bank account, change your contact information on various accounts, use your credit card, set up new credit cards or bank accounts in your name and more.

You should do what you can to prevent this from happening, because ID theft incidents are hard to clean up once they happen. Here are a few tips to reduce your chance of becoming a victim:

Social Security Number: Be careful about sharing your Social Security Number. Ask why it is needed, how it will be used and what will happen if you refuse. Don’t carry your Social Security card with you on a daily basis. Leave it at home in a secure location.

Passwords: Always select unique passwords. Avoid using your name, birth date, or the last four digits of your SSN, or any easy sequence of numbers – such as 1122. Do not carry these numbers in your wallet, purse or smartphone. Consider using a pass phrase–a sentence or combination of words that’s easy to remember, but harder for a hacker to guess.

Mailbox: Place outgoing mail in a secure mailbox. If you do not have a locked mailbox, pick up incoming mail as soon as possible.

Storage: Never store private documents in unsecured locations, such as your car or office. At home, invest in a fireproof lock box or safe to store important documents.

Shred Documents: Avoid storing documents that contain personal information you no longer need including: credit card applications, insurance forms, financial statements, health forms, and other billing statements. Shred all unnecessary documents that contain personal information; garbage cans are goldmines for identity thieves.

Receipts and Bank Statements: Monitor bank and credit card statements for fraudulent activity. Know what dates your bills arrive. Late or missing bills can indicate your information has been compromised.

Credit and Debit Cards: Sign and write “check photo ID” on new credit cards as soon as you receive them. Do not carry more than needed. Cut up expired credit and debit cards. Report lost, missing and stolen cards to the issuer immediately.

Credit Report: Check your credit report annually. Under the Fair & Accurate Credit Transaction Act, consumers are entitled to a free annual credit report. The only authorized source is AnnualCreditReport.com (1-877-322-8228).

Online Security: A few quick steps can keep your information safe when surfing the Web:

  • Enter information only on secured websites that have “https” in the address. The “s” lets you know it is a secure site.
  • Do not respond to unsolicited emails or center information on unknown sites.
  • Use your credit card, you can dispute fraudulent charges with the issuer.
  • If you are a regular online shopper, consider having a separate account for online purchases.
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Be careful with people who call offering ‘mortgage relief’

government actionHaving trouble with your mortgage? Be careful. Sometimes the people offering help are only trying to help themselves to what money you have left.

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a federal court has temporarily halted Los Angeles-based Wealth Educators, Inc. and its president from offering mortgage relief services. The company allegedly took upfront payments from consumers, while failing to help consumers as promised. Customers were also told to quit making their monthly mortgage payments, putting some of them in danger of foreclosure.

The FTC notes that it is illegal for a business to charge an upfront fee for mortgage modification. The lender or servicer must make an acceptable written offer to the consumer before the company can charge.

According to the FTC, the defendants have sold mortgage relief services under a variety of names since 2012, including Wealth Educators, Legal Educators USA & Co., Stargate Mutual & Associates, Providence Financial Advocates and Providence Financial Audits.

The company charged upfront fees ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 and told consumers they could get 100 percent of their deposits back if they didn’t receive promised services. Unfortunately, consumers who tried to get their money back were unable to do so. The company told many consumers they could get a loan modification and have their mortgage payments reduced.

Defendants include Wealth Educators, Inc., also dba Family 1st Preservations; Family 1st Home Loans; Legal Affiliates & Associates; Legal Educators & Co.; Family 1st Home Preservation; Legal Educators USA & Co.; Stargate Mutual & Associates; Providence Financial Associates; and Providence Financial Audits; as well as Veronica Sesma, also dba Sesma Consulting.

The FTC has some helpful advice for homeowners having trouble paying their mortgages.

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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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