Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How to Get Lien Releases From Closed Businesses

Callers question us every few months about lien releases from companies that are out of business.  I finally got sick of not having answers and gave a call to the Department of Revenue Motor Vehicle Division.

Here's what the DOR representative told me.  If the lien holder for your vehicle went out of business, you can contact the Secretary of State where the company was located and ask for a Certificate of Fact.  Present the certificate to the Department of Revenue and they will release the lien.

In my vast experience with businesses that disappear, I know the Secretary of State often has no idea when companies cease to exist.  What then?  At that point, you must take information suggesting the closure of a business to a circuit court.  If the information is sufficient, the Judge will  rule that you are the owner. You can present the court order to the DOR and they will treat it as a lien release. Viola!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Happy People Give More to Charity

A study by the UK-based Charities Aid Foundation, bucks the notion that only the wealthy give money to charities.  Apparently, it's not wealth but happiness that is the greatest influence on an individual's choice to give to charity.  This is a good thing.  If charities relied solely on the small proportion of people with gobs of money to throw around, well, they'd be waiting awhile. And a lack of economic diversity in funders would likely affect diversity in terms of mission, too.

But wait, aren't wealthy people naturally happier?  I mean, I'd probably be a little less stressed if I didn't have to worry about how I'll send three boys to college (well, actually, me and dear husband are first wondering how we'll feed three teenagers.  Hierarchy of needs and all that.) And a brand-new suped-up minivan would definitely make me happy.   But another recent study, this one out of Princeton, found that wealth is not a predictor of happiness.  

So, ten years from now when my family is happily subsisting on a diet of rice and beans bought in wholesale quantities, we'll probably still be giving to charity.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hail Bombardment Causes Influx of Home Repair Businesses

Stormchasers are just part of the biz.  When a major storm hits an area masses of home repair companies relocate to the damaged area. Sometimes the area gains a good company they otherwise wouldn't have had. Most of the time, however, stormchasers sweep through the area and onto the next badly damaged section of the country.  It leaves consumers who used their services in a tight spot.  For instance, what do consumers do if their new roof leaks and the guy they hired is off in Minnesota chasing another storm or maybe he returned to Louisiana where he lives?  What are the chances he will come back and fix the problems?  Maybe he'll hire a local company to come out and fix it--a company the consumer never hired.  Maybe they make it worse.  Honestly, who knows?

Consumers who have hail damage to their homes, vehicles, or any other property, need to take a few minutes to arm themselves against the onslaught of Door-to-door salesmen heading their way.  The Better Business Bureau is here to help.  A few news organizations in the area have recruited our expertise.  You can find some info here from KCTV5 and here is our blog entry about door-to-door roofing sales. Below is a video containing tips and an interview with the BBB.

If you have hail damage, you will surely get some visitors.  Don't be nervous. You don't have to do business with anyone who stops by your house.  Get the salesperson's card if they propose a good deal, but check up on the company.  Give us a call for its reliability report and get a few other estimates. Once you compare prices, you may find out the first guy's deal wasn't so good.

Better Business Bureau of Greater Kansas City

Friday, September 17, 2010

Identify Work-At-Home Scams, Schemes and Frauds

I've been allowed to work from home on occasion.  I hung out in a T-shirt and pajama pants while I wrote articles, designed fliers, updated files and made phone calls.  I threw a load of laundry in the washer. I listened to music as loud as I wished and no one complained.  It's great. That's why so many people want to do it. According to some reliable studies, more and more people are working from home. There's a difference, however, in occasionally working from home for a national organization such as the BBB and stuffing envelopes for some guy that says you can make $1000 a week.

If you've perused the internet for work-at-home opportunities, you've probably run across many of our articles warning you against them.  You've also seen more than a few "F" ratings for them.  The "businesses" that ask people to stuff envelopes, assemble pamphlets and CD cases or offer home data entry positions, are always assigned "F"s by the Better Business Bureau.  The work-at-home industry generates an astounding amount of complaints and the BBB tells thousands of people every year that these companies are inherently dangerous.

There are simple rules to follow in avoiding work-at-home scams, such as "don't pay up front."  If any work-at-home opportunity presents itself as an investment toward your future wealth, just ignore it.  Paying up front will guarantee that you not only don't make money, but you also lose money.  On many occasions, people that call us for the reliability reports about work-at-home companies are so desperate to believe their financial problems will be solved that they argue with me.  I'm trying to save them money, to help them, and they tell me I'm wrong.

I realized somewhere along the line that I could explain why these companies are inherently problematic and people hang up more satisfied with what I had to say.  I also realized that people are looking on the internet for these jobs and NOT calling me (you should...I'm helpful).  I wanted to arm internet users with information needed to be absolutely sure that work-at-home gigs are scams.

We'll start with envelope stuffing. Envelope stuffing opportunities don't even bother with a legitimate premise-- such as data entry, which in some cases is at least a real job. "Stuffing envelopes" is not a job.  Envelope stuffing ads claim that you will be paid $1-$5 per envelope mailed.  Most of the ads give examples of people who've made thousands by doing this in their spare time.  Based on how much they say you'll make per envelope, it seems obvious that you could make thousands by doing this in your spare time.  I mean, if someone were slow at stuffing envelopes, he may be able to mail two per minute.  If he had only four spare hours a day to mail them out, he would still be able to mail out 480 envelopes in one day.  Even if he were paid the lowest amount $1/envelope, he'd be making nearly $500 per day!  Of course it sounds great.

But think about it.  If I could make $500/day by mindlessly stuffing envelopes while plodding through my Netflix queue, I would not be writing this article.  I'd be home making myself rich, and so would everyone else.  There would be no such thing as a day job because we'd all be nauseatingly rich from stuffing envelopes.  That's the first sign that there will be some kind of catch.  No one will pay that much to have envelopes stuffed and mailed.  There are real mailing services that charge to process mail.  They could mail out 10,000 envelopes per day for less than $500.  The same goes for anything a business asks you to mail: rebates, billing, fliers, reports, etc.  No one is going to pay you to mail from home; you're not cost-efficient.  It couldn't happen.

Speaking of cost-efficiency, let's get back to data entry.  Plenty of people get paid to plug information into company's system, but they usually have to be onsite. There's a reason for that.  When data entry personnel are located in one spot, they are easier to monitor.  A manager can make sure they are all entering data.  If the data entry professional was at home, they obviously couldn't get paid hourly, how would they prove it?  So these Enter-data-from-home offers say that people will be paid per "report" or "words entered."  But how much per report?  One dollar? two?  How long are the reports?  How much per word? A cent?  Not many people type as fast as I do.  I can enter up to 100/minute on a good day, but if I'm typing a report, making sure my fingers are in the right spot, then pausing to look at the numbers, then losing my place on the page, I type about 60 words/minute. Lets say I can type for 4 hours straight without getting carpal tunnel (let's make it 50 words/minute to account for my coffee break).  That's still 12,000 words. At the 1 cent per word payscale, its $30/hr.  Believe me, data entry personnel don't make thirty bucks an hour.  They also type at least as fast as I do.  It's really just more cost-effective for companies to make their employees come into work and pay them $8.00 to $12.00/hr.  Businesses will not do something that costs them more money for our sake.

Here's the bottom line about most work at home schemes.  They can't afford to pay you what they say they can.  They make absurd claims about how much you can earn and EVERY TIME we ask them to substantiate their claims, they fall short.  If it sounds like you're getting the better end of a deal, you should ask yourself why in the world anyone would offer it up.  The answer is usually "they're lying to you."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Name for Corn Syrup

Apparently, the term 'high fructose corn syrup' (HFCS) is no longer politically correct.  The new name of the sweetener, according to the Corn Refiners Association, will be 'corn sugar.'  It appears that consumption of HFCS is down - a lot - as consumers look to avoid food products that list it as an ingredient.  Studies have shown sugar consumption to be a major player in the incidence of obesity and there is a fair amount of debate about whether HFCS is worse for the body than, say, table sugar. 

For more in this issues, read this article from the Associated Press. As a mom who reads labels, and limits the amount of sugar - in any form - that my kids consume, 'corn sugar' is just another ingredient I'll be on the look-out for.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Scoundrels! The Lot of Them!

Like most people, I find con men reprehensible.  Taking the hard earned money of people in financial desperation is pretty low.  However, also like most people, I have a fascination with the brilliance of some of their ideas and the cunning required to pull them off.  Such is the case with Victor Lustig's brazen idea to sell the Eiffel Tower.  And he did. Twice.  Then there was Gaston Means, a man so sly that he fooled every branch of the United States government into believing he had "secrets" worth paying for.  Before he was finally imprisoned for grand larceny, he wriggled his way out of a murder conviction and probably charges of treason.

The ability to outfox others is a long-standing worldwide fascination.  It has been a popular subject for books and movies for decades. The Sting, a story of two top-notch con men won the Academy Award for best picture in 1973.  The international best-selling Tom Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith focuses on a ruthless and murderous con man who has inspired five movies. Steven Spielberg's 2002 hit Catch Me if You Can is based on the short but no less brilliant criminal career of Frank Abignale, Jr, a check forger and impersonator who stole millions before he turned 21.  Hustle, a series beginning in 2004, is still running strong on BBC.  There's the obscenely popular Ocean's 11, 12, and 13.  Leverage, a TV series about con men with hearts of gold is in its third season. American Greed highlights the biggest, most incredible scams in the country.  It breaks cons down step-by-step, so we may be appropriately impressed by the warped intelligence of con men.  

If you're like me, you're curious about the minds behind these crimes.  I want to know why they think they can do what they please and throw it in our faces.  Most books and movies give con men engaging character arcs or make their victims into the real bad guys, people even more horrible than the con men. It makes the protagonists likable. Of course, that is not usually how it works.

BBBs are now among the first targets of con men.  To lend themselves an air of legitimacy, they desperately attempt heighten their ratings with the BBB and even try to become Accredited.  Because of this, I speak with them from time to time and I can tell you what real con artists are like.

First of all, there is a hierarchy.  The guys in movies and books like Gaston Means and Victor Lustig are perched on the uppermost tier.  I'll start with the lowest wrung of con-artistry, who are obviously the most common.  These are the guys who knock on doors and tell elderly people that they need their trees trimmed.  Once they collect money, they disappear. I speak with these people rarely.  They don't try to be legitimate very often.  They change their names and move around.  Their personalities differ greatly and sometimes people from this tier move on to greener pastures of deception.  The rest seem destined to live out their lives pulling low-rent con jobs or in prison.  They are comprised primarily of two different types of personalities: the placater and the bully.  A placater is someone who tells their victims exactly what they want to hear all the time.  It's an impossible facade to maintain forever.  Placaters eventually disappear once their lies become too difficult to keep track of.  The bully screams and yells about being wronged, threatens to sue, pulls dirty tricks to get what he wants and refuses to admit his crimes once he's caught in the act.  These people sometimes result to violence.

 The next tier up is full of small-time guys who were smart enough to move past door-to-door scams and present themselves as "consultants" or "entrepreneurs." These guys are usually very nice. Too nice.  It is apparent that they are trying to convince me of just how nice they are. I immediately get the impression that they are trying to sell me something.  They are affronted by criticism and act wounded by doubts about their intentions.  They play up the sympathy card and present themselves as friends.  They act like they are normal guys just trying to make a good living in a hard world.  Paper trails are usually what bring them down.  They can only act friendly and pathetic so long before someone puts the pieces together.

The next level is where the real con artistry begins.  In fact, the top two tiers (this and next) overlap.  In this group, the con men are successful not because they are super-geniuses (most aren't), but because they don't believe what they are doing is wrong.  These guys have managed to convince themselves that some stealing is ok, that  victims of investment fraud have entered into it at their own risk so they deserved to have their money stolen, that tricking people into buying worthless products and services is just good business.  They can justify anything.  They also have a pathological need to defend themselves, similar to the previous group, but more pronounced because they actually believe what they are saying.  They cannot allow anyone to see through their polished and carefully constructed "nice guy" and "honest business" images.  They will demand the last word and endlessly argue about their virtues.  In my experience, once they realize they have not fooled me, they throw tantrums. It's pathetic, really. (Even though Bernie Madoff stole more money than anyone in the history of fraud, I consider him to be in this category.  He convinced himself long ago, in the 80s, that stealing is not really wrong.)

The final and uppermost tier of con men is made up of sociopaths.  Men who may or may not recognize right and wrong, but don't care one way or the other.  This is the group where Charles Ponzi and Gaston Means reside.  They are cruel and cunning, brilliant and charming.  They possess surprising patience and instinctively know when they do and do not need to lie.  When they lie it is imperceptible.  They are hard to catch in lies, and if I manage that, it's even more difficult to keep them cornered.  The easiest way to identify people from this group is their inability to be outraged.  I have spoken to three people from this category (that I know of) and they never raised their voices.  When I told one of them that he was misrepresenting his service and that his business was not on the level, he did not hang up the phone or yell at me. He did not defend his honor or the company, he simply kept talking in a conversational tone, essentially attempting to fool me with sophistry.  Most business owners get a bit testy when their reputation is challenged. Not these guys.  Their chilled indifference to morality is alarming.

There is some good.  Career con men get caught.  They always get caught.  They can keep up their facades for a while, but they break down.  In this country, we have the wonderful consumer protection agencies such as the FTC and state Attorneys General.  We have privately owned consumer watchdog groups and non-profits like the BBB, and also an overwhelming majority of people who want a fair marketplace.  Normal people are the ones who get investigations going, who spot something inconsistent in a business deal and report it.  Internet communities exchange stories about shady tactics, shoddy workmanship, and questionable behavior from businesses.  Twenty people exchanging identical stories of misrepresentation is a pretty good indicator that the business has ethical issues.  Con Men can't get away forever.

It's extremely important for people who have been scammed to report what happened.  That's how bad guys are caught.  We, nor the consumer protection agencies, will never know about it unless con men are reported.  Victor Lustig, the guy who sold the Eiffel Tower, managed to do it again because the original person he scammed was too embarrassed about being deceived.  If you've been conned, don't let them get away with it. Report it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Giving to Police and Firefighter Organizations


Most people appreciate the work that the brave men and women who work as police officers and firefighters do for our community.  My boys met a 'real life' firefighter last weekend and their reaction was much like mine would be if I ever met Bono.  Police and Firefighters deserve that kind of rock-star status.  And we like to help them when we can.  Like with all organizations, prospective donors should educate themselves before donating to an organization that purports to help our first responders.  Here are some basic guidelines to follow:
1. When responding to a fundraising appeal, make sure you make your check out directly to the organization and don't give cash.
2. Don't feel pressured to make a giving decision on the spot. An organization that needs your money today, will need it just as much tomorrow or the next day.
3. Don't believe promises that your donation will give you 'special treatment' from the police and firefighters in your community.
4. Ask about the organization's tax-exempt status.  Make sure your gift is tax-deductible.
5. Ask questions about the organization and its finances.  A telemarketer, for example, should be able to tell you how much of your donation will actually go to the charity.

The Kansas City BBB has reports on two local Police and Firefighter organizations, Kansas State Troopers Association and Police Benefit Association of Kansas City.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Online Privacy

At the BBB, we take consumer privacy very seriously. In fact both our business and charity standards require that BBB accredited organizations, on their websites, inform consumers about what information they collect and who they share it with.

I came across this fantastic article on NPR about online privacy. It explains the different ways companies track you, what they do with the information they collect about you, and the difference between a 'cookie' and a 'beacon.' It is worth a read.