By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — It may not be a surprise, but state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says Internet scams led his list of the Top 10 Consumer Frauds of 2012.
Schneiderman unveiled his list, based on consumer complaints he's received, as part of Consumer Protection Week. In addition to highlighting the scams most reported by New Yorkers, the attorney general also offered tips on how to avoid them.
“In these challenging economic times, it is more important than ever to protect consumers from the deceptive practices of unscrupulous corporations that try to lie, cheat and steal from hard working New Yorkers,” Schneiderman said in a release.
In 2012, Internet-related complaints topped the list, followed closely by credit-related complaints involving debt collection, credit card billing and identity theft. Of the nearly 3,200 credit-related complaints, more than half of them were filed against debt collectors who illegally threatened and harassed consumers.
Schneiderman said that despite an improving housing market, his office continued to receive a large number of mortgage-related complaints in 2012. The attorney general said the complaints demonstrate the extent to which consumers, who are struggling to stay on top of their mortgages, are being targeted by fraudulent and unscrupulous loan modification consultants.
To deal with mortgage fraud, Schneiderman created the Homeowner Protection Program in June 2012. The $60 million program funds legal service providers and housing counseling organizations serving at-risk homeowners across the state.
Among Schneiderman's tips for consumers were a warning to always make sure websites are secure before providing any financial information, such as a credit card or bank account number. Secure website addresses have a symbol, such as a lock.
The sites use encryption to scramble your information as it is transmitted over the Internet to keep it secure.
In the area of debt collection, the attorney general suggests consumers learn and know their rights. Debt collectors may not harass or abuse consumers or provide misleading information.
Schneiderman said anyone with credit problems should contact nonprofit credit counseling agencies licensed by the New York State Department of Financial Services for assistance in managing the situation.
The attorney general also said New Yorkers are protected by the strongest auto-leasing law in the country. It allows consumers to shop around for the best deal when leasing a car, set limits on early termination, and even gives the attorney general’s office jurisdiction to resolve excess wear-and-tear disputes.
For consumer-related services, Schneiderman suggests that consumers insist on written contracts that clearly defines restrictions and obligations on both the consumer and service-provider.
Schneiderman said those with mortgage problems need to look out for offers that claim they can stop or delay foreclosure for an upfront fee or ask to make payments on your behalf. When it comes to home repairs the attorney general reminded consumers to "shop around for estimates, check with the Better Business Bureau and ask for contractor references.
He also reminded homeowners they have three days after signing a home improvement contract to cancel it.
“My office will continue to send a message to businesses that consumers have rights and if those rights are violated, we will come after you," Schneiderman said. "It is important for consumers to not only know their rights, but how to fight back."COMPLAINTS The following are the Top 10 Consumer Complaints of 2012 as compiled by complaints to to the New York State Attorney General. 1. Internet: 4,096 complaints including privacy issues, spyware and consumer frauds 2. Credit: 3,167 complaints including debt collection, credit card billing and debt settlement 3. Automobile: 2,950 complaints including buying, leasing, repair, service contracts, and rentals 4. Consumer-Related Services: 2,070 complaints including security systems, restaurant/catering services, tech repairs and dating services 5. Landlord/Tenant: 1,808 complaints including deposit releases and tenant-harassment 6. Mortgage: 1,511 complaints including mortgage modifications, mortgage and loan broker fraud and foreclosures 7. Home Repair/Construction: 1,125 complaints including home improvement services not delivered or done poorly 8. Retail Sales: 974 including any sale of goods: food, clothing, rent to own, wholesale clubs 9. Mail order: 868 complaints including purchases made online or from a catalog 10. Telecommunications: 805 complaints including phone cards, cellular services, pay-per-cal, slamming and cramming